Matthias Claudius penned some memorable lines in German two centuries ago that became in translation England's most popular harvest festival hymn:
We plough the fields, and scatter
the good seed on the land,
but it is fed and watered
by God's almighty hand;
he sends the snow in winter,
the warmth to swell the grain,
the breezes and the sunshine
and soft refreshing rain.
But how does this optimistic hymn play in the era of radical climate change? How will it sound in the future, when each decade may bring yet more frequent and extreme climate events? What is the providential reading of "God's almighty hand" in a prolonged and life-threatening drought, or in the agrarian disaster of a dust bowl? When we are battered by a Hurricane Sandy or Katrina, how do we understand the majestic line about God in the Navy hymn, "Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep its own appointed limits keep"?
Indeed, what role do religion and theology play in the accelerating conversation about climate change? This has been a banner year for extreme weather events -- from severe drought in the American Midwest to the wildfire siege in Colorado to the "Frankenstorm" of Hurricane Sandy fueled by a warming Atlantic Ocean -- which have helped the reality of climate change to register on the consciousness of most people.
But global climate change is more far-reaching in its effects than a season of storms. Climate change threatens to put billions of people at risk of devastation wrought by a climate changing too rapidly for coherent and effective response. In numerous religious traditions and the denominations under their umbrellas, people have come to understand the scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change may do irreparable harm to the biosphere upon which our modern civilization depends.
An example of involvement driven by religious conviction is Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. YECA spokesperson Ben Lowe says that:
In seeking to live as Christ's disciples, we have come to see the climate crisis not only as a pressing challenge to justice and freedom, but also as a profound threat to "the least of these" whom Jesus identifies with himself in Matthew 25. The early effects of climate change are already impacting many of our neighbors, both in the U.S. and around the world, and our time to act is running short.
There are parallel currents within the Roman Catholic Church, which has a long-standing involvement with environmental matters. In 2006, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Religious Partnership for the Environment jointly launched the Catholic Climate Covenant. This is championed by the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, part of the USCCB's Environmental Justice Program. The coalition has developed the five-element St. Francis pledge, named for the medieval saint famous for his work with the poor and his kindness to animals. Those taking the pledge undertake to:
PRAY and reflect on the duty to care for God's Creation and protect the poor and vulnerable.
LEARN about and educate others on the causes and moral dimensions of climate change.
ASSESS how we -- as individuals and in our families, parishes and other affiliations -- contribute to climate change by our own energy use, consumption, waste, etc.
ACT to change our choices and behaviors to reduce the ways we contribute to climate change.
ADVOCATE for Catholic principles and priorities in climate change discussions and decisions, especially as they impact those who are poor and vulnerable.
We are God's caretakers for the earth. Our job is to cultivate the natural world and enhance its capacity to support life. God created Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden "to work it and conserve it." (Genesis 2:15.) A famous midrash says: When God created Adam, God led him around all of the trees in the Garden of Eden. God told him, 'See how beautiful and praiseworthy are all of my works. Everything I have created has been created for your sake. Think of this and do not corrupt the world; for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to set it right after you.' (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13.) Destroying the conditions for much life on earth violates this duty of stewardship.