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Religion and the Reality of Climate Change

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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.

In the holiday season, many of us reflect on what it is for which we are thankful. Naturally, we give thanks when things are going well, and even in a disaster we might be grateful that the catastrophe was not worse or that people stepped forward to render assistance. Claudius's poem presupposes a general climatic stability that for several centuries has been conducive to thankful worship.

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.

YECA strongly believes that God is calling people of the millennial generation not to sit back passively, but to take action toward overcoming the climate crisis. "For us, this means living as good stewards of God's creation, advocating on behalf of the poor and marginalized, supporting our faith leaders when they stand up for climate action, holding our political leaders accountable for responsible climate policies, and mobilizing our generation and the larger church community to join in."

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.

Since its debut on Earth Day 2009, thousands of individuals and organizations have taken the pledge. The website of the Franciscan Action Network offers suggestions and resources for incorporating climate change awareness into church worship by way of prayers, homiletical themes and liturgical music.

Another exciting project is the Jewish Climate Initiative. Like many social action projects in Judaism, it was established for tikkun olam ("repairing the world"), which is especially appropriate for a group working on climate change issues. The rationale for JCI is deeply rooted in texts from the Torah and midrash (the body of rabbinic commentary and interpretation):

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.

Not all religious groups are as active in promoting understanding of and action in response to climate change; indeed, some are actively denying climate change and resisting efforts to cope with it. But organizations such as YECA, the Catholic Climate Covenant and JCI have realized that religious groups have both an opportunity and an obligation to reinvigorate our society's conversation about climate change and hold policymakers' feet to the fire.

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