Three Stories about Climate Change

MAY 2012: AS WE SEE IT

by David Schelhaas

I spent February of this year in Florida, hanging around with old folks most of the time—after all, I am an official member of AARP. One of the things I was told by an elderly acquaintance in Florida was that the whole idea of global warming had come from an eighth grader’s term paper. And he believed it. I asked him if he ever watched NASA launch spacecraft to go to the space station—since we could see those launches from our trailer park. Yes, he said, he had and they were pretty amazing: the huge ball of fire hurling the spacecraft into the heavens and then in no time at all disappearing, only to return from outer space precisely on time two weeks later after having traveled hundreds of thousands of miles and then landing as neatly as you might pull your car into the garage. Amazing! The precision of it, the marvelous science.

Well, I said to him, do you realize that NASA, the same organization that put men on the moon and now sends men and women to the space station, is the organization that has been doing the cutting edge research on global warming for more than three decades? NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies has been at the forefront of climate change research. And furthermore, the scientists at NASA believe that global warming has brought us to the brink of disaster. Yet you want to belittle the whole idea of global warming by reducing it to the significance of an eighth grader’s term paper. I just don’t get it.

I tell this story because it illustrates the illogical resistance to the idea of climate change—especially with my contemporaries, the old folks.

But it is not just the older generation that resists the idea of global warming; most people in my small corner of the world seem to think the idea of human complicity in climate change silly or irrelevant. I was told a few years ago that at an area Christian school it’s just better not to bring up the subject of climate change because it’s too controversial. Imagine that. One of the most significant issues of our time, an issue that cries out for a Christian response, and it can’t be talked about in a Christian school. About a month ago I attended a lecture on climate change given by a man who was both a preacher and a scientist. His central argument for caring for the creation, and specifically for being concerned about climate change, was this: We must care about the creation because we care about people. We must do what we can to slow down climate change because people are dying from the effects of climate change. In other words, the issue of global warming is a pro-life issue.

For the next hour or so he gave us facts and statistics about the reality of climate change and the devastating effects it is already having on people all around the world. And these effects usually are in one of these areas: loss of food, inaccessibility of clean drinking water, health problems, and war. It was a stunning and disturbing litany of present and coming disaster. And it challenged us to live in such a way that we diminish our personal consumption of CO2–producing energy.

When the speaker had completed his presentation, the floor was opened for questions and comments. One comment came from a young man who identified himself as a farmer. It went something like this: “You scientists are just trying to play God. You think that God needs you to take care of the world. Suppose you’re right and the world’s climate is getting warmer; God can take care of that if he wants to. It says in the Heidelberg Catechism that ‘not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my heavenly Father.’ That shows that God’s in control and if he wants the temperature of the world to be cooler, he will simply change it.”

The speaker seemed so surprised by this argument that he did not really offer a rebuttal. He respectfully told the commenter that he disagreed with him and moved on to another question. I wanted to respond but did not get a chance.

Here’s what I would have said: One of the most mysterious things to me is why on earth God so often chooses to have his work done by humans. As Paul puts it, almost humorously, “It was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21). Eugene Peterson says: “God took delight in using what the world considered dumb—preaching, of all things.” The point is that God in his wisdom uses humans to do much of his work in the world. And that’s not only true in the case of bringing the gospel to those who have not heard it; it is also the case with caring for the earth. Already in the second chapter of Genesis God commissions humans to tend and care for the creation. And the theme continues throughout the scriptures, right into Revelation 11 where John hears the twenty-four elders invoke punishment for those who have abused the earth when they say: “the time has come. . .to destroy those who destroy the earth.”

Would the questioner have made the same argument to a missionary who was challenging us to go into the world and make disciples of all nations? Would he chastise someone from his church who used the science of medicine to find a cure for her cancer? Would he say the doctors were playing God?

Briefly, a third story: Several members of our college science faculty had given a presentation on global warming to the rest of the faculty and the board of trustees. The presentation featured lots of graphs and charts, evidence of all kinds that validated the notion of human cause for global warming. One professor tried valiantly to argue that humans were not responsible for the climate change that was occurring, but he could not produce much evidence and eventually admitted that. When it was over and we were standing outside in the fragrant spring air, one of the board members, a bright and articulate middle-aged pastor, turned to me and said, “There’s nothing to it. It’s all a lot of nonsense.” No rebuttal, no evidence, just a categorical statement—as if it were biblical truth. I just don’t get it.

Three stories: an old guy in Florida, a much younger man in Iowa, and a middleaged preacher, all three adamantly opposed to the idea that we ought to be the least bit concerned about global climate change.

I suppose I could be accused of setting up some convenient straw men to make the opposition look silly. But I must ask, what are the arguments of merit against the idea that global warming is occurring and human activity is largely responsible for it? The climate experts at my college would say there are none. Most of the scientists in my church denomination and a vast majority of climate scientists around the world say the same thing. Yet so many Christians scorn the very words global warming. I just don’t get it.

This spring my church, the Christian Reformed Church, will ask its Synod to affirm “that climate change is real, is likely due to human activity, and that it poses a significant threat to future generations as well as those who are poor and vulnerable.” Yet if the Synod approves this report, I suspect that the old guy in Florida, the young man in Iowa, and the middle-aged preacher—along with a few others—will be unaffected by their Synod’s pronouncement. Instead, they will find another truth, a different authority, and will continue to believe what they want to believe.

David Schelhaas taught high school and college English for forty-three years. He is now retired and lives in Sioux Center, Iowa.