Loving the Thousandth Generation: A Christian Perspective on Climate Change

In November 2009, a flood hit Cumbria that was so enormous that even the local MP described it as biblical. It – quite literally – tore the county in two. So many bridges fell that driving from one side of Workington to the other became a 90 mile journey. Children were cut off from their school, shoppers were cut off from the supermarket and commuters were cut off from their train station. While much of the media attention focused on Cockermouth – a town that had been almost completely submerged by the flooding – the damage to infrastructure caused more widespread – and longer term – disruption. And it affected communities psychologically as well as economically. There was the dawning realisation that our 21st Century existence was at the mercy of the elements. We felt our vulnerability quite deeply.

It was the churches that were at the forefront of the clean-up effort. One church set up a drop-in centre that served hot food on an almost 24/7 basis. Others were out with their supermarket trolleys picking up debris, bringing provisions or serving hot drinks. They brought cheer – and a really powerful sense of community solidarity. I attended a church youth service in Cockermouth shortly afterwards when the town was still in ruins: never in my life – either before or since – have I ever seen the human spirit soar so much. Cumbrian kids have always been able to have fun in the rain but this was on a completely different level. Both local MPs paid tribute to the contribution of the churches in a subsequent parliamentary debate.

But in the cold light of day, when you are faced with the wreckage, the disruption – and the cost, you realise the extent to which nature can be a harsh judge of our actions and our life. We are stewards of God’s Creation – that much I knew – but that creation was no “green and pleasant land”. We are stewards of a Creation that – due to the Fall – is capable of almighty destruction and loss of life. We must tread with care.

So when I read that one of the key symptoms of Climate Change is the sort of flooding that blighted Cumbria in 2009, I know I must take this issue seriously. I cannot roll my eyes and complain that it is some conspiracy dreamt up by Ecowarriors in a darkened room over a mug of Fairtrade coffee – especially when the science is backed by the most credible scientists and researchers.

I also know that I must love my neighbour as myself – and that my neighbours are not just those living next door to me but those on the other side of the world. They also include – like the Good Samaritan – our sworn enemies.

So they include people living on the the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, whose houses and crops were recently destroyed by the worst cyclone since records began. Because the sea is warmer, the cyclone wind blows stronger, and because sea levels have risen, the floods reached further inland. Fields that used to be safe were drenched in salt water, making the soil less fertile.

I know that God in His Sovereignty is Lord over Creation. I also recognise humanity’s contribution to our fallen world. Accordingly, humanity must take responsibility for spoiling God’s good creation. If we are responsible for contributing to Climate Change then we have a duty to act to change our behaviour so we can be better stewards of Creation.

Some say that we must be realists: we can’t price ourselves out of electricity. After all, we also have a duty to the poor. I totally agree with this sentiment. We cannot deal with one injustice simply by creating another. Indeed, it is the poor who are most at risk from Climate Change. In Africa, they are most at risk of drought and in Bangladesh they are most at risk of flooding. The poor can’t afford insurance: when their home floods, they lose everything. The twin challenges of tackling Climate Change and poverty mean that my favoured strategies are those on the “demand” side: reducing our need for Energy via Energy Efficiency measures and by improving our homes through insulation – and through technology via, for example fitting solar panels on residential properties.

Others say if all Creation is good – and fossil fuels are part of that Creation – how can we say that fossil fuels are bad? But the same God who created fossil fuels also gave us minds capable of advances in science and technology. It is He who gave us the abilities to better understand Creation and to find new ways to most effectively harness its power.

Yes, God has given us the Earth, full of resources for us to use and to sustain life. But we also have the responsibility to look after it – not just for ourselves but for future generations. The “sins of the fathers” may be visited on the children but God loves to the thousandth generation those who love Him and obey his commands. And we must love the thousandth generation too.

I believe that the theological debate over Climate Change goes right to the heart of the Christian message: it asks hard questions about God’s sovereignty versus man’s responsibility; of human suffering – and of God’s answers to it; of the Garden of Eden, the Fall and the New Jerusalem. We know that the New Heaven and the New Jerusalem promised in Revelation will be a place with “no more death or mourning or crying or pain”. We hope – and expect – it to be a place with no floods or droughts or earthquakes or tsunamis. But in this life, we are tasked with building the New Jerusalem – and that, I believe, involves not being responsible for contributing to manmade Climate Change.