Climate change denial is a sin, claims presiding bishop

Episcopalians have a prayer that names “this fragile earth, our island home.” [1]  We’ve been praying it for nearly 40 years, yet many are only beginning to awaken to our wanton abuse of this planet. We profess that God has planted us in a garden to care for it and for all its inhabitants, yet we have failed to love what God has given us. We continue to squander the resources of this earth, and we are damaging its ability to nourish the garden’s diverse web of life.

The collective impact of the human species on this planet is prompting many to name this the Anthropocene age[2]  – an era characterized by human changes with global impact.  We are unwittingly redesigning the earth on time scales that are infinitesimal compared to previous geological and evolutionary rates. The carbon dioxide and other gases being pumped into the atmosphere are creating an insulating blanket that accumulates heat faster than it can be radiated into space.  Most of those gases come from burning fossil fuels, removing forests, and producing animal protein for human consumption.

Scientists have been studying human impacts on our global biosphere for decades, and today there is clear consensus about the effects of these gases on the mean temperature of the planet. There are a few very loud voices who insist this is only “natural variation,” but the data do not lie. Those voices are often driven by greed and self-centered political interests, and sometimes by willful blindness. The Judeo-Christian tradition has always called those motivations sinful. It is decidedly wrong to use resources that have been given into our collective care in ways that diminish the ability of others to share in abundant life. It is equally wrong to fail to use resources of memory, reason, and skill to discern what is going on in the world around us.  That has traditionally been called a sin of omission.

Why do we call this a crisis? The planet’s regulatory system is being altered. Like a human being with a runaway fever, the malfunctioning thermostat causes a body to slowly self-destruct as inflammation erodes joints, causes nerve cells to misfire, and prevents the digestive system from absorbing nutrients critical to life. This planet is overheating, its climate is changing, and the residents are sick, suffering, and dying.

Climate is a broad description of weather variability and environmental conditions. We are experiencing more extreme weather and more frequent hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and droughts. Sea level is rising, because ice sheets are melting and because a warming ocean expands. As sea levels rise coastal flooding becomes more likely and severe storms more destructive. The damage done by Katrina and Superstorm Sandy are examples, as is the unusual winter much of this continent is experiencing. 

Shifting climate alters our ability to grow food crops in historical locales, often leading to food shortages and famines. Deserts are expanding, snow pack declining, and drought plagues a drying West, where wildfires are more frequent and more damaging, and fresh water is increasingly scarce.  Commercial agricultural practices in the developed world contribute more carbon to the atmosphere, when wiser ways could be storing large quantities of carbon in healthier and more productive soils.[3] Historic conditions are changing so quickly that species adapted to particular environments over geologic time spans can’t adapt. Warmer conditions are prompting species to seek cooler environments, with limited success, by moving higher on mountain slopes, deeper in the ocean, or closer to the poles. 

Life in the oceans has additional challenges. Species that build skeletons of calcium carbonate find it harder to build or maintain their shells as increasing amounts of carbon dioxide dissolve in sea water and make it more acidic. Several kinds of plankton [4] are already challenged. As their populations begin to shrink, other parts of the food chain get hungrier or disappear. More CO2 in the atmosphere ultimately means fewer fish, shrimp, whales, and seabirds. 

Coral reefs, which take centuries to build, are also in imminent danger.  As sea temperature rises, corals often respond by expelling the symbiotic algae that provide much of their food. [5] Debilitated corals may not grow fast enough to keep themselves in reach of sunlight, [6] and dying reefs are quickly destroyed by waves and storms. Coral reefs rival tropical rain forests as the richest and most diverse ecosystems on the planet. [7] Both shelter countless numbers of yet-undescribed species. That diversity is a wondrous gift of life in itself, and is increasingly recognized as a potential source of healing pharmaceuticals.[8]

The human population explosion of recent millennia, accompanied by exploitation of fossil fuels in recent centuries, have moved this planetary system out of dynamic equilibrium. Human appetites are responsible for the collapse of that equilibrium,[9]  particularly in developed nations, and many species are threatened with diminishment and loss of life. We are making war on the integrity of this planet. The result is wholesale death as species become extinct at unprecedented rates, and human beings die from disease, starvation, and the violence of war unleashed by environmental chaos and greed.

We were planted in this garden to care for it – literally, “to have dominion” over its creatures.[10] Dominion means caring for our island home, the oikos [11]  that gives birth to economy and ecology. [12] This is housekeeping and husbanding work – caring for what sustains us all. We are meant to love God and what God has created, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus insists that those who will enjoy abundant life are those who care for all neighbors, especially “the least of these” [13] – the hungry and thirsty, the imprisoned and sick – and that must include all the species God has nurtured on this planet. 

God’s presence among us in human form changed the nature of relationship with all creation. Even those who cannot understand the duty to care for birds and sea creatures must recognize that the life of human beings depends on the health of the whole planet. The poorest human beings are soonest and most deeply affected by climatic changes, and least able to respond. Ultimately human beings with the most resource-intensive lifestyles are causing the hunger and thirst, displacement, illness, and impoverishment of climate refugees and those without resources to adapt. There is no escape from that death and destruction, for our fate is tied to the fate of all our neighbors – the salvation of each depends on the salvation of all.

A crisis is a decision point, a time of judgment. We can choose to change our destructive and overly consumptive ways, or we can ignore the consequences of our actions and slowly steam like proverbial frogs in a soup pot. We still have some opportunity to choose, but that kairos moment will not last long. We have before us this day life and death.[14] Which will we choose?

The Most Revd Katharine Jefferts Schori is Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church. She gave the above keynote address at the Climate Change Crisis forum on March 24.


[1] Book of Common Prayer p 370

[2] E.g., The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert.  Holt, 2014.

[3] For a brief introduction, cf. Norman Wirzba, “Carbon and Compost,” Christian Century 4 March 2015, 28-29

[4] The tiny plants and animals that provide much of the food for larger creatures in the oceans

[5] Often referred to as “bleaching”

[6] (link is external)

[7] (link is external)

[8] (link is external)

[9] Beginning with the hunting of large animal species several tens of thousand years ago.

[10] Genesis 1:26,28

[11] Greek for “house” or “home”

[12] Economy,  ‘house rules’ or ‘home management’; Ecology, ‘study of the house’

[13] Matthew 25:45-46

[14] Deuteronomy 30:19

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