A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on February 22, 2015 (First Sunday in Lent)
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9“As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
12God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” – Genesis 9:8-17
1 Peter 3:18-22
Our global climate is changing. And this season of Lent I will be talking about what that means, how it affects us (and other living things on earth), and what we might do about it.
Our global climate is changing. In some ways that is nothing new. The earth’s climate is always changing. There is scientific evidence that the area in which we live was once much colder, and covered with glaciers. At other times it was almost tropical – millions of years ago. Climate is always changing.
But today, the earth is getting warmer at a rate never experienced in human history. And there is growing evidence that the cause of this rapid warming is us – the activity of humans. That is something new.
In the next few weeks I will be preaching from the Bible, but also about some of the research findings of scientists. I know science is not everybody’s favorite subject, so I will try to keep it simple. Maybe I can’t help it – I’m a former science teacher!
You may wonder what science has to do with our religious faith. Many folks – both followers of Christian faith and of science – see them as opposed to one another. I once had a wise mentor and friend who was interested in both religion and science (Emerson W. Shideler). He had once been a pastor, before becoming a professor of Philosophy and Religion at Iowa State University. He said that he thought the relationship between science and religion is that science is how we observe and understand the world in which we live; Religion is how we respond to that world we observe. That may be an oversimplification, but I think it is helpful. And if it is true, then it is important for us to know the truth about the world in which we live if we are going to respond to it faithfully. Good science can be a starting point for good theology and a healthy spirituality.
The earth is getting warmer. I know what many of you are thinking – Am I crazy? Did we not just go through several days of the deep freeze? And this is one of the first important points we need to understand – the difference between weather and climate.
Weather changes daily, and with the seasons of the year. Weather is local – it’s what is happening outside right now. We all know that here in Illinois we have some warm days each year (almost 100 degrees), and we have some cold days (-20 degrees). I’m hoping for a little local warming right about now!
That is weather. But climate is a more long-term and global scale concept. Scientists have been measuring and recording temperatures at thousands of locations around the globe for more than 135 years. From that data they can calculate the average – not the highs or lows, but the average temperatures from all of those locations. The yearly average temperature in Chicago is just under 50 degrees F. Several different groups of researchers have analyzed all that data and come to a similar conclusion: global average temperatures have risen about 1 degree in the past century. It has risen on every continent, and on the surface of the oceans.
An increase of 1 degree may not sound like a big deal. We probably don’t even notice it that much in our daily living. It might mean only one or two more days each year when the temperature gets above 90 degrees, or when it only drops to – 10 degrees instead of -20 degrees. It may not be a big deal for us, but it can be a big deal for those parts of the world where ice is stored in snow packs, glaciers, and polar ice packs. It can make a difference in areas that were once fertile now experiencing drought. It can have a big impact on the creatures that share this earth with us.
The warmest year on record (since people started keeping accurate records) was last year – 2014. The ten warmest years in the history of keeping records have all been since 1998. That means that warming isn’t some temporary fluke or some coincidence, it is a real trend.
This isn’t the theory of a bunch of tree-hugging crackpots, this is research that was done by several groups including NASA (the folks who took people into space and landed men on the moon). Even our United States Senate – just one month ago — voted 98-1 that climate change is real, although they didn’t agree on what is causing it.
I will say more about what might be causing this global warming in a couple of weeks. But today I just wanted to begin by making the point that our world climate is warming, and to talk about some of the reasons that should concern us.
And here is where the science, from what I understand about it, starts to get a little murkier. The problem is that we have never been through this before in recorded human history. We don’t know from previous experience what happens when the global climate gets warmer. Scientists have to try to find clues in the record of rocks, or fossils, or other remains from when the earth was warmer in the past. Or, they have to try to develop computer models of what might happen, based on what we now understand about how the earth responds to extra heat – what it might do to ocean temperatures and currents, air currents, moisture in the air, living things on the earth, and many other factors. And the problem is that the earth is a very complex thing, and we are only beginning to scratch the surface of understanding how it works.
When I was studying Chemistry as a graduate student, my research advisor, Professor Tad Koch, had a little newspaper clipping taped to his door that I used to read every time I went to talk to him about my work. It said,
“The real creative trick is to get the right answer when only half of the data is in hand, and half of it is wrong.” (attributed to biochemist Melvin Calvin)
That is where we are today in terms of earth science and climate change – we may not even have half of the data about how the earth works, and much of what we do have might turn out to be wrong.
But does that mean we should discount and disregard what scientists are saying – as many do today? I hope not. Science is one of the greatest intellectual achievements in human history. We insist that school children learn it – at least a little. We trust the findings of scientists and the ways their discoveries are used for our benefit every day. We trust doctors to help us be healthy, even though there is still much about the human body they do not know. We trust the people who study how air flows around curved surfaces at high speeds every time we fly. All we can do is do the best we can with the best information available.
So what could happen as a result of global climate change? Here are a few possibilities:
- Rising seawater levels. Much of the earth’s water is locked in frozen form in glaciers, and snow pack at the poles. That ice is melting and disappearing. The water then flows into the oceans, and the level of the oceans rises. Many;low-lying areas around the world near the oceans (in the United States that includes cities, and farmland– much of the East Coast, Florida, the lower Mississippi River basin), could eventually be under water. And how many people in other parts of the world – especially poor people with no place to go and no resources – would be displaced?
- The American West (especially California and Texas) has been experiencing a severe drought for several years. Some scientists suspect this might be at least partially caused by rising global temperatures. Many farmers, and those who work the land and harvest the crops, may soon be unable to make a living. And food prices could increase dramatically.
- A warming climate may lead to larger and more destructive storms: tornadoes, hurricanes, typhoons, and even blizzards. Blizzards? How could warming temperatures mean bigger blizzards? When the earth and its atmosphere are warmer, more water evaporates from lakes and oceans and gets carried in clouds. More heat energy in the air can make for larger and more powerful storms.
Does it seem to you that we have heard news of more powerful storms in recent years? Huge tornadoes in the Midwest; Hurricane Sandy that hit the East Coast. Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines just over a year ago was one of the largest tropical typhoons ever recorded. The blizzards hitting Boston this year? The problem is that we don’t know all the factors that make storms form. It is impossible to say for sure whether any one big storm was caused by global warming. But from what we know, it seems likely to be a factor.
So climate change is a global concern. It is having an impact on this earth that God has created and given to us for our use and care. It is having an impact on the lives of millions, maybe even billions of people around the world who are our concern – especially the poor who did little to cause the problems, but who bear the largest share of its disastrous effects. It is having an impact on many forms of life throughout the world. I don’t think there is any problem in our world today with the potential to hurt as many people as climate change.
God promised Noah that God would never again destroy all life by a great flood. We must take care that we don’t cause damage to the earth and its life by our actions.
In a few weeks I will talk more about what is likely causing this climate change (it’s us), and what we might do about it. But the important lesson for today is that our global climate is changing, and it may make life more difficult for future generations – for our children and grandchildren and beyond – unless we start to understand what we are doing and make some changes.
This is not our earth – to use any way we want. It is God’s earth, given for our life and use and commended to our care. And it has been loaned to us by our children.
Robert J. von Trebr