It ain’t good. That’s the main takeaway from a recent report from the United Nations Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. The report states that the globe is on track to be 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer by 2040 compared to the pre-industrial average temperature. That means even more severe climate-related events than we’ve already seen, including heat waves, droughts, flooding and higher-intensity hurricanes. Perhaps worse, this is true even if all countries keep their Paris Agreement promises, which is not guaranteed.
Altogether, the report is bleak. However, as Christians who take our responsibilities seriously – both to God’s creation and to all God’s children – we cannot simply give up.
Sometimes, it can be downright depressing to read scientific research. If most people who work in science communication are being honest, our mood swings back and forth. Sometimes I look at the numbers and do feel hopeless. I realize that humanity needs to be putting our best efforts into this problem to prevent widespread suffering – mostly among the world’s poorest people – and that, at least in this country, we are far from doing that. President Trump doesn’t seem to accept the scientific consensus or to even take the issue seriously, while the revamped Environmental Protection Agency shows every sign of removing existing climate policy.
It’s tragic to watch this preventable humanitarian disaster unfold, especially from a Christian perspective. When informed Christians ponder devastation that could affect millions of people for generations to come, it’s easy to lose hope for the future.
“Climate nihilism is right to recognize the dire situation we’ve gotten ourselves in, but wrong to lose hope.”
But only on our bad days. Even aside from my pastoral duty to give people a little bit of hope, my factual duty towards science doesn’t support complete pessimism. As brutal as most of the numbers are, not all of them are bad. Data from the Pew Research Center show that climate change is still a highly partisan issue, but that Americans overall have never been more aware of how the changing climate affects them.
Shifting public opinion means shifting market incentives. Most major car companies are working on electric vehicles, whose numbers continue to grow exponentially. A number of European countries plan to phase out gas and diesel engines by 2030 or so. Coal is being pushed out, not by politics, but because wind and solar are now cheaper. We certainly do have a long road ahead, but there is genuine cause to believe that humanity is turning in the right direction.
It’s also important to note that climate change is not an either-or situation. It simply isn’t true that either humanity solves climate change and prevents all its problems, or we don’t solve climate change and bring about the apocalypse. Climate change isn’t a light switch with only two choices; it’s a sliding scale. As Ryan Cooper puts it, “Every tenth of a degree [of warming] means things get worse; but conversely every tenth of a degree prevented means untold disasters averted.”
An increase of 2.1 C of warming is worse than 2.0, but it’s much better than an increase of 3.5 C. And we measure that difference not only with a thermometer, but in the quality of life for billions or even life itself for potentially millions. Climate nihilism is right to recognize the dire situation we’ve gotten ourselves in, but wrong to lose hope.
Regardless of the world’s ability to meet the 1.5 C target (which is unlikely) or the 2.0 C target (more likely), we still have the agency to make a huge difference in how this turns out. That’s why I still teach Sunday school classes and have conversations about climate change. Yes, the situation is bad, but our actions still matter. Don’t give up.