The Climate Change Distraction

I cringe every time I hear pastors I respect quote the entity called “Science.” In these references, they are usually preaching against the secular world and its attempt to disprove God by rebelling against what the Creator has revealed. However, these statements are fueling the skepticism Christians have about science. They leave Christians in the field of science, like me, high and dry. In that light, I don’t think there are enough Christians with a redeemed view of science. The divide between science and Christianity seems to be improving, but skepticism on both sides is still prevalent.

I am an environmental and water resources scientist studying wetlands and their use as a treatment system for agricultural water runoff. I have worked in many ecosystems, studying the success of restoration projects and quality of natural areas. My work attempts to combine the restoration of diverse natural areas with the use of natural systems for improving water quality; my current work seeks to reduce excess contaminants in our waterways, which are causing health concerns, creating aquatic dead zones, and costing billions of dollars across the United States alone. Some of my research looks specifically at how to improve technologies to remove nutrients from agricultural runoff. Other projects look at how the increase in streamflow, drainage, and storms make erosion worse. However, if there is one Mount Everest in my work, one obstacle that could take my entire career to overcome, it would be convincing enough people of the need to care for the environment.

As an environmental scientist, I have three questions that I call “The Big Three”: 1) Do you believe in evolution? 2) Do you think the earth is millions of years old? 3) What’s your opinion on global warming? Among Christians, these three questions seem to be the biggest concerns in the natural sciences. To be honest, though, they’re distracting. There are bigger problems and more pressing concerns I’m trying to address. While this isn’t a perfect analogy, asking these questions is similar to debating the origins of lightning while standing on a mountaintop with your family during a thunderstorm. Where did the storm come from? Did the bolt come from the ground up or from the sky down? There are more pressing needs in the moment when you can see the lightning. That’s similar to my work as scientist. I try to address the pressing needs.

In order to get beyond the issues that often distract us, we must first define and clarify what science is and why God created it. Christians often raise “The Big Three” questions because of a skepticism about science. They are also afraid that we will regard the environment and natural world too highly when our greater calling is to share the gospel and save souls. However, as Christians we are called to do both: care for the natural world and spread the news of Christ’s work on the cross. We need to start on a common ground about science before we can be convinced about its purpose.

What is science? It is not a worldview. It is not a religion. It is a tool.

God has given everyone the ability to observe his existence. Romans 1:19–20 reads, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” All of creation declares that there is a creator and a God reigning over it all. Psalm 19:1–2 reads, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” If God made his character perceivable through his creation, he must have provided a skill or tool we could use to observe it. This tool is science.

Science was given to us by God. God is not dependent on science. Science is dependent on God having created it and his continuing to sustain it. Anything that science discovers will not and cannot contradict God if God created it. We should have nothing to fear if we believe that God created all things and is powerful enough to sustain and determine them.

Solomon, the man blessed with wisdom, was clearly a scientist if we use the Merriam-Webster definition of science: “Knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation.” In 1 Kings 5:29–33 we can catch a glimpse of Solomon’s scientific observations:

And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all other men…He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish.

Solomon made observations about nature, very much like natural scientists today. The man blessed with wisdom knew the nature around him. Studying and learning about the natural world is wise and a blessing from God. Furthermore, we hold each other accountable for the theories we create. We should not fear science, but rather use this God-given tool to seek a greater understanding of the world God created.

Once we have a better understanding of the definition and meaning of science, we can begin to see how to use it to address the pressing concerns of this world. In the lightning strike analogy, what are the actions we need to take to help people in the time of need? What is the equivalent of putting our loved ones out of harm’s way? How is science used to address this need?

The most world-encompassing needs right now pertain to the effects of a changing climate. However, climate change is merely one result of people’s neglect of the environment. For me to simply say that the climate is changing does not address the greater issue. The problem is that people are not motivated to care for the environment. Christians in particular should have an even greater desire to care for the world around them than secular environmentalists.

Creation Care is a common term among Christians in environmental science. However, it oftentimes comes across as if we need to care for the environment for the sake of the environment alone. It is difficult to make a clear theological case that the environment is of as much, or in some cases more, value than humans. Caring for creation is often pitted against our own comforts and pleasures. It takes extra effort to recycle, to use energy more efficiently, to use less water, and so on. We weigh out whether we care more about our immediate comfort or trees and animals. In this case, we simply are more willing to pay for luxuries such as more energy and better cars than to try to save trees or endangered turtles somewhere on the other side of the world, which have no value compared to a human.

Opposition toward environmentalism on this ground—that creation should not be more important than human life—is valid. If we had to choose between saving the last individual of an endangered species or the life of person, we should choose the person. For Christians, that should be a no-brainer. The value of creation is difficult to compare to the value of humans or even the comfort and luxuries of humans. We were created in God’s image. We were given dominion over creation. Then why should we care for creation?

I have two motivations to care for the environment: caring for and observing the environment is a worshipful experience, and I have been called to care for my neighbors and feed the hungry.

I love using science to learn more about the creator who designed this world. Science was engineered by God for us to learn more about him as he is reflected in his creation. It’s a worshipful experience for me to see and be in awe of his handiwork. Like a painting reflects the creativity of the painter or the clay pot reflects the handiwork of the potter, so does creation reflect the character of the Creator. The smells of pine, the panoramic views of snow-capped mountains, cool breezes contrasting a warm campfire, the maple buds exploding on the first warm day of spring, the delicate petals of the trout lily, the behemoth eating grass, and the lion waiting on its prey (Job 38:39–41) lead me to worship their creator. Read Job 38 and 39. See how much creation depends on its creator. It declares his glory! It was created by him and for him (Colossians 1:16). I rebuild natural areas because each system is unique and displays God’s creativity in its own way. It’s beautiful and it leads me to worship the God who made it.

I also seek ecological solutions to clean up the water and return it to a useable status in order to help my neighbors here who need clean drinking water and my neighbors in the Gulf of Mexico who are dependent on the fishing industry. We need to emulate the reconciliation between ourselves and God, ourselves and creation, and ourselves and other people. Because human beings are a part of and use the same environment I use and observe, when I care for the environment I am also helping those in need. Jesus taught us to care for and serve the “least of these.” On the last day, we will be judged on how we provided for or neglected the needs of others. Jesus will say, “‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:35–40)

Taking care of the needy, those Jesus referred to as “the least of these,” means taking care of the environment. Our negative impact on the environment disproportionately affects the lives of the poor and underprivileged. Changing temperatures, drier growing seasons, depleted fishing industries, and contaminated water sources only make the poor poorer and the needy needier. Pope Francis worded it well in his second encyclical:

Hence every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged.” He later added, “An integral ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics.”

Our daily, seemingly trivial actions can have a regional or even global impact on the environment. Each ounce of wasted food increases demand, which increases food processing, which increases production, which adds more stress on the environment. More food production means more nutrients are discharged into our waters. These waters become polluted from algal blooms or excess concentrations of chemicals harmful to human health. Furthermore, more food production increases acreage in need of tile drainage, which leads to increased flow in streams already susceptible to erosion from larger storm events in recent years. This increase in flow is only compounded by climate change. More erosion again means more pollution, less clean water, and more money spent to clean it. Acting sustainably doesn’t impact the air and atmosphere alone. We’re more connected to the environment, the resources we pull from the environment, and others who need those same resources than we realize on a daily basis.

I care for the environment because others need the environment too. We enjoy the worshipful experiences when nature points our minds and songs toward the creator. We also live in that same creation and need it for survival, but we are disconnected from this reality when we forget where our resources come from and where they go. Our water flows toward people downstream. They need that water to be cleaner.

My response to “The Big Three” questions is that they distract us from more pressing needs and how science can be used to solve those issues. Rather than being stuck in debates about where climate change comes from, I am surrounded by the effects of climate change through increasing rain events and shifts in plant and algae communities. My expertise is in water quality, so my efforts are a reaction to these climate effects. If I can help the less fortunate downstream—those who are receiving the contaminated water—then I should try to help rather than be afraid that my actions are based on political schemes. The bigger issue isn’t whether climate change exists; it’s about why people aren’t motivated to care for the environment. We’re arguing about the source of the storm instead of helping others in their immediate needs.

In summary, science was created by God as a tool to understand more about his character as it’s reflected in his creation. We use science to worship him who made the world and to help those who need a better environment. I already see how climate change is intensifying the degradation of the environment as I study water quality, so my concerns are now focused on what I need to do for those likely to be most impacted. As Christians, we’re called to care for the needy and glorify the creator. We need to start by paying more attention to how our uses of common resources impact others.

Brad Gordon is a PhD candidate in Water Resources Science. His research consists of linking vegetation with water quality through studying the use of wetlands to improve agricultural water quality. He enjoys reading, camping, trail running, coffee, spending time with friends, and good food.

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