Today’s Day of Prayer Demands Sermons on Climate Science

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Every piece of this is man’s bullshit. They call this war a cloud over the land. But they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say ‘Shit, it’s raining!’

– Cold Mountain

Faith, it has been said, is evidence of things unseen. Just as hunger signals the existence of food, angels and their celestial trumpets are betrayed by humanity’s existential longing. Or so the argument goes. While science-minded seekers deny themselves the comforts of the rhetorical truths in their search for the definite, the spiritually minded – those who engage in pilgrimages, meditation retreats, and punishing fasts – deny basic bodily needs questing after the infinite. Although those absorbed in American-styled evangelicalism don’t typically deny themselves creature comforts (the prosperity gospel excised Job’s travails long ago), they’ve adopted an even more extreme ritual in pursuit of their unique salvation: denial of observable, testable facts.

While religious faith, no matter how bizarre, would normally be a personal matter, this is one faith with a rabid political caucus intent on re-making the nation in its own image. If the Scopes Monkey Trial reflected poorly on the fundamentalist set (even as a twisted interpretation of Darwin’s findings, aka Social Darwinism, did on the seculars), that conflict didn’t begin to approach the pressing life-or-death decisions we now find ourselves facing in our destabilized global climate. 

Even with the impacts of industrial-driven climate change come faster and stronger than predicted by the International Panel on Climate Change, there are those who resist federal action. Despite the plethora of easy-to-read reports on the science of global warming (including this one by the National Research Council) climate-change denial is far from rare. Public pleas from nearly every major scientific body on the planet to rein in greenhouse gas emissions before we do irreversible damage to the systems that control our daily weather and jeopardize the future existence of our species fail to move this rigid demographic. Researchers at the Public Religion Research Institute ran head-long into this resistance when they surveyed Americans about the weather recently and drove into a blizzard of faith-based convictions.

Although 63 percent of 1,018 interviewed agreed the weather was getting more extreme, proof of global climate change, 36 percent  said these events heralded a biblical “end times.” That is, drought, storm, heat: all the doing of God’s angels preparing to judge the sheep below. Unsurprisingly, 31 percent said the government doesn’t need to get involved in trying to slow or stop the process. “One of the more remarkable findings of the survey is that political polarization in America … colors even … perceptions of the weather,” PRRI  Research Director Daniel Cox said in a prepared release. “More than three-quarters of Democrats and nearly 6-in-10 independents believe that over the last few years, the weather is getting more extreme, while less than half of Republicans say they perceive this shift in the weather.”

If this were a debate about evolution or dinosaurs – fights the fundamental community ultimately forfeited – the results would be of interest, concern even. If it were simply a matter of religious freedom to believe whatever one chooses to believe I’d shut up about the whole thing and go back outside to enjoy my garden. But this denier base has a posse in Washington dead set against carbon caps, greenhouse gas regulations, the expansion of wind and solar, hardening of sea-ward infrastructure, or anything else that smacks of a concerted climate response. Not only don’t we have the luxury of waiting for the passing of a few more generations for today’s mainstream science to saturate the remaining 30-percent, we may not have another presidential cycle.

Already the earth has warmed nearly 1 degree Celsius due to human industrial activity. A growing body of scientists are urging international policy makers to keep that rise to 2 degrees (if that) if we want to avoid catastrophic changes to the planet’s life-support system. Yet, as things stand today, we’re rushing ahead to an expected 4 degrees rise by 2100. Runaway greenhouse-gas levels in the atmosphere recently hit 400 parts per million at a survey station in Hawaii, a level not seen on earth for more than 3.5 million years. At this stage earth is well on the way to becoming the hell you’ve been warned about since Sunday School, only it’s the living that will be punished in the here and now.

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With four degrees of warming major drought conditions and food insecurity become the “new normal,” global freshwater supplies strain, acidification of the oceans leads to the dissolving of coral reefs and extinction of entire coral reef ecosystems, seas rise as much as three feet or more. Wildfires could double across Amazonia with “only” 1.5 or 2 degrees of warming. Four degrees would be unimaginable.

“Stresses on human health, such as heat waves, malnutrition, and decreasing quality of drinking water due to seawater intrusion, have the potential to overburden health-care systems to a point where adaptation is no longer possible, and dislocation is forced,” reads the report Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided prepared by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research for the World Bank. “Thus, given that uncertainty remains about the full nature and scale of impacts, there is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible. A 4°C world is likely to be one in which communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage, and dislocation, with many of these risks spread unequally.”

Here’s a stark fact that should drive any professing Christian to crusade for climate action: the global poor will suffer the most from global warming’s otherwise-indifferent curse. We all know how Jesus felt about the poor, right? Sadly, a vast swathe of American Christians hypnotized by their own doomsday porn have larger fish to fry.

As reported by Raw Story, a study pending publication blames Second Coming preoccupations for the climate-action resistance of Republicans.

“[T]he fact that such an overwhelming percentage of Republican citizens profess a belief in the Second Coming (76 percent in 2006, according to our sample) suggests that governmental attempts to curb greenhouse emissions would encounter stiff resistance even if every Democrat in the country wanted to curb them,” Barker and Bearce wrote in their study, which will be published in the June issue of  Political Science Quarterly. 

The study, based on data from the 2007 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, uncovered that belief in the “Second Coming” of Jesus reduced the probability of strongly supporting government action on climate change by 12 percent when controlling for a number of demographic and cultural factors. When the effects of party affiliation, political ideology, and media distrust were removed from the analysis, the belief in the “Second Coming” increased this effect by almost 20 percent. “[I]t stands to reason that most nonbelievers would support preserving the Earth for future generations, but that end-times believers would rationally perceive such efforts to be ultimately futile, and hence ill-advised,” Barker and Bearce explained. 

So don’t save the planet. Don’t think about the immense suffering we are locking in for this generation and the ones to follow. We don’t want to interrupt God’s divine plan.

In the growing field of climate science, there is what we know, what we expect, and then there are wild cards. Feedback loops, veritable land mines that will likely be triggered by rising temperatures that would exponentially increase the pace of warming already underway. Without all those Amazonian trees to absorb renegade carbon dioxide even more gases would be shuttled into the upper atmosphere trapping more heat, for instance. Or consider the loss of all that Arctic ice now faithfully reflecting so much solar heat back into space, that heat will instead enter the oceans and our climate system. Or the rapid release of trapped methane (a potent, though shorter lived, greenhouse gas) from now-melting permafrost.

There’s another feedback loop in play that often follows extreme weather: fearful and desperate people across the painfully arid West turning to prayer for deliverance. As the Associated Press reported Friday, congregations across New Mexico, Oklahoma, and West Texas are gathering today to pray for rain. Hopefully these huddled few give consideration to the words of Rev. William Tabbernee, head of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, who told the AP: “We have to play our part. … Prayer puts us in touch with God, but it also helps us to focus on the fact that it is a partnership that we’re involved in. We need to cooperate with God and all of humanity to be responsible stewards of the gifts God has given us through nature.”

And as everyone gathers in the church hall for brisket afterwards, there should follow a mandatory viewing of’s Do The Math. I mean, wouldn’t it be grand if not only our children had an opportunity to wrestle with life’s larger questions, but our children’s children as well?