Jamaica Consultation Presentation:A New Strategy for Hope based on the Inevitable Failure of Climate Change Mitigation

This is an INTEREST GROUP PRESENTATION ABSTRACT; the paper will be presented at the Jamaica Consultation on Creation Care and the Gospel in October, 2012.  Comments are welcomed!  View all abstracts.


In July 2012, American environmentalist Bill McKibben published a landmark article in Rolling Stone magazine entitled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”  In the article, McKibben signals a shift in strategy regarding climate change mitigation, previewing the approach that he and Naomi Klein, an incendiary writer and speaker from Canada, will take in their Fall 2012 speaking tour.  For all the admiration that the author has for both McKibben and Klein, I fear that their shift in strategy is one in which the Church cannot join them, and so the author proposes a different strategic shift, one based on pro-actively mourning the inevitable failure of climate change mitigation, mobilizing for adaptation projects, and locating the concept of resilience in evangelism, discipleship, and church-planting. An additional result, Lord willing, will be a renewed commitment to mitigation, but one that emerges from adaptation.

     McKibben’s “new math” is essentially three scientifically-sound numbers: 2° Celsius (a believed-achievable maximum of global average warming beyond which climate change effects are deemed intolerable); 565 gigatons (the total amount of additional carbon dioxide which the world can emit beyond which forcings will exceed a 2° C increase); and 2,795 gigatons (the amount of emittable carbon dioxide in the known fossil fuel reserves of companies and countries; “In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.”)

     McKibben’s conclusion to this math is to declare fossil fuel companies, “Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization” and to step up the stridency of demands to keep eighty percent of known reserves in the ground.  McKibben admits that “So far. . . environmental efforts to tackle global warming have failed.”  So, unfortunately, will McKibben’s new strategy.  Eighty percent of known reserves represent twenty trillion U.S. dollars in assets which fossil fuel companies have already declared, factored into share prices, and borrowed against.  Regardless of how we might evaluate an ecological catastrophe against an economic one, the point is somewhat moot since. . . known fossil fuel reserves WILL BE be burned.  In my opinion, this is an inevitability.

     It is time to approach climate change not solely from the standpoint of climate, but also from the standpoint of change—and change is something which the Church knows how to manage or at least how to minister in.  Healthy change, we know both biblically and psychologically, begins with mourning all that one has lost.  The healthy alternative to an anger based on powerlessness (whether expressed at WTO meetings in Seattle, or food riots in Mexico City) is grief.  And as the Church helps individuals grieve specific climate changes, we then mobilize for a countless number of individual adaptation projects, particularly among the poorest portions of the world.  (Christian creation care ministries based on mitigation are challenged to shift their resources to adaptation, and re-locate their mitigation messages from there.)  Change calls for resilience, a term which seems to be replacing “sustainability” in environmental writing.  Andrew Zolli in his new book Resilence:Why Things Bounce Back quotes research which indicates that resilient individuals are those who cultivate religious belief and train themselves in certains habits of mind.  Communities that bounce back are those that cultivate trust and cooperation.   These traits—belief, strength, trust, cooperation—are the very goals of evangelism, discipleship, and church-planting, the very results of lives transformed in Christ Jesus.  They are the most easily identifiable convergence between traditional Christian missions and climate change action.

     McKibben approaches corporations, executives, governments and voters with the demand that they keep eighty percent of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground.  The author instead proposes that we issue the challenge: spend up to eighty percent of the profits from the burning of those reserves—if burn them we will—on renewable energy, on adaptation projects, on the poor, on environmental missions, on building faith, strength, trust, and cooperation.  Debates about cap and trade, cap and dividend, or economic inadvisability can be largely avoided.  People will often respond to a positive challenge to do what is good, while they reject a demand to do what is right.  And the Church throughout history invariably has more power when it is purposefully serving the poor than when it is trying to coerce the empire.  As for mitigation, as more people get intimately involved in adaptation, our hope is that they will naturally begin to ask themselves how they too have been stakeholders in contributing to the problem.

     The author was a church-planting missionary in North India and Pakistan for fourteen years.  He is now the director of Eden Vigil, an environmental missions agency.  His forthcoming book Environmental Missions: Planting Churches and Trees will be published by William Carey Library in 2013.