"It may be unusual to hear this from a scientist, but facts are not enough," said Katharine Hayhoe over the weekend at St. Michael's church in Paris, France. The conference, entitled A Christian Response to Climate Change, was organized by a partnership between A Rocha International, the Lausanne Movement, and the World Evangelical Alliance in light of the world's leaders descending on Paris to set emissions targets to avoid to avoid the most harmful climate impacts that could happen if global temperatures exceed a 2 degrees Celsius increase from pre-industrial times.
Hayhoe's statement wasn't the only thing interesting said at the conference. Among the speakers was Jean-Francois Mouhot, a French evangelical climate activist who argued that just as it's hard for people today to understand how people in times past could justify an economy based on slavery, people in the not too distant future will look back at our times and wonder how we could justify an economy based on fossil fuels. Mouhot pointed out that Jesus condemned the religious leaders of his day who built tombs for the prophets, thinking that they would never stone the prophets like in times past; while in reality they were plotting to kill Jesus. Mouhot's point couldn't have been clearer. We think that we're better than previous generations. We're really not.
There are, of course, many differences between the struggle against slavery and the struggle against fossil fuels. For one thing, there's the matter of intention. Nobody taking their family on a holiday vacation intends to harm their neighbor in the global South, and the process by which our emissions harm others is indirect, passing through the chemical composition of the atmosphere before it wreaks havoc on earthly ecosystems.
There's also the issue of culpability that gets thorny. Though the Industrial Revolution started about 170 years ago, most of the fossil fuel emissions have happened since the 1950's, and have continued unabated long past the point to where the world's top polluters could claim ignorance. We've known for the past 30-40 years the planet is warming, and that humans are causing it. How much should rich industrialized nations compensate poor developing nations for their carbon emissions, and what precisely should be the compensation mechanism to help these nations develop clean energy technologies while adapting to a changing climate of droughts, famines, stronger storms, and sea-level rise?
This is where climate justice comes in. It's also why Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist who was an expert reviewer for the Nobel-prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says that facts are not enough, because science can tell us what the problem is, but it can't tell us what to do about it, because the solution has to do with what's in our hearts. She should know. As a conservative evangelical and a pastor's wife living in Texas, Hayhoe travels and speaks to conservative Christians who wouldn't otherwise listen to a climate scientist because of age-old conflicts between faith and science and their general distrust of government.
"Polar bears are dying in the Arctic because of melting sea ice, but it's not about the polar bears. It's about the fact that we're next", said Katharine Hayhoe.
She's not alone.
Earlier that morning I snapped a photo of some of my new friends praying for Bishop Efraim M. Tendero, the Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance, which represents 600 million evangelicals around the world. Bishop Tendero asked us to pray for strength to communicate the importance of caring for creation to the evangelical world, as well as the urgency of global climate action. And back in the U.S., the National Association of Evangelicals has also gotten on board. In October, the NAE officially passed a resolution affirming the Lausanne Capetown Commitment of 2010, which is a global evangelical statement affirming the need for Christians to adopt lifestyles that renounce habits of consumption that are destructive or polluting, to exert legitimate means to persuade governments to put moral imperatives above political expediency on issues of environmental destruction and potential climate change, and to recognize the calling of Christians who engage in the protection and restoration of the earth's habitats and species through conservation and advocacy.
While it's unclear whether the framework negotiated by world leaders this week will allow us to avoid the worst effects of climate change, the fact that evangelical leaders are demonstrating their concern for how climate change impacts the poor is very good news. Perhaps the efforts this week of myself and the rest of our group bearing witness to the relevance of the COP 21 negotiations can serve as a sign that the tide is turning.