Sunday, November 16, 2014

The groaning canary and the coalmine of doom: climate change, politics and Paul

Politics has not been kind to climate change science in either Australia (my home) or the US following the mid-term elections. In Australia, funding has been cut to climate change research, and the Climate Council has had to become crowd funded. A government business advisor is actively talking down the science, and a politician has publically called the integrity of Australia scientists into question.

In the US, a similar theme is playing out. Senator Mitch McConnell wants to reign in the EPA, while the infamous Senator Inhofe will likely become the chair of the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee. That is a little like giving the fox the keys to the henhouse.

Which brings me to canaries. Up until the early 20th century, canaries were taken down into coal mines as early warning systems. When poisonous carbon monoxide fumes caused the canary distress or it died, the miners could seek safety. In our changing climate, mosquitoes are the canary in the coal mine. In Kenya, world expert on malaria Andrew Githeko has developed a model to show how malaria is spreading due to our warming planet. He grew up in the highlands on a coffee plantation, where it used to be too cold for malaria to spread. However, one day a relative form his home town rang to tell him that his niece had contracted malaria. Stories like this are common throughout highlands in Africa, New Guinea, and central and South America.

Elsewhere, sea level rise due to warming oceans means that Pacific islands are being eroded and inundated. On Han Island, part of the Carteret chain off Papua New Guinea, elder Nicholas Hakata laments that water left over from a king tide has become a breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes, affecting all of their children.

Mosquitoes have always been an indicator of environmental disturbance. A cemetery near Rome revealed 47 skeletons of children younger than three, many of whom were still born. All of them bore signs of malaria. In 452 AD, then Huns refused to enter Rome for fear of malaria. The cause of the malaria was the clearing of forests, which resulted in theformation of swampy ground where mosquitoes could breed. It also led to the silting up of the harbour, and regular widespread flooding.
Malaria literally means bad air, and hence the Romans did not understand the connection between poor land management and disease. They could, however, understand that using the Tiber as a latrine meant that they had to build aqueducts to get fresh water to drink. They could also understand how fires made for bad health. As philosopher and politician Seneca commented

“No sooner had I left behind the oppressive atmosphere of the city and the reek of smoking cookers, which pour out, along with clouds of ashes, all the poisonous fumes they’ve accumulated … I noticed the change in my condition at once.”

Elsewhere I’ve written briefly about Romans 8, but it is worth a closer look. When says that “the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (verse 22), he was making an environmental observation. You see it is not at all unchristian to be able to observe the negative impacts humans are having on the planet. Indeed, common grace – that it rains on the righteous and unrighteous – should tell us that we can and must listen to those who study our impacts on the planet, Christian or otherwise. Perhaps Catholic Australian Prime Ministry Tony Abbott or Presbyterian Senator James Inhofe should take note.

Paul was also making a theological statement that “the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope” (verse 20), because the Him is God. But the reason is laid out in Romans 1: idolatry leads to wrath, which is the giving over sins and their consequences. Conservative Christians are quick to accuse environmentalists of worshipping nature, while the church is all too often part of a Babylonian captivity, trying to worship Mammon or Mars – often brought together in resource wars. So climate change is a result of human idolatry and hubris, and God has given us and the rest of creation over to the consequences of this idolatry. This makes climate change a gospel issue because it stems from idolatry and sin, and the gospel calls all to repent and believe in the good news.

Thirdly, Paul is making a political comment. To declare Jesus as Lord back in chapter 1, in a letter written to Christians at the centre of empire could not be misunderstood. Caesar, and all who build empires, are not Lord. But more than this, for Paul to declare that the creation is groaning was to deny the claims of the poet Horace that “Your age, O Caesar, has restored plenteous crops to the fields”. When politicians proclaim that coal mines or oil wells will continue to bring us prosperity, it is the church’s role to show that the emperor has no clothes and creation still groans. 

Given that our hope is the redemption of our bodies (verse 23), and that the creation longs to share in our freedom (verse 21), it is our role to proclaim this gospel hope, speaking truth to the centre of empire, be that Australia, American or multinational. So long as creation groans, we must groan with it. More than this, since we have the first fruits of the new creation (verse 23), we care for this creation in transition as we look forward to its Exodus and ours, the future harvest.

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