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The big climate summit is coming soon

But the planet’s future will not be decided in Glasgow

A lone climate protester marches outside Parliament in London ahead of the Glasgow conference. Associated Press/Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth

The big climate summit is coming soon
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The latest in a series of international events focused on climate change will open in Glasgow, Scotland this Sunday. As the most prominent gathering to follow the Paris Accords of 2015, the Glasgow Conference is already being hailed as historic. “It’s not a stretch to say that the future of our planet as we know it is at stake,” writes Umair Irfan at Vox.

And yet, of this we can be certain: The fate of planet Earth will not be decided over the next week at a meeting of climate diplomats and activists in Scotland.

Politicians and cable news outlets have something to gain from telling us that each new election is the most important the world has ever seen. In the same way, each successive climate conference is inevitably the most important—at least until the next one.

Economists have a concept called “revealed preference” that is relevant here. One version of the idea is that while we can pay attention to what people say they want, their true desires are revealed in what they actually do. There will be a lot of talk at the Glasgow Conference over the next week, and there will be even more talk over the following weeks and months. And as important as such conversations are, and as much potential as they have to shape the debate over climate change going forward, it is much more important to pay attention to what politicians, companies, and citizens actually do.

Scripture gives us a related concept that distinguishes between someone’s words and their deeds. What we say and what we do are supposed to be consistent. When there is a disconnect between the two, Scripture gives us the image of a person who wears a mask to cover their true selves. This is literally a hypocrite—someone whose claims do not line up with their commitments. And at the Glasgow Conference, just as at every other international climate conference since the first meeting in Berlin in 1995, there will be a great deal of talk about what different countries can or cannot do, what they will or will not commit to do, to stave off climate change.

One way to determine whether the dialogue is serious or merely performative will be to see whether and how often real alternatives to massive fossil fuel consumption are discussed. For example, nuclear power remains the only scalable and realistic alternative for powering the developed world at its current and future demand levels. And while there is no single fuel that is perfect or that will power everything in the future, there is much more likely to be talk about sources of energy like wind and geothermal that are much more limited by technological and economic constraints.

If countries committed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) were truly serious about decarbonizing the world’s energy supply, then advances and application of nuclear power would be front and center. Unfortunately, nuclear power remains marginalized in so many of these discussions, demonstrating that such conventions are more histrionic than truly historic.

Stewardship of the created order—which includes care for the natural environment—is a critically important dimension of Christian discipleship. If we claim to follow Christ, we should care for the world he made and came to save. But good stewardship is characterized more by daily faithfulness and duty than by activism and alarmism. And as much harm as governments can do, the good they intend depends on the convictions of citizens to make differences in their everyday lives.

We owe it to our children and God to take good care of the planet—including its atmosphere. Whether the Glasgow Conference will advance that cause remains to be seen.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute, and the associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.

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