To “guard and keep” the environment | WORLD
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To “guard and keep” the environment

Stewardship is the key to creation debates

COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber speaks at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Dec. 4. Associated Press/Photo by Peter Dejong

To “guard and keep” the environment
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It’s that time of year again—when news stories are full of alarming warnings about climate change, as delegates from around the world gather for another annual “Conference of the Parties” to discuss the problem. This year’s gathering in Dubai, COP28, is far and away the largest to date, with over 97,000 attendees, nearly double last year’s record.

It comes at the end of a year in which global warming has made even more headlines than usual, as planetary temperatures galloped far ahead of previous highs. By the end of November, it was clear: 2023 would be the warmest year on record, with global temperatures averaging 1.46 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—a number ominously close to the maximum warming target of 1.5 degrees Celsius that the delegates in Dubai were working to meet.

Indeed, against such a backdrop, COP28 is liable to feel like little more than an exercise in futility, a political charade, an opportunity for the relevant parties to posture in public about their commitment to a greener future, but little more. The very scale of the gathering lends credence to such cynicism: Does the world really need 97,000 delegates (and the carbon footprint of their travels!) to hammer out a deal? The fact that a record 2,500 attendees are registered fossil fuel lobbyists, and that the conference is being chaired by the CEO of the UAE’s state oil company, Sultan Al Jaber, has heightened skepticism and generated a backlash from climate activists.

In a world still governed largely by democratic nation-states, such international conferences will always have a certain air of unreality, as even the highest-level negotiators rarely have the authority to make binding commitments. Consider one of the main headline “achievements” of COP28—a commitment from rich nations to help cover $420 million in “loss and damage” to poorer nations from climate impacts, which are likely to be disproportionately severe in the developing world.

The United States came under fire for its paltry $17.5 million commitment, but it’s worth noting that even that “commitment” is contingent on Congressional approval, which seems doubtful. Most nations are happy to send grandstanding delegates to COP summits to make urgent speeches, but much less willing to put their money where their mouth is. And indeed, when China accounts for a huge and ever-increasing share of global emissions, why bother?

Our sin really does cause the whole creation to groan, and the actions we take now can ease or increase that groaning.

No wonder then that for many Americans, especially on the right, climate worries are liable to be met with a shrug of the shoulders (the latest Pew survey showed just 37 percent of Americans rating it as a top political priority, down from 42 percent in 2022). The problem seems too abstract for most of us to wrap our heads around, and media attempts to make it concrete—by trying to narrate every heatwave, every wildfire, every hurricane as more proof of the perils of climate change—often backfire, coming off as shrill and repetitive. Besides, human beings are good at adapting, so even if our children inhabit a warmer planet, that’s not the end of the world, right?

That said, for Christians grappling with our responsibility to “guard and keep” the earth that God entrusted to Adam’s care, dramatic changes to the biosphere cannot be a matter of indifference. One recent study sought to evaluate Earth’s planetary health comprehensively across nine measures, of which CO2 emissions were only one. Much more serious was the challenge to genetic biodiversity, where the authors estimated that the current species extinction rate is now at least “tens to hundreds of times higher than the average rate … and is accelerating.”

This should be an area of passionate concern for Christians, who are called to protect and steward as much as possible every species that God created and called good. At least some of these extinctions are the result of our rapid introduction of synthetic chemicals, plastics, and other “novel entities” into the environment. Current estimates suggest that there are around 200 million tons of plastics in earth’s oceans, with 11 million tons more being added every year—and the 60 million plastic bottles Americans throw away every day aren’t helping.

These problems may seem too massive to solve, but recent history suggests otherwise. Encouragingly, the report noted that when it came to aerosols in the atmosphere and ozone levels, Earth was in surprisingly good health. Notably, these are two areas in which governments took strong actions in the later 20th century, with policies like the Clean Air Act dramatically reducing air pollution in America, and the internationally agreed Montreal Protocol driving a rapid improvement in the ozone layer. Similar policies and agreements might tackle deforestation or overfishing.

Faced with a never-ending barrage of climate headlines and political grandstanding, Christians are liable to throw up their hands in despair or else tune out entirely. But there can be no flight from the responsibility that God entrusted to us as his stewards and dominion-takers. Our sin really does cause the whole creation to groan, and the actions we take now can ease or increase that groaning. Finding the best solutions will not be easy, but hiding from the problems won’t make that any easier.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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