In the last six months, four record-breaking storm systems have trashed whole cities and rural areas in the Philippines, Sardinia, Illinois and England. The greatest loss of life by far was in the Philippines, as residents there had no basements or storm-secure buildings in which to escape the devastating tidal surge provoked by the strongest storm system ever recorded by satellite.
These storms, while individually they are considered “100 year plus” events, are part of a growing trend toward increasingly frequent extreme weather events across the Northern and Southern hemispheres. The growing frequency of extreme weather events is seen by most climate scientists as indicative of the significant changes to the earth’s climate system consequent upon the higher land temperatures, warming oceans and increased atmospheric water vapour, which are markers of humanly generated greenhouse gas emissions.
Extreme weather events are also a tragic reminder of the unequal impacts of the warming oceans and increased atmospheric water vapour associated with industrially induced climate change. But in all four cases, journalists and political pundits played it safe and resisted linking the storms with human influence, and even natural scientists demonstrated their reluctance to blame any single storm on increasing human influence on the weather.
This reluctance marks a defining difference between modern and pre-modern societies. In the Bible and in European cultures until the Enlightenment, it was normal to read the hand of God in the weather – and especially in climatic shifts indicated by droughts, floods, or a succession of natural catastrophes. This way of reading natural events is a central feature of the Hebrew prophets’ reading of history, and its influence endured long into the Christian era.
So when, after King Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon and broke with Rome, it rained for months, the sun failed to shine, and crops in England drowned in the fields, the people saw in the weather divine opposition to Henry Tudor. Henry Tudor set in motion events leading to the development of a centralized nation state system which was unique in the world at the time. The subsequent fossil-fuelled industrial revolution saw England rise to become the greatest empire since Rome, and, together with her colonies and ex-colonies, England was also pivotal in setting the stage for a radically new relationship between humanity and the earth.
Today, the nations that have followed the pattern of nation state formation and industrial development pioneered by the British Empire are discovering that this new order is radically altering the balance between humans and other species. So influential have humans now become in the biosphere that they are even changing the relationship between the earth and the sun, by increasing the quantities of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.
Broadly, Christians tend to respond to the changing weather patterns in two ways. Some argue that they are signs of an apocalyptic end to the present age said to be foretold in the Book of Revelation, and that the proper Christian response should be an increased effort to evangelize the nations before the end. Others find in these events indications that an increasingly post-Christian civilization has taken a drastic wrong turn in asserting too much power over creation and neglecting the divine call made by God to humanity – as bearers of the divine image – to tend and care for creation, enhancing rather than destroying its fertility.
In my latest book, A Political Theology of Climate Change, I show how the growing asymmetry between humanity and creation today is rooted in the divide between nature and culture associated with the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. I argue that the development of modern nations is the fruit of the Hebrew and Christian reading of history under God, but that the core feature of Christian rule – messianic servant leadership – has been neglected in contemporary political culture. Hence modern nations ignore the reality that their borders necessarily involve limits on their powers, and that their core duty to their citizens is to share the fruits of creation equitably within their geographic limits.
Climate change reveals that the earth does indeed set limits on human political and technological power – divine boundaries indicated by the messianic rule of Christ over human and earth history after the Resurrection – and that these limits function even when the nations wilfully choose to overlook them.
When viewed through this perspective, extreme weather events – especially those that show a direct correlation to climate change – function as an apocalyptic revealing of the Christian understanding of history. Christians, therefore, should respond to these troubling “signs of the times” with a messianic spirit, humbly acknowledging that we are exceeding the limits of God’s creation in our fossil-fuelled development and seeking ways in our churches and lifestyles, and in our political and economic witness, to redirect human development towards a more balanced and caring relationship with Creation.
Absent a radical civilizational shift, earth herself will ultimately call time on our present arrogant ways. The scale of human suffering involved then, however, will dwarf that of previous civilizational collapses because of the globe-encompassing nature of the modern economy. It is this potential for the grave destruction of human life in the growing frequency of extreme weather events that is the reason above all others for Christians – and all people of good will – to press the nations to recognize God-given natural limits to human influence on earth’s ecosystems.
Michael Northcott is Professor of Ethics at the University of Edinburgh. His most recent book is A Political Theology of Climate Change.