Last month, the United Nations released a sobering report about the state of the earth’s oceans. The 1,200-page document, issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), reported warming water temperatures and sharp declines in fish populations and warned that ocean levels could rise up to three feet by the end of the century.
That’s in stark contrast to early history as accounted in the Bible, pointed out Bob Sluka, the lead scientist of A Rocha’s Marine and Coastal Conservation Program. “Genesis 1 talks about the oceans teeming with life in abundance,” he said. “The only place these days to really see that is in marine protected areas.”
The report is a first for oceans and a wake-up call, said Kyle Van Houtan, chief scientist at the internationally-acclaimed Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. “What this report says, at the highest level, is that the ocean has been buffering the impacts of climate change for decades, and that buffering has a limit,” Van Houtan said. “Even though it has an immense ability to absorb and buffer heat and carbon from us, our industries, and our activities, it cannot do that indefinitely.”
Van Houtan, who studied theology at Duke Divinity School while getting his doctorate in ecology, first felt called to help steward creation because of his grandfather, a farmer whose faith exemplified a love for Christ and for creation. “There was a deep reverence for his role as a steward of the land and the animals.”
In contrast, since the Industrial Revolution, human activity has directly contributed to the devastation of ocean health. Van Houtan said the long-term effects of the ocean’s lessened capacity could be devastating. “The ocean has been our friend for the longest time, and it’s going to seem less and less like a friend because of what climate change is doing in the ocean.”
Even if all carbon emissions miraculously ceased tomorrow, according to Van Houtan, we would still feel the effects in our oceans and climate for hundreds or even thousands of years. “This is an existential threat to human and non-human communities all over the globe.”
Yet, Van Houtan said that God calls us to faithfulness and to address climate change and ocean health, even when our task seems overwhelming. The scale and scope of climate change does not change God’s promise to care for his people, nor does it lessen what he requires of us. Christ taught us to trust in God for our daily needs (Luke 11:1-4) but also to faithfully tend to everything we are given (Matt. 25:14-30).
“It’s also important for Christians to understand the long game and do something that we’re called to do because it’s good, independent of the results and effectiveness that we may observe ourselves,” he said.
Though it’s good leadership to want quantifiable results, Christians are called to prepare for future generations, Van Houtan said, adding that “many people laboring in human history did not see the fruits of their labors.” For instance, Moses led the Israelites through the wilderness (Deut. 35:51-52) but never got to enter the Promised Land himself.
Acting faithfully independent of our seeing results will require us to think bigger than our personal contribution—and our personal well-being. “It’s always difficult for us to scale from personal activity to the sort of grand narrative arc of how this is affecting the planet, to move from the local to the universal,” Van Houtan said. “It’s always a challenge for people, and Christians in particular.”
Yet engaging locally is exactly what one ministry in coastal Mexico is doing, believing that seeing God’s love in the grandeur of creation in their own backyard will connect people to something bigger and inspire action. Reconciliamar, led by director Steve Dresselhaus, is a ministry that takes local residents out kayaking and scuba diving in the waters near La Paz, Mexico.
As local residents feel a deeper connection to their local environment, Reconciliamar hopes it also open doors to conversations about faith. For Dresselhaus and his wife, Lois, who serve as missionaries in La Paz, creation care has long been part of their ministry.
Dresselhaus said environmental stewardship was rarely mentioned in his childhood church. “I grew up in the conservative evangelical world,” he said. “The emphasis was pretty exclusively limited to personal salvation, personal piety.” But when Dresselhaus and his wife ventured to the Venezuelan mission field shortly after getting married, they discovered care for the environment was in itself a ministry. “I started realizing how horrific environmental issues were in Caracas, where we lived,” Dresselhaus said. He and his wife gave environmental protection presentations in shopping centers and “wherever people would hear us.”
Eventually, their ministry came to include Reconciliamar, though they met some resistance to include creation care along the way. “After one meeting,” he said, “one person came up to me and said, ‘What does this have to do with the gospel?’” Dresselhaus has used the Lord’s Prayer to help Christians understand the connection between creation care and the gospel. “God has always used the creation to care for his people,” he said. “When we say, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ we are really praying that the creation will continue to provide for us as it always has.”
This is especially important as coastal regions face climate-related flooding and sea level rise. “A significant number of the world's poor are in coastal fishing villages, and the poorest of the poor tend to be fishermen,” said Sluka.
As Sluka points out, in order for creation to continue providing for us, God requires us to act with wisdom; climate change isn’t the only human-caused challenge facing ocean health. Overfishing and microplastic pollution are also endangering marine ecosystems. “People have this idea that the ocean is an inexhaustible resource,” Sluka said. “But that's not true. A huge number of fish stocks in the world are completely overfished.”
Dresselhaus said that Christians have a responsibility to face environmental threats with courage. “Historically,” he said, “God has always used people to do his work … We believe in Colossians 1, the reconciliation of all things,” he said.
Dresselhaus said that Reconciliamar has helped transform residents’ attitudes toward their local ecosystems, empowering them to help care for creation. “It’s remarkable. We’ll be paddling in our kayaks and people, without me mentioning it, will pick up a piece of plastic they see floating in the water.” He sees this as a natural extension of embracing faith. “Once people are transformed in Christ, they want to obey the laws,” he said, “and they want to take care of the environment for the sake of other people.”
La Paz is a prime example of what can happen to an ailing ecosystem when its residents prioritize stewarding creation together. Several decades ago, chronic overfishing had driven local fish populations to the brink of extinction. Thanks to increased environmental advocacy in La Paz, and the creation of marine protected areas, much of the local ecosystem is now thriving. “Thirty years ago, there wasn’t much coral here, and now the bottom of the ocean is covered with acre after acre of coral,” Dresselhaus said. Many species of fish, including whale sharks and manta rays, have spiked in population after increased advocacy led to local legal protection.
Despite these successes, many local marine species’ populations have yet to rebound, and like all marine areas, La Paz also faces the threat of rising sea levels and warming water temperatures due to climate change, which could further endanger marine life and displace coastal residents. The rehabilitation of La Paz is not over yet.
Even if the work ahead seems daunting, caring for the environment can be deeply rewarding for scientists and citizen scientists alike. “If you can get someone to realize that there’s a problem, that there’s this wrinkle in the justice of our universe and that they can contribute to straightening it out,” Van Houtan said, “that is an amazing change. Once people have that experience, they want it more, that meaning and that purpose.”
Van Houtan also cited Colossians 1 as a source of hope for the oceans and planet alike. “It says in Jesus all things were made and in him all things hold together,” he said. “All things, everything from gravity and photosynthesis to the currents and deep circulation of the ocean.”
Though God calls us to be faithful and to do everything we can to care for the planet, Van Houtan said, our ultimate source of hope is in Christ: “God has a lot more at stake in this than we do.”
Elyse Durham is a writer in Detroit.