The 28th annual meeting of the United Nations Climate Change Conference—commonly called COP28—is winding down in Dubai. I’ve been here with the Christian Climate Observers Program (CCOP), which brings 30 emerging leaders from around the world to bear witness to conference events. COP28 includes both intense climate action negotiations with officials from 200 countries and something like a world’s fair, with pavilions from almost every country as well as many different interest groups.
One group that is noticeably underrepresented is the American church. There’s a faith pavilion here for the first time, and I’ve seen presentations from Muslims, Jews, and many Christians from other parts of the world. But aside from Americans involved via CCOP, I’ve not seen anyone representing Christians in the US.
Perhaps that’s not surprising. Christians are less likely than other Americans to think climate change is a serious problem, and evangelicals have the least concern about the environment of any American religious group. With fellow climate skeptics, they’re apt to argue that there are “bigger problems in the world,” and anyway, “God is in control of the climate.”
Those rationales for inaction may sound realistic, practical, even biblical. But they miss deeper scriptural themes of love, justice, and the responsibility for creation that God has shared with humanity on this side of eternity—and the next.
It’s true that many people have more immediate problems than climate change, but once you grasp the scale of the risk here, it’s hard to imagine a more significant threat to so many people’s way of life and livelihood, and even to life itself.
Not for nothing does the Department of Defense recognize climate change as a threat multiplier, which amplifies the potential danger to US national security from wars, immigration, and natural disasters. And when you hear directly from people whom climate change is affecting now, the seriousness of the problem is palpable.
I attended a session at COP28 at which the representative from Tuvalu was given the floor. He spoke passionately about his small island nation in the South Pacific where the highest elevation is just two meters above sea level. Families have already had to relocate away from the shore because of sea level rise, and storm surges now flood their fields and wells with salt water, rendering them unusable.
Tuvalu’s representative was dismayed over the lack of meaningful progress at COP28 to cut greenhouse gas emissions. “How can I go home from this meeting and tell them our country’s future has not been secured, and the world doesn’t seem to care?” he pleaded with the assembly.
Our CCOP group met with Rev. James Bhagwan, the general secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches. He too testified to the imminent catastrophe for the 15 million people of these island nations, 90 percent of whom are Christians. They wonder why fellow Christians in America seem so unwilling to hear their cries, he reported. “Are we not your neighbor?” he asked, referring to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). “Are our lives worth less than your comfort?”
If appeals to faith or justice don’t motivate us, Bhagwan added, maybe we would consider a more pragmatic angle: “I’m not just fighting for Pacific Islanders; I’m fighting for you too. It’s going to happen to us first, but it will happen to you eventually, and by then it will be too late to do anything about it.”
A common response to such pleas is that second rationale given by people who don’t think climate change is a serious concern: God is in control, they say, so it doesn’t really matter what we do. I asked Bhagwan how he’d respond to that view. “They need some rainbow theology,” he answered with a little laugh. “Our islands are being destroyed by water, but after Noah’s flood, God put a rainbow in the sky and promised never again to destroy the earth with water. So it must not be God’s doing now. It is us!”
I would point the American church beyond Genesis to Revelation: We need a better eschatology. Too many Christians believe that because this world is our temporary home, it doesn’t matter what we do to it. We can extract and consume the earth’s resources and treat it as a landfill, they think (or act and vote as if they think), because it will be replaced by heaven for eternity.
I believe there’s a better and more biblical way of looking at God’s intent for our world—at what it means for him to be in control and the role he wants us to play in his plan of redemption. The earth as we know it is not our ultimate home, but neither is it unconnected to our ultimate home. Theologian N. T. Wright reminds us that the New Testament does not say the earth gets trashed and we’re all whisked away to some immaterial heaven. We are resurrection people. And resurrection is not a second creation ex nihilo; it is a transformation of what now exists.
Jesus’ earthly body didn’t stay in the tomb or simply disappear. It was transformed into a resurrected body that wasn’t limited by the same natural laws. But, crucially, his resurrected body still bore the scars of how his earthly body was treated (John 20:24–29).
The heavens and the earth will be transformed and renewed at the consummation of God’s kingdom (Rev. 21:1). This redeemed creation will last for eternity, not subject to decay like our current universe. But will it too bear the scars of how we have treated it? Does our behavior now place parameters on what the renewed earth can be? In this Advent season we might also ask whether God is waiting to fully inaugurate the kingdom (2 Pet. 3:9) in part because we haven’t yet learned to care for his creation.
Our climate problems are complex, and I offer no simple solutions. But there is a path toward caring: Start by learning about and praying for those on the frontlines of climate impacts (maybe join Climate Intercessors). Then take action to reduce your own carbon footprint and suggest your church take steps in this direction too. And consider getting involved with organizations like CCOP, the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), BioLogos (where I work), and A Rocha, all of which take both Christian faith and climate science seriously.
What we do here and now matters for eternity, and not just for our souls. Bodies matter, land matters, water matters. Bhagwan suggested we could learn something about this from the Pacific Islands’ indigenous culture, which recognizes that humans “are part of creation” and rely on the land and sea to flourish.
We Christians—of all people—should understand this aspect of our dependence on God. We should take an active interest in the present flourishing and eternal future of the planet and its people. In the American church, we have been apathetic about God’s world, and it is time for us to care.
Jim Stump is vice president for programs at BioLogos, host of the podcast Language of God, and author of the forthcoming book The Sacred Chain: How Understanding Evolution Leads to Deeper Faith (HarperOne, spring 2024).