Sunday 28 October 2007

Christians and Climate Change

In Australia our national government has been criticized because it has been slow to accept that climate change is a major issue in the 21st century and to accept that humans have had a significant impact on global warming. Critics of the federal government have pointed to a lack of attention to renewable energy research and development and the failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change as evidence of this inactivity. Political commentators have suggested that this is one of several key policy areas that are hurting the government's chances of re-election in the upcoming elections on the 26th November. To be fair to the government, they have not been alone in being too slow to understand that governments can and indeed must act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (although only the USA and Australia have failed to sign the Kyoto Protocol). But before judging the government, we need first to examine our own response.

Putting to one side the fact that climate change is just one issue that Christians might consider when they go to the polls, it is an issue worthy of our careful and informed attention. As Christians prepare to vote in the coming election they have an opportunity to consider this issue amongst others in casting their votes. There seem to be two key questions that are worth considering: What do the experts say about climate change? What should be the Christian response to this?

The answer to the first question seems to have become more clear-cut in the past year. While there continues to be a small number of scientists who doubt that climate changes being observed are inconsistent with broad long term climatic patterns, this is a rapidly shrinking group. The Al Gore documentary has popularised much of the recent evidence. If you're one of the few people not to view it you can see a trailer using the following link - "An Inconvenient Truth" trailer.

The US Environmental Protection Agency site suggests:

"If greenhouse gases continue to increase, climate models predict that the average temperature at the Earth's surface could increase from 3.2 to 7.2ºF above 1990 levels by the end of this century. Scientists are certain that human activities are changing the composition of the atmosphere, and that increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases will change the planet's climate. But they are not sure by how much it will change, at what rate it will change, or what the exact effects will be."

Scientists have observed that some changes are already occurring. Observed effects include sea level rise, shrinking glaciers, changes in the range and distribution of plants and animals, trees blooming earlier, lengthening of growing seasons, ice on rivers and lakes freezing later and breaking up earlier, and thawing of permafrost.

But the impact of climate change will be seen in many subtle ways. The Live Science website recently outlined "Ten surprising results of global warming", suggesting there will be many unexpected impacts such as break down in significant archaeological sites, increased problems with asthma and other illnesses and diseases, unexpected animal migration, changing vegetation patterns, unpredictable fire patterns and so on.

For those who want more detailed scientific information the best place to go is the final report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that was handed down this year. This report (The physical science basis of climate change) is seen as the definitive synthesis of the world's leading scientists view son Climate Change.

The answer to the second question is much more complex. In a social issues briefing on climate change Andrew Cameron and Lisa Watts (Social Issues Executive, Anglican Diocese of Sydney) suggest that the responses of a number of US evangelical Christian organizations to Climate Change fall into two major categories:

* those who see climate change as anthropogenic (caused by human activity) and believe that governments need action to halt it;
* and those who believe that climate change is natural and hence governments should concentrate their attention on protecting economies.

Jenny Beers in a Case #11 article titled "Can Christians Agree on Global Climate Change?" provides a more extensive discussion of these issues. Beers, Cameron and Watts all point out that there are major evangelical Christian organizations that fall into both groups. The social issues briefing points out that these organizations invariably use the Bible to support their stance. The anthropogenic advocates use Genesis 2 to support their view that God has given us responsibility to work the earth and care for it, while the natural climate change group tends to place more emphasis on Genesis 1:28 and see the words "subdue" and "rule" as supporting man's shaping of earth to their ends and purposes. Advocates of the first position place more emphasis on tackling climate change in order to reverse the effects and preserve the earth, whereas those supporting the second place more emphasis on coping with climate change so that economies and people are not inconvenienced by it.

However, there is no simple dichotomy of views, there are many different positions. What hasn't been discussed as much by Christians is the differential nature of the impacts of climate change. It is unlikely that climate change will affect all nations or even individuals the same. It is likely that:

* some nations will suffer more from rising sea levels (some island nations will disappear completely);
* some economies will experience greater negative impacts than others;
* some regions of the world will benefit from climate change as rainfall increases in once arid areas, while others will sea agricultural production plummet;
* technology rich nations will be better placed to cope, but the control of global climate is well beyond single nations;
* some people will be affected more due to pre-existing health conditions - the old and the young will perhaps be at greatest risk;
* some will face greater hardship due to increased energy costs, water costs, food production costs and so on;
* some developing economies will not be as well placed to cope with climate change;
* some nations will experience a greater loss of biodiversity than others;
* some nations will have to spend more to cope with the impact of climate change.

There are issues of justice here not just environmental impacts. Jenny Beers asks in her Case article whether climate change is in fact a moral issue. Likewise, Andrew Cameron and Lisa Watts suggest that climate change is a moral issue worthy of our concern. As Christians we should be at the forefront of people who argue not just for solutions to the problems of climate change but just solutions.

What can we do? As well as engaging in discussion of the issues and encouraging political parties to address climate change there are many practical things that every person can do each day. The US EPA site has some useful suggestions for practical action that individuals can take. These include replacing incandescent globes with energy efficient globes, recycling waste, insulating our homes, checking the energy rating of any new appliance, adopt 'green' habits in our yards (e.g. composting), using water efficiently and so on. Groups or churches might find Case #11, that adopted climate change as its theme, to be a useful resource for small group discussion.

Saturday 20 October 2007

Truth and the internet

In a recent post on "Writing, communication, technology and relationships" I commented on the limitations of the Internet (as well as its strengths) and cited the problem of not knowing whether content on websites is sound or indeed truthful. I suggested that the accuracy of any communication is largely untested and unreviewed, that individuals are able to misrepresent themselves more easily to unsuspecting audiences and that anyone can self-publish giving a misplaced sense of their own expertise and knowledge.

My argument has been given support by the "Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus". When researchers asked 25 seventh-grade students (judged to be high-performing as online readers), to check out a website with details about the rare octopus, they all thought the tree octopus was real.

As the local School Superintendent in Middletown (New York) commented, "Knowing truth from fiction on the Internet is a huge problem. Students might be good researchers, but they tend not to scrutinize the information."

I've had my concerns further reinforced in recent days by belatedly realizing that it's difficult to control the content of web-based resources like Wikipedia. When someone recently changed the description of New College to include some not so generous (and inaccurate) comments about our residents, I was led to contemplate how this happens, what you can do about it, and how you stop it from happening again? The answers were: a) anyone can change anything on Wikipedia; b) there isn't much I can do about it but there are processes used to restore content when it has been grossly misrepresented and I can always change it back; c) and, that there isn't much protection against such attacks. Now all the true believers in the Internet will say that this is its great strength. It is so open to all and hence difficult to control, allowing people to search out truth rather than having to be limited to newspapers, television and even books which are more easily controlled by powerful people, organizations or governments. There is some truth in this viewpoint and evidence that the written word can be used to coerce and manipulate. But there are also great dangers in not understanding the limitations of the internet. For there is such a thing as truth and also fiction. Wikipedia at best is founded on the belief that there are various versions of the truth (see Wiki's entry for the Bible), and at worst is influenced by the extreme relativist view that there is no such thing as truth, just individual and group constructions of meaning. Relativism has many forms but broadly teaches that we can only know things in terms of our historical and/or cultural experience and context. In its most extreme form the claim is made that there is no such thing as truth. For a non-Christian discussion of Relativism explore this link.

While the internet can be useful for communicating truth, readers need to be able to assess information to judge if it is true. As Howard Rheingold points out in a recent newspaper column, "the responsibility for determining the accuracy of texts shifted from the publisher to the reader when the functions of libraries shifted to search engines". Children and adults need to ask themselves more questions of the content they encounter. Who wrote this piece? What is the author's claim to expertise and knowledge in this area? From where does the writer derive his or her sources and how well regarded are such sources? What is the purpose of the writing? What are the underlying assumptions, ideology, values and world view of the writer? How do the claims of this text match the claims of others?

There has never been a time (in my view) when we needed to give greater consideration to the authority of the texts we read and the things we see, for even images can no longer be trusted with the visual effects technology available. That's why Christians place so much importance on the reading of God's word and place so much trust in its accuracy. Its reliability has been tested over centuries. In spite of endless attempts to discredit it and cast doubts on its accuracy, it has been shown to be reliable. While the Bible has many internal references that speak of it as the word of God (2 Tim 3:16, 17; 2 Peter 1: 20, 21; 1 Cor 14:37; 1 Thessalonians 2:13) and God's truth (2 Timothy 2:15b), some might also want to explore historical evidence that also supports the authenticity of this book. There are many sources including web based freeware on sites like (e.g. a basic introduction has been written by Michael Cleghorn) and Paul Barnett's very readable look at the historical evidence for the New Testament - Is the New Testament History?.

The Apostle Peter wrote in his 1st century letter recorded for us in the New Testament of the Bible (quoting from an even older text in the Old Testament, Isaiah 40:6-8), that while many generations of men and women have been born and in turn have died over the centuries, God's word to us has endured and can be trusted:

For, "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever" (1 Peter 1:24-25a).

As we use the Internet increasingly as a resource for many varied purposes, all users (adults and children) need to learn to test that which is communicated. For the Christian, the ultimate test will be whether the wisdom of the web is supported by the Word of God that we know can be trusted.

Friday 12 October 2007

The love of money and paths to destruction

The Bible has many warnings about greed, avarice and the love of money. Probably the best known of the passages is Paul's word to Timothy that "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils..." (1 Tim 6:10a). Paul's words just before this verse help to make sense of what he is saying to young Timothy: "Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content" (1 Tim 6:6-8). Timothy was to be content with what was necessary and beware of the temptation to want more than is needed.

Renee Rivkin's story is a tragic testimony to what can happen when wealth creation and all its trappings dominate one's life. A successful entrepreneur, multi-millionaire, investor and stock broker, he was convicted and gaoled for insider trading in April 2003 and ultimately took his own life on the 1st May 2005. Born in China to Russian-Jewish parents, he had been seen as the model self-made man. And yet his life ended in sadness and tragedy.

The auction of some of Rivkin's personal possessions this week provides a sad insight into a life where money and the things it can buy were seemingly in over abundance. His 37 specially made Swiss dress watches being auctioned are expected to bring prices of up to $20,000 each. Like the 3,000 pairs of shoes of Imelda Marcos, (the former first lady of the Philippines and wife of 10th President and dictator Ferdinand Marcos), such excesses provide a lesson to guard against the temptation to want more than we need.

But I don't want to judge Rivkin, for while his wealth allowed him to spend large sums of money on watches that I could never afford, I need to look for parallels in my own life. In what parts of my life do I demonstrate the tendency to horde and collect more than I need? How can I avoid the temptation to give too prominent a place to money, and to avoid the excesses that can flow from it? Once again, the Bible has wisdom on this that should give direction to my life. Jesus shared this parable (Luke 12:16-21):

"The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?' And he said, 'I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God."

We need to avoid the temptation to build 'bigger barns' or to collect up things for ourselves well beyond our current needs. The Bible teaches that this is to one of the marks of the child of God. The preacher in Ecclesiastes understood this well:

"He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity" (Eccliastes 5:10).

The Bible also teaches that we are to be generous with what God has given us. Paul also encouraged Timothy to be generous with God had given him (1 Tim 6:17-19). It isn't having money and possessions that is wrong. Rather, it is the place they hold in our lives, our attitude to them and what we do with what has been entrusted to us. It is only in relationship to God that we find ultimate satisfaction, not the things of this world. When Jesus spoke to a Samaritan women as she drew water from a well (John 4:13-14) he said:

"Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."

Sunday 7 October 2007


Censorship is a topic that polarizes people. Most Christians believe in censorship, certainly for children, and also as part of their own self discipline. We try to avoid books and films (in fact anything) that we judge will make it harder to be "imitators of God" (Eph 5:1). Hence, over the years Christians have played their part in arguing for censorship of specific books, films, art, stage productions etc. Some have suggested that censorship was invented by Christians, but this is an overstatement. Censorship is an important topic and so Christians need to think about where they stand on such matters - for personal reasons, as parents (and teachers of any kind), and for apologetic reasons. The latter has many dimensions; people 'read' the way Christians challenge ideas, the way we pro-actively argue our position, the reasons we give in defense or attack and the manner in which we engage with public issues.

Parents and teachers will frequently face situations where they need to decide if a book is appropriate for their children. One of the most recent debates has concerned the book "The higher power of lucky" by Susan Patron (Simon & Schuster), with many parents and librarians wanting it banned. In a recent video interview the author provided an overview of the book and her reasons for writing it. In spite of some opposition, the book won the coveted Newbery Medal that is awarded each year to the book judged to be the best work of fiction for children in the USA.

The book tells the story of a 10 year old girl in Hard Pan (California) a town of just 43 people. She aspires one day to be a scientist and her curiosity leads her to eavesdrop on a group of people meeting in the local museum who share their life stories of addictions that were turned around with the help of a Higher Power. On the very first page Patron writes:

“Sammy told of the day when he had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked ’62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.”

While this is an unusual opening for a book written for 9-11 year old readers, would it lead you to stop your children reading it? I don't think it would lead me to remove the book from my child's reading list. But in reflecting on this, I wondered what things would lead me to consider censorship

What issues should lead me to challenge the appropriateness of specific titles on school reading lists? Or to suggest that my child should not read something? It is interesting to consider the American Library Association's list of the 100 most challenged books (1990-2000) for adults and children. This list contains some child and adolescent books that I certainly wouldn't challenge as a Christian if the books were read by the right age group. For example, "Bridge to Terabithia" and "The Great Gilly Hopkins" (both by Katherine Patterson). There are some that I would stop specific age groups reading (e.g. Judy Blume's "Forever"). What are the things that would excite me into action? And on what basis would I do it?

As a Christian I did censor some of the books that my children could have read. But as a parent of young children I always had more problems deciding about films, magazines and television programs. I'm sure parents today would add the Internet and electronic games to my list.

As well as dealing with such matters within the family, we will (at times) feel the need to enter public debate. The way we present ourselves to the world on such matters, is even more difficult. How do we take such stands, and on what authority do we do it (hopefully the Bible is the foundation informing our wisdom). When Christians enter public debate about censorship, our worldview is displayed and judgements are made about Christians and Christianity (rightly and wrongly).

Once again, should I be concerned about the use of the word "scrotum" on the first page of a book meant for upper primary children? I don't think so, I'd take it as an opportunity to teach some basic anatomy - well vocabulary, because at age 11 the terms 'penis' and 'vagina' would have been understood and discussed before. But I would get excited as a parent of young children when blasphemy was evident (e.g. in music video clips), when I saw immoral behaviour presented as acceptable, when texts sought to present as normal that which the Bible taught was not normal or was wrong, and when there was evidence of exploitation (e.g. the way women were portrayed).

This is a complex topic on which there are many views inside and outside the church, I'd be interested to know what others think about the various issues I have raised and how they have dealt with them at a personal level as well as in roles where you have had responsibility for children.