May 23, 2011
Stephen Bede Scharper
If you are reading this in the comfort of your home, or the familiar bustle of a local coffee shop, chances are the world didn’t come to an end over the weekend as predicted by Family Radio and other apocalypse-prone Christians.
If you are reading this in Slave Lake, Alta., however, amid the charred detritus of dozens of homes and the melted storefronts of the downtown — the catastrophic calling cards of wildfires that, as of this writing, are still raging out West — you realize that, for some in this rural community, part of the world has ended.
As Len MacCharles, deputy fire chief with the Calgary Fire Department, remarked at a recent news conference, “In all the years I’ve been doing this job, I haven’t seen anything with this kind of speed and devastation.”
And the culprit is not The Second Coming, but quite possibly, Business as Usual.
Graham Thompson, writing in the Edmonton Journal, observes that climate scientists are beginning to discern an emerging pattern between human-engendered climate change and the increasing frequency and scope of forest fires in Canada and around the world.
Danny Harvey, for example, a climate expert with the University of Toronto’s Department of Geography, reporting on his research and that of other scientists, notes that in both Canada and Alaska, the area of forest burned per decade “increased by a factor of four from the 1960s to the 1990s,” while the number of large fires (over 400 hectares) in the lower 48 U.S. states increased “by more than a factor of six annually after the 1980s.” He also reports “a dramatic increase” in recent years in the frequency and severity of fires in Russia.
Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences has documented similar patterns. In a co-authored 2004 study, Weaver and his colleagues show that the area consumed by forest fires in Canada has grown over the past four decades, just as summer temperatures have warmed. They argue that human-produced greenhouse gas emissions have had a “detectable influence” on the increasing swaths of forest areas ravaged by fire.
Put crudely, the larger the SUVs, the bigger the forest fires.
While some on the fundamentalist side of the Christian spectrum see such conflagrations and “go apocalyptic,” interpreting them as signs of the end of the world, many mainline Christians looking at the same events wax reflective, pondering their own institutions’ role in climate change, and soberly discerning how they can constructively respond. While the former talk of “Rapture,” the latter now talk of responsibility.
Such “responsible talk” was heard earlier this month at Trinity College in Toronto, where leaders of three major Christian denominations spoke about the need for their faith communities to take climate change seriously.
Under the banner, “Environment and Climate in Peril: How People of Faith Will Care and Advocate for Creation,” Rev. Dr. Herb Gale, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Canada, The Most Rev. Colin Johnson, Anglican Archbishop of Toronto, and United Church Moderator Mardi Tindal all spoke of the need for Christian voices to acknowledge, rather than attack, climate science and respond faithfully and practically to its myriad challenges.
To that end, the event also featured the launch of the Anglican Foundation’s “Faith & Protecting the Environment Fund,” designed to support environmental projects of education, “creation care” and environmental engagement.
Tindal, who attended the 2009 UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen and has been a compelling religious voice around climate change, noted that we are “ethically obliged” to take responsibility for our human-created climate crisis. For her, ecological issues are not simply scientific, but also “fundamentally moral, ethical and theological concerns.”
Winston Churchill, a seemingly lone voice of alarm in Great Britain during Hitler’s rise, wrote on the eve of World War II: “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences . . ..”
As the Alberta fires intimate, and these climate scientists and faith leaders attest, we are, in terms of climate change, entering “a period of consequences.” If we fail to take serious action, more than our forests may go up in flames; we may experience a self-inflicted Armageddon.
Stephen Scharper, a Senior Fellow of Massey College, teaches religion and ecology at the University of Toronto.