Climate Change and Setting the World on Fire

By Melissa Browning

It was Earth Day, 1988. I was in my fifth grade “Earth Science” class, a place where one might expect to talk about the importance of caring for the earth. But this was not what we were talking about that day. At least, we weren’t talking about it until one student asked our teacher about the hole in the ozone layer and whether or not she should stop using hairspray. Our science teacher replied by saying that hairspray wasn’t a problem because the end of the world was coming and the whole earth would be consumed by fire anyway.

While my science teacher did not speak for all people of faith, she also was not a lone voice in the crowd. Caring for the earth is not something Christian churches in the West have been particularly good at. We were late coming to the conversation and have been slow in mobilizing our efforts. This is ironic considering that the foundational stories of our faith, the first words in the book we call holy, commission us to be caretakers of every living thing. In a world where climate change is evidenced in super storms, wildfires, heat waves, droughts and floods, it is urgent that people of faith return to our first responsibility of being stewards of the world in which we live.

This past summer, when my family moved back to Chicago, I remembered my science teacher’s words about an earth on fire. As people who do not like the heat, we decided to leave Atlanta early in the summer so we could enjoy the relatively cooler temperatures we remembered from our previous years in the windy city. But the summer of 2012 was the hottest on record for the entire US, and the Midwest was the hardest hit. Crops were dying in the field due to extreme drought and heat. One crop biologist analyzing the situation said it was like “farming in hell.”

In the midst of those summer heat waves, we felt as if the world actually might be destroyed by fire. Perhaps that is why so many of us were eager for winter, for a good Chicago snow. But then there was another record – 290 days without any measurable snow. At one point in the winter, Dallas had more snow than Chicago. Perhaps another irony – in 2009, the Union of Concerned Scientists projected that unless significant action is taken to curb climate change, then the climate of Illinois would feel like East Texas by the end of the century.


Transforming the Earth

If climate change is going to end, an urgent transformation is needed. In this week’s lectionary texts, we’re reminded of the beauty of transformative places. That’s what Transfiguration Sunday symbolizes – a sacred space of connecting with God. In these texts, we find Moses meeting God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35), and see Jesus on the mountaintop with Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:28-36). These are sacred spaces. These are spaces where heaven meets earth; where creation is transformed through an encounter with the creator.

But sacred spaces are not reserved for prophets and patriarchs. The eschatological hope of creating a sacred space here on earth is extended to all. “Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness” (2 Corinthians 3:12). Second Corinthians reminds us that we’re not the people who sit at the bottom of the mountain and wait for the prophet to arrive. We’re not even like Moses who had to wear a veil (2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2). Instead, we have some transformation work of our own to do.


“We have this boldness”

This leads us to ask an important question. What might this hope that causes us to act with “great boldness” mean in light of climate change? Can we possibly re-create the earth as sacred? Is there still time to work toward the flourishing of the earth and all who inhabit it?


Faith in Action: Power and Light



The National Preach-In on Global Warming slated from February 8 – 10 aims to encourage people of faith to care for the earth for future generations. Interfaith Power & Light, which mobilizes a religious response to global warming, promotes energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy. Connecticut Interfaith Power and Light, one of its 39 state affiliates, offers a practical, real-world way for clergy and faith leaders to practice conservation. The group offers a class on how to make houses of worship — often older buildings with poor insulation — more energy efficient.


Back to my fifth grade science classroom. The hole in the ozone layer caused many of us to start caring. The first decision I ever made for the environment was to switch to non-aerosol hairspray. (If you saw my fifth grade portrait, you’d realize this was a big deal.) Because so many people saw the effects of environmental degradation, legislation was put in place to phase out CFC’s two years after the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer. While the effects of the damage are still being felt today, the hole in the ozone is finally beginning to recover.

Admittedly, climate change is a bigger problem. Even if we made drastic changes to our current carbon footprint, we would still feel the results of the damage we’ve done for decades, maybe even a century, into the future. The debt we’re leaving for future generations demands we regard climate change as an urgent problem to be addressed.

Back to the hope, back to the great boldness – remembering the slow but effective response to ozone depletion. What changes might we make two years after Hurricane Sandy or the record setting summer of 2012 that might turn the tide for generations to come?


Ashes, Fire, and Global Warming

As we move into the season of Lent, Ash Wednesday gives us a powerful reminder of transformative fire. When we wear ashes, we remember that our very bodies are connected to the earth, that after this short time we call life, our bodies will return to dust. Lent itself is a sacred space that opens up opportunity for great hope and great boldness. As we repent of our sins and shortcomings, we make room for transformation.

What would happen this Lenten season if we confessed the ways in which we’ve neglected to care for the earth? What would happen if instead of giving up the standard “dessert” for 40 days, we instead chose to reduce our carbon footprint? What might happen if we committed to 40 practices of caring for the earth, or even one new practice a week? What transformation might take place if we gave up driving, or bottled water, or non-local food, or food that is not sustainably farmed?

This weekend, Interfaith Power and Light is sponsoring a preach-in focused on Global Warming. This event is asking people of faith and places of worship to incorporate a focus on climate change into their weekend gatherings. Participants will be learning more about these issues and sending postcards to President Obama asking him to honor his pledge to do something about climate change. The preach-in is an adventure in great hope and great boldness as it affirms that if humans are responsible for creating the harm done to the environment, then they can also take responsibility in working toward its wholeness and healing.

More than 500 years ago, when Ignatius of Loyola would send a Jesuit out on a mission he would tell them to “Go forth and set the world on fire.” This is not the same fire my science teacher was waiting for. This is the fire that acts with great hope and great boldness. This is the fire that believes that change can come. This is the fire that works to bring transformation into being.


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