“The natural world is a gift from God, but we are also called to join with God in sustaining and caring for it.” John Sentamu, The Archbishop of York.

Today is Earth Day so I thought I’d post this video to mark the occasion.  It’s a Veritas lecture given by Ecology Professor Kyle Van Houtan entitled: Is God Green? – Jesus, the Church, and Caring for the Earth.

Here is a neat little animation that illustrates the time history of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) from 800,000 years ago until January, 2011.

The animation begins with the CO2 variability (based on direct measurements from key observation sites) from January 1979 until January 2011.  There are several patterns that are worth noting, firstly the relentless upward trend of the globally averaged carbon dioxide concentration beginning in January 1979 at 336 ppm (parts per million) and ending with a concentration of 391 ppm, the average in January 2011.  Strong inter-annual variability are also evident, particularly in the northern hemisphere – we are essentially seeing the Earth’s breathing pattern!  Fluctuations follow the growing season, peaking in spring with widespread plant greening and minimizing in autumn when biomass is greatest.  During the growing season photosynthesizing plants suck up CO2 whereas during the colder part of the year respiration dominates – plants and animals exhale CO2.  As shown on the graph these fluctuations are far greater in the northern hemisphere than the southern hemisphere (where land area and vegetation cover is much smaller in comparison).

To go back further in time from the preindustrial era to 800,000 years ago requires the careful analyse of ancient air trapped in ice-cores drilled from Greenland and Antarctica.  (Blog posts on detecting past climate information from ice-cores can be read here and here).  Long timescale variability reveals cycles of ~41000 years and ~100000 years, which mark the intervals of glaciations.

Finally, the data clearly shows that current concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide are at levels not seen in the last 800 thousand years (and actually most likely not even the past 20 million years).  This rapid rise of atmospheric CO2 to such heightened levels is worrying for our planet and those who (will) live on it.

Operation Noah (a UK-based organisation) has released an Ash Wednesday Declaration on Climate Change and the Church.  I’ve signed it so I thought I would share it with you and perhaps you may see fit to sign it as well.


This post is motivated, in part, by a short interview with Eugene Peterson and Peter Harris (co-founder of A Rocha) in Christianity Today, where they discuss “creation care”.  The full interview can be read here.  At one point Peter Harris draws attention to the prophecy in Hosea 4, in particular verse 3:

“Therefore the land will mourn,

and all its inhabitants will perish.

The wild animals, the birds of the sky,

and even the fish in the sea will perish.” (NET Bible)

Here’s what Peter Harris says:

“That’s a prophecy three millennia before we have the words for a marine crisis. Who would have thought that the fish of the sea would die? Until modern times, the fish of the sea seemed like an inexhaustible resource.”

I’d like to back that up with some of the most recent scientific reporting on extinctions.  Firstly mass extinctions can be characterized as times when the Earth loses more than three-quarters of its species in a geologically short interval.  Palaeontologists have classified 5 of these mass extinctions over the past ~540 million year.  However, data on current extinction rates suggests that the world is being propelled into a sixth mass extinction [1].

In regards to the the fish in the sea … the International Programme on the State of the Ocean is just releasing a report [2] (also BBC article here) which warns in no uncertain terms that if our current trajectory of damage continues “the world’s ocean is at high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history.


[1] Anthony D. Barnosky, Nicholas Matzke, Susumu Tomiya, Guinevere O. U. Wogan, Brian Swartz, Tiago B. Quental, Charles Marshall, Jenny L. McGuire, Emily L. Lindsey, Kaitlin C. Maguire, et al. Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived? Nature, 471, 51-57 (2 March 2011) DOI: 10.1038/nature09678

[2] Rogers, A.D. & Laffoley, D.d’A. 2011. International Earth system expert workshop on ocean stresses and impacts. Summary report. IPSO Oxford, 18 pp.

As I’ve been reading through the book of Job I have been noting how the book is ladened with a deep appreciation of nature (see part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4).  At the climax of the poem/debate – God’s speech from the whirlwind, we encounter a full tour-de-force of creation.  In fact chapters 38-41 have been referred to as ‘the first great piece of modern nature writing’ (Bill McKibben).  God’s speech – really a series of rhetorical questions for Job, presumably designed to put Job (and us) in his (our) place!?, progresses from Cosmogony (38:4-11):

”     …                                                                                                                   Who hedged the sea with double doors,                                                                                        when it gushed forth from the womb.                            when I made cloud its clothing,                                                                                                     and thick mist its swaddling bands?                                      …     “

to Meteorology (38:22-38):

”       …                                                                                                                  Does the rain have a father,                                                                                                      or who begot the drops of dew?                                             From whose belly did the ice come forth,                                                                                  to the frost of the heavens who gave birth?                                    …     “

to Zoology (38:39-39:40):

”     …                                                                                                                         Do you know the mountain goats’ birth time,                                                                 do you mark the calving of the gazelles?                                           Do you number the months till they come to term                                                         and know their birthing time?                                                            …    “

and even to mythological zoology (40:15-41:26):

”    …                                                                                                                         Could you draw Leviathan with a hook,                                                                                 and with a cord press down his tongue?                                     Could you put a lead line in his nose,                                                                                    and with a fishhook piece his cheek?                                               …    ”

(Translations from Robert Alter)

The full grandeur of this astonishing outburst from God can not be fully appreciated from the limited quotes provided above, so I would encourage people to read the whole section (NET Bible).  There is so much to comment on here perhaps I’ll have time in a future post to say more.

We are the first generation facing the evidence of global change. It therefore falls upon us to change our relationship with the planet, in order to tip the scales towards a sustainable world for future generations. 

The 3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability
– Transforming the World in an Era of Global Change, was held May 16-19, 2011 in Stockholm, Sweden.  This was a small (~50) gathering of some of the world’s most renowned thinkers and experts on global sustainability and included numerous nobel laureates from many disciplines.  They have produced a memorandum, shown here being signed by Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen.

The Stockholm memorandum can be downloaded here, but here is a sample:

The Earth system is complex. There are many aspects that we do not yet understand. However, we are the first generation with the insight of the new global risks facing humanity. We face the evidence that our progress as the dominant species has come at a very high price.

Unsustainable patterns of production, consumption, and population growth are challenging the resilience of the planet to support human activity. At the same time, inequalities between and within societies remain high, leaving behind billions with unmet basic human needs and disproportionate vulnerability to global environmental change.

This situation concerns us deeply. As members of the Symposium we call upon all leaders of the 21st century to exercise a collective responsibility of planetary stewardship. This means laying the foundation for a sustainable and equitable global civilization in which the entire Earth community is secure and prosperous.

Science makes clear that we are transgressing planetary boundaries that have kept civilization safe for the past 10,000 years. Evidence is growing that human pressures are starting to overwhelm the Earth’s buffering capacity.

Humans are now the most significant driver of global change, propelling the planet into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. We can no longer exclude the possibility that our collective actions will trigger tipping points, risking abrupt and irreversible consequences for human communities and ecological systems.

We cannot continue on our current path. The time for procrastination is over. We cannot afford the luxury of denial. We must respond rationally, equipped with scientific evidence.

Our predicament can only be redressed by reconnecting human development and global sustainability, moving away from the false dichotomy that places them in opposition.

In an interconnected and constrained world, in which we have a symbiotic relationship with the planet, environmental sustainability is a precondition for poverty eradication, economic development, and social justice.

Our call is for fundamental transformation and innovation in all spheres and at all scales in order to stop and reverse global environmental change and move toward fair and lasting prosperity for present and future generations.

A working group commissioned by The Pontifical Academy of Sciences [website & wikipedia entry] “to contemplate the observed retreat of the mountain glaciers, its causes and consequences” has released a report entitled Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene.  The groups consensus statement is a warming to all humanity and a call for fast action.  This is their declaration:

“We call on all people and nations to recognise the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and by changes in forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other land uses. We appeal to all nations to develop and implement, without delay, effective and fair policies to reduce the causes and impacts of climate change on communities and ecosystems, including mountain glaciers and their watersheds, aware that we all live in the same home. By acting now, in the spirit of common but differentiated responsibility, we accept our duty to one another and to the stewardship of a planet blessed with the gift of life.

We are committed to ensuring that all inhabitants of this planet receive their daily bread, fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink as we are aware that, if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us. The believers among us ask God to grant us this wish. “

A pdf of the complete statement can be accessed here.  The authors recommend pursuit of three measures:

  • immediate reduction of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions,
  • reduction of concentrations of warming air pollutants such as soot, ozone, methane and hydroflurocarbons by up to 50 percent, and
  • preparation to adapt to climate changes that society will not be able to mitigate.

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