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Climate Scientists: Our Modern Day Prophets?

Climate scientists are the “modern day prophets” of the Christian faith, according to mainline church leaders at an environmental conference held early April.

Three weeks before Earth Day, United Methodists gathered at Lake Junaluska to listen as speakers expounded the dangers of projected climate change, and the U.S.’s role in its acceleration. But more than that, conference speakers encouraged participants to find their spiritual center in environmental activism.

Rev. Sally Bingham speaks to the crowd at Lake Junaluska.

Rev. Sally Bingham speaks to the crowd at Lake Junaluska.

“This is a chance to redefine the human purpose: Why did God put us here in the first place, and what is our purpose?” asked Rev. Sally Bingham, an environmentalist at the Episcopal Diocese of California and director of Interfaith Power and Light. “Might we consider coming together with the purpose of healing the earth, so that we and the next generations may live in good health and safety?  Might that be our shared purpose?”

Bingham’s address hinged on what she considers to be “overwhelming” evidence of human-driven climate change and environmental destruction, set in motion by activities such as coal mining, deep sea oil-drilling and use of nuclear power. In each case she cited recent catastrophes such as last year’s Gulf Coast oil spill and the recent Japanese nuclear power plant radiation leak. Coal strip mining in particular she condemned as a “sin against creation and an insult to God.”

Bingham was especially critical of what she sees as a lack of American leadership on climate-related policy initiatives. 

International agreements arranged to reduce industrialized countries’ greenhouse gas emissions ,“at least as far as the United States is concerned… have been a failure,” said Bingham, although the U.S. has volunteered, along with other developed nations, to cut its emissions by 17 percent in the coming decade. She expressed some hope in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord’s promise to eventually provide developing countries with billions in funding to help reduce their own carbon emissions.

Bingham gushed over China and India as examples of countries that are surpassing the United States in enacting climate-related initiatives. “The world is looking to the United States for leadership, but we are quickly falling behind,” she warned. “China is making major strides in developing a low-carbon economy, and has become already the world’s leader in clean, green technology.” It was not mentioned that China still retains its position as the world’s largest emitter of global emissions and according to many estimates looks to remain so as its population and economy continues to grow exponentially.

Skeptics and Deniers

Bingham has frequently billed her advocacy as non-partisan, while often couching environmental language in religious, rather than political, terms by relating humanity’s relationship with creation as a mirror image of its relationship to God. In a 2003 Earth Sunday sermon in San Francisco, she appealed to Earth’s life-giving powers on the same level as God’s: “Life is religious and one’s spiritual life is dependent upon a relationship with the Creator and the Creation,” she said. “Without them we have no life.” 

“If you don’t want to be called an environmentalist because it sounds liberal, democratic and political then call it something else,” she said in the same San Franciscan address. “Call it stewardship of Creation, call it concern for the legacy we leave for future generations, call it being ‘mindful of your behavior’.”

In both sermons, Bingham urged religious communities to incorporate environmentalism into their “working theology”: the “place where we center (ourselves) on God.” Among other suggestions, Bingham advocated the development of liturgies with environmental overtones to “change both [the] hearts and minds” of congregants.

In her address to the Episcopal Urban Caucus in 2008, Bingham went further in her personification of the Earth as a life-giving being by reciting a prayer, attributed to the Native American Ute tribe, which begins each line with the mantra “Earth, teach me.”

But politics were not far beneath the surface.  Bingham couldn’t help dividing those involved in the climate debate into “believers” and “deniers” – deniers invariably being either surreptitiously paid advocates of the fossil fuel industry or reactionary Republicans rigidly adhering to party lines.

“This is what we’re up against: they [lawmakers] have rejected climate science, calling global warming a hoax – and stood behind a well-funded misinformation campaign that is paid for by the oil, coal, and gas industry,” she alleged.

“I think that these legislators are committing crime against humanity,” she declared.

Bingham expressed frustration with voters in largely “very red” states, who she says are being controlled by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and “politicians who are heavily funded by the oil and gas industry.”  She continued, berating what she called “skeptics and deniers” and “many evangelicals… [and] Bible literalists who are somewhat afraid of science.”

Bingham juxtaposed “deniers” with those who faithfully embrace the reality of climate change, imbuing proponents with near-prophetic authority. 

“I’ve sat down at the table with a great many climate scientists and I believe that they are our modern day prophets,” she said. Bingham was quick to single out climate scientists for that honor rather than “biologists or physicists.”

“We’ll vote for politicians who will represent and work for the best interest of our country, over and above politics and party lines,” she said, without specifying her choices. “For people of faith, this challenge is probably our greatest one. It’s a moral challenge that will decide our relationship with God, and with each other, and the natural world.”

But there is hope, she said, expressed in the faith that “the human race is evolving – that our collective consciousness is evolving, and that we are, and we will continue to, develop a shared purpose and a common goal: that people all over the world will come to a Great Awakening.” Acknowledging the truth of humanity’s shared purpose will accelerate our “path to regeneration” – but above all, she concluded, hope for humanity comes from people of faith who “believe in the power of the human spirit.”

Read the entire article on the Institute for Religion and Democracy website (new window will open).

Published: April 23, 2011

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