SANTA FE, N.M. — Not long after President Trump decided that the United States should withdraw from the Paris Agreement, Michigan Republican Rep. Tim Walberg told his constituents that if it turned into a “real” problem, God would “take care of” climate change.
Social media buzzed with dismay and alarm over the Michigan congressman’s attitude, since it runs counter to overwhelming scientific evidence concerning climate change.
Yet, if you live in a religiously conservative state, as I once did, Walberg’s statement would not be surprising. I was born and raised in a Mormon family in Utah, where the word “environmentalist” is still considered by many to be foul language. I’m no longer a practicing Mormon, but rather a convert to the wonder of the outdoors, thanks to the education I received while exploring Utah’s vast public lands. I did not need to lose my religion to become an environmentalist, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt.
Years ago, I asked my dad why he didn’t think climate change was a threat. He replied that the second coming of Jesus Christ would take care of any “problems.” In other words, he believed a wipe-down of our planet would ensue upon Christ’s arrival back on earth. I was alarmed. This seemed to me like a rather large bet to make. But my father added that because he “knew” Christ would come again, it wasn’t a gamble for him and he didn’t need to worry about the future.
But, as the public response to Walburg’s statement demonstrated, this idea is not very reassuring to the majority of the American people. The science behind global climate change is overwhelming. What if the supernatural cleanup orchestrated by God failed to occur? And what if it came too late to matter?
I believe there is a strong religious argument to be made that we all have a responsibility to protect our planet. Caring for creation is emphasized in many religious texts and, in particular, by the Bible. Pope Francis wrote an entire encyclical on the subject – “Laudato SI'”, subtitled “On Care for Our Common Home.” In the case of my family’s religion, in the Book of Mormon, as well as Doctrine and Covenants, God instructs his children to tread lightly upon the Earth, to be sure that we do not defile or pollute it, and to use the planet’s gifts sparingly and conscientiously.
All scripture is open to interpretation. But here’s my take: Imagine your mother asked you to clean your room and, not only that, to take good care of your things, including your stuffed animals, your Barbie dolls and your action figures. She told you to care for each one because she gave them to you and she loves them just like she loves you. (Yes, in my story, Mom loves your childhood toys.)
But you decide not to clean up your room. In fact, you dump a couple of cans of paint on the carpet and smear fecal matter all over the walls. You light a fire in the middle of the room, throw your toys and plush animals into it, and let the air fill with smoke – endangering the house and everyone in it. How do you think your mom will react? I remember numerous mentions in the Bible about a vengeful God who doesn’t take kindly to man’s willful disregard for his commandments. Epic flood, anyone?
Which brings me back to Rep. Tim Walberg, and his dismissal of science and the future of our planet. Walberg and others like him can decide that climate change doesn’t concern them and, if they’re correct, God will fix it all. But when? And after how many of the earth’s plant and wildlife species have disappeared, become displaced, or gone extinct by the effects of climate change? And by destroying our environment for the sake of continued fossil fuel extraction and use, what does that say about us humans as stewards of the land?
Creating harmony between religious beliefs and the conservation of our planet is really quite easy. Even for those who believe that our warming planet poses no real threat, advocating for clean air, water, and protecting Earth’s teeming diversity of plants and wildlife is still something everyone can get behind. Or mostly everyone.
Because I’m thinking that God would love to see his children taking care of their planet and not totally gutting the place.
Christine Colbert is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives and writes in Washington.