A sermon preached at Niles Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Fremont, on Sunday, February 13, 2011, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Copyright © 2011 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I don’t typically talk much about science in my sermons.  I find no tension between science and religion. It’s just that I’m a pastor and a teacher, not a scientist, and I don’t like talking about things that I don’t understand.  So, when Interfaith Power and Light encouraged faith communities across the country to participate in a preach-in on global warming this weekend, I paused.  In order to really talk about the moral consequences of global warming and climate change – climate chaos, as I recently heard it called[1] – I have to talk about science.  Luckily the basics of the science of global warming and climate change are not all that difficult to understand.  So I’m going to state today’s sermon talking about history and science.  I’ll get to the God stuff, I promise, in a little bit.

The oldest civilizations started after the last ice age, after the beginning of the Holocene Epoch, about 11,000 years ago.[2]  The dawning of agriculture enabled the creation of cities, and the dawning of agriculture was possible because there were global climate changes that caused the end of the last ice age.  Civilizations have been built on the water resources and agriculture that is possible to harvest because of the current climates around the world were warm enough that the glaciers receded out of the valley and still cool enough that the glaciers stayed in the mountains to feed the rivers on which the agriculture and cities depended.[3]

Then, a couple hundred years ago, our civilization started the industrial revolution and the unfettered burning of massive amounts of fossil fuels, carbon from previous geological Epochs that had been sequestered underground as coal and oil and gas.  As we have burned these fuels, we have released this carbon into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) (and some carbon monoxide).

Let me emphasize this again:  The civilizations that have come into being since the beginning of the Holocene Epoch have been able to come into being because of the stable climates that have allowed water and agricultural resources to be harvested.

That is the history.  Now comes the science.

There are lots molecules that we humans are releasing into the atmosphere that are of concern in the science of global warming and climate change, for instance methane.  Carbon dioxide (CO2), however, stays in the atmosphere much longer than most of the molecules that are of major concern (like methane), so its impact is longer lasting.  So, I’m going to talk about CO2, but most of what I’m going to say about CO2 can be said about these other gases.

Since the dawn of civilization, the atmosphere has contained right around 275 parts per million (275ppm) of CO2.[4]  This number has been on the rise since the dawn of the industrial revolution, since the unfettered burning of fossil fuels began.  Millions of year’s worth of carbon, stored beneath the earth as fossil fuels, have been released and are being released into the atmosphere.  Right now the level of CO2 stands right around 390ppm.[5]

The problem with the rise of CO2 (and the other gases that I’m not talking about specifically) is that increased levels of them act like the glass enclosure of a green house, or the windshield in your car.  Park your car in the sun and the temperature inside rises because the sun’s energy warms the air inside and that heat can’t escape.  Park the earth in the sun with increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, and the sun’s energy gets trapped.  The atmosphere and the oceans get warmer.  It not an exact analogy, but it’s good enough for a sermon.

Between the time of Jesus and the dawn of the industrial revolution, the average temperature around the globe was pretty steady, as best as scientist can reconstruct it.  But for the past 200 years, the average temperature around the globe has been on the rise.  And what is it called when the average temperature around the globe goes up?  Global warming.

So things on average are warmer around the globe.  What difference does that make?  Well, as I noted in my letter to the editor published in last Friday’s The Argus,[6] “Warmer air holds more moisture.  When this warmer, wetter air hits cold air, the moisture comes out as snow.  A warmer atmosphere is more energetic and this energy displays itself as severe weather (the snowstorms in the U.S. and the cyclones in Australia, for example).  The weather is doing exactly what the scientists have been warning us would happen.”

It’s okay to get more rain than usual – from time to time.  But when the amount of rain you get is consistently more than normal, “normal” has changed.  And when “normal” changes enough, the climate has changed.  And because civilization is build on the climates we’ve known since civilization has started, if the climates change, civilization as we’ve know it will have to change, too.

Civilization is based on climates that are based on an atmosphere with around 275ppm of CO2.  We’re now at around 390ppm of CO2.  Where, you may ask, is the red line?  How high can CO2 levels go and only cause weather havoc, but not cause climate change?  Two years ago, NASA scientists looked at the science – the chemistry and the physics – and said the red line is 350ppm.[7]  We crossed that line 23 years ago.[8]  And unchecked, our atmosphere will hold nearly 1000ppm of CO2 by century’s end.[9]

Friends, the bad news for today is that, even if we drastically reduce CO2 emissions, climates are going to change.  Climates are changing.  The question is, How severe will the change be and what will the consequences of that change be?

I don’t know the answer to this question.  Part of the reason is that we still have a chance to curtail CO2emissions and work to actually reduce the levels of CO2, thus hopefully minimizing how drastic the climate changes are.

And it’s worth doing because real danger of climate change boils down to this:  water and food.  As warmer air makes our dry habitats drier, deserts will expand.  Some regions that, with their old climate, got enough water each year not to be deserts, will become deserts.  I think about the dry-land farms in eastern Washington and wonder how much longer they will be able to produce wheat from their rich soils.  As warmer air dumps the greater moisture it holds, regions that used to experience catastrophic floods every one hundred or five hundred years will start experiencing catastrophic floods as the norm.  Mountain glaciers that provided year-round drinking and irrigation water to the plains and valleys below, will shrink and eventually disappear.  How will farmers grow food?  What will people drink?

When a region either has too little or too much water, the people will have to move.  If water shortages get severe enough, they will fight wars over it.

When a region can no longer produce food for people to eat, they will move.  And if food shortages get severe enough, they will fight wars over it.

Climate change will cause starvation.  Climate change will cause mass migrations of people across international borders.  And climate change will almost certainly cause war.  Starvation, mass exoduses, war – these are moral issues.  (See, I told you I’d get to the God stuff.)

The book of Deuteronomy is presented as Moses’ farewell address to the Hebrew people.[10]  He has led them through the wilderness and brought them to the edge of the promised land and, just before he dies, he invites them to remember what God has done for them, how God has lead them from slavery to freedom and made them a people of the covenant.

Moses reminds the Hebrews that there are decisions to be made about the way they conduct their lives. Much of the book is an iteration of the commandments, the rules that will be required of them in order to follow the covenant, the rules that will lead to life as they enter and live in the promised land.  And in today’s reading, we hear the culmination of the teaching of the writer of Deuteronomy.  It is a stark, clear choice.  It is a choice between life and death.

“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”

For Moses and the Hebrews, renewing the covenant meant following God’s commandments so that they and their descendants might dwell in this promised land.  Today, for us, renewing our covenant with God means making choices so that all people might continue to dwell, and eat, and drink.

There are choices that we must each make, individually, to affirm life, to choose life.  Someone once defined “stewardship” as “everything you do after you say, ‘I believe.’”  Everything we do, as children of God and disciples of the Christ is an act of stewardship.  How we set our thermostats and what we eat for breakfast has repercussions for people who live in Bangladesh.  Whether we choose to drive or to take public transportation or to walk makes a difference to people in Samoa.

But the truth is that our individual choices alone are not enough.  We cannot recycle our way out of global climate change.  The individual choices we make – between life and death, blessing and curse – will not be enough to truly make a choice for life.  We need to make a society-wide choice for life and a global choice for life.

This will not be easy to accomplish.  42 percent of our neighbors do not believe that global warming and climate change is a serious problem.[11]  An author for The Economist website posits[12] five reasons why so many in America reject the science:

  • Psychological:  The consequences of climate change are too awful to contemplate, so they don’t.  They are in denial.
  • Economic:  Our economy is based on fossil fuel consumption and to change that would jeopardize the economy.
  • Political:  We’ve taken what is in reality a scientific [and I’d add moral] issue and made it into a politicalissue, and in an age of political polarization, our side (which ever it is) doesn’t want to lose.
  • Epistemological:  All we know is what scientists say, and scientists are sometimes wrong.  Right?  So we might as well doubt and do nothing.
  • Metaphysical:  [And I’ve actually heard a version of this one from a member of U.S. House of Representative.[13]]  God isn’t going to let millions of people die by allowing climates to change.

We need to wake our neighbors up from their denial.  We need to let them know that our economy survived a change away from a slave-based economy and it can survive a change away from a fossil fuel-based economy.[14]  We need to remind them that the laws of physics don’t care about politics.  We need to remind them that the scientists are in consensus about this.  And we need to remember that God lets millions of people die at human hands in wars, so there’s no reason to expect God to stop climate changes caused by humans.

Finally, I believe we need to embrace a New American Dream, one based on essentials and the things that really matter – like relationship and community.[15]  We need to pressure the politicians to reject politics (at least on this issue) and embrace the science and ACT!  You’ll have an opportunity to act during coffee hour. But the postcards you sign during coffee hour will not be enough.  This is the most important moral issue of our day.  It’s an issue of mass immigration, starvation, and war.

The events in Egypt these past few weeks give me hope however,  people in Egypt claiming their freedom (does that remind you of our scripture?) have given us a reminder of what a “real people’s movement – a massive, broad-based, honest movement that doesn’t focus on elites, but instead on the whole population – can”[16] do.  Hosni Mubarak trembled and ran away because the people rose.  “People don’t rise up often, but when they do their power is very real.”[17]  It is time for the people to rise up and demand real action on the part of our governments to reduce the impact of global climate change.

Today, I set before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.


1.  It was a comment made by a caller on the radio program Forum on KQED-FM, sometime in the past couple weeks.  I don’t remember which program or which date, but the comment stuck with me.
2.  Much more extensive discussions of this are available online.  For instance, you might want to check out “Geologic Time Scale” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geologic_timescale and “Holocene” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocene.
3.  Bill McKibben, Eaarth, (New York: Times Books, Henry Holt and Co, 2010), 1.
4.  “350 Science,” 350.orghttp://www.350.org/en/about/science (12 February 2011).
5.  Earth’s CO2 Home Pagehttp://co2now.org/ (12 February 2011).
6.  Jeffrey Spencer, “Global Warming,” The Argus, 11 February 2011, http://www.insidebayarea.com/argus/letterstotheeditor/ci_17353035 (12 February 2011).
7.  James Hansen, et al., Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? http://arxiv.org/abs/0804.1126, submitted April 7, 2008.  NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s paper about the 350ppm target.
8.  Earth’s CO2 Home Pagehttp://co2now.org/ (12 February 2011).
9.  Bill McKibben, “Disobedience,” The Christian Century, 11 January 2011, p 10.
10. This exegesis is enhanced by the work of the Rev. Steve Copley, “Notes for Methodist Faith Leaders,” Interfaith Power and Light, http://interfaithpowerandlight.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Preach-In-RCL-Methodist.pdf (9 January 2011).
11. “E.G.” “Why can’t Americans believe in global warming?” The Economist, http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2011/02/climate_change (12 February 2011).
12. Ibid.
13. Representative John Shimkus (R-IL).  See “God won’t allow global warming, congressman seeking to head Energy Committee says,”The Raw Storyhttp://www.rawstory.com/rs/2010/11/11/god-global-warming-congressman-energy/ (13 February 2011).
14. The argument went, our economy is based on slavery and, even though slavery is immoral, we can’t jeopardize the economy by ending it.  This idea was shared with me by a church member, John Hollowell, in an email to me dated 9 February 2011:  “I heard a great analogy about our country’s reluctance to get off fossil fuels from someone on the radio.  His observation was that the United States is making the same arguments for fossil fuels that were made for preservation of slavery in the 19th century.  i.e., sure we know that it is wrong, but our whole economy is based on fossil fuels (slavery) and we cannot survive without it.  Obviously we did survive.”
15.  There is an important website promoting a New American Dream:  http://www.newdream.org/.
16. Bill McKibben, “Inspired by the Egyptians,” Huffington Posthttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-mckibben/inspired-by-the-egyptians_b_822026.html (11 February 2011).
17. Ibid.