By John Elwood
The global Christian church is by far the world’s largest religious family. Among its various denominations, it accounts for more than 31 percent of the earth’s population – almost one out of every three people in the world.
For the casual observer, it’s hard to know exactly what the global church thinks about the topic of climate change. Here in the US, some Christian activists stand with he late-great Rev. John Stott, who warned that “of all the global threats that face our planet, climate change is the most serious.” But others go with Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, claiming that global warming is “the greatest hoax” ever sold to mankind. Still others see the effect of climate change, but believe it to be a sign of the “end times.”
When you have 2.1 billion people in your church – and tens of thousands of denominations – it’s not so easy figuring out the “official position,” is it? But it’s not impossible either. And that’s because within global Christianity, there are major segments whose adherents follow and respect specific authorities and governing bodies. Here’s a brief tally:
Roman Catholic Church: The largest entity in global Christianity is the Catholic Church, representing 1.2 billion adherents, or 53% of global Christianity. And just this month, Catholic Bishops from around the world assembled to issue a call to “overcome the climate challenge and to set us on new sustainable pathways.”
Their spokesman, Monsignor Salvador Piñeiro García-Calderón, president of the Peruvian Bishops’ Conference, said: “We bishops from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe have engaged in intense dialogue on the issue of climate change, because we can see it’s the poorest people who are impacted the most, despite the fact they’ve contributed the least to causing it.”
The U.S. Bishops, it turns out, are in full agreement, having issued many calls to address climate pollution. “At its core, global climate change is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures,” they wrote in 2001. “It is about the future of God’s creation and the one human family.”
Earlier this year, Pope Francis asked his fellow Catholics to acknowledge the truth of climate change and to protect the planet: “… if we destroy Creation,” he said, “Creation will destroy us!” Next summer, the Pope plans to release an encyclical specifically addressing climate change. But until he does, let’s stick with the Bishops, and put the first 53% of the global church in the climate-change-believer column.
Orthodox Church: And for simplicity, let’s turn next to the Eastern Orthodox Church. At 210 million adherents, they’re a somewhat-smaller 9.3% of global Christianity. But the Orthodox Church also has a linear authority structure, so it’s comparatively simple to know where they stand. And where they stand is no secret. Patriarch Bartholomew, sometimes called the “Green Patriarch,” has frequently spoken about climate change:
“In our efforts to contain global warming, we are ultimately admitting just how prepared we are to sacrifice some of our selfish and greedy lifestyles. When will we learn to say: ‘Enough!’ When will we understand how important it is to leave as light a footprint as possible on this planet for the sake of future generations?”
Protestants: So that’s the low-hanging fruit: Catholics and Orthodox constituting 62% of world Christianity, on record as serious about climate change as a matter of faith. But the rest is a little more fragmented. For example, 750 million people identify themselves as Protestants, but there are thousands of denominations. Fortunately, most have affiliated themselves with ecumenical bodies that speak out on vital issues of the day. For Protestants, there are some prominent ones: The Lausanne Movement on World Evangelism, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), the World Council of Churches (WCC), and the Anglican Communion. Together, they cover the bases for most Protestants: evangelicals, charismatics and mainline church members. So where do these bodies stand?
- Lausanne Cape Town: Representing evangelicals from more than 200 countries, more than 4,000 Lausanne conferees met in Cape Town, South Africa in 2010 to adopt this statement: “We lament over the widespread abuse and destruction of the earth’s resources, including its biodiversity. Probably the most serious and urgent challenge faced by the physical world now is the threat of climate change.”
- Lausanne Jamaica: The Cape Town declaration called for subsequent meetings to further develop evangelical action plans. In 2012, a global creation-care working group met in Jamaica to affirm this statement: “Many of the world’s poorest people … are being devastated by violence against the environment in many ways, of which global climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, water stress and pollution are but a part. We can no longer afford complacency and endless debate.”
- World Evangelical Alliance: Claiming to represent 600 million evangelical Christians from 129 nations, the WEA co-sponsored the 2012 Jamaica conference with the Lausanne Movement, and contributed to its declaration, summarized above.
- World Council of Churches: The mainline-Protestant WCC is deeply engaged in matters related to climate change, and has issued the following statement, among many others: “Human-induced climate change is being precipitated primarily by the high-consumption lifestyles of the richer industrialized nations and wealthy elites throughout the world, while the consequences will be experienced disproportionately by impoverished nations, low-lying island states, and future generations. Climate change is thus a matter of international and inter-generational justice.”
- Anglican Communion: 85 million people in 165 countries identify themselves as Anglican or Episcopalian. The Archbishop of Canterbury has been unequivocal about the threat of global warming. Among many statements on the topic, in 2009 he said: “We all have to do more to face the challenges of climate change. Faith communities have a crucial role to play…. We must do our bit and encourage others to do theirs. Together we can and we will make a difference”.
No doubt, there are Protestant churches which are not affiliated with any of these entities. But they represent a small fraction of the 750 million Protestant believers around the world. So for all intents and purposes, we can add most of another 33% – the world’s Protestants – to the movement of Christians whose churches affirm the need to address climate change as a matter relevant to their faith. And that brings us to the range of 90-95%.
And what about the churches that have gone on record denying the importance of climate action? Well, we’ve looked and looked. And while we’ve found scattered instances of climate deniers who cite faith as a basis for their disbelief, none (so far) actually represent any Christian churches or denominations.
In your church, you might have thought that climate change was a controversial topic, something to avoid so as to steer clear of a nasty spat. But unless we’ve made some unlikely math errors, the overwhelming majority of your brothers and sisters – or perhaps all of them – belong to movements on record as committed to climate stewardship as a core matter of faith.
And that’s good news! Now, you don’t have to be a “crazy prophet” to speak out about caring for God’s creation in a world beset by drought, flood, famine and extinction.