Properly defined, climate is the average condition of the weather over a period of many years. One complication in answering the question of whether climate change is happening is the existence of regional oscillations. These are climatic changes that swing back and forth over a period of many years. The most famous is the El Nino-Southern Oscillation. When warm oceanic water replaces the cold surface water off the western coast of South America, weather is affected as far away as the United States. When the warm water stays to the west (La Nina) we have a different climate. For example, the American West and Plains experience drier weather).
If we look farther back into the past, we see the coolness of the Little Ice Age (from the 14th to the mid-19th century) and the warmth of Medieval Warm Period (from the 10th to the 14th century). Farther back we can see more extreme changes. So our climate is naturally dynamic – constantly changing. It is driven by variability in solar radiation and volcanism. What is unusual about climate change today is that it is mainly the result of human activity and that it is changing far more quickly than in the past.
What's Causing It?
One cause is urbanization. Another cause, often mentioned in the media, is an increase in the atmosphere of gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane. Called greenhouse gases, they have a remarkable ability to absorb heat. This ability keeps the earth from losing heat, the effect of the glass in a greenhouse. Thus, increasing the amount of greenhouse gases, through burning fossil fuels or by deforestation, makes the earth warmer. Carbon dioxide has increased in the earth’s atmosphere about 36 percent since the beginning of the industrial revolution, with most of the increase coming since 1945. Meanwhile, the earth’s climate warmed about 0.6 oC. Computer modeling suggests that the temperature will increase another 1.4 oC to 5.8 oC based on our current trends.
What's All the Fuss About?
Climatic warming is expected to be greater in the northern continental regions. For the last few years there have been record low levels of ice in the Arctic. Less ice is good in that it will lead to commercial traffic using the Arctic Ocean. However, for Arctic seals, the loss of ice will reduce the availability of areas for feeding and breeding. For the polar bear, reduced ice will reduce their opportunity for hunting seals. Lowered seal populations will result in lower populations of polar bears. Are we ready to say good-bye to polar bears?
Another challenge is finding out how much climate change will affect us as individuals. Although increased global temperature will increase heat-related illnesses and deaths, this is not a major concern for North Americans. On the other hand, worldwide, glaciers are decreasing in volume. Glaciers constitute large freshwater resources that will be missed by those living near them. In Canada, Where I live, for example, water and sewage treatment systems were designed to operate within current levels of precipitation, ambient temperature, snow cover, snow melt, and water levels. Climate change will change pathogen entry and behavior in our water systems which, in turn, has the potential to make our water less safe.
Climatic warming is expected to increase extreme weather -- more tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods in various parts of the world. This means more work for Adventist Development and Relief Agency and other relief organizations, especially since the impacts fall disproportionately on the poor. There are 110 million people in Bangladesh living in floodplain areas. Since 1900 the increase in sea level appears to be 2 or 3 millimeters per year. This, plus increased rainfall and extreme wind, will increase flood magnitude and frequency not only in Bangladesh but in many parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Increased flooding will create refugees. Meeting their needs will show Christianity in action as well creating opportunities to tell them about Christianity. However, meeting needs will require preparation by governments and training of individuals. Improving warning systems and evacuation procedures (as well as stockpiling food and other necessities) takes time and expertise. Individuals will need training to be able to help.
Globally, we could see the spread of infectious diseases. This will increase the need for disease surveillance and public health education. Floods increase risk of disease from water-borne pathogens, insect-borne infections, and snakebite. Children in flooded conditions are especially at high risk and suffer from respiratory infections, skin allergies and gastro-intestinal illnesses. But floods are not the only concern. In certain countries the timing of epidemics correlates with climatic oscillations.
Where climate change reduces crop yield, due to less rainfall, there will be increased malnutrition and starvation. The spread of deserts is due, in part, to climate change. In parts of Africa there has been a decades-long reduction in rainfall.
In North America, climate change will affect different areas differently. Drought stress will make it harder for spruce and aspen to grow. Furthermore, drought will increase forest fires and insect infestation. These three factors will have an impact on our forest industry. Higher temperatures and increased evaporation in the prairies will increase the frequency of drought conditions for farmers. Increased sea level will threaten low-lying areas of both Atlantic and Pacific coastal areas during increasingly frequent storms. In the Arctic, the gradual melting of permafrost will destabilize land. Those buildings and pipelines built on permafrost will need reengineering. Meanwhile, we will see the water levels of the Great Lakes decreased up to a meter and the flow of the St. Lawrence River reduced by 20 percent. Not only will shipping be affected, but also the hydropower industry.
Why Should We Care?
The challenge to Seventh-day Adventists is to allow themselves to be inspired and awed by God’s creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their works to the ends of the world (Psalm 19: 1-4a).” Nature is to be listened to. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made … (Romans 1:20).” God’s invisible qualities are connected to nature. Abusing God’s creation, whether it is polar bears or glaciers, is inappropriate.
So how can Seventh-day Adventists be part of the solution? There are many areas that could be addressed:
Reduce the use of automobiles: Walk (or ride a bicycle) when you can. Use public transportation or car pool when possible (a challenge in a spread-out country). When purchasing vehicles, buy energy-efficient models.
Turn off electric lights when they are not in use. Lower the thermostat at night. You'll save money as well as lowering fossil fuel consumption.
When buying appliances, energy efficiency should be a key criterion. When building new homes, we can build them so that they require less air conditioning or heating.
Planting shade trees or using more solar radiation will save money and reduce energy use.
Recycling and using new technologies help reduce emissions and conserve resources as well as reducing energy use.
Nations like the United States and Canada consume disproportionate amounts of the earth’s resources. Smaller families in these countries would reduce the negative effect of humans on nature. More importantly is a change in morality. Stewardship includes a reduced level of materialism and consumerism. If we really practiced stewardship in relation to nature, then I won’t have to keep on walking farther and farther to the Athabasca Glacier.