by Anthony Siegrist

Some time ago, I found myself sitting in front of a very crowded room. I was part of a panel discussing Christian responses to climate science. Earlier in the discussion, a fellow panelist had told the group that he didn’t believe human activity was causing climate change; therefore, he saw no need for any particular Christian response. The third panelist and I had disagreed with his take. The room was divided—and emotionally charged. The moderators did their best to tamp down the shouting and wring questions for us out of long statements from the floor. We were just about out of time when someone asked a question that I thought was really provocative: “Given the fact that Canada’s CO2 emissions don’t make up a very large percentage of the global total, what would be the point in making any costly changes?”  

The questioner was right. Though Canada ranks among the top ten global CO2 emitters, it is nowhere close to the US or China. Canada’s per-person emissions are quite high, but the national total amounts to less than 2% of the global output (here’s one helpful chart). Canada is a big country with a cold climate and an economy tied tightly to resource extraction, so it isn’t surprising that our per-person emissions are high. Yet the question stands: Why make sacrificial changes to address a relatively small contribution to a huge global problem?

This question is important because it is essentially an enlarged version of one all of us face constantly: Why should any of us put effort into living a more earth-friendly life when our personal contribution to the problem is miniscule and our ability to make a difference is near zero? This is especially challenging when the resources we might put into reducing our CO2 output could be used for other good causes. 

Showing what is possible

My initial response to the question was to say that one thing an economy the size of Canada’s can do is to demonstrate that making environmental progress doesn’t have to come at the expense of good jobs and overall economic productivity. Smaller plots are good places to demonstrate what’s possible. This is true of local communities and even our own lives. Experimenting with ways of lowering our environmental impact–while increasing the joy we find in being where and who we are–is significant.

That was more-or-less my public response to the question. As often happens, though, it was on the way home that I thought of a couple of other things I wished I had said. For instance, I wish I had said that in much of life we don’t excuse someone for causing some harm even if others are causing more harm. The point isn’t to be absolutely pure or to ask nothing of the plants and animals to which we are connected. Being a part of an ecosystem means that we both consume and create. Rather, the point is to get our own house in order as much as is possible before we start handing out indictments to others. 

National and personal character

The other thing I wish I had said relates to character: our national and personal character. I’ve been convinced by the writing of Steven Bouma-Prediger that we need to bring the concept of virtue into our discourse on care for the earth. What sort of people do we need to be in order to live compatibly with the earth and its other creatures? This is not just a question about energy and the carbon cycle; it is a question about character, habit, and love. Even if we are able to tame our current pressing environmental matters with technology and cutting-edge science, some other crises would lurk around the corner. Technological fixes are short-term solutions. What we need are political institutions and faith communities that cultivate virtues and ways of being that enable us to live lives that fit our ecological context.

I’m not sure nations have the spiritual capacity for this sort of thing, but I am confident that faith communities do. There is nothing at all good about the news climate scientists are sharing with us, even in their more optimistic models, but their news does present a vital space for the work of Christian communities.

Anthony Siegrist is a pastor and theologian who serves at Ottawa Mennonite Church in Ontario. He is currently studying environmental sustainability during a sabbatical. Anthony coordinates the MCCN column, North of the Border, which features voices from Canada. His most recent book project, Speaking of God: An Essential Guide to Christian Thought, will be published this fall by Herald Press.