"Why are you afraid, you of little faith?" – Matthew 8:26
Like the disciples in Matthew, we are only human and often fear the unknown, the disruptive, the strange. But as the disciples learned, faith in God can help to still our fears and generate hope even in the midst of disruption and storm.
Recently the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first and second parts of their fifth assessment on the current state of scientific research regarding climate change. The first part of the report once again confirmed that the majority of that research supports the conclusion that global average temperatures are increasing as a result of human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels to generate energy, and that temperature increases are driving significant changes in earth’s climate.
The second section of the report, titled "Climate Change 2014: Impact, Adaptation and Vulnerability" confirms for the first time since the IPCC began releasing these assessments more than two decades ago that impacts of this human-caused climate change are now observable around the globe, and highlights the extreme vulnerability of low income people to these impacts both now and in the future. The IPCC report predicts with a high degree of certainty that climate change will have significant, negative impacts on global food security unless emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are cut dramatically. Rising temperatures and increased drought is already impacting staple crop yields in some regions, and those impacts will continue; the report also predicts declines in fish populations as ocean temperatures grow warmer — between 40 and 60 percent in tropical regions. It also outlines how freshwater resources are already under strain in many areas as glaciers retreat, endangering the water supplies that billions depend on for drinking, sanitation and growing crops.
Adding to this sense of urgency, on May 6 the White House released the third National Climate Assessment, a report summarizing contributions from scientists working for government agencies, academic institutions and non-profit organizations around the United States. The report outlined the current impacts that climate change is having around the country, ranging from coastal flooding to extreme drought.
These reports are pretty frightening, and they could lead us to the kind of hand-wringing fatalism engaged in by Christ’s disciples in the story told in Matthew: before Jesus wakes and calms the waters, they are loudly proclaiming their imminent death, having lost sight of the fact that they have the Son of God on the boat with them.
When something big and momentous (and scary) is about to happen in Scripture, God often sends a messenger to those who will be most affected. He sends an angel to Mary to tell her that she will bear the Son of God — and his first words to her are, "Do not be afraid." Mary responds positively to this message, praising God and rejoicing in this gift. In contrast, when her kinsman Zechariah prays for a child, and God sends an angel to tell him, "Do not be afraid," and that his wife, Elizabeth, will bear a child, he rejects the message and God strikes him mute until the event comes to pass. Zechariah, like the disciples, gives in to his fear.
So how should we respond to the big, scary news in the IPCC reports? Do we let our fear rule and throw up our hands, proclaiming that the end is near? Do we ignore the message (and the messengers) like Zechariah and fail to see that God offers us hope in the midst of troubles?
Or do we put our faith in God and live in the hope of the risen Christ, rejoicing in the abilities that we have been given to adapt and respond to this challenge? Instead of giving in to despair, can we welcome the opportunity to change our hearts and our ways, embracing what can be done to use less energy, to move to a fossil-free energy future and to help our most vulnerable neighbors adapt to weather extremes and other climate impacts?
Climate change is happening, but do not be afraid. God is with us.
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