To you, O Lord, I call.
For fire has devoured
the pastures of the wilderness,
and flame has burned
all the trees of the field. – Joel 1:19
The Amazon fires drew attention from political leaders and church organizations worldwide in 2019 not only because of their number and intensity, but also due to their worldwide environmental impact and the reaction of current Brazilian and other government officials. Yet, the Amazon fires are only a part of an extremely complex web of events related to an increasing planetary crisis and as such raise important questions as to a response by ecclesiastical and other Christian organizations.
As the son, brother and uncle of local firefighters, I was brought up with the dangers and devastation of fires. During my studies in southern California I witnessed firsthand, on several occasions the widespread effect fires have in large areas, requiring the first response of firefighters from several neighboring states.
The toll of the Amazon fires, though, is in an entirely different category because of the region’s sheer size and role in the world’s eco-stability. Encompassing eight countries (Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname) and the territory of French Guiana, the 6.7 million km2 of the Amazon biome is twice the size of India. It is the single largest remaining tropical forest, more than half of the planet’s remaining rainforest, home of 10% of the world’s known biodiversity and its 4,000 miles of river account for 15-16% of the world’s total river discharge into the oceans.
Yet, since 1985 this immense and biologically diverse area has lost 17% of its forest canopy due primarily to annual fires set to clear forests for cattle grazing and farming (about three-quarters of the deforestation) and also to prepare previously cultivated land for their next crops. When this loss reaches 20-25%, changes to the Amazon’s ecosystem will become irreversible, transforming the land into more savanna than forest, according to Carlos Nobre of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. The fires in areas previously not cultivated are only the final steps in deforestation as first trees are leveled and left to dry early in the year and then set ablaze months later to clear the land. By the first week of September, 2019, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) registered 100,000 fires throughout Brazil, the highest number since the organization began to keep records in 2013, an increase of 43% during the same period of the previous year, and more than half were within the Amazon.
The planetary impact
Meanwhile, the environmental role that the Amazon plays is critical not only for the regional climate patterns but as an enormous factor in the regulation of the earth’s climate. This is due to a number of complex and interrelated factors, two of which are well documented and recognized by the vast majority of the scientific community both in Brazil and worldwide.
The Amazon already stores 90-140 billion metric tons of carbon. It accounts for a quarter of the carbon dioxide absorbed by the world’s forests. Deforestation, the ultimate goal of setting fires, releases up to 0.5 billion metric tons of carbon per year into the atmosphere making a substantial contribution to global warming. Deforestation also diminishes the global cooling effect of the condensation this region produces (sometimes referred to as atmospheric rivers) that are carried through major trade winds to the Artic for further cooling. So, burning and the consequential deforestation of the Amazon both substantially increases its capacity to warm the planet as well as decreases its capacity to cool it down.
National and worldwide response
The world reacted strongly to the fires. There were protests in many cities around the world as well as horror and dismay over the Brazilian president’s environmental policies and nationalist speech to the United Nations. In August, following international pressure at the 45th G7 summit and a threat to complicate international trade, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro sent 44,000 army troops to help fight the fires and ordered a 60-day ban on setting new fires to clear land. The number of fires then dropped to a third of the previous two months. In spite of that decrease, there are signs that the situation has actually worsened because the fires are not the worse problem. The larger challenge is deforestation and according to the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), some 7,747 square miles of rainforest have already been cleared this year and the actual number may be 30% higher.
Denominational and Christian organizations publicly expressed deep concern for the preservation and reintegration of the vast Amazon rainforest.
Evangelical environmental groups such as A Rocha Brazil and Renew Our World, the interfaith initiative Faith in the Climate, all held meetings and spoke out through their social platforms against the fires. Also, the National Counsel of Christian Churches in Brazil, The Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region (bishops from nine nations within Amazonia), the Anglican Communion, the Evangelical Alliance of Churches in Brazil, the National Evangelical Network of Social Action in Brazil, and the Ecumenical Forum ACT in Brazil, as well as Christian organizations around the world such as Christian Aid in the U.K., the World Council of Churches, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, all produced and published statements denouncing government policies of “development” in the region and calling for government action to stop illegal burning and deforestation.
Two contrary reactions represent an ideological war that undergirds this whole conversation: on the one hand, those who defend a sustainable planet for the future survival of human civilization (backed by a rigorous scientific community widely recognized as 97% consensual) and a whole other sector with increasing political expression that, in the name of progress, order and economic development, defend the right of the exploration of natural resources with as little governmental regulation as possible. The clash is no less prevalent within the Christian community, deeply complicating the possibility of a united Christian response. Still, some biblical guidelines must be sought.
A Christian Response
The Amazon fires raise critical issues concerning the fundamental well-being and future of our planet. Obviously, a Christian response would have to include eschatology and for that reason alone is probably more often avoided. But regardless of one’s eschatological views there are sufficient perspectives that need consideration. I suggest the following as a brief outline:
1) Creation care fundamentally defines our very humanity, Christian or otherwise. That is, creation and new creation are both the beginning and the conclusion of the biblical drama and as such requires greater attention to Christian teaching than is common. Our very humanity is defined precisely by the mission of caring for God’s creation (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:15), a mission that remained even after the Fall (Gen. 9). That is even more so for God’s people that an anguished creation looks to for its own very redemption (Rom. 8:18-25). As followers of Jesus we not only emulate his earthly mission of proclamation, teaching and healing, demonstrating concretely our love of God through our love of our neighbor (Luke 10:25-37) and thereby fulfill the evangelistic commission to make disciples all over the world and teach them to obey all the Jesus commanded.
2) Creation care is not only a consequence of faithful Christian discipleship on a personal level, but it is also part of the mission of the church. Just as we follow Jesus as his disciples in his earthly example, we continue to follow him in his current and cosmic mission to “unite all things in him…” (Eph. 1:10), including through the ministry of the church (Eph. 1:22-23; 3:10). And as new creation we are given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:17-18) just as Christ is reconciling all things in heaven and earth to himself through his sacrifice on the cross (Col. 1:19-23).
3) Climate change is at the center of attention within the scientifically community on the current planetary crisis. And as followers of Jesus who are “transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2) we can hardly maintain an antagonistic stance towards good science. This is especially true when the consensus is so widespread, nearly 200 of the world’s top scientists who comprise the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change of the United Nations, many of are committed Christians. At least 4 independent polls have concluded that 97% of the scientific community is in accord concerning the basic planetary crisis due to climate warming.
4) The care of creation, especially over the last few decades, has reached a critical point in the history of all human civilization in both speed and intensity and so requires the response of the church, first, as ambassadors of God’s justice and compassion, but also as opportunities for world evangelization. We care for creation because it is God’s creation and delight. And in Scripture we learn that God’s sense of righting wrong is as wide embracing as his creation. As well, as victims of climate changes increase greatly (the United Nations predicts 200 million refugees from climate related incidents!) Christians must be ready for Good Samaritan responses.
Finally, the single most strategic action for resolution of the long-term effects of the Amazonian fires and deforestation is the mobilization of local churches and Christian organizations to plant trees. Nearly half of the world’s trees have been destroyed since the start of human civilization. Reforestation is the #1 climate change solution by most scientists and the United Nations, along with programs to reduce emission of carbon and the preservation of current forests. Worldwide approximately one trillion trees need to be planted representing an area of approximately the U.S.A. While that number seems astounding, there is enough available uncultivated land in the world to meet that demand. Churches and Christian organizations can do their part in pilot programs and promote commercial and government on local and international levels to do same.