Confronting Noah and Ourselves: Our Religious Response to Climate Change

Confronting Noah and Ourselves: Our Religious Response to Climate Change
by Joelle Novey

A pdf version of this presentation with footnotes is available here

Our reading this morning came from the Biblical story of Noah. Noah gets some last minute preparation instructions, and then the weather goes haywire. Rains come, flooding and practically destroying the Earth. The floodgates of the sky broke open. And it was Noah’s task to save humanity and all of the species of animals.

At the conclusion of this destructive and unnatural weather, God sends a rainbow as a sign.

One of the most compelling commentaries I have read about that rainbow—the rainbow that appears at the end of the story—is that it is a sign of peace. Warriors who fought with bows and arrows would turn their bows upside down to send a message that they would do no further violence. So maybe, God’s rainbow for Noah, and for the rest of us, is a setting aside of destruction. The sky that brought such a violent downpour is now the place, after the storm, where we see an inverted bow.

How did Noah know that the flood was coming? Well, the story tells us he was a righteous man. So my guess is that he was sent a message, but that probably wasn’t enough by itself. Noah heard the warning because, when the message came, he was listening.

Today, we, like Noah, are starting to get the message that something is beginning to go very wrong with the weather.

We are getting this message from the natural world around us.

For example, spring is coming over a week earlier all over the Northern Hemisphere. The cherry trees on the Mall, for example, are blossoming a week earlier than they did when they were planted in 1912. Our cherry trees came from Japan, where the dates of blossoming have been written down for over a thousand years. From the Middle Ages until 1800, the blossoms came more or less at the same time each year, give or take. Then, starting in 1800, the blossoms have come earlier and earlier. By the 1980’s and 1990’s, the flowering times in Kyoto were earlier than at any time in the last thousand years.

The gardeners here today may be aware of another sign of what is happening to our world. On the back of seed packets, there is a plant hardiness zone map, which tells you when you can plant certain plants or seeds, depending on where you live. The National Arbor Foundation re-did this map a few years ago. And what they found is that warmer temperatures have shifted the entire map. If you put your finger on the new map, you can see that where you live feels like it used to about 200 miles south just 25 years ago. My guess is that our climate right here is now something like Norfolk, Virginia was 25 years ago.

Some of you may be familiar with an invasive vine called “kudzu.” It used to be known as “the vine that ate the South.” It was contained to that region by cold winter temperatures. But now, kudzu is not only growing all over our region, it is well-established in southern Illinois. And recently, kudzu was found growing in Ontario, Canada. The vine that ate the south is now the vine that is eating the continent.

Like Noah, we are getting a message from thousands of plants and other natural systems. And we need to pay attention, and to listen to what they are telling us.

Why are the cherry trees blossoming earlier, and why is kudzu now happy growing in Canada? To talk about why, I’m going to need to talk about climate change.

But this morning, I’m only going to speak directly about climate change science for a few minutes, because it’s a really scary thing to think about.

I have a little bit of experience with this, so I can tell you that, in a few minutes, when I speak about the problem of climate change, some of you are going to feel like you don’t want to be here or don’t want to listen. You may feel like you want to think about something else, what you’re having for lunch, or something that happened at work this week. You may feel like there must be something on the internet that would debunk everything I’m saying. You may think, “Who is this woman? She’s not a scientist. I want
to see some footnotes.

It’s okay to have feelings when we hear about climate change. I have them too. I would ask that, for the next five minutes, you hear what I say about climate change as if; open to this as if it were in fact really happening, as if my facts are good, and as if all of us needed to reconcile ourselves and our lives to this reality.

When you feel those feelings of resistance, acknowledge them, but please keep listening. We are here together, all of us, in a holy community, so we are not confronting these problems alone and when we feel scared, we are feeling scared together.

Temperature measurements from around the world indicate that global average temperature has gone up 1.4 degrees in the last 150 years. And because my husband is an algebra teacher, I want to also mention the importance of slope: as we get closer to the present, the slope of that temperature line is getting steeper and steeper. The temperature is going up faster and faster. We may have less than 150 years to adjust to the next 1.5 degree increase.

Out of nearly 160 years of records, the ten warmest years have all occurred since 1997. The warmest year ever was 1998, followed by 2005 and 2003.

In a recent book by Katherine Hayhoe, a scientist from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, she explains what is happening to average world temperature this way: “When we graph temperature over the last two thousand years, we end up with a hockey-stick-shaped line. The cooler, flat line endures for almost two thousand years. This is the handle of the hockey stick. Then, there’s a sharp curve upward over the last two hundred years — the blade of the hockey stick. This depicts our recent warming trend … This warming is already greater than anything we’ve seen in the past, going back one, two, or even five thousand years.

The only explanation that can account for these changes is us. Our burning coal for electricity, flying airplanes, and animal agriculture, along with other activities, are producing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. These gases trap heat. When the sun shines on the Earth, the increasing these gasses in our atmosphere seem to be trapping this heat rather than letting it escape, and the accumulated heat-trapping gases are warming our planet.

Scientists have said that the safe concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is 350 parts per  million. The carbon dioxide in our atmosphere hasn’t gone much higher than that for hundreds of thousands of years. But we’re up near 400 already, and rising.

What would it mean if we kept emitting these heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and the Earth continued to warm? By now you’ve probably heard some of what that would mean:

• The massive ice sheets of Greenland and west Antarctica could melt, raising sea level by forty feet or more over the coming centuries, eventually placing the world’s largest cities, including ours, below sea level.

• Many of the world’s species of animals and plants that can’t adapt or move fast enough could be doomed to extinction.

• Extreme draught could threaten as much as a third of the world, drying up land that used to be farmland and leading to widespread human hunger and suffering.

• Our children and grandchildren could be living in a world increasingly characterized by severe droughts, massive heat waves, and worldwide conflicts due to food and water shortages.

I know this is difficult. Please stay open, and please keep listening.

The injustice of this is hard to swallow, but the world’s poorest people who have done the least to cause this problem, are the first ones to be experiencing its effects. One estimate puts the worldwide death toll from climate change already at 300,000 people a year, many of them in Africa.

Oliba Peter is a farmer in eastern Uganda. “The rain comes very late here,” he says. “And when it comes it is rough, just like the wind. It’s not predictable, like it used to be. We no longer get enough food from the soil which has increased starvation. There are also many diseases that come as a result of famine, whichaffect us very much.

Author Bill McKibben was in Dhaka, Bangladesh during an outbreak of dengue fever. The mosquitoes that carry this disease thrive at the new warmer temperatures. “I can remember going to the hospital in Dhaka,” McKibben says, “and looking at this huge ward full of beds, a couple of hundreds beds, and people in every one of them just shivering away. And I remember thinking, “God, is this is unfair. These people have done literally nothing to cause this…. You know, the 4 percent of us in this country produce 25 percent of the world’s CO2. It’s not perfect epidemiology, but the moral math works for me. If there’s a hundred beds in that hospital, 25 of them are on us.

Okay, five minutes are over. Take a deep breath.

Like Noah, we’re getting the message that something is going very wrong with the natural world.

But unlike Noah, we’re in a very different situation. The Noah story reflects a world in which only God could mess with the weather.

But we are confronting the reality that is our society, and the heat-trapping emissions we create when we use coal-fired electricity, and fly in planes, and support animal agriculture, that have been trapping heat and causing the Earth to warm.

This speaks to the truth of the seventh principle of Unitarian Universalist tradition, which talks about the “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” xvi We have come to a time in history when it turns out that we aren’t just dependent on the climate—the predictable cycles of the climate are dependent on us.

Today, we are called upon to be Noah, but only after we also recognize that this time, we are the cause of the flood. As the sky broke over Noah’s head, the sky is breaking in ours; but this time, it’s us.

What are we supposed to do about this?

It is not too late to change course, to reduce the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and to prevent some of the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. That’s why I’m so grateful to be in this community this morning. We’re going to need everyone’s help!

Davies Memorial is one of hundreds of congregations right here in our own community that are listening, like Noah, to the warnings from our natural world. I get great strength from seeing every day that caring people in congregations of every faith across the DC area are responding together to what they are learning about climate change with great integrity and compassion.

So if you feel alarmed and agitated after hearing about the causes and consequences of the climate change problem, please, don’t direct that energy towards shutting this out. Please choose today to direct that energy into joining with others and taking action.

There are ways to respond personally. There are ways to respond communally. And there are ways to respond politically.

One place to start personally is with our own electricity use. The coal-fired power plants that create half of our electricity are the country’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Could you wash the laundry in cold water? Could you skip the dryer, and hang the clothes up to dry on a line? Could you get a professional audit and weatherization work to seal your home before the weather gets cold?

Another place to take personal action is in transportation. Could you carpool with someone to work, or church? Could you bike or bus instead of driving?

Animal agriculture is responsible for about 18% of greenhouse gas emissions Could you imagine eating less meat?

There are ways to respond communally. Through the green sanctuary program, and through work with Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light, Davies Memorial is coming together as a community to reduce the electricity use in this building and to make the seventh principle central to your life together as a congregation.

And there are ways to respond by speaking out.

After services today, you’ll have an opportunity to sign postcards encouraging the EPA to protect communities from coal ash – a toxic by-product of coal-fired power plants. One of Maryland’s dump sites for toxic coal ash (generated by the Mirant Chalk Point Power Plant) is dumped only a few miles from here on North Keys Road in Brandywine.

And today, around the world, people are holding “work parties” to take action on climate change in their own communities, and ask our leaders to get to work as well. For events taking place today in the DC area, or to see photos of these events streaming in from around the world, visit

Of course, all of these responses require us to think about doing something really hard: change. Just as Noah had to listen, and stop whatever he had been doing to focus on the task of building an ark. It’s hard to change things about how we do the laundry, or how we get around, or how we eat. It’s difficult to change the way a church has “always” done things. And it takes some courage to speak out for a cause.

At the end of the Noah story, we read the rainbow promise, a promise never again to destroy the Earth.

A rainbow looks like half of something. Half a circle. It is practically an invitation to us to respond with our own rainbow.

We will not solve the climate problem overnight, but we can make today the day, that we make our own rainbow promise. We can promise today to listen to what the natural world is telling us. We can promise to stay open to the possibility that we may have to change the way we’ve been doing things to bring our lives into greater harmony with the Earth.

We can promise to turn — to follow the example of that first rainbow, a weapon of war turned upside down. We need to promise, to turn away from our destructive practices that we now understand are destroying the sky.

This is our end of the rainbow deal. May the task of making and keeping this promise teach us something important about ourselves, and bring us closer to each other.


Nahmanides (12th Century Spanish rabbi), in his commentary on Genesis 9:12. Expounded upon by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (Chief Rabbi of Efrat) in his commentary on Parshat Noach, 5769. Both sources cited in “The Rainbow and an Ethic of Sustainability,” by Jonathan Neril, at

iPages 16-17 in Hayhoe, Katherine and Andrew Farley, A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. New York, NY: FaithWords: 2009

Katherine Hayhoe, presentation to Interfaith Power & Light affiliates, March 9, 2010.

Pages 108-109, A Climate for Change, Hayhoe & Farley, 2009.

Page 10, A Climate for Change, Hayhoe & Farley, 2009.

Pages 18-19, A Climate for Change, Hayhoe & Farley, 2009.

The Science of 350,” at

Page 23, A Climate for Change, Hayhoe & Farley, 2009.

Climate “Change Human Impact Report: The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis,” Global Humanitarian Forum (GHF): 2009

Africa Talks Climate,” on BBC World Service Trust site:

The Moral Math of Climate Change,” on Speaking of Faith radio program (show now renamed Being).

“Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options,” from Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome:

Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light helps congregations of all faiths, across the DC area, to save energy, go green, and respond to climate change. GW-IPL can be reached at, or

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