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Church Bells to Toll Today to Call Attention to Global Warming

December 13, 2009
Daniel E. H. Bryant and John Pitney

Editorial for the Register Guard, published 12/13/09
(Reprinted here with permission)


No, the historic chimes at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the heart of Eugene are not malfunctioning and the bell ringers at First United Methodist Church haven’t gone bonkers. We are tolling 350 times this morning to call attention to the 350 Campaign (www.350.org), a worldwide effort to reduce CO2 emissions until the atmosphere returns to a sustainable level of 350 parts per million (ppm).

The World Council of Churches has asked congregations to ring their bells on this day, along with churches all over Denmark, to toll our concern to world leaders gathered in Copenhagen this week.

Some may be surprised that churches are involved in this issue at all, given the political rancor over climate change. Surveys, reported on these very pages, have emphasized a negative correlation between worship attendance and acceptance of climate change. Faith communities of all kinds, however, have been working hard for decades on a host of environmental issues in general including the threat of human-caused global warming.

Most religious traditions teach that we humans are stewards of creation and in some way responsible for the care of the Earth. Many of us have observed Earth Day in our religious services for years. Our national bodies have published resources on environmental issues for decades. Interfaith Power and Light has been organizing faith communities in the United States since 1998 to work for energy efficiency and public policy to support renewable energy sources. Clergy often preach on how we treat and mistreat God’s creation.

In recent years, the threat of climate change caused by human activity has challenged the global faith community to become even more active, working together toward solutions to protect this planet for generations to come. In 2008, the WCC issued an urgent call for churches “to strengthen their moral stand in relationship to global warming and climate change.”

More than 300,000 members of The Church of England joined a “Carbon Fast” during the season of Lent that same year.

The Pacific Conference of Churches, an association of 20 national church bodies on the Pacific Rim, where projected sea level rise threatens major population centers and entire nations, issued a call this year for a 45 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020. The Interfaith Declaration on Climate Change, endorsed by Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Baha’i and Buddhist leaders and organizations, calls climate change “not merely an economic or technical problem, but … a moral, spiritual and cultural one.”

The 350 Campaign is based on research by NASA scientist James Hansen, first presented to the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December 2007.

Hansen and his team of seven other scientists demonstrated that 350 ppm is the upper limit of atmospheric CO2 we must maintain to have a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted.”

Throughout human history until 200 years ago, the C02 concentration was 275 ppm. As the burning of coal fueled the industrial age, that figure began to rise. Today it stands at 390 ppm, rising 2 ppm per year. A British team of scientists recently found that this rise is causing the decline of coral reefs, concluding that 360 ppm is the limit for coral to survive past this century.

Another group of 27 American and European scientists designates 350 ppm as a “planetary boundary” known, when transgressed, to increase “the risk of irreversible change in the loss of major ice sheets, accelerated sea-level rise and abrupt shifts in forest and agricultural systems.” Glaciers are disappearing at alarming rates. The Arctic, predicted to be ice free within 80 years just a few years ago, is on pace to be ice free within six years. Melting permafrost would release enormous amounts of methane gas, increasing these trends.

On this Sunday, the National Council of Churches of Denmark will host a worship service in the Lutheran Cathedral of Copenhagen. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, will preach on the threat of climate change and our responsibility as stewards of Earth to act before it is too late. As 2,000 worshipers leave the cathedral, bells will toll 350 times all over Denmark and around the world, calling all those who hear them to join in safeguarding God’s creation, our home. It’s the only one we have.

We just wanted the citizens of Lane County to know for whom the bells toll.


Daniel E.H. Bryant is the senior minister of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Eugene. John Pitney is Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church, Eugene. Their congregations will be tolling their chimes and bells at 11 a.m. today.


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Photo by Paul Carter, The Register Guard, used by permission.