January 17, 2018

The Theology of Climate Change: Sin as Agency in the Enlightenment’s Anthropocene

By Lydia Barnett

This article surveys a brief and forgotten episode in the history of climate science when a handful of European scholars at the turn of the eighteenth century formulated some of the first theories of global climate change. Appearing incidentally in several works of world history, these conjectural accounts of a dramatic downturn in the earth’s ancient climate following Noah’s Flood were intended to explain the physical and spiritual decline of humankind since biblical times. Although theories of local climate change were becoming widespread in this moment, theories of global climate change were distinguished by their emphasis on sin as a potent

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form of human agency capable of transforming the entire planet, a global force no less powerful and deadly for being largely unintentional. I focus on the Italian physician and naturalist Antonio Vallisneri (1661–1730), whose emphasis on the physical suffering of humans as a result of climate change highlighted the role of humans in bringing such a calamity about in the first place. Paying attention to these long-neglected theories illuminates the key role of religion in fostering the idea of a global climate capable of alteration by human activity.

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