27 March 2012

Evangelicals and climate change scepticism

On 1st March 2007 a small but influential group of evangelicals headed by James Dobson wrote an open letter to the National Association of Evangelicals in the USA. The purpose of the letter was to complain about Richard Cizik, a vice president of the NAE. Specifically, they objected to his public support for action to protect the environment in general and, in particular, action against global warming, which they perceived as ‘dividing and demoralizing the NAE and its leaders’ (Dobson et al. 2007: 1). They feared that if members of the NAE took him seriously, they would be diverted from the real issues facing American evangelicals, specifically ‘the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children’ (Dobson et al. 2007: 1). Moreover, they feared that a growing concern for the environment could lead evangelicals into political alliances with ideological opponents. The combined effect could be to undermine American evangelicalism. Just a few months earlier, a larger group of evangelicals signed an open letter rebuffing ‘Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action’, a manifesto published by the Evangelical Climate Initiative in February 2006. A more extensive piece of work along the same lines was published by the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance in 2006.

As Richard Wright (2000) points out, scepticism about environmentalism is nothing new among conservative evangelicals. But it seems that, as public attention has focused on global warming as the key environmental issue, so too has the attention of the evangelical sceptics.

The Sceptics’ Strategy

The strategy of the sceptics has been to sow doubts in the minds of uncommitted evangelicals on a number of issues.

The reality of global warming

The sceptics do not deny that the earth’s climate is a dynamic system. They accept that the climate has changed in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

However, some evangelical climate sceptics put great emphasis on the theoretical nature of anthropogenic global warming, comparing it with Darwin’s theory of evolution, Hawking’s theory of information loss in black holes and the phlogiston theory of heat. For example,
Ever seen a monkey give birth to a human? But, we’re told, the fossil record and the Galapagos Islands and the duck-billed platypus and a whole host of other factors are all best explained by the theory of evolution. So too, we are told, that various factors relating to the amount of ‘greenhouse gasses’ and a measurable change in earth’s temperature are all best explained by the theory popularly known as ‘global warming.’ (Smith 2007)
The comparison with Darwin is, of course, an appeal to an evangelical shibboleth designed to sow doubts in the minds of conservative evangelicals for whom evolutionary theory is one of the hallmarks of secularism. Beyond that, the emphasis on the theoretical nature of anthropogenic global warming plays upon popular understandings of the term ‘theoretical’, which particularly in American English tends to be equated with ‘hypothetical’ or ‘speculative’.

The anthropogenic dimension of global warming

However, most sceptics do not deny global warming outright. Instead one of their main tactics is to question the scientific evidence for a significant anthropogenic element to global warming. According to Calvin Beisner and his colleagues, ‘our knowledge of climate history also reveals substantial natural variability. The mechanisms driving natural climate variations are too poorly understood to be included accurately in computer climate models. Hence, the models risk overstating human influence.’ (Beisner et al. 2006: 3) They contend that a range of natural causes such as fluctuations in solar output, changes in cloud forcing, and precipitation microphysics may be more significant than human carbon dioxide emissions. Writing in First Things, Thomas Sieger Derr is more definite:
The likeliest cause of current climate trends seems to be solar activity, perhaps in combination with galactic cosmic rays caused by supernovas, especially because there is some good observable correlation between solar magnetism output and terrestrial climate change. (Derr 2004)
In common with many climate change sceptics, both religious and secular, Derr also suggests that the recent warming trend is just a blip in a larger natural cycle and that temperatures at the present day are still lower than they were during the Middle Ages.

The effects and severity of global warming

In recent years, popular environmentalism has tended to play up the potentially catastrophic effects of global warming, presumably in the hope that the fear factor will galvanize governments into taking the problem seriously.

By contrast the sceptics tend to minimize the possible effects. For example, Beisner et al. claim that a temperature rise of about 3 °C is unlikely to be catastrophic, ‘because CO2-induced warming will occur mostly in winter, mostly in polar regions, and mostly at night. But in polar regions, where winter night temperatures range far below freezing, an increase of 5.4 °F is hardly likely to cause significant melting of polar ice caps or other problems.’ (Beisner et al. 2006: 4)

More generally, the sceptics tend to highlight the uncertainties in scientific papers on global warming and emphasize the most conservative estimates of the impact of global warming as evidence that fears of catastrophic climate change are unfounded. For example, the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance cites the fact that the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Review has revised downwards some of the potential impacts of global warming as evidence of ‘the collapse of the catastrophic human-induced global warming dogma’.

But they are not just concerned to minimize the possible negative effects. They also highlight potential benefits of global warming: longer growing seasons in high latitudes; new living spaces in the tundra. Yes, a changing climate may mean drought in some places, but it will also mean increased rainfall in others. Global warming will increase the activity of the climate system, leading to a global increase in rainfall. Furthermore, they argue that increased carbon dioxide levels may actually benefit many food crops.

The efficacy of carbon dioxide emission controls

The sceptics maintain that Kyoto-style emission controls are simply not cost effective. This is hardly surprising, given that they believe human greenhouse gas emissions play only a relatively small part in climate change.

Furthermore they point out that a system of such controls driven by Western economic interests could lead to greater injustice by denying development opportunities to the Third World. Specifically, ‘Because energy is an essential component in almost all economic production, reducing its use and driving up its costs will slow economic development, reduce overall productivity, and increase costs of all goods, including the food, clothing, shelter, and other goods most essential to the poor.’ (Beisner et al. 2006: 12) Ironically, given the political conservatism of the global warming sceptics, this is an argument first adopted against Western environmentalists by anti-colonialist neo-Marxists in the 1960s.

The motives of the climate change lobby

While some climate change sceptics argue that action to limit anthropogenic global warming will harm the poor, others discern a completely different political motivation behind policies like the Kyoto Protocols. Thus, writing in First Things, Thomas Sieger Derr asserts that
The IPCC is a UN body and reflects UN politics, which are consistently favorable to developing countries, the majority of its members. Those politics are very supportive of the Kyoto treaty, which not only exempts the developing countries from emissions standards but also requires compensatory treatment from the wealthier nations for any economic restraints that new climate management policies may impose on these developing countries. Were Kyoto to be implemented as written, the developing countries would gain lots of money and free technology. One need not be a cynic to grasp that a UN body will do obeisance to these political realities wherever possible. (Derr 2004)
Another possible motive imputed to those who are concerned about climate change by Derr is ‘a somewhat murky antipathy to modern technological civilization as the destroyer of a purer, cleaner, more “natural” life’ (Derr 2004).

The Underlying Theology

In light of Derr’s comments about the motives of those who are concerned about climate change, it would be tempting to dismiss the sceptics as simply having sold out their faith to the ideology of secular capitalism and Republican/neocon politics. And one might point to the fact that the leading theoreticians of the sceptics’ position belong to the Acton Institute for Religious Freedom, a think tank that has received significant funding from the Exxon oil corporation. (For a more detailed account of the political commitments of Christian anti-environmentalism, see Wright 1995). However, to limit ourselves to a political analysis would be to overlook that they believe they have good theological reasons for the position they have taken.

Rejecting the myth of the given

One of the more recent myths of (late) modernity might be called the myth of the given: we find ourselves in (Heidegger would have said ‘we are thrown into’) a finite world with finite natural resources. It is a closed system and the size of the cake is fixed. The finitude of the natural world did not matter during the expansion of modernity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But when every continent has been mapped, every ocean sailed and much of the mineral wealth of the developed countries has been mined out, attitudes change.

Against the common-sense view that we have been thrown (as it were by chance) into this limited resource, which must therefore be husbanded carefully, evangelical environmental sceptics quite rightly remind us that the Christian doctrine of creation asserts an altogether more positive view. The world is not a hostile environment into which chance has thrown us. Rather, it is God’s good gift. Furthermore it is open to God and it is sustained by God.

Drawing on the reality of God’s continuing care for creation, the climate change sceptics question whether God would allow the earth to be damaged by human activities of filling, subduing and ruling the whole earth as mandated in Genesis 1:28. According to the New Testament scholar Wayne Grudem, ‘It does not seem likely to me that God would set up the world to work in such a way that human beings would eventually destroy the earth by doing such ordinary and morally good and necessary things as breathing, building a fire to cook or keep warm, burning fuel to travel, or using energy for a refrigerator to preserve food.’ (cited in ISA 2007)

It has to be admitted that God’s care for creation is a point often overlooked by Christian environmentalists. The world in which we live has not simply been left to its own devices by an absent God. On the contrary, God actively cares for God’s creation.

But how far can we take faith in God’s active care for creation? Grudem’s comment begs the question of which human activities in the modern world are ‘ordinary and morally good and necessary’. Some evangelical climate sceptics seem to think that in God’s covenant with Noah we have an implied promise that the earth will never be subjected to another environmental catastrophe on the scale of the Noahic flood. Thus Beisner and colleagues argue that ‘a Biblical theology of Earth stewardship will recognize the superintending hand of God protecting the Earth. Particularly when it is combined with our earlier observations about the resiliency of the Earth because of God’s wise design, this ought to make Christians inherently skeptical of claims that this or that human action threatens permanent and catastrophic damage to the Earth.’ (Spencer et al. 2005: 17) While Beisner and colleagues are content with scepticism, others take this as a virtual carte blanche for human impact on the environment.

An anthropocentric interpretation of dominion

However, evangelical climate sceptics are not content to reassert that the world is God’s good gift. They also insist that it is God’s good gift to us. The raison d’etre of the non-human is to serve the human.

Thus nature is ours to use for the benefit of the human race as a whole. It is but a small step from this to the assertion that it is sinful not to make full use of the world for our benefit. For example, the dominion mandate is seen as a manifesto for the transformation of the earth into a garden city. (Not so very different from the metaphor of spaceship earth that used to be bandied around by technocentric environmentalists – the nightmare vision of the earth as a totally managed environment.)

The absolutization of human freedom

There is a very strong emphasis on human freedom in the theology of the climate sceptics. And, of course, freedom is a fundamental part of any Christian anthropology (since we are made in the image of a God who is free).

However, it would appear from some of their writings that they believe human freedom to be unconstrained save by the direct moral commandment of God. And whatever is not explicitly forbidden by divine command is permitted.

I can’t help feeling that those who think along these lines fall easy prey to the modern notion that whatever is permitted is compulsory. Take, for example, a recent debate among American evangelicals about driving large gas-guzzling vehicles. The line of the climate sceptics seems to be that any attempt to question the morality of driving such vehicles is tantamount to an attack on our God-given freedom.

Dominium Terrae: an alternative interpretation

Our vocation to rule the earth is made plain in Scripture. The issue is how we are to exercise that vocation. My contention is that the evangelical environmental sceptics have badly misread Scripture at this point.

The etymology of the terms used in Genesis may suggest that dominion be equated with selfish tyranny, but the ideology of kingship we find in the Old Testament implies that the king is the servant of the people he rules. But we are called not to be kings but representatives of the King of kings. The vocation to rule the earth is set firmly in the context of our being created as God’s image within creation: the representatives of the Servant King.

As part of that representative dominion we are given freedom to use the earth’s resources to meet our needs. In the creation stories we are given the plants, while in the Noahic covenant we are given every living thing. But even that limited use of natural resources is hedged around by divinely imposed limits later in the Pentateuch. Gleaning to the edge of a field is forbidden as are double cropping and clear felling of an enemy’s orchards. And we are commanded to let the land lie fallow one year in seven.

In any case, the sceptics are simply wrong to assume that the world is God’s good gift to us. Rather Genesis 1 paints a picture of an ordered environment (including autotrophs) that is God’s good gift to all heterotrophs (including humans). A similar point is made in Psalm 104 and the later chapters of Job.

Contrary to the complacency of those who look to the Noahic covenant as a guarantee that no environmental disaster will befall us, the Bible repeatedly uses the motif of a reversal of creation (accompanied by the imagery of the Flood) as a warning of what will befall a disobedient people. To take just one example, consider the Bible’s interpretation of the reversion of the Promised Land to wilderness during the Exile.

So we are given the freedom to use the world to meet our physical needs. I can agree with Grudem that necessary use of resources will not lead to environmental catastrophe. But there is no mandate within Scripture for our exploitation of the environment to satisfy the conspicuous overconsumption of the developed world (and particularly the United States).

Beisner, E. Calvin, Paul K. Driessen, Ross McKitrick and Roy W. Spencer (2006) ‘A Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor: An Evangelical Response to Global Warming’ Interfaith Stewardship Alliance. Available online at http://www.ecalvinbeisner.com/farticles/CalltoTruth.pdf

Derr, Thomas Sieger (2004) ‘Strange Science’, First Things (November). Available online at http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=395

Dobson, James et al. (2007) Letter to Chairman of the Board, National Association of Evangelicals, 1 March. Available online at http://www.citizenlink.org/pdfs/NAELetterFinal.pdf.

Evangelical Climate Initiative (2006) ‘Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action’. Available online at http://www.christiansandclimate.org/statement

Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (2007) ‘An Open Letter to the Signers of “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action” and Others Concerned About Global Warming’. Available online at http://www.interfaithstewardship.org/pdf/OpenLetter.pdf

Smith, Jeremy (2007) 'Petroleum Pundits', reformation21. Available online at http://www.reformation21.org/Past_Issues/2007_Issues_17_27_/2007_Issues_17_27_Counterpoints/Counterpoints_March_2007/Counterpoints_March_2007/307/vobId__5439/

Spencer, Roy W., Paul K. Driessen and E. Calvin Beisner (2005) ‘An Examination of the Scientific, Ethical and Theological Implications of Climate Change Policy’, Interfaith Stewardship Alliance. Available online at http://www.interfaithstewardship.org/pdf/ISA_Climate_Change.pdf

Wright, Richard T. (1995) ‘Tearing Down the Green: Environmental Backlash in the Evangelical Sub-Culture’, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 47: 80–91. Available online at http://www.asa3.org/aSA/PSCF/1995/PSCF6-95Wright.html

Wright, Richard T. (2000) ‘The Declaration under Siege’ in R. J. Berry (ed.), The Care of Creation: Focusing concern and action (Leicester: IVP), pp. 74–9.

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