Charles Tyler, pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Manning, SC, never expected that placing his signature alongside those of Christian college deans, theologically conservative pastors, and presidents of world-renowned charities would provoke a stir. But his endorsement of a global warming initiative that calls for federal restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions stands in diametric opposition to the majority view among PCA leaders – a fact of which Tyler is now well aware.

The Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI), published in February 2006 to a chorus of national media delight, moves beyond past calls for biblical stewardship by attaching moral imperatives to specific government policy proposals. The document suggests scriptural mandate for “national legislation requiring sufficient economy-wide reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.” It boasts a list of 97 prominent evangelical signatories, such as Purpose-Driven Life author Rick Warren and Salvation Army Commissioner W. Todd Bassett.

Lining up on the opposite side, an equally well-known contingent of evangelical leaders opposes the ECI approach, citing scientific and economic uncertainties. In a recent letter, Chuck Colson, James Dobson and a host of other influential figures implored the National Association of Evangelicals to refrain from establishing an official position on climate change. The letter argued that “global warming is not a consensus issue” and “there should be room for Bible-believing evangelicals to disagree about the cause, severity and solutions.” NAE president Ted Haggard complied with that request but did not stop numerous NAE board members from signing the ECI.

Whom, then, should sincere believers trust? Does the Bible demand political action to stop global warming? Is human activity even capable of affecting climate change?

Charles Tyler, pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Manning, SC, never expected that placing his signature alongside those of Christian college deans, theologically conservative pastors, and presidents of world-renowned charities would provoke a stir. But his endorsement of a global warming initiative that calls for federal restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions stands in diametric opposition to the majority view among PCA leaders – a fact of which Tyler is now well aware.

The Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI), published in February 2006 to a chorus of national media delight, moves beyond past calls for biblical stewardship by attaching moral imperatives to specific government policy proposals. The document suggests scriptural mandate for “national legislation requiring sufficient economy-wide reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.” It boasts a list of 97 prominent evangelical signatories, such as Purpose-Driven Life author Rick Warren and Salvation Army Commissioner W. Todd Bassett.

Lining up on the opposite side, an equally well-known contingent of evangelical leaders opposes the ECI approach, citing scientific and economic uncertainties. In a recent letter, Chuck Colson, James Dobson and a host of other influential figures implored the National Association of Evangelicals to refrain from establishing an official position on climate change. The letter argued that “global warming is not a consensus issue” and “there should be room for Bible-believing evangelicals to disagree about the cause, severity and solutions.” NAE president Ted Haggard complied with that request but did not stop numerous NAE board members from signing the ECI.

Whom, then, should sincere believers trust? Does the Bible demand political action to stop global warming? Is human activity even capable of affecting climate change?

E. Calvin Beisner, a professor at Knox Theological Seminary and longtime student of climatology, advises evangelicals against merely adopting the position of their favorite religious or scientific authority. Citing 1 Thessalonians 5:21, he admonishes Christians to test all things. “We need to be debating evidence and its interpretation rather than simply appealing to authority, because there are bona fide, credentialed authorities on all sides of this issue,” he said.

Beisner is a lead organizer of the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (ISA), a group of prominent academics and clergy skeptical of global warming extremes. Such PCA leaders as James Kennedy, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Paul Kooistra, coordinator of Mission to the World, Ligon Duncan, senior pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, MS, and Joey Pipa, president of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in North Carolina, are included among ISA advisors. The group maintains strong support for biblically-directed environmental stewardship but contends that sound science must also guide such care for creation.

The ECI document affirms that all moral requirements regarding climate change hinge dramatically on scientific projections. If global warming truly threatens to devastate coastal communities with mass floods and ravage agricultural societies with droughts, and if people are capable of preventing such calamities by supporting renewable energy sources and switching to hybrid vehicles, then failure to change is morally reprehensible. But if global warming is merely part of a natural planetary climate cycle bound to trend down in coming years, and if forced energy conversions without time for sufficient technological advancement would crush developing economies, then rushing to action is equally depraved.

Scientific Consensus?

In the recently released documentary An Inconvenient Truth, former vice president Al Gore claims scientific consensus for human-induced warming that will produce unprecedented destruction. Likewise, the ECI purports “general agreement among those in the scientific community” that climate change is mainly caused by human activities. It adds that “millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors.”

ISA sources disagree. They contend that both Gore and the ECI mistakenly project the scientific consensus that global warming is occurring, an undisputed fact, onto more hotly contested claims about future impacts and human responsibility. Climatologists agree that global air temperatures have climbed roughly one degree Fahrenheit over the past century. But many point out that the bulk of that increase occurred prior to 1940, when industrial and automobile emissions were a tiny fraction of what they are today.

Such historical analysis leads some noted scientists to dispute the need for dramatic hand wringing. Roy Spencer, principal research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and former senior scientist for climate studies at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, believes global warming could just as well benefit the earth as it could harm it. “There isn’t enough appreciation amongst the public about the uncertainty of the science, because it’s the most dramatic claims that get the most press,” he said. “We don’t have very much confidence at all in how much is due to human activities and therefore how much we’ll have in the coming decades.”

On the other side of the scientific perspective, NASA scientist James Hansen postulates with considerable conviction that unchecked global warming will reach an unstoppable tipping point in 10 years. He calls for immediate and drastic measures to reduce CO2 emissions.

The ECI does not mention such debate, basing its assertions on the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which it christens the world’s foremost authority on global warming. The IPCC attributes some of the earth’s temperature rise in the past 50 years to human activity, stating in its most recent full report that “the projected rate and magnitude of warming and sea-level rise can be lessened by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

But research scientist John Christy, an evangelical and lead author on the last IPCC report, questions the objectivity of such conclusions. He once shared a lunch table with three European representatives intent on framing the body’s scientific findings in such manner as to force the United States into acceptance of the Kyoto Protocol, a controversial emissions reductions pact adopted by the seven other G8 nations. “The IPCC is supposed to be policy neutral,” Christy said, adding that efforts to reduce worldwide carbon dioxide emissions would yield minimal impacts.

“Kyoto and things like solar and wind power are just nibbling at the edges,” he continued. “If you want to have an effect, you have to go to something massive, because energy use will continue to rise. Energy makes life so much better, and especially those that are poor will continue to clamor for it. We don’t have any moral high ground to say they shouldn’t have their energy.”

As developing countries like China and India continue expanding their automobile and manufacturing markets, greenhouse gas emissions will likely skyrocket. Christy shudders at the economic and societal cost of altering that course. “I’ve seen what happens when people’s energy is taken from them,” he said. “An evangelical views human life as extremely precious, and energy affordability creates better human life and improves the human situation. To withdraw that is not being evangelical.”

A Matter of Economics vs. the Environment?

Kenneth Chilton, director of the Institute for the Study of Economics and the Environment, believes passionate environmentalists often overlook economic impacts. “If climate change had a cheep fix, it’d be silly for anybody to be debating it. But the lifeblood of an economy is energy,” he said. “If you’re worried about the least among us, then you should worry about economic growth. Climate change has a secondary effect compared to economic growth.”

Chilton does not dispute the biblical principles of stewardship outlined in the ECI, but he takes serious issue with the statement’s public policy proposals. He questions whether most ECI signatories fully understand the economic issues at stake. “There’s no hope that an evangelical who has not been following this issue can come to some kind of a reasoned conclusion – especially if they only avail themselves of one side of the picture,” he said. “That’s what happened with the people who signed on to the Evangelical Climate Initiative. They listened to people they trusted and said, ‘Sure, that sounds good; we wouldn’t want bad things to happen to poor people.’”

But numerous ECI signatories hotly dispute such charges. Clive Calver, pastor of Walnut Hill Community Church in Bethel, Conn. and former president of World Relief, signed the ECI because of “concern about what humankind is doing to God’s world.” He considers economic protests a predictable ploy from those averse to the necessary difficulties of industry adjustment. “Most significant contributions evangelicals have made to social change have been accompanied by dire threats of the implications of economic collapse,” he said. “That’s so often what we resort to. We’re told that our economy can’t hold it.”

Roger Parrott, president of Belhaven College in Jackson, Miss., signed the ECI because he views global warming and its potential impacts as critical issues for which “evangelicals should not be on the sidelines.”

Not all signatories have offered such strong defenses of their position. Wellington Boone, pastor of The Father’s House church in Atlanta, recently removed his name from the document after learning of its controversial nature. Robert W. Yarbrough, chair of the New Testament department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, admitted he viewed the ECI as more of a general call to evangelical discussion than the specified policy pronouncement that it is. “With the statement that I signed, one of the things I liked about it was I saw it as raising cautionary flags rather than making sweeping, definite, quantified pronouncements,” he said. “I don’t make any claims to have certified scientific knowledge.”

Rev. Warren, pastor of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., explained his intentions in a written statement days after the ECI release. The statement makes no mention of the specific government policy advocated in the ECI but maligns “drastic, unwarranted actions that could cripple the global economy.”

Therein rests the heart of the discussion. While both ECI and ISA supporters demonstrate clear devotion to biblical stewardship, one side maintains that the federal government can sufficiently restrict greenhouse gas emissions to reduce global warming without devastating economies. The other side contends no such balance is possible.

Acton Institute research fellow Jay Richards worries that the ECI’s well-intentioned directives threaten numerous “unintended consequences.” He questions whether scriptural principles of stewardship translate to specific global warming policies: “Saying we need to be concerned about our impact on the environment is just a different thing from saying we must have federally-imposed CO2 emissions restrictions.”

Bible Study vs. Science?

The Bible does not provide scientific data or political recommendations on the issue of climate change. But Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland Church in Florida and leading ECI spokesman, contends that such details are superfluous to the theological issue at stake. “We don’t need to wait for the scientific community to tell us the right thing to do,” he said. “Whether or not the other side is right, we’re still doing the right thing because we’re treating the earth with respect. We are going to do as good as we can as stewards of a gift God has given us no matter what the results are.”

Hunter cites Genesis 2:15 in defense of his position, a text in which God places Adam “in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (NIV). Christians have long interpreted that verse as an injunction for earthly stewardship and dominion but few have extrapolated a green mandate that disregards science. Hunter continued: “This is a moral and biblical command, and that’s our first place for direction. So we need to do this regardless of what the science of it is.”

The ECI statement does not support such an antiscientific approach, most of its signatories only advocating action in light of scientific conclusions from well-credentialed sources. The document makes clear that “all religious/moral claims about climate change are relevant only if climate change is real and is mainly human-induced.” The Bible does not speak to such questions.

Where the Bible does speak – specifically calling for the care of God’s creation – evangelicals are largely in agreement. The ECI appropriately cites Psalm 24 and Colossians 1:16 in arguing that the earth and everything in it belongs to the Lord and is not to be destroyed. ECI organizers have gone to great lengths to distance their motivation from the pantheistic nature worship at the core of most secular environmental movements.

Affirming such ideas, ISA advisor Jim Tonkowich, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and a former PCA pastor, explains that Christian care for the world views nature differently than classic environmentalism. “It’s tempting to say that the Bible is a story of restoration; we’ve got to back to the garden. But it’s not. The story doesn’t end in the garden; it ends in the city of all places,” he said. “The New Jerusalem is not organic. It didn’t grow there. It was fashioned and shaped. The Bible values human beings as makers who take the raw material of creation and create. Creation is incomplete without human beings there to tend the garden, to shape it, to build the city.”

Rich Cizik, the NAE’s vice president for governmental affairs and an important recruiter of ECI signatories, concurs that an evangelical vein of environmentalism must value people as image-bearers of God, not denigrate them as planetary viruses. “I don’t talk about a threat to the planet. Environmentalists talk about that,” he said. “I say the threat here is first and foremost to humans. This is not a plants and animals issue. This is about people. Let’s not confuse things: Evangelicals are people huggers, not tree huggers.”

A sizable chunk of the ECI’s scriptural references deal with loving neighbors and protecting the poor. Whereas secular doomsday projections of global warming tend to emphasize catastrophic impacts in major cities, the ECI points out that dramatic sea-level rise from melting ice caps would devastate poorer nations first.
Original ECI drafter David Gushee, a professor of moral philosophy at Union University, specifically directed attention toward the poor in hopes of drawing out the moral implications of climate change policy. “It’s a moral issue whenever human well-being is at stake,” he said.

Gushee believes the debate revolves more around theological persuasions than scientific inquiry. “I don’t think that we read science in a vacuum. Our presuppositions help contribute to how we interpret scientific data,” he said. “The question I would ask those who don’t think this is a problem is whether there is something in their theological perspective that makes them inclined not to think that environmental concerns are generally significant.”

Indeed, Beisner’s view of God predisposes him toward skepticism of projected global catastrophes. He does not believe that the infinitely wise creator would form an earth fragile enough to conflagrate under the minute atmospheric changes caused by CO2 emissions. Nor does he undervalue God’s post-flood promise in Genesis 8:21 to never again destroy all living creatures. “His covenant promise is for the preservation of life on this earth,” Beisner said. “An extremely alarmist notion is inconsistent with that.”

While such divergent theological and scientific persuasions have generated considerable debate among evangelicals, leaders on both sides appear intent on generating respectful dialogue, rather than questioning motives or attacking character. Most ECI signatories hope their foray into the climate change issue will help alter stereotypes of evangelicals as mere antiabortion gay bashers who don’t give a rip about the environment. Conversely, ISA supporters aim to spare Christians from the ideological traps and poor science often connected to environmental fervor.

Sizable portions of common ground include support for reducing U.S. fossil fuel dependence and a belief that individual Christians should avoid waste and abhor pollution. Most important, both sides remain committed to spreading the gospel in word and deed throughout the world. That primary evangelical mission is not open to debate.

Mark Bergin is a regular correspondent for WORLD magazine and a sports reporter for the Post-Intelligencer in Seattle. He is a member of Mars Hill Church.

Why I Support the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance

Climate Change: What’s Known, What’s Not, and What Does It Matter?

By E. Calvin Beisner

In the heavily politicized atmosphere of discussion about global warming, it can be helpful to step back and take a cool look at just what’s known and what’s not, and then to consider implications for policy.

What’s known? Perhaps the most important thing, and most overlooked by popular media, is the tremendous uncertainty in climate science. As Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) climatologist Richard Lindzen says, climate science has not yet reached mature knowledge of many important phenomena and their causal relationships. Among those, says University of Alabama climatologist Roy Spencer, is the net warming or cooling effect of clouds—among the largest and most important factors in climate. Many climatologists would sympathize with folk singer Joni Mitchell’s lament: “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now / From up and down, but still somehow / It’s clouds’ illusions I recall / I really don’t know clouds at all.”

Other things we don’t understand well enough to quantify their contributions to atmospheric temperature include fluctuations in solar output, aerosols, and precipitation microphysics, and even whether changes in carbon dioxide concentration lead and cause, or follow and result, from warming. Most importantly, we don’t know the proportionate effects of carbon dioxide emissions from human energy consumption versus natural causes, which makes claims that human action is causing “most” or even “a substantial amount” of global warming unverifiable.

But some other things are pretty well known. Global temperature has risen and fallen cyclically throughout Earth’s history. Europe and North America were warmer during the Medieval Warm Period (roughly 1000-1450) than in most or perhaps all of the 20th century. They cooled significantly during the Little Ice Age (roughly 1450-1850). Since then global average surface temperature seems to have risen by about a net of one degree Fahrenheit over the last century—up 1919-1940, down 1940 through the early 1970s, up again until the late 1990s, and essentially unchanged since 1998. We know that if there were no negative feedbacks, global average temperature would already have risen more because of rising carbon dioxide than it has, and that the impact of carbon dioxide on temperature is not linear but logarithmic—for example, each additional component traps less heat than the last, which means warming from a first doubling is greater than from a second, and so on.

When it comes to policy, we know that reducing future global warming by curtailing carbon dioxide emissions would be extremely costly and largely ineffective. It would cost some $300 billion to $1 trillion per year just to comply with the Kyoto Protocol. But even scientists who advocate it say compliance would mitigate global warming by 2050 by less than 0.2 degree Fahrenheit. Therefore, they say it would take many—30 or 40—“Kyotos” to prevent their predicted catastrophic global warming. The cost would be an enormous hike in energy prices and, therefore, in overall cost of living and a decrease in economic development. Those most badly hurt would be the world’s three billion poor, who desperately need cheap energy and economic development to deliver them from high rates of disease and premature death.

For these reasons and many more, documented in “A Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor: An Evangelical Response to Global Warming,” the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (www.interfaithstewardship.org) recommends, rather than trying to prevent or reduce global warming, a policy of preparing to adapt, through economic development, to whatever climate is in store in the future.

Cal Beisner is associate professor of Social Ethics at Knox Theological Seminary. 

WHY I SIGNED THE EVANGELICAL CLIMATE INITIATIVE 

Overriding biblical principles should change our behavior.

By Charlie Tyler

I believe humans are responsible for a growing increase in the planet’s temperature. I can’t prove it, of course. The science seems to be “inconclusive.” But for some, science is also inconclusive about tobacco, seat belts, and the guild of a certain ex-NFL running back. I have a good friend who has never seen cholesterol and he eats accordingly. However, once the science is conclusive it may be too late.

I’m not a parts-per-million guy. Besides, a person needs a Ph.D. in muckology just to keep up. The people at`www.realclimate.org/ have just such degrees. For me this is not about the science. Rather it’s about gluttony and reckless consumerism. We eat too much, buy too much, and spend far too much. Automobiles have become extensions of our living rooms and libidos. Because few children are being taught to entertain themselves, cars have become entertainment centers. How many of us really need a $5,000 flat panel LCD HDTV?

It seems that we consume as long as we think we can pay for it. Curtailing an opulent use of resources may be what our planet needs for all kinds of reasons. The question isn’t as much about the abundance of oil as an absence of life disciplines. When the question is answered biblically the Christian may discover, paradoxically, far more financial and emotional resources for missions, the poor, and even our own homes.

I signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI) because, first, we should avoid even the appearance of reckless contributions to negative impacts on creation. Romans 1:20 tells us a deep truth about the picture creation paints of its Creator. We should defend and protect it no matter what the science tells us.

Second, we should not allow eschatology to budget natural resources. “Jesus is coming back, fill it up please” seems irresponsible to me. Some in the early church looked for Jesus’ return 2,000 years ago. If we’d had the ability to consume then as now, we’d have made a wreck of the place. He may yet wait another 2,000 years.

Third, we are not so redeemed as to think we cannot create envy in others. We are now living before a rapidly shrinking world. Whether it’s the first, second, or third world who’s watching, it is our ability to consume abundantly in abundance that is difficult to explain to the poor growing poorer. I believe 1 Timothy 2:9 (about women dressing modestly) is more about avoiding class envy than crass dress.

Fourth, it’s not about political correctness. The problem of being PC is found on both the political left and right. Evangelicals who are concerned about environmental issues fear being mislabeled. My idea of hugging a tree is carrying in firewood, and as a person for the ethical treatment of animals I use a large caliber rifle when I hunt. The fact that I need to explain this illustrates the problem. We should allow our consciences, not our politics, to direct us. It’s the right fear of God, not man, to which Jesus urged us.

These are overriding applications of biblical principles that should change our thinking and behavior. Just because we can buy, burn, and consume doesn’t mean we should. Instead, with a heart for God’s creation, with an eye on our neighbor, and with a deep fear of God we can live differently in our world. Will it make one carbon footprint of difference? Maybe. It was a right thing for me to sign the ECI. If it’s not right for anyone else, it was for me. And it is always the right time to do the right thing.

Charles Tyler is pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Manning, SC.

Comments are closed.