Acton Institute Powerblog

The Global Warming Debate: Yada, Yada, Yada

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I am not a prophet, not even a futurist. I do study trends, now and then, and I try to pay careful attention to popular culture. One thing I am quite sure about: global warming will be a central issue in public debates and political campaigns for some time to come. It has become the Apocalypse Now issue of our generation. (Overpopulation, the nuclear threat and global cooling did it only a few decades ago.) The simple premise, virtually unchallenged in many places, is that we are all destroying the planet. If we do not stop it now we are doomed to wreak havoc everywhere and kill millions of animals and people. Only calloused, cold-hearted, paleo-cons would be willing to battle such "hard" scientific facts and not support all moral efforts to save the earth.

Just last week Newsweek, generally a fairly moderate news source, had a cover story that provided a first-class object lesson about this debate. The story reduced the battle to one between the "good guys" and the "bad guys" and you can easily guess who is who without even reading the story. With righteous indignation (Is there any other kind in this debate?) Newsweek argued that there is a well-funded, anti-scientific "denial machine" at work in America that is determined to stop all serious attempts to solve this crisis. This machine is driven by money from oil companies and by loony-tunes conservatives who are driven by the almighty dollar.  (Don’t look now but many profit-driven companies are getting on the global warming bandwagon because they read the signs of the times and intend to make a good profit by the scare itself! Check out Archer Daniel Midlands and look at their future plans for development sometime.)

In a great op-ed in this week’s edition of Newsweek (August 22) Robert J. Samuelson noted that "Newsweek‘s cover story on global warming was a wonderful read, but misrepresented a very complicated and intractable problem." Well, hooray for Newsweek for including this excellent rebuttal piece. That is more than I can say for many publications on the left or the right. Makes me want to keep getting the magazine really.

Samuelson demonstrates the complications in this debate by showing that there really is no cabal driving this issue at all. Newsweek, he shows plainly, has treated this story very sympathetically since way back in 1988, with numerous cover stories over the years speaking about "the dangers" and why we all should be "worried" about the planet. In 1989 a Gallup Poll found that 63% of Americans worried "a great deal or a fair amount" about global warming while in 2007 the number rose to 65%. (I am surprised it is not a lot higher actually.)
The problem, argues Samuelson and others like him (include me in their number), is quite simple. What really causes global warming and what can we do about it? What troubles me deeply is the way many evangelicals, to cite just one segment of the Church, want us to buy into the global warming theories and solutions as a matter of faith and morals. Here are the facts that make this approach pious nonsense:

1. Almost everyone who is sane about this issue knows that we can only cut emissions incrementally and that China and India will more than offset the small gains we can make in the US and Europe. But the blame America cry heard in all of this smacks of politics more than of real science and pragmatic workable solutions.

2. No single theory is the accepted scientific model that has been approved, or universally accepted. We are working off of various theories and hunches and the debate needs much more light and less heat, no pun intended.

3. What we can do is more research and development. We need to do this and we need to resist avoidance of the serious aspects of this matter.

4. We can find better ways to dispose of waste material than into the environment. Some of these are both safer and more cost effective. Real solutions will be found by those grapple with both sides of this equation.

5. Samuelson gets it right when he concludes: "The overriding reality seems almost un-American: we simply don’t have a solution for this problem." This is hard for us to admit. We are so convinced that we can solve anything and everything, especially if we created the problem in the first place (as is assumed in this debate).

This is why Samuelson suggests that we steadfastly refuse to address this issue as "a morality tale." Amen! Someone please tell this to Richard Cizik of NAE, or to Jim Wallis of Sojourners, or to Tony Campolo the prophetic screamer, and to all the others who have made this into one of the biggest moral issues of the day for Christians. We can all do a lot better in addressing this complex and real concern if we keep this type of rhetoric and silliness out of the picture. All it does is assign categories, or labels, and then we all know who the "good guys" really are. Game, set, match!

Absolutely nothing is resolved in this kind of zero-sum game of cheap moralizing.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening." His home blog is located here.

John Armstrong John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."


  • I’m glad to see Newsweek present both sides of the debate, as well. On behalf of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, please allow me a chance to respond to your five points.

    1.We don’t believe that the fact that China is the leading emitter of CO2 (the U.S. is #2) and doesn’t seem to have the moral strength to place health and the well-being of future generations ahead of its breakneck economic growth is a legitimate reason for rejecting actions and policies that will reduce our own pollution. As American Christians we need to do what is right, and to encourage our government to do likewise, regardless of what amoral or immoral regimes may do.

    2.There is never one scientific theory for anything; by nature there is no unanimity in science. But the conclusions of the Academies of Science in the U.S. and the other G8 nations, and the one body does includes the scores of scientists who are qualified to have an opinion (they actually study climate), the IPCC, are as definitive as any scientific findings can be. The IPCC said that global warming is a dire problem, and that it is 90% likely that human action is a primary cause.

    3. I don’t know what causes you to think research and development isn’t being done, and hasn’t been done for decades.

    4. Agreed.

    5. The solutions are difficult and complex, but we do believe that with American ingenuity, and with God’s help, we can solve the problem. Is that too optimistic?

    Additionally, you’ve misinterpreted our moral arguments. If humans are not at all responsible for the causes of global warming, and there is nothing we can do to curb it, than there indeed is no spiritual or moral component to this debate. If, as the vast majority of climate scientists contend, human activity is largely responsible, the moral weight is tremendous and our responsibility as followers of Christ unquestionable.

    Jim Jewell
    Campaign Director
    Evangelical Climate Initiative

  • R. Balmes

    I’ve being skeptical about this global warming issue for years and I’m not now… Why ?
    Because I was only reading the general public press like Newsweek, and therefore the approximations & generalization you read are so superficial usually that it very easy to see and find counter example.
    That changed when I really started to read serious litterature about it… then you realize that what you read in the press is usually superficial BUT the problem is real.

    I would suggest the author of this article to do the same (leave Newsweek out)… and come with serious argument or references to show that the global warming effect is NOT happenning.

  • Pretty much everybody acknowledges that the earth is warming slightly. The disagreement is over whether or not such warming represents a catastrophe.

  • Though you make some points that I concur with Jim I think you use the word “moral” in such a broad way that it loses its essential meaning. The word means “to be concerned with the goodness or badness of character, with a distinction between right and wrong, or virtuous in conduct.”

    If this is true in what specific way is one person (you or me for example) more moral or less moral than the other for what car we drive, how we dispose of our trash, what fuel choices we make, etc.?

    I obviously accept the basic premise that we have a responsibility for the care of the creation since we have been given dominion over it as human beings (Genesis 1:27-28). What I reject is the type of arguments that your NAE initiative uses to link Christian morality to the very particular ways that you argue for a “moral” solution to this problem. Your document is clearly advocating a political solution. That is fine so long as you admit that there are political ramifications to the arguments that can and should be debated and that your answers are not the only “moral” ones.

    I suggest readers visit the IRD web site ( and read a very solid and well-researched criticism of this NAE document on global warming in the summer 2006 issue of their magazine Faith & Freedom. I also suggest that you read the current issue of Faith & Freedom on Evangelicals and the NAE, which is some of the finest critique of how NAE has gone wrong that I have seen in print.

    I was once a strong advocate and active member of NAE but I believe it has lost its direction and the clear historic mandate it once had in another era. It is not what it used to be at all. I have actually come to wonder why it even exists any longer. Most of the good parts of what was once NAE have broken away and retained a separate identity. The ecumenism that we need today, and that we are really seeing in our communities, has nothing to do with the work of groups like NAE.

  • R. Balmes


    I do agree with you that many ‘ecologist’ use consciously (very often) the fear of catastrophe in the hope of making people move & do something about it.
    In a way it is a double edge sword, because when people realize that they have been fooled… they throw away everything, including what’s right about it. Others do the same because they smell the stratagem.

    Risks management on this issue should be applied, probability of “global warming” high, impact of “global warming” very debated but potentially significant & long term. So I take the view that we must do somehting about it.
    Using the catastrophism of some as a pretext to do nothing is just being as superficial.

    On a different note, what I find interesting about “air” is that it is an excellent example of a common good of all humanity so we can not play the ‘not in my back yard’ approach. I use it sometimes to illustrate this idea present in the christian social thinking : that all goods have “universal destination” aspects.

  • I certainly agree with you that we have to examine the potential risks involved with global warming, and that once we do this in a level-headed fashion (without all the media and political hype that surrounds the issue now). Only when that happens, however, should we decide what – if any – action to take.

    Here’s the problem – right now, there is consensus on the fact that the globe has indeed been warming slightly over the last century. There is not, however, consensus on whether or not humans are primarily responsible for this, whether it’s primarily a natural phenomenon, and whether we can actually do anything about it. This is all aside from the fact that the underlying science used by the IPCC is looking more and more suspect (consider that this week, NASA had to revise their temperature records downward pretty significantly due to someone discovering a flaw in their data, with the end result being that the 1930’s now look at least as hot as the current decade, if not hotter).

    Meanwhile, the proposed solutions (Kyoto, etc.) are pretty much universally acknowledged to be worthless in terms of actually [i]doing anything[/i] to halt the current warming trend, but will do a lot in terms of devastating the global economy. A simple cost benefit analysis will tell you that implementing the proposed “solutions” to global warming would be a ridiculous course of action to take.

    I’d much prefer to know that before we start taking drastic action, we have established that a) there is a real crisis and b) the actions we take will be beneficial in real terms, not simply symbolic and worthless.

  • R. Balmes

    There might not be consensus on the fact that human being is at the source of the global warming, and yet the evidences are that the quantity of CO2 in the atmosphere has never ever been so high and that it is of human origin.
    So the cause is known despite the fact many people are still not convinced and that we don’t really know the impact globally and even more so locally.
    I would be interested to read about this idea of a cost benefit analysis and understand how one could come to a “ridiculous course” of action. It does not seem so obvious to me.

    Why would investing in trying to improve air quality destroy the economy ? The returns might be incredibly high, and if I see the business of wind energy, I would say there is good business to be made there at least people are investing & buying companies at record high.
    Where I agree I think with you is “drastic” & “panic” & “catastrophe” are too much, there are too many unknowns still but it must be taken seriously because of the extremely long lead time to recover if the damage would occur.
    The good answer to “panic” mode is usually not “no reason to panic” but “we are working on it”

  • except that CO2 is a relatively minor greenhouse gas compared to things like water vapor, which exists in the atmosphere in much larger quantities and would presumably have a much greater impact; except that we know that temperatures have been much higher and much lower than what we are currently experiencing [i]without[/i] humans contributing to the change; except that other planets in the solar system are also warming, etc, etc, etc.

    As for a cost/benefit analysis: pretty simple, really. Say, hypothetically, that we decide to actually cut our CO2 emissions by 50%. Before doing so, it would be wise to understand exactly what that action would do to our economy. Obviously, it would require energy production to be slashed, which means that all forms of economic activity would have to be cut as well. It would be a massive hit to our economy, unemployment would skyrocket, poverty would go through the roof, not to mention the shocks that would be caused around the world by such a hit to one of the world’s biggest economies. Essentially, we’d be voluntarily putting ourselves into a Great Depression on steroids, costing trillions upon trillions of dollars. And all of that would be in service of a policy that might prevent global temperatures from rising, on average, 1 degree over the next 100 years.

    You can see that the benefit – stopping the warming – does not outweigh the cost – destroying our economy. In other words, it’s not worth plunging millions of people into poverty in order to possibly cool the globe by 1 degree. That would be ridiculous.

    Now, none of this is to say that I oppose improving our air quality. And if there’s a way to do so and make a profit, I have no problem with that sort of thing going forward. No one does. So keep researching the issue, by all means. And if there are practical things we can do to reduce emissions and live more cleanly, great! But I have little confidence in the crowd that is currently pushing global warming alarmism on us now, and have little interest in their “solutions” that won’t solve anything and will create big economic problems for us to boot. Especially after [url=]the news of the past week[/url].

  • ken lundstrom

    I often hear it said that global warming is a moral issue. Does that make it a religion? If it is now I say we should crown Algore the official Pope of the church of the global warmists. If there is seperation of church and state, then the global warmists should stop pushing their religion on us and Washington. Enough for now.