Acton Institute Powerblog

Evangelicals and Global Warming

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After much whispering and pre-publicity, a group of 86 evangelical leaders has announced their support for what The New York Times calls “a major initiative to fight global warming.” As part of the “Evangelical Climate Initiative,” they are calling for “federal legislation that would require reductions in carbon dioxide emissions through ‘cost-effective, market-based mechanisms.'” (For a response from another group of evangelical leaders, go to the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance.)

I have great respect for the supporters of this initiative, and I don’t doubt their sincerity. And I’m glad to see a call for “market-based” solutions to a problem. Unfortunately, this looks to me like another example (alongside the fuzzy advocacy of the ONE Campaign) of Christians, evangelicals in this case, endorsing a hip cause without thinking through its economic logic.

I doubt any of these evangelical leaders has relevant expertise when it comes to global warming, especially since the scientific issues involved are exquisitely complex and change from day to day. So presumably they are simply trusting the advertised “scientific consensus” on this issue and using that perceived consensus as a filter for interpreting mundane events, like ice melting in Antarctica. That’s a problem, not only because the consensus is more manufactured than real (that is, objectively decided), but also because a scientific consensus that the planet is warming still wouldn’t tell us what to do about it. That’s a prudential question that can only be answered by taking account not only of the intended consequences of a policy, but also its unintended consequences.

The issue is not whether we should see ourselves as stewards over creation. That’s a non-negotiable Christian principle. The issue is whether these evangelicals have done the obligatory serious thinking before advocating a specific public policy.

When it comes to global warming, there are at least four separate issues to keep in mind. You don’t need to be a climate expert to do this.

(1) Is the planet warming?

(2) If the planet is warming, is human activity (like CO2 emissions) causing it?

(3) If the planet is warming, and we’re causing it, is it bad overall?

(4) If the planet is warming, we’re causing it, and it’s bad, would the policies commonly advocated (e.g., the Kyoto Protocol, restrictions on CO2 emissions) make any difference?If I had to guess based on current evidence, to question (1) I would answer: “Probably.” That is, we’re probably in the middle of a slight warming trend. So in a trivial sense, the climate is “changing.” I say this is trivial, because we know from natural “data recorders” like ice cores that historically, Earth’s climate is always changing. In fact, the last several thousand years, corresponding to recorded human history, have been uncharacteristically mild.

What about (2)? Are CO2 emissions causing this warming? Notice that the question isn’t whether CO2 is a green house gas. That’s uncontroversial. The question is whether the increase in atmospheric CO2 from human activity is causing warming, or whether one of the many natural feedback mechanisms is mitigating its effects? For example, in some cases, increase in CO2 leads to more plant growth, which in turn sequesters CO2. This is one of many examples of a natural feedback process that makes long range climate prediction unimaginably difficult. So at the moment, in answer to (2), I would say: “We don’t know.”

What about (3)? Is it obvious that global warming would be bad, overall? No, it’s not. It might be a net gain. In fact, it’s possible that human CO2 emissions could be preventing an overdue ice age, as Guillermo Gonzalez and I mention briefly in The Privileged Planet.

More specifically, is it obvious that the world’s poor would be worse off, overall, than they would be if the global climate stayed exactly the same? No, it’s not obvious.

Finally, what about (4)? Is it obvious that a reduction in American CO2 emissions, for example, would make much difference? No, it’s not obvious. And is it obvious, as this evangelical statement implies, that a call for restrictions on CO2 emissions would benefit the poor? No, it’s not.

Here, then, is the problem with the statement by this group of evangelical leaders. It treats the answers to these four questions as obviously “yes.” And it’s only on that baseless assumption that the statement can connect our responsibility as stewards with a specific policy position.

My point here is not to make any decisive pronouncements on global warming, or its more recent, and more vacuous substitute, “climate change.” My point is, rather, to plead with evangelical leaders not to do so, and not to pretend that they know more than they can possibly know. That’s especially true when it comes to the media-hyped global warming bandwagon, of which these evangelical leaders have now, unwittingly, become a part.

Jay Richards


  • typo: “increase in CO2 leads to more planet growth” >> plant growth

    Fine analysis, although I think if they said “global climate change” their statement would be more accurate. And even if overal the benefits of more CO2 were greater than the costs, if the changes in CO2 cause more extreme weathers, more often, this can be hugely costly.

    Seldom is it pointed out that almost 80% of the air is Nitrogen, almost 20% is Oxygen, and so CO2 and everything else is less than 1%. If CO2 is increasing, what is decreasing? Nothing noticable.

    One of the effects of more CO2 is often additional cloud cover, which reflects more sunlight, which means more cooling.

    Finally, the COSTS on the poor of regulation, or any gov’t action, should be explicitly asked about. I actually do favor a gas tax (or a carbon tax) — to replace and reduce income taxes. Regulation has a similar “increased cost” effect on the poor, yet without even reducing the deficit. Regulation is much less efficient, overall.

  • The Chicago Tribune has a story about the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI) launched February 8th. (See my initial response here.) Most reports of this story have been somewhat fair. But the Chicago Tribune story takes an unjustified swipe at evangelic

  • A few others have addressed this issue in previous posts, but I wanted to jump in with my two cents.

    Yesterday’s New York Times notes that a group of evangelical leaders have entered the debate over climate change:Despite opposition from some of

  • George 3

    This really is to both Jay Richards and Tom Grey. I hope that both of you have read a very important recent history of the investigation of climate science based on the work of the premier investigator Lonnie Thompson. The book is “Thin Ice” by Mark Bowen.
    I do not see how less ice can do anything other than warm the ocean and therefore the environment.

  • Louise

    God!? are you joking!? Humans have destroyed and meddled with nature for as long as human nature has existed, what makes people think that they have a devine right to be saved by God!? Its human nature, science and industry that has, and is killing our planet. This will never be reversed.
    Our Earth’s natural CO2 sinks have been used up and the effects of global warming are only going to get worse. This is the reality which we all must face and adapt to.
    As for George;
    Less ice means that there will be more water causing a rise in sea levels, this will cause greater and harsher coastal erosion. And yes, it will warm the environment in the long term as the polar ice caps store CO2, if they continue to melt then they will release yet more CO2 into the atmosphere.

  • Louise – you might want to rethink your confidence in all that global warming “science.” From an article by Geologist Bob Carter in the [url=]London Telegraph[/url]:[quote]For many years now, human-caused climate change has been viewed as a large and urgent problem. In truth, however, the biggest part of the problem is neither environmental nor scientific, but a self-created political fiasco. Consider the simple fact, drawn from the official temperature records of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, that for the years 1998-2005 global average temperature did not increase (there was actually a slight decrease, though not at a rate that differs significantly from zero).

    Yes, you did read that right. And also, yes, this eight-year period of temperature stasis did coincide with society’s continued power station and SUV-inspired pumping of yet more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

    In response to these facts, a global warming devotee will chuckle and say “how silly to judge climate change over such a short period”. Yet in the next breath, the same person will assure you that the 28-year-long period of warming which occurred between 1970 and 1998 constitutes a dangerous (and man-made) warming. Tosh. Our devotee will also pass by the curious additional facts that a period of similar warming occurred between 1918 and 1940, well prior to the greatest phase of world industrialisation, and that cooling occurred between 1940 and 1965, at precisely the time that human emissions were increasing at their greatest rate.

    Does something not strike you as odd here? That industrial carbon dioxide is not the primary cause of earth’s recent decadal-scale temperature changes doesn’t seem at all odd to many thousands of independent scientists. They have long appreciated – ever since the early 1990s, when the global warming bandwagon first started to roll behind the gravy train of the UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – that such short-term climate fluctuations are chiefly of natural origin. Yet the public appears to be largely convinced otherwise. How is this possible?[/quote]The issue is clearly not as cut and dried as GW proponents make it out to be. I’d encourage everyone to read that whole article, if only to help understand that there IS another side to the Global Warming debate.