Few issues have permeated or fueled public debate like the topic of global warming. Since first registering on the public radar screen in 1988 with NASA’s James Hansen’s famous pronouncement of its alleged existence, the controversial subject has generated countless articles, television broadcasts and international conferences. Indeed, the Kyoto Protocol – designed to address global warming by reducing fossil fuel use and thus greenhouse gas emissions – has become a household word for citizens around the world.
Certainly the issues surrounding the discussion on climate change are multidimensional. On the one hand, it is a debate over the interpretation of complicated and incomplete scientific data, and the use of climate models to analyze complex weather and climate systems and cycles that are still not well understood. On the other, it is a discussion of energy costs and Kyoto’s economic implications for nations, families and industries.
There is, however, another dynamic to this topic that is beginning to receive increasing attention – namely, the emerging assessment of the moral and religious implications of climate change policy.
Some have broached this subject in the context of pulling out all stops to halt the onset of global warming – on the assumption that climate change is occurring, it will prove catastrophic, humans are causing it, and we can avert it by reducing our reliance on fossil fuel. Other analysts, including the authors of these papers, take a decidedly different approach.
Dr. Roy Spencer is principal research scientist for the University of Alabama in Huntsville and served as senior scientist for climate studies at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. In his section on the science of global warming, he points out that thermometer coverage of the Earth is too sparse to calculate accurate global average temperatures for any period prior to 1950. Further, he asserts, we do not know what caused past climate changes, how much recent warming is due to humans, what our response should be, and whether future warming will be mostly beneficial, mostly harmful, or both.
Because of our limited understanding, says Spencer, we cannot model or predict future climate cycles with any confidence. However, there is strong evidence that the Earth’s natural “greenhouse effect” acts like a blanket, working in conjunction with weather and hydrologic cycles to ensure long-term and global averages, despite local and short-term variations.
Many scientists believe increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (due to burning fossil fuels) could result in planetary warming, perhaps of only 1-2 degrees Fahrenheit or (according to a few models) maybe as much as 10 degrees. However, higher CO2 levels and longer growing seasons would benefit plant growth, and actions to reduce energy use would adversely affect economic growth, human health and societal well-being, while doing little to affect our climate.
Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Congress of Racial Equality on energy and environmental issues. In his section on the ethics of global warming, he emphasizes the need to address concerns about climate change in a responsible way that improves conditions for the poor. The Kyoto climate treaty could cost the world community $1 trillion a year – five times the estimated price of providing sanitation and clean drinking water to poor developing countries, thereby preventing millions of deaths each year.
By making energy less reliable, affordable and accessible, the treaty will drive up the costs of virtually every activity and consumer product, stifle economic growth, cost jobs, and impose especially harmful effects on the Earth’s poorest people. In US Black and Hispanic communities, Kyoto could cost 1.3 million jobs in 2012 (the year it would go into effect). Sharply higher energy prices would also make it financially impossible for poor people to cool their homes during summer heat waves, causing numerous additional deaths.
In developing countries, 2 billion people still do not enjoy the basic necessities and conveniences that electricity makes possible: lighting, refrigeration, water purification and sewage treatment. The result, Driessen notes, is that four million infants, children and mothers die every year from lung infections, due to constant pollution from their fires. Six million more perish annually from intestinal diseases, caused by unsafe water and spoiled food.
However, concerns about climate change are frequently cited to justify policies that prevent poor countries from building fossil fuel power plants. And yet, even the Kyoto Protocol would result in Earth’s temperature being only 0.2 degrees F less by 2050 than they would be without the treaty. A better approach would be to develop technologies that generate more energy, at lower cost and with fewer emissions – and export that technology to poor countries.
Dr. E. Calvin Beisner is associate professor of social ethics at Knox Theological Seminary, Florida, and a founding member of the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance. He lays a Biblical foundation for the moral approach advocated by Driessen and the prudent scientific caution advised by Spencer. It is imperative, Beisner says, that Christians make sure of their Biblical moorings before venturing too far in the endorsement of specific policies, particularly when the policies can have serious consequences for human life and well-being.
Our wise Creator has built multiple self-protecting and self-correcting layers into His world, contends Beisner, which we have been given to use for our benefit as responsible environmental stewards. In deciding how to manage the Earth and its resources, the Bible requires that we consider the consequences of our actions – for wildlife, our planet and the poorest among us.
Beisner outlines seven principles to guide our decisionmaking, in addition to the virtue of prudence which facilitates wise and effective foresight and avoidance of true risks. “It would behoove Christians who want to make a positive contribution to environmental risk assessment and reduction to learn effective ways to do it,” he stresses.
The Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (ISA) (now the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation) is a coalition of religious leaders, scientists, academics, and other policy experts committed to bringing a balanced Biblical view of stewardship to the critical issues of environment and development.