Recently, my fellow evangelical scientists and academics sent a letter to the United States Congress urging immediate legislation on climate change. In an effort to care for the planet—God’s second greatest gift to humanity—they argue that our uncontrolled use of fossil fuels will disproportionately affect the poor, the vulnerable, and the oppressed.
I applaud their concern for the environment and for those in defense of whom Jesus commanded us to be especially diligent. But their call to reduce carbon emissions would do more harm than good, especially to the “least of these” as referenced by Christ.
Average global temperatures have not risen over at least the past fifteen years. Dr. John Christy, a fellow evangelical Christian and a highly respected climatologist, testified to Congress that in the United States, we have seen virtually no change in daily maximum temperature, while most of the warming is confined to increases in daily minimum temperatures. (Nighttime temperatures are driven by turbulence [or lack of it] near the surface, not CO2 warming. By contrast, daytime maximum temperature is a much better measure of warming from greenhouse gases. The lack of a signal in daily maximum temperature suggests that the rate of warming due to CO2 is relatively small.) That and the lack of warming for at least a decade and a half implies the effect of CO2 warming is much smaller than climate models suggest.
Contrary to claims in the recent letter, a report issued last summer by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on extreme events indicated that droughts “have become less frequent, less intense, or shorter, for example, in Central North America.” The percentage of the United States classified in moderate-to-extreme dryness and wetness as presented by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows high variability but no significant trend. NOAA also concludes that snowfall records show no long-term trend and that recent record snowfalls are the result of natural variability, not global warming. Hurricane activity globally is at a thirty-year low, and the frequency of moderate to severe tornadoes (EF3-EF5) has not increased. Sea levels have been rising at about the same pace since well before greenhouse gases began to rise from fossil fuel emissions.
Draconian legislation to curtail energy use by restricting fossil fuel emissions will have little, if any, impact on Earth’s climate. A 50% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 would only reduce global average temperature in 2100 by an inconsequential 0.07°C. Even an elimination of all CO2 emissions by the United States would prevent only 0.17°C of warming.Instead of fighting global warming, the most important environmental task facing Christians today is economic development, because poverty is the greatest threat to both human well-being and the environment.We need to find more efficient ways to use energy and more sources for energy to keep the cost low. Why? If we make energy so expensive that only the rich can afford it, then the poor and the vulnerable will be denied access. That will condemn them to a life of poverty, sickness, and low life expectancy.
Moreover, the environment itself suffers because when a people are in dire need of food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities, they cannot be concerned with environmental issues. The Ganges River, for example, is both the source of ‘clean’ drinking water and the reservoir for untreated sewage. Why? Because the people are so poor. Technological development would enable them to afford water and sewage treatment. High-tech, high-yield farming methods would increase food supplies. Natural gas and electricity would heat homes and cook food without cutting forests and burning wood and dung, which degrade indoor air quality and cause lethal lung infections. Refrigeration would mean the poor do not have to choose between eating spoiled food and going hungry.
Furthermore, oppression thrives when energy is restricted. Totalitarian regimes remain in power by keeping their subjects poor and deprived of technological amenities. Freedom spreads when people have time and ability to travel and communicate, to develop ideas and concepts, and to organize against a common enemy and for a better way of life. Energy, therefore, is the life blood to ending poverty and oppression.
In the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14–28), Jesus told of a master who entrusted his money to three servants. The first two put the talents to use and presented the master with more than they had been given. The third, whom Christ called ‘worthless’, hid his talent in the ground.
Often we think of the talents as money or ability, but they really stand for every resource. If we needlessly leave resources ‘hidden’ in the ground, will we be met with the same rebuke from the “Master of All Creation”?
In America and around the world, people are hurting now. I pray that my Brothers and Sisters in Christ see their need and respond accordingly, rather than limiting energy affordability and making life today more difficult for the poor, the vulnerable, and the oppressed.
Dr. David R. Legates, a Christian and a Professor of Climatology at the University of Delaware, is a Senior Fellow of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation—a coalition of clergy, theologians, scientists, economists, and policy experts committed to bringing a balanced Biblical view of stewardship to environmental and developmental issues.