Gore's Oscar, global warming debated among evangelicals

by Gregory Tomlin, posted Friday, March 09, 2007 (12 years ago)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--When Former Vice President Al Gore won an Academy Award for his documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” Feb. 25, a key assertion in his film on global warming -- that human-induced climate change will cause a rise in sea levels of some 20 feet in the near future -- had already been refuted by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The panel, which issued its fourth summary of warming trends for policymakers Feb. 2 after a meeting of scientists in Paris, claimed that sea levels could rise 8 to 17 inches over the next century as a result of the human impact on the climate. That figure is 30 percent less than predicted in 2001 and about 2,000 percent less than Gore's prediction.

In his Oscar acceptance speech, Gore claimed the world needs to focus its efforts on solving the so-called climate crisis. “It is not a political issue. It is a moral issue,” said Gore, who has been traveling the world preaching the need to curtail carbon dioxide emissions -- regarded by many scientists as the primary cause for recent increases in global temperatures. Gore has said that the world's poor will suffer most if global warming is not addressed.

Gore is at least partly right in his call for “creation care,” according to Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Human beings, Land said, have a responsibility to care for the planet, including cutting pollution in the atmosphere.

“We don't have the right to treat the earth as if it is our own,” Land told Baptist Press. “It is God's and He will hold us accountable for the stewardship of His creation. We should stress divine ownership, human stewardship and human responsibility.”

But the larger questions of global warming, such as whether it is a natural or manmade phenomenon, are far from settled, Land said. Recent scientific studies have attributed warming to solar flares, cloud density and formation, and even to methane emitted from livestock herds. A study published in Science magazine in early February and confirmed by the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) also revealed that Greenland’s glaciers -- once rapidly melting -- have reversed their losses and increased in thickness. The loss of Greenland's glaciers was one evidence of catastrophic global warming, Gore said in his film.

“There still is not consensus in the scientific community about what causes global warming, let alone what the results will be,” Land said.

HELPING OR HURTING THE POOR?

Because there has been no scientific consensus on the cause of global warming and other topics related to global climate change, Land and more than 20 other Christian public policy experts, such as Focus on the Family's James Dobson and Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, refused last year to sign a statement on climate change that encouraged President Bush to seek a solution to environmental problems. The men also encouraged the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) not to take a position on the matter.

Still, other evangelicals, such as Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California, and Leith Anderson, now president of the NAE, signed the “Evangelical Climate Initiative” (ECI), which claims that human-induced climate change is real. The statement also claims, as has Gore, that global warming will most adversely affect the poor who live in volatile climate zones through flooding, more intense hurricanes and typhoons and unparalleled heat waves and droughts. These effects, in turn, will displace coastal populations and produce more famine.

(One of the signers, David Dockery, president of Baptist-affiliated Union University in Jackson, Tenn., said March 8 he has asked for his name to be removed from ECI. But Dockery declined further comment for this story.)

Statements from other evangelical groups also claim that diseases such as Malaria and other mosquito-borne illnesses will devastate tropical areas, most of which are underdeveloped, should temperatures and sea levels continue to rise. As a result, some in the evangelical community have advocated the approval of Kyoto-style policy initiatives that will cap or cut carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 60 percent over the next century.

The Baptist General Convention of Texas' Christian Life Commission, for example, is actively lobbying in opposition to permits for 18 new coal-fired power plants in that state. Suzii Paynter, the group's public policy director, told the Baptist Standard, the newspaper of the moderate state convention, that “we must protect our children, the elderly and God's creation by encouraging our leaders to choose cleaner power sources and a more sound economically sound path.” Paynter was unavailable for further comment.

Jim Ball, a Baptist and director of the Evangelical Environmental Network, also said CO2 emissions may cause permanent damage to the world's poorest communities if fossil fuel consumption is not curtailed and new energy sources remain untapped. Ball’s network, together with Creation Care magazine, sponsored a discussion in recent years that attempted to answer the question, “What would Jesus drive?”

“We are not the adjudicators of the science. But when we see major reports from scientists, signed off on by government officials, we have to take it seriously,” Ball told Baptist Press in an interview. “We need to accept what the majority of experts are telling us and move on from there.”

Land said he agrees, like most public policy advocates, that CO2 emissions should be reduced. But while Ball said he is working with Sens. John McCain, R.-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, I.-Conn., to implement climate change legislation that would reduce pollution, protect the economy and aid the poor, Land and other experts said they don't believe that combination of benefits is possible yet. Such legislation is unlikely to pass with the political left in control of the environmental lobby.

“If liberal environmentalists have their way, the impact would be much worse on the poor,” Land said. “Draconian measures to reduce reliance on fossil fuels will hurt the poor because it will not allow them to develop their societies. Studies have shown that developed societies are actually cleaner societies and better able to adapt to changes in climate.”

Cal Beisner, a professor at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and a leading evangelical expert on climate change, is co-author of a study from the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance. The study, “A Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor: An Evangelical Response to Global Warming,” does not contest the fact that the earth is warming. The report, however, does debunk the assertion that human beings are primarily responsible for it and that the poor would best be protected by curtailing energy production with fossil fuels.

Beisner told Baptist Press that restricting cheap and abundant energy would drive the costs of production higher and cause the price of consumer goods to rise, placing them out of reach of most of the world's poor. So if the aim of evangelicals is to assist the poor, he said, they would be best served by adopting policies that allow them to acquire the ability to deal with adverse changes in economic, social and climatic conditions. Poorer countries, he said, need a constant supply of reliable and affordable energy.

The emphasis on the how the poor could be affected by global warming, Beisner said, is an “appeal to people's pity, rather than an attempt at persuading them with evidence. Pointing to the poor is not itself evidence for manmade, catastrophic global warming. It is also not evidence that new policies would fight it or have any beneficial impact on the poor.”

Beisner instead claims that advocates of global warming draw attention to the poor as an attempt to divert attention away from paltry science. What's left in the discussion about global warming, contrary to Gore's claim, is primarily political, he said, pointing to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's most recent summary for policymakers. That 20-page document, a precursor to perhaps thousands of pages of scientific interpretative data, was not written by scientists.

“It was written by environmental advocates, bureaucrats and government negotiators,” Beisner said.

The findings of MIT scientist Richard Lindzen, who himself contributed to the U.N.’s IPCC discussion, validate Beisners assessments.

“It's not 2,500 people offering their consensus; I participated in that,” Lindzen said on “Larry King Live” Jan. 27, just prior to the release of the IPCC's summary for policymakers. “Each person who is an author writes two pages in conjunction with someone else. They travel around the world several times a year for several years to write it and the summary for policymakers has the input of about 13 of the scientists. But ultimately it is written by representatives of governments, of environmental organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists, and industrial organizations, each seeking their own benefits.”

Lindzen also called the notion of human-induced climate change “silly.”

THE THEOLOGY OF CREATION CARE

Even with several evangelical groups conceding that the world has been warmer in recent years, many confess that they are uncomfortable with the religion of global warming, a seemingly elevated and sometimes virtually divine view of nature offered by the political left. They have, as a result, taken steps to ensure that Christian evangelical teachings on climate change and human responsibility keep both man and nature in their respective positions in relation to God and to each other.

“It certainly is good theology to exercise creation care,” Land said. “And you have to balance the command in Genesis to have dominion over creation with the command to till it, or take care of it. Human beings are, of course, the highest form of creation, so anything we do should show the world that human beings come first. Nature is there to serve man, and it becomes unbiblical when you start talking about nature with a capital 'N.'“

Evangelicals who signed the ECI in 2006 endorsed an explanation of the theology of creation care:

“Christians must care about climate change because we love God the Creator and Jesus our Lord, through whom and for whom the creation was made. This is God’s world, and any damage that we do to God’s world is an offense against God Himself (Gen. 1; Ps. 24; Col. 1:16).

“Christians must care about climate change because we are called to love our neighbors, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, and to protect care for the least of these as though each was Jesus Christ Himself (Mt. 22:34-40; Mt. 7:12; Mt. 25:31-46).

“Christians, noting the fact that most of the climate change problem is human induced, are reminded that when God made humanity he commissioned us to exercise stewardship over the earth and its creatures. Climate change is the latest evidence of our failure to exercise proper stewardship, and constitutes a critical opportunity for us to do better (Gen. 1:26-28).”

Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, signed the first draft of the ECI. Known for his increasingly outspoken defense of global warming and allegedly even population control, Cizik has said he believes environmental concerns are the new face of the NAE.

On National Public Radio in December, Cizik said his conversion to the science of global warming was not unlike a “a Christian conversion to Christ.” But his name was absent from the second draft of the ECI. According to Cizik, he was instructed not to sign the statement again by evangelical leaders who opposed the ECI and who feared the NAE would be “coopted by liberals.” They also said going green might “endanger an incumbent president,” Cizik said.

Alan Wisdom, vice president for research with the Institute on Religion and Democracy, told Baptist Press it isn't likely that the evangelical movement could become an environmental pawn of the political left.

“The NAE and most evangelicals have a great many positions that would be categorized as conservative, such as opposing same-sex marriage and abortion. The NAE's president is not taking a strong position on Iraq,” Wisdom said. “I think the environmental push is an attempt to show that evangelicals can play both sides of the political aisle.”

But there are potential dangers, Wisdom said.

“There are certain assumptions in the environmental movement that evangelicals could import, if they are not careful,” Wisdom said. “One, for example, is the tendency to see humans as consumers and each individual as a burden on the planet versus seeing people as those who add value to the planet.

“The second thing is the assumption that wilderness is the ideal. But we see in Revelation that the ideal is a city. Development is a good thing. The worst environments are where those in chronic poverty are so close to the margin of existence that they don’t think about how they affect creation.”

Wisdom said there is no clear biblical teaching on the matter of global warming, and while many evangelicals have a sense that the earth is heating up, most disagree over the solutions. Personal changes in lifestyle, he said, are unlikely to result in any noticeable change. He still believes, however, that the ECI statement is “excellent for laying out the responsibilities of care for the earth.”

But Beisner would rather see Christians examine portions of Scripture that actually speak about God’s care for the world instead of man’s care for it. He points to God's covenant with the earth in Genesis 8:22: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and not will never cease.”

“It is an expression of God’s determination that He is going to sustain all the normal cycles of this ecosphere that make it habitable for man and all God’s creatures,” Beisner said. “So we have God's promise as a starting point for investigating the claims about global warming. This gives Christians and Bible-believing persons grounds for defending a more conservative position than environmentalists who not only ignore God’s promise to Himself, but also the fact that God wisely designed this earth to be resilient, with positive and negative feedback mechanisms that prevent great global catastrophes.”


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