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Environment | Global warming initiative highlights evangelical gridlock

Issue: "Nuke nightmare," Feb. 25, 2006

Prominent evangelicals are taking positions on opposite sides of the global warming debate, leveraging theological and pastoral authority in a fierce tug-of-war for the minds of the undecided. At one end are religious figures Rick Warren and Ted Haggard, who contend that imminent human suffering from dramatic climate change demands urgent preventative measures. At the other end are James Dobson and Chuck Colson, who argue that such projections are far from certain.

In deference to those diverging opinions, the 30-million-member National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) last month refrained from establishing an official statement on climate change-deviating from prior suggestions that it might formally support environmentalist policies.

In the absence of NAE backing, advocates for "creation care" procured 86 renowned evangelical signatories earlier this month for a statement on the dangers of global warming. The Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI) puts forth "a moral argument" for immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. "Millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors," warns the report, which includes endorsements from megachurch pastor Jack Hayford and Salvation Army Commissioner W. Todd Bassett, as well as Mr. Warren and Mr. Haggard.

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Hidden in the shadows of this tug-of-war is the hotly contested science of global warming itself. The ECI admits that "everything hinges on the scientific data," but shows little concern for such data in its half-million-dollar marketing campaign. An upcoming ECI television spot features Florida pastor Joel Hunter delivering an injunction "to love our neighbors." An ad in Christianity Today declares "we're called to be stewards of God's creation."

Critics of the initiative say they affirm the biblical mandates for neighborly love and earthly stewardship but disagree over the dangers of global warming. "Global warming that can be reasonably projected from the data we have will not be catastrophic or on balance more harmful than beneficial," said E. Calvin Beisner, a professor at Knox Theological Seminary and longtime student of climatology. Mr. Beisner cites well-credentialed scientists who postulate that moderate global warming could lengthen farming seasons and help alleviate world hunger.

A downward trend in projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms the likelihood of such moderate warming. Roy Spencer, a research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, believes the earth's natural greenhouse effect may serve to maintain long-term global temperature balance despite short-term variations. He questions the extent to which human activity can impact that balance. Global air temperatures have increased roughly 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past century, the bulk of the change taking place prior to 1940 when industrial emissions were minimal to nonexistent.

But Jim Ball, executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network and organizer of ECI, believes the current science is sufficient not only to warrant immediate action but also to convince undecided Christians. Polling data confirms the latter, as 70 percent of evangelical or born-again respondents in a recent Ellison study said climate change will pose a serious threat to future generations. Roughly half of those surveyed said steps must be taken to reduce global warming even if they result in high economic costs to the United States. "In a year or so, we will have most of the (evangelical) leadership either sitting on the sideline or with us," Mr. Ball predicted. "We will, in effect, have a consensus."

For now many evangelical leaders remain convinced by the White House position: Significant reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions would so cripple the U.S. economy as to generate greater calamity than global warming ever would. Emissions reductions called for in the Kyoto Protocol would trigger global costs of roughly $1 trillion per year, says the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

What-or, rather, who-are fair-minded evangelicals to believe?

Mr. Beisner encourages the undecided to test all things: "We need to be debating evidence and its interpretation rather than simply appealing to authority, because there are bona fide, credentialed authorities on all sides of this issue."

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