NASA scientist James Hansen delivered a doomsday message on 60 Minutes last month, declaring that unchecked global warming will reach an unstoppable tipping point in 10 years. Time magazine followed suit with a cover headline, "Global Warming: Be Worried. Be Very Worried." Such excitement is shaping public opinion and even influencing the ministerial agendas of well-known evangelicals.
The Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI), a statement signed by 86 prominent Christian leaders, outlines the catastrophic dangers of global warming and cites biblically mandated stewardship as the impetus for governmental restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. Support from such highly visible sources as Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren and Foursquare Church president Jack Hayford gives the ECI an unprecedented measure of credibility among those typically leery of environmental causes.
But how exactly did so many influential, responsible evangelicals untangle the convoluted web of climate change issues? How did they develop such certainty on such a complicated matter? Perhaps they didn't.
Inundated with media interview requests following the ECI's release in early February, Mr. Warren issued an official statement outlining his reasons for signing the document. The statement betrays an aversion to specific policy, focusing on Mr. Warren's general hope that evangelicals take stewardship seriously. "He's advocating that we take a look at it and say, 'It's possible that emissions are harmful, damaging, and destructive,'" explained Peb Jackson, who has worked closely with Mr. Warren on public-policy issues for the past two years.
Such an openhanded tack deviates from the ECI position, which states unequivocally that climate change "is being caused mainly by human activities" and advocates "national legislation requiring sufficient economy-wide reductions in carbon dioxide emissions." The press release from Mr. Warren, who could not be reached for comment, moves him much closer to the camp of critics of ECI who are skeptical of unabashed certainty and want to look harder before leaping. Indeed, in response to questioning about trustworthy authorities on the issue, Mr. Jackson recommended Jay Richards, a research fellow at the Acton Institute who has publicly criticized the ECI's policy directives.
When asked for comment on that peculiar recommendation, Mr. Richards expressed little surprise: "Perhaps many of those who signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative were primarily concerned with the issue of whether we should be stewards of God's creation, which, of course, yes, that's non-negotiable. But the specific policy position, I don't know if everyone that signed it looked carefully and thought carefully about the consequences of that."
Robert W. Yarbrough, chair of the New Testament department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, signed the statement because he viewed it "as raising cautionary flags rather than making sweeping, definite, quantified pronouncements." He maligns "grossly one-sided uses of statistics that make it sound like we can remedy things with some easy top-down legislation. That wouldn't solve the problem at all." Informed that such comments echo the sentiments of ECI critics, Mr. Yarbrough responded that "any document is susceptible to being hijacked and pushed in a direction that the signatories never intended. And maybe secretly the people that drafted [the ECI] intended for it to be a front for a juggernaut of their own making. I hope that's not the case."
Mr. Yarbrough is a member of the board of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which has 53 denominational members that represent 30 million churchgoers, but he is glad that the NAE did not endorse the ECI, and instead left its recommendations a matter of individual conscience. A letter of concern from James Dobson, Chuck Colson, and other evangelical heavyweights prodded NAE president Ted Haggard to refrain from lending organizational support. Nonetheless, numerous NAE member churches circulated a bulletin insert directing churchgoers to the ECI website. Many pastors this month are employing sermon materials from ECI leaders to give their preaching a "Creation Sunday" spin.
Left-leaning organizations such as the Hewlett Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund have also offered support, each providing significant financial contributions to the ECI effort. Hewlett delivered roughly half a million dollars for print, radio, and television advertising, a gift that incensed a pair of well-known pro-life agencies. Concerned Women for America and Operation Rescue demanded ECI organizers return the money, citing Hewlett's record as a leading financial backer of such abortion-rights groups as Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights.
NAE vice president Rich Cizik defends such ECI financial partnerships as politically prudent and says they should not lead to guilt-by-association doubts of credibility. But in his same interview with WORLD, Mr. Cizik used guilt-by-association in an attempt to undermine the work of a leading global-warming skeptic, Patrick J. Michaels: "Read the Mother Jones cover story from last year on the scientists who are funded by ExxonMobil. Read where Patrick Michaels gets his funding."
Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland Church in Orlando, Fla., defended his signing of ECI on moral grounds: "Whether or not the other side is right, we're still doing the right thing because we're treating the earth with respect." Mr. Hunter views the science and economics surrounding the issue as secondary: "The moral command to take care of the earth in Genesis 2:15 really doesn't need to wait on scientific conclusion. We need to do this regardless of what the science of it is. We need to take care of the earth and do what we can to stop the pollution and accumulation of greenhouse gases, because it's just the right thing to do."
Contrary to Mr. Hunter's assertion, the ECI statement makes clear that "everything hinges on the scientific data." If reducing emissions is an unnecessary gesture that will cost so much that the poor will be hurt more than the environment is helped, is it still the right thing to do? Such uncertainty raises questions outside the expertise of most ECI signatories. Namely: How much climate change is human-induced? Will the planet warm to catastrophic levels? Are significant emissions reductions possible without serious economic repercussions?
ECI leaders have staked their position on the authority of scientific reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN-sponsored collaboration of multinational representatives. The most recent comprehensive IPCC report states that some of the climate changes in the past 50 years are attributable to human activities. The 2001 document further contends that "the projected rate and magnitude of warming and sea-level rise can be lessened by reducing greenhouse gas emissions."
The ECI statement dubs the IPCC "the world's most authoritative body of scientists and policy experts on the issue of global warming." But research scientist John Christy, a lead author on the IPCC report, disputes such a glowing endorsement: "Most of the folks in the IPCC are not climate scientists. It's luring and convenient for them to latch onto a simplified view, a Time-magazine-type view, of climate change." Mr. Christy recalls sharing a lunch table with three European representatives intent on producing a policy-directed IPCC report that would force the United States into signing the Kyoto Protocol (see sidebar). "The IPCC is supposed to be policy neutral," he told WORLD. "But if you create alarm, you kind of have an idea about what policy you want to have come out."
Much like 60 Minutes and Time magazine, the ECI claims scientific consensus in support of its position. In reality, the science is far too complex for certainty on either side. "These guys are going to try to tell you what the climate's going to be like in 2100, and the weatherman can't tell you what it's going to be like in five days," said Kenneth Chilton, director of the Institute for the Study of Economics and the Environment. "Weather is simple compared to climate. Let's get real here."
Roy Spencer, principal research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and former senior scientist for climate studies at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, believes that small amounts of global warming could benefit the earth. "There isn't enough appreciation amongst the public about the uncertainty of the science, because it's the most dramatic claims that get the most press," he told WORLD. "We know from human history, warmer is better. Now, if it warms by 10 degrees Fahrenheit, that's not good."
Mr. Spencer views competing scientific projections of climate change as exercises in futility-vain attempts to model a global system with countless unknown variables. He contends that meaningful debate on the issue must account for the economic consequences of proposed policies: "People don't realize how painful it will be to substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions."
Mr. Chilton explains that CO2-emissions reductions would dramatically increase the cost of energy, dragging "down economic growth to potentially stagnation or shrinkage. That has huge implications on people's well-being, much larger than the possibility of sea-level rise."
Anticipating such objections, the ECI calls its proposals market-based and contends that low-CO2-emitting technologies will eventually pay for themselves. ECI signatory Clive Calver, pastor of Walnut Hill Community Church in Connecticut and former president of World Relief, cites precedent in rejecting the gloomy economic projections: "Most significant contributions evangelicals have made to social change have been accompanied by dire threats of the implications of economic collapse."
The problem for many Christians is that both sides of the global warming issue have credentialed authorities who make convincing arguments. The Bible itself calls for environmental stewardship but emphasizes the importance of helping the poor and does not resolve the current debate. Most past evangelical calls to stewardship have focused on clear biblical principles, shying away from specific policy positions and generating little national media attention. The ECI's attachment of moral imperatives to federally imposed limits on greenhouse gas emissions was new, and it generated prominent coverage from most every major news outlet in the country.
That's the way Union University professor David Gushee, the original drafter of the ECI statement, wanted it: "People are OK with statements of theological and ethical principle, but as soon as you put some specific policy into association with that, then the rubber hits the road and people start taking sides. That's what's happened here." Mr. Gushee said he intentionally departed from past policy-free evangelical calls for creation care because he felt morally convicted to do so.
Evangelical members of the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, a group of prominent academics and clergy united in skepticism of global warming extremes, share no such conviction. ISA advisor P.J. Hill, an economics professor at Wheaton College, rejects making climate change policy an article of faith: "One can take very seriously the biblical mandate for stewardship and yet come down on very different sides depending on how one assesses the science and economics. The Bible does not give us the answer."
President Bush has never wavered in his defiance of the Kyoto Protocol, a voluntary emissions reductions pact signed by all seven of the other G8 nations in an effort to combat global warming. Despite international scorn, Mr. Bush has maintained that top-down emissions restrictions like those called for in Kyoto would cripple economic growth, hurting poor and rich alike.
Now, other G8 nations are struggling to meet their Kyoto commitments. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of the foremost original supporters of Kyoto, has softened his stance in light of economic damages. A recent study of Italy, Spain, Germany, and the United Kingdom projected that meeting Kyoto commitments by 2010 would increase energy costs by as much as 40 percent and eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Even if every G8 nation could reduce its emissions as outlined in Kyoto, proponents of the protocol admit the maximum projected benefit would yield no more than a 0.2-degree Fahrenheit reduction in warming over the next 50 years. And that assessment is likely overly optimistic, failing to account for a dramatic spike in emissions from China and India as they undergo their respective industrial revolutions.
At a G8 meeting in Moscow last month, the United States and Russia posed an alternative, long-term method for reducing emissions without harming economies: full-scale development of nuclear power. Environmentalists condemned the idea, citing concerns over potential power plant leaks. But nuclear power remains the only existing technology capable of significantly decreasing dependence on fossil fuels, an objective President Bush made clear in his January State of the Union address.
The goal of reducing foreign oil dependence is one shared by all sides of the climate change policy debate, suggesting a point of agreement from which to support an economy-wide transfer to renewable energy. Nuclear power will require at least two decades of development to make a significant impact, however, leaving extreme eco-pessimists unsatisfied.