Cover Story

Greener than thou

Earth Day 2006 arrives with some evangelicals making a controversial push for radical environmental legislation

Issue: "Meltdown," April 22, 2006

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.

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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."

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