One of the things that’s been interesting about following the discussion on Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ is the polarizing effect on Christians elicited by the very issue of climate change. That’s quite apart from a certain to-be-anticipated “No Popery” stance in some of the internet comments (including some from self-labelled Catholics). Opposition by some Christians to claims of global warming is not news, but is still an interesting cultural phenomenon, especially since (as a “religious position”) it’s largely confined to North Americam believers. Some of the objections, in my view, are related to the doctrine of creation, as particularly understood in America, so are worthy of discussion here.
This post will take the form of comments upon some of the arguments I’ve come across as they have been used specifically by Christians, because in a world full of controversies over scientific matters what interests me is why this particular one gets believers waxing polemic, in a manner that’s only really comparable to the evolution issue. In the latter, the reasons are plain and much discussed here, boiling down to the threat that evolution is held to pose to traditional Christian doctrine whether from atheists (and mainstream educators) who insist it does and push secularism, or from Creationists who insist it does and reject or re-interpret the science, or from Theistic Evolutionists who insist it does and busy themselves re-inventing Christian teaching to comply fully with the current paradigm.
On the surface, climate change appears to have nothing like such radical theological implications, whether it be true or false; or at least no more so than other issues like GM crops (not controversial in the US where they are common, but much more so in Europe, which is why the Pope spent several paragraphs on the issue), stem-cell research or Big Pharma. All of these, laudably, have interest groups critiquing them in America, but not especially widely amongst Christians. Yet there seems to be a significant linkage between Bad Evolution and Bad Climate Change in many minds. Why?
That’s not to say most Christians think that way. A recent survey on climate change views can be found here. I guess one could broadly say that, although in all groups those persuaded that climate change is real and significant are in a majority, opposition grows the more Evangelical one gets – which is certainly not noticeably the case over here in Britain. I’m also interested in the difference between black and white Protestants, though it would have been helpful if the “black” group had been divided the same way as the two “white” Protestant categories. So in summary, Christian non-scientist rejection of the climate change hypothesis, especially the anthropogenic claim, is largely an Evangelical (and possibly a white Evangelical) thing.
The commonest accusation made about climate change is that it’s a fraud being perpetrated in the interests of a cabal of climate-change scientists, big business and self-interested governments, or any combination of these. This is the charge seen most commonly amongst those most opposed to it, including those over here like the Sunday Telegraph‘s Christopher Brooker. Now this is by no means far-fetched, given the track-record of corporations involved in everything from tobacco to oil or pharmaceuticals of doctoring, hiding or falsifying evidence, and moral failures amongst the scientists in their pay. Neither is it an idle claim that too close a political and financial relationship between Science and State is no healthier than one between Church and State.
Corruption in any form is, and has always been, a concern of Christian morality. But if that is so, the fact that worldwide corruption overall costs an estimated $2.6 trillion annually (5% of world GDP), then one would expect US Evangelicals to be more vocal on that than they are. I note, however, that the Pope’s encyclical refers to it as an evil to be eradicated – his moral concerns are admirably broad. A conspiracy on global warming would, then, be an evil to be opposed by those concerned, but why one of special interest to believers?
Perhaps one reason is another plank in the “conspiracy” case – the threat to individual freedom, “freedom” being a trigger-word second-to-none in any American context. There is a good deal of talk about government’s interference in people’s accustomed way of life, and this certainly is seen as a priority in other issues on which Evangelicals have strong opinions. I’ve said before that it’s decidely odd, from this side of the Atlantic, to see how both gun-control and state health-care provision are seen as issues of Christian liberty by so many in the US, when we benefit so much from both not only here, but across Europe, and view the statistics on gun deaths and uneven health-care from America with sadness. Even our licence-funded BBC, which for all its faults I’d rate higher than any US station for impartiality, is seen by many in America as the tool of a totalitarian state. Well, maybe.
However this view of political freedom is not, theologically, that relevant to Christianity at all. Christian freedom is liberation from all the oppression of sin (whether from others or from within) into free obedience to God’s will. In fact, the “autonomy” discussion matches more closely the purely political American Republican-Democrat party divide. It is not wrong for individual believers to favour a political party; it’s slightly more concerning for someone whose citizenship is supposedly in heaven to observe a close correlation between their choice of denomination and prevalent voting patterns. It’s most worrying of all if ones political theory shapes ones doctrine rather than vice versa. This is, of course, equally the case if one supports a climate-change agenda simply because one votes Democrat like all your church does, or the opposite.
Related to these “secular” arguments regarding climate change is that which suggests that scientific scares have happened before, and have always proved false, such as acid rain, global cooling and the like. Things got better despite the doom-mongers. Once again, there is no religious element to this argument. Undoubtedly scientific consensus, like all human prognostication, has a propensity to get things wrong. But it’s easy to forget that in most cases, things have improved because scientific predictions were taken seriously and acted upon: CFCs were banned, pesticides controlled, whale-hunting limited, nuclear explosions curtailed and so on. Sy Garte’s excellent book Where We Stand contains many good instances of this principle. In my view, it’s a demonstration of the the truth in creation doctrine that, sin’s rapaciousness notwithstanding, humans neither desire, nor succeed in, an escape from their role as custodians of the earth. Many of those who laboured for such changes were, of course, believers consciously doing the work of the Kingdom. And complacent custodians are the bad guys in God’s kingdom, not the good guys.
One particularly “theological” argument I saw recently against changing our behaviour because of climate change was the claim that God has given us fossil fuels for the benefit of mankind, and that therefore it is our right, and almost our duty, to use them. This does, of course, tap right into creation doctrine, but in the same way as the man’s claim in 1 Corinthians 6: “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food.” Paul does not deny that, but still condemns gluttony: all the worlds resources were given us on the conditionthat we would steward them wisely and well, and (crucially) for the benefit of all men and the creation itself.
There is little disagreement, even amongst scientists not involved in climatology, that the use of fossil fuels at the levels that are now spreading from the developed world to the rest are unsustainable. Nobody is looking beyond a century or two into the future for their effective exhaustion: trusting to some new energy fix is, by no stretch of the imagination, stewarding God-given resources properly. And in addition, releasing 4 billion years worth of carbon into the atmosphere in one go ought to be expected to undo whatever terra-forming God has undertaken in the past.
Climate change aside, the same kind of projections point to the need for radical changes to many aspects of the industrialised living of the last two centuries. I used to write for a magazine edited by Dr Clifford Hill, a sociologist and pastor with a prophetic ministry, who shook the Evangelical Charismatic community long before “global warming” with a book whose first part simply documented the exponential trends in various parameters like population, pollution and so on, showing a remarkable end-point around the middle of this century. Given his viewpoint, he used this data to indicate the shortness of the time before the Lord’s final return, but man’s role in rushing headlong to destruction was a given. His call to repentance and change was as valid in the material as in the spiritual sphere.
Some of the Christian opposition to such lifestyle change, based on disbelieving at least the climate change agenda, seems to be either that we are not powerful enough as a species to damage God’s world, or that he is so powerful that he will not let us. I don’t see that either holds water in theological terms. We were created to be the rulers and subduers of the earth God had made for us. The whole story of the Fall, in relation to our physical environment, is of our corrupting it to the point where it was worthy of destruction, and of failing to transform it for the better in a way that would seem to be even beyond our current capabilities. In other words, we are by nature very powerful beings. I’ve even speculated that the “powers and principalities” so terrible in the Bible were originally servants of mankind, either harnessed to evil or allowed to operate uncontrolled because of our sin.
As for God’s providence limiting our misusue of power, I have no doubt it is very active. But I also know that it is the character of God’s reprobation on humanity to punish them by giving them over to the results of their sin. Nothing in Scripture tells us we are incapable of making the world an extremely unpleasant place to live. And that is all that most serious global warming supporters predict.
On the other hand, at least one commenter on BioLogos saw the danger of swallowing the climate change pill as encouraging a totalitarian world government to emerge: mankind could be world-changing in that manner, at least. He even saw evidence for this conspiracy in the Pope’s advocation of international co-operation. I suppose this reflects apocalyptic fears of the kingdom of Antichrist (are we called to prevent that, or simply warned to expect it?), but by that reasoning any international treaties, or such things as global vaccination campaigns, are to be seen more of a threat than constant wars would be. The truth is that even the recent experience of the European Union and the Eurozone demonstrates that forming a world government would be akin to herding cats. We can’t even keep the Scots onside here. I’d like to see how the unification negotiations between NATO and the ISIS caliphate panned out!
A final argument, more often unspoken, I suspect, is the idea that since this world is scheduled for destruction anyway, climate change is only a symptom of what is inevitable. Indeed, the quicker the world ends, the quicker God will institute the new one. This “pie in the sky” theology is, of course, just the view that is resolutely contested by Richard Middleton in A New Heaven and a New Earth. On the first principles of Christian teaching it’s nonsense, for the Christian is called to model the values of the Kingdom here and now: medical healing is a model of the abundant health of the age to come, political liberation a token of the liberty of the sons of God, and wise management of resources a sign to the world of how things ought to be, and will be when this world is renewed. The man who said, “Eat drink and be merry” received his judgement that very night for not being rich towards God with his resources, according to the Lord Jesus.
These are some of the motivations I’ve seen for Christians for rejecting anthropogenic climate change. Some of them are quite legitimate, and are worthy to be brought into the light by Christians. Some are very dubious indeed – as indeed might be the case had I discussed instead those Christians who argue vehemently for the reality of climate change. For when it comes down to it, the old gremlin creeps into the equation – that nearly all of us are trying to judge a scientific question from the outside. As in the case of evolution, much of the time we’re choosing whose authority we’re going to accept. Even if I read the scientific literature, I’m reading it as someone outside the professional loop, and I know what that means because I was once in a scientific profession. I’m persuaded, or not persuaded, and the experts I consult on either side either persuade me, or they don’t. If I accept the consensus, I do so knowing that many consensuses before have proved false. But if I go with the minority, that’s equally or more prone to eventual debunking.
I don’t know for certain how strong the case for climate change really is. At times I’m very suspicious of the way that science is being pursued nowadays. But what I do know is that wherever the truth lies it’s more likely to impact on my worldly interests than the exercise or spreading of my faith. Personally I prefer to side with Pope Francis in following the precautionary principle when there is doubt, especially when that principle seems to coincide a lot more closely with Christian virtues of justice, moderation and stewardship than does the value system we have at present, which has already produced immense suffering and unprecedented environmental harm. I might well be wrong in that, but I’m less likely to cause harm by acting on it than by generating CO2 recklessly on rather nebulous grounds.