The evangelical community in the United States is divided over climate change. After refusing for a year to take sides the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) is now urging the United States Government to take action on global warming (www.nae.net). Opposing evangelical groups claim the NAE does not speak for all Christians on this issue.
Given the intensity of the emotions raised and the respectability of individuals on both sides, the polarisation of the debate in the US seems unlikely to abate. What is the disagreement about and what criteria can a concerned person use to respond to the issue of global climate change?
The Evangelical Climate Initiative claim global climate change is real and caused by human activity. They claim Christians have a moral responsibility to act to reduce global warming. This statement was signed by prominent church leaders (claims summarised in Box 1, see internet reference for the complete statement).
The Interfaith Stewardship Alliance contradicts these claims, they deny the need for action to reduce the impacts of climate change (claims summarised in Box 2, see internet reference for the complete statement).
Christians have signed both documents and, being unaware of any subtle politics involved in the case, I will rely upon my understanding of the science of climate change to evaluate their competing claims.
1: The position of the Evangelical Climate Initiative
2: The position of the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance
Note that the starting point for the Evangelical Climate Initiative (Box 1) is that climate change is real and human-induced. Establishing this point is crucial to demonstrating Christians should act to reduce climate change. What is the evidence?
“Right, well, I mean surely it’s possible to set up a body that doesn’t have any vested interest in either outcome, you know, that just whats to know the truth… a lot of money ought to be put into finding out the truth of this situation.” Margaret Pomeranz in 2006 reviewing Al Gore’s movie ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ on ABC TVs ‘At the movies’.
The scientific authority on climate change is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which formed in 1988. The chairman appointed at that time was Sir John Houghton, a prominent English scientist and evangelical Christian. The IPCC sought to honestly and objectively evaluate the science of global climate change, drawing contributions from the international scientific community. The IPCC published major reports on climate change in 1990, 1995, 2001 and 2007 (www.ipcc.ch). Sir John Houghton claims “No assessments in any other scientific topic have been so thoroughly researched and reviewed” (Houghton 2005). The national science academies of Australia and the G8 countries recognize the IPCC as the world’s most reliable source of information on global climate change.
So what do the IPCC reports say? The reports show with increasing certainty that since the beginning of the industrial revolution in 1750, the concentration of carbon dioxide gas has been increasing in the atmosphere. Analysis of the carbon shows the source to be burning of fossil fuels. The data for this claim is determined from sampling of ice cores which contain trapped pockets of ancient air, laid down in undisturbed sequential layers. Scientists can compare the proportion of carbon dioxide in the ancient air to that of present day levels. The ratio of carbon isotopes within the air gives us information about past atmospheric temperatures, because some there is a correspondance between the temperature of the atmosphere and the ratio of carbon isotopes. Combined with other data sources, such as tree growth rings, scientists can build a picture of past global atmospheric composition and climate conditions. Corresponding to this rise of carbon dioxide there has been a rise in average global temperatures. Whilst natural variability has been observed in the earth’s climate, both the magnitude and the rate of rise in temperature in the last 50 years is much greater than could be caused by natural variability (Houghton 2005).
The most recent IPCC report is unambiguous in stating the link between global atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases released by human activities and warming of the global climate system. “Warming of the climate system is now unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level” (IPCC 2007 page 5). Eleven of the twelve years between 1995 and 2006 rank among the 12 warmest years recorded since thermometers began widespread use around 1850 (IPCC 2007). “Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations” (IPCC 2007 p.10). Projected temperature increases from the 1990 report (0.15 to 0.3°C per decade) for 1990 to 2005 have proven to be accurate, with the observed value being 0.2°C per decade, strengthening confidence in the ability of the IPCC to make predictions about global climate change in the near-term.
The IPCC makes predictions of future climate based upon a number of different atmospheric scenarios; the more we change the earth’s atmosphere, the more climate change we can expect. The impacts of continued release of gas emissions into the atmosphere would lead to further increases in global average temperature and changes in global climate systems. The consequences would be overwhelmingly negative: sea level rise, shrinking polar ice caps, retreating glaciers, longer and more severe droughts, more frequent intense hurricane events, the spread of tropical diseases into subtropical zones and possible changes in ocean currents and global weather patterns. Changes in greenhouse gas emissions now and in the future will determine how far we go down this path of global climate change.
The number of experts contributing to the IPCC reports is very impressive, the complete 2007 report will have included work from 1250 authors (including non-scientists) reviewed by over 2500 scientific expert reviewers, and will represent the work from over 130 countries. All scientific content in the reports is peer reviewed and debated before publication. The IPCC has objectively identified which areas of climate change are less well understood and channelled research effort into those questions. With successive reports, uncertainty has been reduced.
By 2006 the IPCC had convinced most of the world that it was time to act on global climate change, including economists (Stern review 2006) and business leaders (for example the National Australia Bank aims to be carbon neutral by 2010). The Stern Review (2006) has been particularly influential in the United Kingdom and Europe where aggression greenhouse gas emission reduction targets have now been set (the UK aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2050, as set out in their Draft Climate Change Bill of March 2007).
No-one can predict the consequences of climate change with complete certainty; but we now know enough to understand the risks. Mitigation- taking strong action to reduce emissions- must be viewed as an investment, a cost incurred now and in the coming few decades to avoid the risks of very severe consequences in the future. If these investments are made wisely, the costs will be manageable, and there will be a wide range of opportunities for growth and development along the way (Stern Report 2006; Executive Summary p. 1).
So if scientists agree that global climate change is real and caused by human activity, and that continuing to release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will have profound negative consequences, why aren’t Christians in agreement over whether to act?
The Interfaith Stewardship Alliance disagrees with the science presented in the IPCC reports. They emphasise positive benefits of global warming, uncertainties about future scenarios, the natural variation in the earth’s climate and the right of poor countries to cheap energy. They neglect to realistically consider the cost and the risk of catastrophic global climate change. They would combat sea level rise with dykes; they balance drought against increased crop growth from higher carbon dioxide levels; they think developed countries can afford to cope with increased malaria; they think more deaths will be saved by milder winters than will be caused by hot summers. This is a most optimistic view of global warming.
The most recent IPCC reports (2007; 2007a) refute the claims made by the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance. For example, global warming trends over the last 50 years are related to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to human burning of fossil fuels (IPCC 2007 pages 2-6), and cannot be accounted for by natural causes as the Alliance claims. Most worrying is their referral to material by Bjørn Lomborg, a political scientist from Denmark who claims the global environment isn’t in the serious condition that environmentalists would have you believe (Lomborg 2001). As a scientist I am disturbed to see a Christian group seeing the evidence of the IPCC through the lens of Lomberg. His claims have been consistently refuted by environmental scientists (see for example Schneider 2002 who refutes Lomborg’s chapter on global warming). Lomborg is accused by scientists of taking facts out of context, selectively considering studies which support his views, and making false arguments based on a simplified understanding of environmental science (Lovejoy 2006, Rennie 2006, Bongaards 2006, Schneider 2006). In a recent presentation to a United States Government subcommittee on climate change Lomborg has shifted from criticising the science of global warming to criticising Al Gore’s movie (Lomborg 2007). In this submission he begins by stating “Global warming is real and man-made” (Lomborg 2007 p. 1), but goes on to propose a simplistic and optimistic solution for global warming, where nations commit to research and development on new energy technologies rather than taking steps to reduce their output of greenhouse gases.
So who do we believe? I recommend Christians read the IPCC reports available on the internet (www.ipcc.ch), and consider carefully the implications of not responding to climate change. Particularly worrying are the impacts of global climate change predicted for Africa and Asia by the IPCC (2007a). Climate change will decrease rainfall over large parts of Africa, with somewhere between 75 and 250 million people exposed to an increase in water stress by 2020. Meanwhile in Asia, the availability of freshwater could decrease across Central, South, East and Southeast Asia, affecting a billion people by 2050. Dr Michael Oppenheimer from Princeton University has said that “Climate change will only make every other problem worse.” (Oppenheimer 2005). The decision not to act to reduce global climate change is not to be taken lightly. I personally will not risk catastrophic changes to the climate system of future generations and will do my utmost to encourage Christians to reduce their contribution to global climate change.
A recent publication “Common belief: Australia’s Faith Communities on Climate Change” acknowledged that there is a need in our community for “… a dialogue on the morality of climate change.” (The Climate Institute 2006, p. 5). There is a sense that science is not enough to convince us to respond to global climate change, and we need moral arguments.
There are many moral issues to consider. Given that industrialised nations have obtained so much wealth from exploiting natural resources in the past (which have contributed to global climate change), is it to restrict access of developing nations to fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases? Do industrialised nations have a moral responsibility to show leadership in developing new technologies that generate energy without the use of fossil fuels? Who will be responsible for the environmental refugees from areas inundated by sea level rise? How do we distribute food fairly if global agricultural production is reduced by climate change?
Australian Christians have a chance to move on from arguing about whether climate change is real and contribute to these emerging debates. Critical to Australia will be how to distribute already limited freshwater supplies, how to resettle displaced communities from Pacific Island nations, how to care for an already depressed rural sector, how to deal with outbreaks of tropical disease such as malaria in northern Australia.
Whilst other religions may approach global climate change as a moral problem solved by prescribing ‘rules’ of behaviour, Christians have a unique gospel solution. We are confident of forgiveness when we are prepared to repent of the greed and selfishness that leads us into environmental ‘sin’. Released from guilt, we can resolve to reduce our own contribution to global climate change and we are free to work towards protecting those who will be profoundly disadvantaged by changes to the global climate system.
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.
(Internet references were current on 24 April 2007)
Bogaarts, J. 2002. Population: ignoring its impact. Scientific American 286(1): 67-69.
Evangelical Climate Initiative. 2006. Climate change: an evangelical call to action. http://www.christiansandclimate.org/statement
Interfaith Stewardship Alliance. 2006. A call to truth, prudence and protection of the poor: an evangelical response to global warming. (www.interfaithstewardship.org/pdf/CalltoTruth.pdf).
IPCC 2007. Climate change 2007. The physical science basis. Summary for Policymakers. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (http://www.ipcc.ch/WG1_SPM_17Apr07.pdf)
IPCC 2007 (a). Climate change 2007. Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Summary for Policymakers. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (http://www.ipcc.ch/SPM13apr07.pdf)
Houghton, Sir John. 2005. Climate change: a Christian challenge and opportunity. Presentation by Sir John Houghton to the National Association of Evangelicals, Washington DC, March 2005 (http://www.christiansandclimate.org/resources/brief).
Lomborg, Bjorn. 2002. The sceptical environmentalist. Cambridge University Press.
Lomborg, Bjorn. 2007. Perspective on Climate Change. Prepared for the US Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality joint hearing with the subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the Committee on Science and Technology on Wednesday March 21, 2007. (http://www.copenhagenconsensus.com/Files/Filer/Bjorn/Perspective_on_Climate_Change_Lomborg_Final.pdf).
Lovejoy, T. J. 2002. Biodiversity: dismissing scientific process. Scientific American 286(1): 69-71.
National Australia Bank 2007. “National Australia Bank aims to be carbon neutral by 2010”; (http://www.nabgroup.com/0,,85556,00.html).
Oppenheimer, M. 2005. www.eurekalert.org/expertchat/talk.php. Copyright 2005 by AAAS, the Science society.
Pomeranz, M. 2006. Movie review for ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ found at www.abc.net.au/atthemovies/txt/s1720229.htm
Rennie, J. 2002. Misleading math about the earth. Scientific American 286(1): 61
Schneider, S. 2002. Global warming: neglecting the complexities. Scientific American 286(1): 62-65.
Stern, N. 2006. Stern review on the economic impacts of climate change. (http://hm-treasury.gov.uk/independent_reviews/stern_review_economics_climate_change/sternreview_index.cfm).
The Climate Institute. 2006 “Common belief: Australia’s Faith Communities on Climate Change”.
United Kingdom Draft Climate Change Bill, March 2007. Found at http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/cm70/7040/7040.pdf
Comments will be approved before showing up.