Can Evangelicals Explore Climate Warnings Without Fear?

Written by Rev. Charles Redfern
Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern: writer, pastor, activist

The coal mine’s canary is hacking, spitting, gasping, and turning blue – so yell at it.  Question its motives.  Tell it the fumes are imaginary.  Drop hints that it’s wheezing a heretical wheeze.

Cold reality prompts the canary’s cough.  Fact: The world’s glaciers are shrinking.  Fact: The polar ice caps are melting.  Fact: 2012 was America’s warmest recorded year and the world’s ninth hottest.[1]  Another fact: Peter Doran and Maggie Kendall Zimmerman discovered that 97% of all active climatologists are agreed – human activity spurs the Earth’s rising temperatures and glacial melting.[2]  Then there are the reports: A federal advisory draft released in January, 2013, predicted catastrophe unless policies change,[3] as did a World Bank warning in November, 2012.[4]  A recent UN study reveals that this century’s first decade was the hottest in 160 years.[5]

These facts and reports – as well as droughts and a super storm – resemble that poor canary, whose death signaled dangerous methane levels and the need for action.

This Is Easy

Surely evangelical Christians, my tribe, can explore this dilemma without fear. No historic creed is at stake and Scripture advocates creation care:  We’re the Lord’s designated stewards (Genesis 1:27-30).  We were called to “guard” God’s sanctuary (a more literal rendering of the wording in Genesis 2:15).  Our Earthly rule fits Walter Kaiser’s description: “The gift of ‘dominion’ over nature was not intended to be a license to use or abuse selfishly the created order in any way men and women saw fit. In no sense were humans to be bullies and laws to themselves.”[6]  Kaiser is right: God’s leadership motif is “help” (Psalm 121:1-2), and service (Matthew 20:28). Psalm 19:1-4 testifies to God’s glory in creation and Romans 8:18-22 looks forward to its redemption.  Kudos to Francis of Assisi, who cherished the animals and plants.

And just to make sure everything’s on the up-and-up, we’ve had our inside people: Sir John Houghton, an evangelical, co-chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, one of the important agencies issuing alerts.[7]  Katharine Hayhoe, a Billy Graham fan,[8] pastor’s wife, and Texas Tech university professor, has served as an IPCC reviewer.

The evidence, the Bible, and historic Christianity motivated 280 leaders to sign the petition, “Climate Change, An Evangelical Call to Action.”[9]  The names read like an evangelical VIP litany: Andy Crouch of Christianity Today; Jack Hayford of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel; Gordon P. Hugenberger of Parkstreet Church in Boston; Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church; Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College; Gordon MacDonald, editor-at-large for Leadership Magazine; David Neff, editor of Christianity Today; Tri Robinson, pastor of the Boise Vineyard; Berten Waggoner, National Director, Vineyard USA; and Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback.  To name a few.  What’s more, 44 Southern Baptist leaders, including the Convention’s current president and two past presidents, signed the initiative, “A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change.”

A Wrench Is Thrown

But something is amiss.  In some circles, calling attention to the hacking canary betrays skewed orthodoxy and questionable patriotism, swaying many: I was once blasted as a “liberal” (perish the thought) because I agreed with these two assertions:

  • “There is now a broad consensus in this country, and indeed in the world, that global warming is happening, that it is a serious problem, and that humans are causing it,”[10]
  • and, “we agree that climate change is real and threatens our economy and national security.”[11]

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona wrote the first quote in 2007, along with Senator Joe Lieberman.  Republican Senator Lindsay Graham wrote the second in 2009 along with Democrat John Kerry.  The senators, along with retired generals and admirals alarmed about climate change’s potential security concerns[12] implicitly invite us to behold the opportunity: We can shelve annoying labels.  Let’s brew enough caffeine to spike our blood pressure, roll in the whiteboards, and brainstorm while pacing back and forth with our Alpha personalities on full display …

No.  I’m “liberal.”  I’ve failed a vague orthodoxy test, which means I’m worse than erroneous:  I’m suspect.  Forget evidence, the biblical mandate for stewarding creation, precedent, and recognized authorities.  According to a 2007 CNN article, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Institute speculated that climate change is part of a leftist agenda threatening evangelical unity.[13]  Jerry Falwell proclaimed this from his pulpit on February 25 of that year: “I am today raising a flag of opposition to this alarmism about global warming and urging all believers to refuse to be duped by these ‘earthism’ worshippers.”[14]  Calvin Beisner, head of the misnamed Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, suggested the worries are “an insult to God.”[15] He also insinuated that diminishing our oil dependence aligns us with the unfaithful steward of Matthew 25:14-30.[16] After all, the oil is there: God gave it to us.  We should use it (the same logic would render us fickle if we fail to smoke marijuana as well; after all, it’s there for the asking).  His organization veers close to rendering anthropogenic  climate change a theological impossibility in its Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming: “We believe Earth and its ecosystems—created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence — are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory.  Earth’s climate system is no exception. Recent global warming is one of many natural cycles of warming and cooling in geologic history.”[17]

That’s naïve.  History shows that our species is not immune to world-wide calamity: Nature and human activity wed in a ghoulish marriage during the fourteenth century.  Commerce flowed over new trade routes between East and West, conveying flea-bearing rats.  The fleas leaped onto humans and infected them with the Black Death.  Roughly half of all Europe died.

I long to ask: Who defines unity?  Is assessing evidence and asking questions inherently disruptive?   Is it wrong to seek solutions to a potentially grave problem – especially since there are virtually no doctrinal risks (Beisner notwithstanding)?  Apparently, yes.  I’m a pagan “earthism worshipper.”   I’m divisive and part of a leftist plot – never mind that Perkins was flourishing a rhetorical ploy with a one-two punch: levy a nebulous charge no one can disprove; then, as the opponent reels, accuse him of divisiveness.  Any challenge fulfills the charge.  Few can stay calm and ask: Who is calling whom names?  Who flings the accusations and mows down the straw men?  Who is really divisive?

But none of those questions stem the accusatory tide.  Deniers of climate change grab any real or imagined flaw.  I’ve been warned, over coffee and doughnuts, that I’m falling prey to Al Gore, who, apparently, is evil incarnate and wields hypnotic power.  The ice caps will recover if he vanishes just like the Vietnam War would have evaporated if Dan Rather fell into quicksand. I try to tell people I’ve never seen An Inconvenient Truth, but no one believes me.

Gotcha … Maybe Not

For a brief moment in 2009, it looked like the climate change deniers were onto something.  Computer hackers stole more than 1,000 e-mails from a research unit at Great Britain’s University of East Anglia.  The e-mails, dating back some 13 years, held reams of information, “everything from the mundanities of climate-data collection to comments on international scientific politics to strongly worded criticisms by climate-change doubters,” to quote Bryan Walsh of Time.[18]  There seemed to be references to oppressing opposition, withholding information, pressuring editorial boards of academic journals, and skewing research.  Besides, the e-mails weren’t nice.

The unit’s head, Phil Jones, took a leave of absence pending an investigation.

As it turns out, parliamentary and university investigations exonerated Jones.  Perhaps he could have been more forthcoming and more couth, but, in the words of the parliamentary committee: “In the context of sharing data and methodologies, we consider Professor Jones’s actions were in line with common practice in the climate science community.”[19]  References to performing research “tricks” were in-house slang for legitimate scientific procedures – and yes, Jones and his e-mail partners were a little rough.  In other words, boys will be boys – especially when they don’t anticipate the theft of their private e-mails.

What a scandal.

Who Made Me An Expert?

I hear the cry: “You’re not a scientist!”  How true – and I would love to be proven wrong.  Scramble up some eggs and smear them on my face – but do it with firm evidence, not with conspiracy theory and hints and allegations.  And remember, Perkins is no scientist either; nor was Falwell before he left us, bless him; nor is Beisner.  Their dark suspicions about doctrinal error and earth worship and leftist plots involve character assassination, not genuine argument.

Christopher Monckton, a British climate change denier, is no scientist either – although he’s been hailed by the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, and Rush Limbaugh – and he’s often quoted to counter-balance the climatologist majority.  Johann Hari adds this: “When challenged, Monckton has admitted to a weakness for ‘telling stories that aren’t actually true.’”[20]

Facing Ourselves

Evangelicals such as I can be prim, irritating finger-waggers.  My forbears in the faith frowned on alcohol, cigars, cigarettes, and carousing.  We lectured theological liberals because, in our view, they wandered from the Bible.  We cried out against immorality, and we were the anti-materialists.  I’m sure many folded their I-told-you-so arms when the US Surgeon General first warned of smoking – and again when the secular world began preaching on alcohol’s hazards.  We were sometimes overbearing and silly, but – after apologizing – we can at least feel moral vindication.

Not now.  Beisner, Perkins, and others still hold influence.  They would have us believe in the same type of propaganda that the tobacco companies preached in the 1950’s.  We’re ignoring God’s first commandment to humanity as long as we remain in their pall.  To put it bluntly, we’re in a state of disobedience; we’re no different from the theological “liberals” we’ve decried.  It’s time we stop judging and start repenting – before the canary breathes its last.

 

This article appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Christian Ethics Today, and is reprinted by permission. Charles Redfern is a veteran writer, pastor, and activist. His current writing focuses on the intersection of religion, culture, and politics — with an eye toward the growth of a deeper social and environmental consciousness among evangelical Christians.  He graduated magna-cum-laude from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1989; ordained by the ABCUSA and CCCC.  He is an associate member of the Religion Newswriters Association, a member of the Evangelical/Catholic group that drafted “A Joint Declaration on Life,” signed the “The Evangelical Climate Initiative;” a steering committee member of The Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs; a board member, Inter-Religious Eco-Justice network; and a panelist, “Interfaith Conference on Climate Change” in April, 2013, sponsored by Rhode Island Interfaith Power and Light. 

End Notes


[1] See the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration National Climatic Data Center’s, “State of the Climate National Overview Annual 2012,” issued on January 8, 2013,  http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/national/2012/13; and Neela Banerjee, “2012 was among the 10 hottest years on record globally,” Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/news/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-higher-global-temperatures-nasa-noaa-20120115,0,7943007.story.

[2] Doran, Peter; Kendall Zimmerman, Maggie, “Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Eos, Volume 90, Number 3, January 2009, pages 21-22.

[3] See Justin Gillis, “An Alarm in the Offing on Climate Change,” New York Times Green: A Blog About Energy and the Environment, http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/14/an-alarm-in-the-offing-on-climate-change/, January 14, 2013.  The full draft, overseen by the 60-person National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee, is found here: http://ncadac.globalchange.gov/.

[4] Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, Turn Down The Heat: Why a 4oC World Must Be Avoided, Washington DC: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank, November, 2012, http://climatechange.worldbank.org/sites/default/files/Turn_Down_the_heat_Why_a_4_degree_centrigrade_warmer_world_must_be_avoided.pdf; cf., Howard Schneider, “World Bank warns of ‘4-degree’ threshold of global temperature increase,” The Washington Post, November 19, 2012, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-11-19/business/35506100_1_celsius-climate-change-temperature.  Also see Juliet Eilperin, “World on track for nearly 11-degree temperature rise, energy expert says,” Washington Post, November 28, 2011, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2011-11-28/national/35282761_1_celsius-climate-talks-energy-expert

[5] UN News Center, “New UN report cites ‘unprecedented climate extremes’ over past decade,” http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=45330#.Ud1eNvmkq9Z, July 3, 2013.

[6] Walter Kaiser, Peter Davids, FF Bruce, Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible, (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1996), p. 89.

[7] See Houghton’s presentation,“Climate Change: A Christian Challenge and Opportunity,” Presentation to the National Association of Evangelicals, Washington DC, March 2005, http://creationcare.org/resources/climate/houghton.php.  See also Jim Ball, ”Interview with Sir John Houghton on the Mall in Washington, DC, March 11, 2005,” http://creationcare.org/resources/climate/houghton_interview.php.

[8] See the video, “Ten Questions for Katharine Hayhoe,” at The Biologos Forum: Science and Faith in Dialogue, http://biologos.org/blog/kathryn-hayhoe-evangelical-christians-climate-scientist, November 9, 2012.  Hayhoe also wrote, with Andrew Farley, A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Discussions (New York, Boston, and Nashville: FaithWords, 2009), which explains climate change without technical jargon.  She accomplishes the same thing in a youtube video of her talk at a chapel service: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9c2kXMdgAkc.

[9] Goodstein, Laurie, “Evangelical Leaders Join Global Warming Initiative,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/08/national/08warm.html, February 8, 2006.

[10] John McCain; Joe Liebermann, “The Turning Point on Global Warming,” The Boston Globe, February 13, 2007. http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2007/02/13/the_turning_point_on_global_warming/

[11] John Kerry; Lindsey Graham, “Yes We Can (Pass Climate Change Legislation),” New York Times, October 10, 2009,  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/11/opinion/11kerrygraham.html.

[12] A Report submitted by 11 retired generals and admirals: “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change,” http://www.npr.org/documents/2007/apr/security_climate.pdf

[13] CNN, “Global Warming Gap Among Evangelicals Widens,” March 14, 2007, http://www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/03/14/evangelical.rift/index.html.

[14] Adelle M. Banks, “Dobson, Others Seek Ouster of NAE Vice President,” Religion News Service, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/marchweb-only/109-53.0.html, 3/2, 2007.

[15] See “Beisner: Believing in Climate Change is an Insult to God,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6Q6vkxs3XQ

[16] See “Fisher & Beisner: Not Using Fossil Fuels Is An Insult to God,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpDd_Kq_vRk.

[18] Bryan Walsh,“Has ‘Climategate’ Been Overblown?” Time Magazine, http://www.time.com, December 7, 2009.

[19] Joe Romm, “House of Commons exonerates Phil Jones,” ThinkProgress: Climate Progress, http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2010/03/30/205732/house-of-commons-exonerates-climate-scientist-phil-jones/, March 30, 2010.

[20] Johann Hari, “Climategate Claptrap II,” The Nation, April 15, 2010, http://www.thenation.com/article/climategate-claptrap-ii

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