Evangelicals Divided Over Climate Change

The Debate Inside the Evangelical Camp is Good, and We Need to Keep it Up

As the United Nations conducts its Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, the debate within evangelical circles has been re-engaged. This month, an ecumenical group called The Cornwall Alliance (a group that contains people from Catholic, evangelical, and Jewish faiths, connected by their affinity for conservative politics) released an “evangelical declaration” and a supporting paper that called into question the popular consensus concerning Climate Change. The original “Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship” (2000) was signed by American religious and political conservatives in the Roman Catholic, Jewish and Evangelical worlds (among them, Roman Catholics Richard John Neuhaus and Robert Sirico, Jewish leaders David Novak and Dennis Prager, and Evangelicals Calvin Beisner, Charles Colson, and James Dobson).

The evangelical arm of this ecumenical group has released what they believe reflects an evangelical understanding of the Bible as it relates to the issue of Climate Change. "An Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming" along with its supporting document, "A Renewed Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor: An Evangelical Examination of the Theology, Science, and Economics of Global Warming" have created a renewed opportunity for evangelicals to debate the issue of Climate Change, especially as the U.N. discusses how much and when nations should reduce greenhouse emissions.

This debate has been going on for a few years now. Historically, environmentalism has been an issue that evangelicals have dismissed, seeing it as something irrelevant at best and harmful at worst. When environmentalism grew as a movement in the 1980s, evangelicals saw this issue as something that non-Christians and Liberals championed because they did not understand that God had placed humans at the pinnacle of the created order. They said that as the Imago Dei, human beings have the right of dominion over the entire creation, meaning that we can use the raw materials of this planet for our own advancement. Not until recently has there been deep thought given by evangelicals as to how our exploitation of these resources actually does not reflect the image of the God who is described as having “compassion on all he has made” (Psalm 145:9).

In the 1990s, a group of leading evangelicals created a group called the Evangelical Environmental Network. Their "Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation" was signed by nearly 500 key leaders. In it they said,
"Because we await the time when even the groaning creation will be restored to wholeness, we commit ourselves to work vigorously to protect and heal that creation for the honor and glory of the Creator---whom we know dimly through creation, but meet fully through Scripture and in Christ. We and our children face a growing crisis in the health of the creation in which we are embedded, and through which, by God's grace, we are sustained. Yet we continue to degrade that creation. These degradations of creation can be summed up as 1) land degradation; 2) deforestation; 3) species extinction; 4) water degradation; 5) global toxification; 6) the alteration of atmosphere; 7) human and cultural degradation. Many of these degradations are signs that we are pressing against the finite limits God has set for creation."

In 2004, the National Association of Evangelicals issued a landmark document called “For the Health of the Nations: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.” In this declaration, we saw that the tide had turned, for among the incredible statements on how evangelicals can and should engage several social and political issues, the NAE said,
“We affirm that God-given dominion is a sacred responsibility to steward the earth and not a license to abuse the creation of which we are a part. We are not the owners of creation, but its stewards, summoned by God to “watch over and care for it” (Gen. 2:15). This implies the principle of sustainability: our uses of the Earth must be designed to conserve and renew the Earth rather than to deplete or destroy it… Because clean air, pure water, and adequate resources are crucial to public health and civic order, government has an obligation to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation. This involves both the urgent need to relieve human suffering caused by bad environmental practice. Because natural systems are extremely complex, human actions can have unexpected side effects. We must therefore approach our stewardship of creation with humility and caution. Human beings have responsibility for creation in a variety of ways. We urge Christians to shape their personal lives in creation-friendly ways: practicing effective recycling, conserving resources, and experiencing the joy of contact with nature. We urge government to encourage fuel efficiency, reduce pollution, encourage sustainable use of natural resources, and provide for the proper care of wildlife and their natural habitats.”

The politically conservative segment of evangelicalism (i.e., the Religious Right) did not agree with the NAE. The Cornwall Alliance wrote an Appeal Letter to the National Association of Evangelicals on the Issue of Global Warming, in which they said,
"We respectfully request that the NAE not adopt any official position on the issue of global climate change. Global warming is not a consensus issue, and our love for the Creator and respect for His creation does not require us to take a position. We are evangelicals and we care about God’s creation. However, we believe there should be room for Bible-believing evangelicals to disagree about the cause, severity and solutions to the global warming issue... Evangelicals are to be first and foremost messengers of the good news of the gospel to a lost and dying world. We are to promote those things that please God and oppose those things in the world that clearly violate His righteous standard of conduct. We respectfully ask that the NAE carefully consider all policy issues in which it might engage in the light of promoting unity among the Christian community and glory to God."

In that same year, Christianity Today issued an editorial ("Heat Stroke: The climate for addressing global warming is improving") in which the CT Editors wrote,
"With each passing year, we lose the ability to slow and minimize the effects of global warming. This is our Father's world, and it is filled with our brothers and sisters. Christians should make it clear to governments and businesses that we are willing to adapt our lifestyles and support steps toward changes that protect our environment."

And then in 2006, another group of evangelicals began The Evangelical Climate Initiative, with 86 evangelical leaders signing their statement, Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action. They wrote,
"As evangelicals we have hesitated to speak on this issue until we could be more certain of the science of climate change, but the signatories now believe that the evidence demands action...In the face of the breadth and depth of this scientific and governmental concern, only a small percentage of which is noted here, we are convinced that evangelicals must engage this issue without any further lingering over the basic reality of the problem or humanity’s responsibility to address it... The earth’s natural systems are resilient but not infinitely so, and human civilizations are remarkably dependent on ecological stability and well-being... Even small rises in global temperatures will have such likely impacts as: sea level rise; more frequent heat waves, droughts, and extreme weather events such as torrential rains and floods; increased tropical diseases in now-temperate regions; and hurricanes that are more intense. It could lead to significant reduction in agricultural output, especially in poor countries. Low-lying regions, indeed entire islands, could find themselves under water. (This is not to mention the various negative impacts climate change could have on God’s other creatures.) Each of these impacts increases the likelihood of refugees from flooding or famine, violent conflicts, and international instability, which could lead to more security threats to our nation. Poor nations and poor individuals have fewer resources available to cope with major challenges and threats. The consequences of global warming will therefore hit the poor the hardest."

And so, here we are in 2009, and the debate continues. The debate is stoked by what conservatives are calling "Climategate" - hacked emails and documents from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in England showing that certain scientists manipulated data, tried to get around the British version of the Freedom of Information Act, and attempted to freeze out critics by manipulating the peer review process. Those in the Religious Right see this as further evidence that scientists have anti-Christian biases. Calvin Beisner of The Cornwall Alliance is quoted in Baptist Press as saying, "The people who have fabricated or twisted or massaged the data are public servants using public funding and in the process promoting public policies in which trillions of dollars and millions of jobs and the livelihood of billions of people are at stake."

In politics, Sarah Palin's editorial in the Washington Post and Al Gore's response have added more fuel to the fire. Evangelicals should be careful not to get caught up in their bickering.

I believe it is a good thing to have an“in-house debate” about Climate Change among evangelicals. It forces us to re-examine the Bible, our presuppositions about a Christian Worldview, and how all this has a major bearing on the issues of our contemporary life.

Next, I will examine the latest documents from The Cornwall Alliance, and discuss with you what it says.

Cornwall Alliance: Fundamentalist Suspicion Toward the Scientific Community Dies Hard
Other posts of interest on "Global Warming:"
Things We Can Affirm in Cornwall Alliance's Declaration
Cornwall Alliance's Interpretation of the Imago Dei as "Dominion"
Cornwall Alliance's Denial of the Power of the FallCornwall Alliance’s “Christian Worldview”: Free Market Capitalism


Ted M. Gossard said...

All I can say is that I hope the NAE sticks to its statement. From what I gather from people more knowledgeable, there can't really be any serious debate on the change in the atmosphere and how that's affecting the climate on earth. There is some divergence as to what scope humans may be affecting it, but the overwhelming consensus is that we are. I gather that The Cornwall Alliance is more ideologically driven, than anything else.

Ted M. Gossard said...

I thought this was good, and from it, here is a good four minute summary.