Saturday, November 6, 2010

Christians, the Care of Creation, and Global Climate Change---A Review

Christians, The Care of Creation, and Global Climate Change is yet another work dedicated to exhorting Evangelical Christians to take environmental issues seriously and more particularly, to support efforts to reduce behaviors contributing to global climate change.  

The book is a compilation of a series articles separated into two sections. The first section contains articles from a panel discussion on global climate change that occurred at Wheaton College (Chicago) in 2007. The articles confront the difficulty in proving that humans are in fact responsible for climate change and that greenhouse gasses (Carbon dioxide in particular) are responsible for such change. Ultimately, the authors suggest that the evidence, though short of proof, is so overwhelming that one must be ideologically motivated to deny the evidence and the resultant conclusion, namely humans need to act now to reduce carbon emissions in order to forestall a global environmental catastrophe. Since it is written for Christians by Christians, frequent appeals to helping one’s “poorer” neighbor and caring for God’s creation are repeated in evangelistic fashion.
Articles in the second section cover the transition at Wheaton College, a major evangelical school of higher education, from being neutral on the subject of climate change to a supporter of those wearing the mantle of being “green”.  The articles explain why Conservative Christians need not be afraid of science, the problems presented by opportunity cost in trying make “green” choices, and why Evangelical Christians have historically been silent on environmental issues. 

On the positive side, the book does a pretty good job explaining the theory of Global Climate Change and how it relates to greenhouse gasses. I thought the authors, though true believers, did a responsible job in not overstating the significance of the Climate Change evidence. I also appreciated the candor of Ben Lowe who in his article “An Unlikely Tree Hugger” forthrightly acknowledged the complexities surrounding the decisions related to making green choices.  

Overall, however, I was rather disappointed with the text on a number of fronts. First, the authors never thoroughly engaged all four questions posed by the ACTON Institute regarding global climate change that are critical to any moral discussion on the subject. I will paraphrase them for readers here. 1. Is climate change occurring? 2. Is it a bad thing? 3. Are humans the cause? 4. Can we do anything about it? To be fair, the authors dealt with the first three questions, albeit not with equal fervor or balance. For example, rising oceans will negatively affect island countries but warmer temperatures will help extend growing seasons elsewhere. Question 4 was only touched upon. I recall reading where even if the Kyoto Treaty was enacted as written (without Nations reneging on their deals), we would only push out the consequences 5 years.  In other words, we have so much carbon in the system now, that even if our output of additional carbon was neutral (a monumental challenge) we would still bear the effects that are called catastrophic by the global warming folks. So my question is, if the boat is going to sink anyway, is there any real value in trying to bail water with a spoon? Or would your time be better spent trying to make plans for the inevitable?

The second problem stems from the authors trying to burden Christians with yet additional moral laws. I find it interesting that fundamentalists are always being accused of being legalists and adding rules to the faith. Yet, here we have non-fundamentalist Christians seeking to do the same. Every time I want to drive my car do I have to stop and think, “Is this trip worth killing the planet for?” Is this what Christ meant when he said His yoke was easy and his burden was light? In the same manner, did the conference sponsors consider the impact the conference and book publishing would have on the environment? Or did they think it was necessary to burn fossil fuels and kill trees for a bigger cause? I don’t doubt the sincerity or dedication to Christ of the individuals involved. I consider myself a rather radical environmentalist (e.g. I believe the U.S. should ban new road construction and simply fix what we have), but I don’t see stewardship in the way these authors seem to. Stewardship involves my time and resources. Sure it may be nice to recycle. But if it costs you more in dollars and time than the value of what you protect, how does that honor God? In fact, one wonders if the effort to recycle some items actually increases overall damage to the planet. 

To be sure not every decision can be or should be seen in dollars and cents, but certainly it must play an important part because economics is really about resource management. I was also disappointed that the authors didn’t consider how the immorality and godlessness in parts of the world affected their environmental condition. Scripture is replete with stories of how the land suffered not because of poor farming practices but because the people failed to be honest etc. One need only think of the corruption rampant in many African countries to see how corruption has environmental effects. I think Christians need to be cautious of adopting a deistic view of God when we discuss environmental issues. 

Certainly much more can be said on this important topic. I would just conclude by noting that the subject merits a deeper conversation. Additionally, I would add a reminder that many people who do not accept the theory of global warming may be good environmentalists and care for it. The issue is not whether we should care for God’s creation, but how such care should be administered.

Stephen M. Vantassel is a tutor of theology at King’s Evangelical Divinity School. He specializes in environmental-theology. His latest book delves into the animal use and animal rights debate.

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