July 22, 2014

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Climate Change in a Nutshell
Scientific, moral and theological implications of climate policy

Few issues in recent years have fueled public debate as has global warming. Since first registering a blip on the public radar screen in 1988, when NASA scientist James Hanson argued that its existence was undeniable, the controversial subject has generated countless professional papers, articles, television broadcasts and international conferences. Indeed, the Kyoto Protocol – designed to address global warming by reducing fossil fuel use and thus greenhouse gas emissions – has become a household word worldwide.

Global warming certainly involves fierce debates over how to interpret complicated and incomplete scientific data, and whether computer models can competently analyze complex weather and climate systems and cycles that still are not well understood. But it also features equally fulsome discussions about energy costs and the protocol’s many significant implications for nations, families and industries.

Today, another dynamic is also beginning to receive increasing attention. It is the emerging assessment of the moral and religious implications of climate change policy. Some have broached this subject in the context of doing everything possible to prevent global warming – on the assumption that climate change is occurring, it will prove catastrophic and harmful, humans are causing it, and we can avert it by reducing our reliance on fossil fuel. Other analysts, such as those whose views are presented here, take a decidedly different approach.

Moral Considerations

Responsible policies for addressing possible climate change must consider ethical questions and improve conditions for the poor, insists Paul Driessen, senior policy advisor on energy and environmental issues for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and Congress of Racial Equality. The Kyoto climate treaty could cost the world community $1 trillion a year – five times the estimated price of providing sanitation and clean drinking water to poor developing countries, thereby preventing millions of deaths each year. As global financial resources are limited, it is thus vital to weigh priorities. By making energy less reliable, affordable and accessible, the treaty will also drive up the costs of virtually every activity and consumer product, stifle economic growth, cost jobs, and impose especially harmful effects on the Earth’s poorest people.

In US Black and Hispanic communities, Kyoto could cost 1.3 million jobs in 2012 (the year it would go into effect). Sharply higher energy prices would also make it financially impossible for poor people to cool their homes during summer heat waves, causing many additional deaths.

In developing countries, 2 billion people still do not enjoy the basic necessities and conveniences that electricity makes possible: lighting, refrigeration, hospitals, schools, manufacturing, water purification and sewage treatment. This means countries cannot develop economically, says Driessen. It also means four million infants, children and mothers die every year from lung infections, due to constant pollution from their fires. Six million more perish annually from intestinal diseases, caused by unsafe water and spoiled food.

However, concerns about climate change are frequently cited to justify policies that prevent poor countries from building fossil fuel power plants. And yet, even the Kyoto Protocol would result in Earth’s temperature being only 0.2 degrees F less by 2050 than it would be without the treaty. A better approach would be to develop technologies that generate abundant, reliable energy, at lower cost and with fewer emissions – and export those technologies to poor countries.

The amazing changes in America’s heating, transportation and communication systems between 1900 and 2000 suggest how far technology is likely to advance over the next 25-100 years. This realization is a key component of the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, signed by the United States, Australia, China, India, Japan and South Korea, as a more practical alternative to Kyoto. /

Theological Guidelines

People must ensure that their Biblical moorings are solid, before venturing too far in the endorsement of specific policies, particularly when the policies can have serious consequences for human life and well-being, Dr. Calvin Beisner emphasizes. This is especially vital in the case of policies that attempt to exert control over climate, by regulating how people everywhere can use energy. An associate professor of social ethics at Knox Theological Seminary, Florida, and Founding Member of the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, Beisner presents a Biblical foundation for the moral approach advised by Driessen and the prudent scientific caution advocated by Dr. Roy Spencer (below). He outlines seven principles to guide our decision-making.

For example:

  • Our wise Creator has built multiple self-protecting and self-correcting layers into the world He gave us to use for our benefit, as responsible environmental stewards.
  • People do not merely impact the Earth and use its resources. They are also creators and innovators, who use their God-given talents and wisdom to design new technologies and improve and protect the world.
  • In deciding how to manage the Earth and its resources, the Bible requires that we consider the consequences of our actions – for wildlife, our planet and the poorest among us. We must ask, Who will make our most far-reaching decisions, on what grounds, and with what consequences? Will they be made on utilitarian or absolutist ethical grounds, with the benefit of the individual, the human community, the natural world, or the whole biosphere in mind? To whom are people accountable for the use of creation? How and to what extent can we know and ensure the consequences of our decisions?

An eighth principle, the virtue of prudence, facilitates wise and effective foresight and avoidance of true risks. “Christians who want to make a positive contribution to environmental risk assessment and reduction should learn effective ways to do it,” he stresses – and then outlines such an approach for climate change.

Global Warming Science

Thermometer coverage of the Earth is too sparse to calculate accurate global average temperatures for any period prior to 1950, says Dr. Roy Spencer, principal research scientist for the University of Alabama in Huntsville and former senior scientist for climate studies at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. This makes valid comparisons of current and past temperatures and climate cycles nearly impossible, or at least subject to great uncertainty, since differences between years and decades are often measured in tenths of a degree (within the margin of error). We do know the planet warmed several degrees between 900 and 1300, cooled between 1300 and 1650, warmed again from 1850 to about 1940, and cooled again from the 1940s until the 1970s. However, we do not know what caused these changes, how much of the recent warming is natural and how much is manmade, or what causes natural decadal and centuries-long climate cycles.

Our limited understanding also means we cannot model or predict future climate cycles with any confidence; decide today what our correct response should be to carbon dioxide or temperature increases 50 or 100 years from now; or assess whether future warming will be mostly beneficial, mostly harmful, or both. However, there is strong evidence that the Earth’s natural “greenhouse effect” acts like a blanket, working in conjunction with weather and hydrologic cycles to ensure relatively stable long-term and global averages, despite short-term and local variations. Outside factors, such as changes in the sun’s energy output, can disrupt this stability, however – bringing on periods of below normal warming or cooling.

Many scientists believe increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (due to burning fossil fuels) is likely to result in planetary warming of only 1-2 degrees Fahrenheit. A few models, however, suggest that the Earth could warm by as much as 10 degrees. Some scientists have suggested that weather processes might change in response to this warming tendency, causing storms or droughts of increased frequency or intensity. However, hurricanes, storms and droughts also have natural but poorly understood cycles; higher CO2 levels and longer growing seasons would benefit plant growth; and actions to reduce energy use would adversely affect economic growth, human health and societal well-being, while doing little to affect our climate.

All these issues and uncertainties must be considered carefully, in evaluating proposed energy policies.