The Nation's Pulse

Nothing New Under the Sun

Evangelicals spar over global warming -- and some are having second thoughts.

By 7.31.06

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WASHINGTON -- Keenly aware that evangelicals are now a key voting bloc, conservative and liberal religionists are trying to capture their attention on Global Warming.

Earlier this year, the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI) enlisted about 85 prominent evangelicals, most of them academics, to embrace worst case scenarios about climate change, along with the requisite increased government regulation that the environmental left craves. The more prominent signers to ECI included mega-church pastor Rick Warren, Sojourners' activist Jim Wallis, "emerging church" leader Brian McLaren, World Vision President Richard Stearns and Pentecostal leader Jack Hayford.

The ECI's "call to action" asserted that human created carbon emissions are the "main" cause of global warming, that climate change will be "catastrophic" for humanity, that reducing human produced carbon dioxide will curtail global warming, and that mandatory government controls on emissions are vital to reversing climate change.

In others words, ECI endorsed all the central premises of the environmental left.

ECI was widely trumpeted as a signaling a break-up in conservative political domination of evangelicals. But the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (ISA) has responded by organizing 135 evangelicals and scientists to dispute ECI's claims. At a Washington, D.C. press conference last week, ISA countered that global warming is probably fueled mostly by natural causes, is moderate and not catastrophic, and government-mandated emission controls would hardly affect the climate, while potentially curtailing economic growth and perpetuating global poverty.

"Yes, we know there is global warming, but there is no 'Catastrohpic Human Induced Global Warming' consensus," said ISA organizer Calvin Beisner. "Therefore, it is futile to act as if emergency action is the only way to save the earth from some kind of 'tipping point' disaster."

"My intention was not to try to present this as evangelical left vs. right," said Beisner, who teaches social ethics at Knox Seminary in Fort Lauderdale. "We have...the same worldview, theology, ethics and motivation. We read the scientific...data differently and, therefore, we come to different proposals."

Signers of the new ISA statement included Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council; the Rev. D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and former Interior Secretary and Energy Secretary Donald Hodel.

ECI responded to ISA somewhat dismissively. "It is the conviction of the leaders who signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative that the ISA statement is a repetition of outdated sentiments not based on the current scientific consensus that human-induced climate change is a serious problem that requires action now," said ECI's spokesman Jim Jewell.

"Our Commitment to Jesus Christ Compels Us to Solve the Global Warming Crisis," headlined ECI's full-page ad in the New York Times in February. If nothing else, ECI's goals are ambitious. According to the ad, man-made pollution is having a "dramatic effect on the earth's climate." If unchecked, global warming will create "more intense hurricanes, more devastating floods, resulting in millions of deaths in this century."

ECI's statement also warns that global warming "increases the likelihood of refugees from flooding or famine, violent conflicts, and international instability, which could lead to more security threats to our nation."

ISA signer Kenneth Chilton, at the ISA press conference, responded to ECI's fulsome claims by pointing out that predicting tomorrow's weather is difficult enough. Predicting temperatures of future decades is nearly impossible. Chilton, who directs the Institute for the Study of Economics and the Environment at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, said, "We have limited resources and unlimited wants, so we've got to make choices." He urged evangelicals to focus on tangible programs to reduce global poverty. "Poor people," he explained, "pollute to survive."

Chilton and other ISA signers asserted that giving the world's poor access to electricity, including refrigeration for food and air conditioning, is a far more pressing concern than the more nebulous goal of affecting climate change. But some ECI signers, he fretted, actually oppose getting electricity to the world's poor because they fear the increased power use will only feed global warming. The end result of reducing carbon emissions would be to confine hundreds of millions to perpetual poverty and shortened life spans.

Another ISA signer, the Rev. Abdul Karim Sesay, a native of Sierra Leone, reinforced Chilton's point, pointing out that many Africans are given small rations of energy that are not sufficient to refrigerate food or regulate indoor temperature in any season. The result is illness and premature death for millions. The hundreds of billions that climate change activists would spend to counteract global warming could instead be spent on more directly raising the standards of life for millions of the world's poor, ISA asserts.

ISA claims that some evangelicals endorsed ECI without a lot of forethought and now regret it. One ECI signer, Bishop Wellington Boone of the Father's House in Norcross, Georgia, has withdrawn his signature from ECI and added it to ISA. ISA hopes that others will follow.

ECI, as it appeals to evangelicals, is sensitive about not appearing to be another environmental movement of the left. Its website's question and answer section specifically asks: "Does addressing climate change mean we're becoming liberals?" The answer is a clear "no." It goes on to say that "climate change is not a liberal issue. It is a profound problem for people Jesus loves, people Jesus died to save." The section also specifies that ECI is NOT "working with environmentalists, and are critical of some of their views and approaches." But, "we do not rule out working with environmentalists and anyone else of goodwill in the future. "

In fact, a number of ECI's signers are already well established political liberals, such as Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren, Jim Ball of the "What Would Jesus Drive" campaign and Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action,. As to not working with environmentalists, Sider's Evangelical Environmental Network has partnered with the leftist National Council of Churches since 1993 as part of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE). Left-wing foundations fund both the NRPE and ECI. It would seem unlikely that ECI will not fall into the usual coalitions of the left on environmental issues.

In times past, some evangelicals invited ridicule by foretelling imminent doom if listeners did not repent. The ECI seems to fall into that same dubious tradition, warning of climate catastrophe if government regulation of carbon emissions is not stepped up. Hopefully, ISA will help temper the heated rhetoric about global warming, and remind evangelicals of Ecclesiastes 1:9: "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun."

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.