Hot topic: Evangelicals debate global warming

The atmosphere within the evangelical community has been heating up since the Evangelical Climate Initiativewas introduced in early February.

The statement, which is endorsed by more than 80 prominent evangelical leaders, asserts that climate change is an urgent problem and that the Christian faith mandates a strong response to global warming. Evangelicals have been reluctant to embrace environmental activism because of its connections with liberal agendas. The group as a whole has had a general tendency to prioritize spiritual rather than social and physical concerns. As scientific data increasingly supports observations of human-induced climate change, however, many are now taking action.

“It is a very appropriate move in terms of a biblical basis and, in fact, long overdue,” said Fred Van Dyke, who teaches environmental ethics at Wheaton College. “The evangelical community has long associated the environmental agenda with a liberal agenda, but they are getting over it.”

Roy Spencer, principal research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and former senior climate scientist with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said he is concerned that the initiative focuses too strongly on activism and not enough on science. He helped the Interfaith Stewardship Alliancedraft a 19-page monograph on global warming called “An Examination of the Scientific, Ethical and Theological Implications of Climate Change Policy.”

The alliance is a coalition of religious leaders, scientists, academics and policy experts committed to applying a biblical view of stewardship to environmental issues. In the monograph, the alliance said that climate change science remains inconclusive.

“We cannot say for certain how much the planet may be warming, how much is due to human activities versus natural cycles, or whether these changes in global temperature would be mostly good or mostly bad for the majority of people,” Spencer wrote in the monograph.

Other prominent evangelical figures — such as Focus on the Family chairman James Dobson, and Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries — have also said they are concerned about the Evangelical Climate Initiative’s stance on environmental policy.

The media, in particular, has misrepresented the effort as the majority opinion among evangelicals, said Cal Beisner, an associate professor of historical theology and social ethics at Knox Theological Seminary and an adviser for the initiative. Because of this, he worked hard to discourage the 30-million member National Association of Evangelicals — which has refrained from establishing an official statement on climate change — from endorsing the initiative.

“What I would caution against is equating fidelity to the gospel of Jesus Christ with endorsement of a particular environmental scenario or policy response to it,” said Beisner. “I am concerned that the ECI’s call to action hazards crossing the line in that regard.”

Despite their differences, ECI and the alliance both state that global warming is a problem that must be addressed, and both are motivated by a concern for those living in poverty. The tension is over the appropriate policy response. ECI urges preventative action and argues mandatory emissions reduction policy is necessary to combat the progress of global warming, which will have the most impact on the poor living in low-lying coastal regions.

The alliance argues it is more prudent to invest in technology that will allow humanity to cope with a changed global climate. It also says mandatory emissions reduction policy will force a general increase in the prices of all goods and services that depend on energy as a production factor – therefore, having the largest negative impact on the world’s poor

“Right now we have a government that has done nothing effective about global warming and doesn’t listen to people like me — scientists,” said Mark Cane, professor of earth and climate science, and academic board member of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “They do listen to evangelicals, however, so [the Evangelical Climate Initiative] plays an important saving role.”


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* In this lecture from my Fall 2011 Ethics class at Marist College, we start Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and discuss the range of answers to the question: What is Happiness? We also discuss means, ends, and disciplines.

Ethics: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, book 1 Ethics: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, book 1

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