Religion and Global Warming: A Wager

This column also ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum.

Sometime this fall, HarperCollins’ imprint, HarperOne, will be releasing a “Green Bible,” in which all of the scriptural passages that speak to the Christian responsibility to care for creation will be printed in green letters. Also bound between the eco-friendly covers of this Bible will be several essays and a couple of poems by great Christian thinkers such as St. Francis, Desmond Tutu, and Wendell Berry.

Last week HarperOne interviewed me for a short video that will be used as part of its advance publicity for the Green Bible.  During the interview I had to answer questions about the connection between faith and environmentalism, and for the most part, I think I gave responses worthy of my being the pastor of one of the most intentionally and publicly green Presbyterian congregations in the United States (and perhaps the world).

On one question, however, I think I stumbled: “why,” the interviewer asked, “should Christians care about global warming?” For an answer I sort of mumbled through what I hoped would make for a good sound byte, something about global warming being an issue in which care for the earth and care for humanity intersect. It’s not a bad answer, but my thoughts about global warming are a little more complex than the answer I gave.

What I know of the science is very basic: humans consume fossil fuels which emit carbon dioxide, which acts as a natural insulator in the earth’s atmosphere. When there is too much carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere it is as if the earth is wearing a wool cardigan on a hot day. Things on earth heat up. Polar ice melts. Low-lying population centers flood. Micronesia disappears. Hurricanes blow with greater force. Crops fail.

“Not so fast,” say a vocal minority of scientists. “Fluctuations in the earth’s climate are naturally occurring. They are caused by a host of factors, including volcanoes, changes in earth’s orbital path, and variations in the intensity of the sun’s heat. Humans,” it is argued, “have only a marginal impact on the earth’s temperature.”

When it comes to the science of global warming I am a spectator. I’ve a good enough education to know when I’m confused and when I don’t understand the issues well enough to articulate an argument one way or another. Ask me what John Calvin had to say about God’s creation and I’ll talk ‘til you wish you hadn’t inquired. Ask me for a well articulated opinion on the science of climate change and you’ll get the licked lips and shifting eyes of the under-informed.

I have played enough Yahtzee, however, to know what it looks like to roll the dice; the odds are in favor of being responsible stewards of creation.  If we change our lifestyles and enact changes in public policy by heeding the warnings of those who blame the human consumption of fossil fuels for global warming and we find that later that the scientists were wrong—that we changed needlessly—nothing bad will have happened to us. We’ll be driving fewer SUV’s and we’ll be developing more technology to harness renewable energy sources. We may end up owning less stuff, living in smaller houses and in closer proximity to one another. We might even start eating more organic veggies and less meat. It may be an inconvenience for some of us, but all us will breathe cleaner air and most of us will be healthier and have more disposable income.

If, however, we disregard the warning of scientists and pundits who tell us that human consumption causes global warming and find out later that they were right all along, we’re screwed. I’m not willing to roll those dice. The risks are too high. I value the wellbeing of future generations way too much to risk the possibility that most of the world’s climate scientists are correct in blaming human consumption for global warming.

This is a lot like Pascal’s wager. Blaise Pascal was a seventeenth century French philosopher who suggested that it was reasonable for a person to accept Christianity because if a person embraced the Christian faith and, in the end, Christianity ended up being a farce, there was nothing lost. The misguided believer will have lived a moral life with no eternal reward. If, however, a person rejected Christianity and ended up making the wrong decision, the result could be eternal perdition.

We always can go back to our wanton consumption of fossil fuel after it has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt that humans aren’t causing global warming; but we may never be able to fix a broken earth.

Because the Bible calls Christians to care for the earth as its stewards—curators of God’s artistry—I cannot, in good faith, support any public policy or live any lifestyle that does not try to reduce greenhouse gasses. You don’t have to read the Bible to come to this conclusion; you just have to know when to roll the dice.

14 thoughts on “Religion and Global Warming: A Wager

  1. I have heard a lot of arguments for the reduction of human activities that harm our global environment, but this is the first I’ve read asking us, whether or not we believe in the human impact, what have we got to lose? (I like this argument, by the way.) Mom told us to eat our vegetables to grow up healthy – we were kids, had no proof (from our limited perspective) it was true, but had to take it on faith (or no dessert!) Many learned folks have stacks of data demonstrating the deterioration of our planet, with evidence that 6.5 billion people are having a large impact. For a lot of us, this data is enough to cause us to change our lifestyles. I’ve talked to others that dismiss it out of hand, claiming that it can’t be true and they see no reason to change the way they live and act. These feelings are often anchored by political beliefs. Ben’s argument is not limited to Christian beliefs – it appeals to any thoughtful person. I wonder if this argument can appeal to those with strong political beliefs?

    The health of the Global Environment has become very political. Ben is appealing as a religious and community leader. What happens when political beliefs and religious beliefs clash within the same person or group? Do you think that, these days, political beliefs sometimes/often trump religious beliefs? In today’s partisan politics, many people are only willing to listen to messages by those sharing their own political beliefs. Are folks’ religion seen as a neutral party to them, or will they only listen to a message from a religious leader if it agrees with what they already think?

  2. Steve,

    Thanks for the post!

    In addition to politics, I’ve found that a persons opinion of Al Gore is another determining factor in what she or he will think of global warming.

    Cheers,

    Ben

  3. Interesting and provocative blog, Ben!

    “…or will they only listen to a message from a religious leader if it agrees with what they already think?”

    Yes, Steve, I will. Ben is my pastor, and my friend. He and I also are diametrically opposed, politically, most of the time. But mostly I still listen to what he has to say, if only to question his theses and their underpinnings.

    Ben, mea culpa re: opinions about Al Gore — and for that matter, most of the left. It’s not a matter of whether global warming is a fact of science; from all I’ve read, I’m not sure. But the prudent move is to take it at least somewhat seriously. And therein lies the problem.

    How is one to take seriously the pronouncements of any politician — and in so-called “environmental” matters, invariably those on the left — when they tell us to do as they do, not as they say? I’ll start taking Gore seriously when he stops framing his global warming argument in terms of absolute fact (in other words, to argue against his premise is to take a position that the earth is flat). And especially, I’ll take him a little more seriously when he abandons his 12,500-square foot compound for a 1,500-square-foot manse like mine; when he gives up his four SUVs; and when he starts traveling on commercial airlines, not in private jets.

    Coda: Regarding private jets and protestations about environmental well-being, how can anyone take Nancy Pelosi seriously when she opposes off-shore drilling while also requesting her own private mega-jet (operated at my expense as a taxpayer, of course) for her frequent cross-country flights?

    Bill Leonard

  4. Thanks, Bill.

    I’d like for all public office holders (including the President) to take commercial flights, though to be fair, I’m not sure that always would save taxpayers money–The president, for example, usually travels with a large enough group to fill two planes. The logistics involved in getting him anywhere on a commercial flight would be difficult–nearly impossible.

    I don’t know what the Speaker’s needs are in terms of seating. I don’t know how big a group she travels with, but I suspect that she could fly United, and should.

    As for Al Gore, he may or may not be a hypocrite, but it has absolutely no bearing on weather or not he’s right about global warming. Some of our more strident friends forget this!

    Cheers,

    Ben

  5. Ben,

    “Warming” is so 10 minutes ago Ben, as the Earth isn’t warming a new term was needed so that any and all undesirable weather can be blamed on man.

    Your commentary collapses because of a basic logical error.

    Blaise Pascal’s wager was about an individual voluntarily making a personal choice. I have no issue with individuals doing things to reduce their carbon footprint that do not harm others.

    Any actions scaled to deal with theoretical will have to on the scale of nations and societies. The action will require massive growth and centralization of government power. It will require coercive actions and sanctions. It will not be voluntary, it will be enforced. There will be profound changes imposed on society, and the economy. Rushed, crisis responses make for bad laws and often foolish actions. The law of unintended consequences will be ever-present. The biofuels initiative has led to food shortages and riots. Rain forest is being cleared to grow oil palms. This is just the beginning.

    The data refuting the theory of anthropogenic global climate change are mounting and being embraced by a growing roster of respected scientists. For every scientists slandered as a “denier” because of some vague corporate connection, there are two warming alarmists who depend on grants that would be unavailable if the reported no warming. There never was a consensus, and consensus is not scientific method.

    The naturally driven warming period that followed the Little Ice Age is ending. NASA climate alarmist Hansen has admitted to cooking the data. The hottest year of the 20th century was 1934. There has been no measurable warming since 2001. Satellites are measuring cooling temperatures, only badly, almost comically, located and poorly audited ground stations show heating. The Earth was warmer 1000 years ago than it is projected to become by the flawed computer models. No catastrophe occurred, I fact, humanity flourished, and the Renaissance became possible.

    Randy

  6. Randy,

    I stand by my logic, though I’m not sure where the you find fault with it. Pascual’s wager is an apt analogy so long as people can made communal decisions and in a democracy this is possible. Besides, the notion of “personal religion” may be a bit more recent than Pascual (I’d have to check my books), so it’s possible that I’m not so far off as you may think.

    As I said in my column I cannot be a judge of the science. If what you say is true–if evidence contradicting the idea of global warming is so cut and dry,than I am sure the consensus of the scientific community will swing in a relatively short time, and we’ll all be able to trade in our hybrids for SUV’s.

    I should point out that governmental regulations in the interest of the environment don’t necessarily go hand in hand with big government. China’s government may be the largest, most centrally controlled government in the world right now, and they have exercised almost no control over pollution, mainly because they don’t care what the people think.

    Even in our country, it usually (or at least often) is the voters who demand stricter environmental standards while the the government, pandering to business interests tries to relax standards. I can give you lots of examples: local people want to preserve forests, government sells timber rights for a song; the people of California want better fuel efficiency standards in our state (and our Governor agrees); the feds tell us we cannot set fuel efficiency standards as we might wish. Residents in coastal areas don’t want offshore oil drilling; The feds are constantly trying to make it possible for big oil to drill.

    So if greenhouse emissions are cut, it may not be as bad as you think. It might end up being like the government regulations of particulate emissions: I never wish my car had a dirty tail pipe. I don’t consider it a burden to pump unleaded gas. I am happy that air quality is better than it was thirty years ago, however, and I’m really happy I’m not breathing Chinese air.

    And I’m still betting that cutting greenhouse gases is safer, just in case the evidence you sight is not as airtight as it seems.

    Cheers,

    Ben

  7. Thank you for the answer, Bill. My questions are genuine, as I see more and more partisan rhetoric in public discourse, and less and less critical thinking. That, paired with a recent book discussing trends of us living more and more with those whose point of view we agree with, led me to wonder if we are becoming a more polarized society that refuses to listen to points of view not aligned with our own. I am encouraged to see a couple of replies that indicate that my experiences are not universal, and that folks are still willing to discuss different points of view.

    Regarding your coda, keep in mind that Pelosi is #3 in line for the President’s Office, and also that her predecessor started flying in a private Air Force jet after 9/11 for security reasons – it’s all about post-9/11 security. When Cheney starts flying Coach, then Pelosi can. (Also, arguments that point out that her jet is bigger neglect to point out that she has to fly much farther than Hasert did to get home from D.C., and needs a bigger plane to do so.)

  8. Thanks for your reply, Steve. I assure you, I never forget that loathsome Nancy Pelosi is, unfortunately, No. 3 in the succession lineup. I also never forget that she and the rest of the Democrat-controlled Congress have done nothing whatsoever about inaugurating a badly-needed energy policy for this country. And once again, those grandees have taken a lengthy vacation — one that will, for all intents and purposes, last until 2009.

    Ben, my problem with your offshore drilling position is this: we have a lot of oil and especially, natural gas offshore. By not going after it ourselves, while implementing a comprehensive national energy policy, we are, de facto, surrendering offshore drilling to those who will — and are, as I type this. Would you rather it happen under federally regulated auspices, or would you rather it happen under the auspices of Venezuela, or Nigeria, or Saudi Arabia, or Russia? Keep in mind that even an additional million gallons of oil per day is $100,000,000 or so that doesn’t go into the pockets of Mideast oil shieks.

    Perhaps you misunderstand the motives of the Chinese government. They are building as many cheap, dirty, polluting coal-fired plants as they can, not because they don’t care what the people think, but in fact because they are terrified of what their people think — and the government’s survival depends on it. The devil’s bargain comes to this: the Chinese people will put up with considerable ongoing repression as long as the standard of living continues to increase. Such increases won’t continue without, among other things, adequate energy supplies. The Chinese government sees little other choice; it will not, after all, voluntarily surrender power. Given the realities of the modern world, it is doing everything it can to retain power. (It also is continuing to grow its military; logically, one might question why — but that’s a separate conversation.)

    Cheers,

    Bill

  9. Steve makes a good point: Dick Cheney gets a plane and he has no commute. Also, the security issue is making me reconsider what I think of elected officials riding coach. If having someone like Nancy Pelosi on board makes a plane a target, then it’s not fair to other passengers for her to ride coach. I’ll think about that one.

    Bill, the trouble is that no amount of drilling for Oil in US waters will slow the drilling that happens places like Venezuela and Nigeria. It might lower the price of oil a bit (thought not for a long time–see below), but even if the US supplied all of our own oil, the human rights abuses and shoddy drilling practices will go on because even at ten dollars a barrel oil wells are profitable.

    Drilling for oil only puts off for tomorrow the hard decisions and sacrifices that we could (and should) make today.

    Drilling for oil won’t do anything to increase oil supply (and therefore bring down the price of oil) for many years. It takes a long time to build a rig and dig a well. If we want immediate relief for gas prices, we need to drive slower and less often. By the time oil wells are up an running in places like the Mendocino coast the crisis could be over.

    Onward!

    Ben

  10. So I went over to Snopes to check out what they had to say about Al Gore’s energy use. Here’s some interesting points that should be considered before anyone gets too excited around calling Al Gore a hypocrite: first, he buys his energy from renewable sources. Second, he works from home, so his regular daily commute is carbon free.

    But more than that I’ve been thinking about how some people seem to think that Al Gore’s personal inconsistency around energy consumption somehow calls into question the notion that humans are causing global warming. Would the claims Al Gore is making suddenly become credible, reliable science if Al shut up and Ed Begley Jr started doing all of the talking?

    Ben

  11. I know this article is about Global Warming, but I have to respond to the statement above regarding our energy policy.

    There is a general misunderstanding that anyone (Democrats, OPEC, Saddam, Mickey Mouse) but the oil companies are responsible for lack of more petroleum. Oil companies want to stockpile leases, and they give millions to Republican to do this (its no coincidence that a group of oil execs gave $285,000 to a McCain “victory party” fund on June 10, 6 days before McCain reversed his stance on off-shore drilling.) They know this will only be harder once Bush and Co. are out of office. They can drill on 68 million acres right now, much of it off-shore, much of it in Alaska, all of it could double our output – why don’t they? Even if they did produce more crude oil, they don’t have the refinery capacity – many have been closed in the past two decades with oil at $10-$20/barrel, to improve profits. Now oil is very profitable – it costs maybe $50 to produce a barrel of oil that sells for twice that – that’s very profitable.

    You can also blame oil traders. When Sen. Phil Gramm unshackled oil trading, it allowed unchecked price run-ups (this initiative was funded by Enron). In the 80’s, about 20% of the oil purchased was resold. Now, 65% of the oil purchase is resold, sometimes 20 times. That’s how the prices run up.

    What about the sacred Strategic Oil Reserve. Oil was released in the recent past 3 times: by Pres. Bush Sr. in 1991, which lowered prices by 33%, by Pres. Clinton in 2000, driving down prices by 19%, and by Pres. Bush (with Republican congress) in 2005, resulting in a price drop of 9%.

    Note also that lowering the national speed limit to 55 MPH would result in a savings of at least 700,000 barrels of oil per day – the amount pumped out of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, daily.

    So Democrats submit 13 bills to improve the energy situation, including one to force oil companies to use the leases they got (something even children understand: “eat your vegatables or you get no dessert”), one to cap energy commodity trading (to remove the Enron Loophole), one to tap into the strategic oil reserve, and one to lower the speed limit ot 55 MPH. Republicans not only voted “nay” but strong-armed those in their party who might want to make a differnce into standing with the GOP.

    So what’s the point of reconvening Congress? Rep. and minority leader John Boehner is asking his members to stay behind, yet he himself has been spending hundreds in greens fees out on the golf course. Way to make a statement.

  12. Ben,

    I think Snopes let you down this time. The statement that Gore uses only energy from renewable resources seems to comes only from a Gore spokesman. OK, let the Gore contingent prove it.

    The reality: renewable resources, used exclusively, happen only if,

    1. You have a solar, wind or hydro generating plant in your backyard; or

    2. You have a specifically dedicated transmission line from such a plant into your compound.

    Otherwise, the statement is simply bullshit.

    Understand: solar, wind and other sources go into the regional, and interconnected, national grid. The grid feeds to local companies, who deliver power to you via transmission and distribution lines.

    Solar, wind, low-head hydro, et al may feed power into the grid — but it is like streams feeding into the Ohio, the Mississippi or the Missouri. What you get really get is a water (or to extend the analogy, energy) that combines its product from all sources, “clean” and “dirty.” Sorry if any greens lurking here are disappointed, but that’s the way it works in the real world.

    (A note to lurkers/contributors: I am retired from the gas and electric power industry. I have been following developments for nearly 30 years, and I know how the systems work.)

    Steve:

    At no point in your reply do you actually acknowledge, let alone address the reality that:

    1. The country has no comprehensive national energy strategy , one that considers all options; and

    2. We need one, but our elected grandees of all stripes are nothing absolutely nothing to promote or generate one.

    Bill

  13. Bill,

    I agree wholeheartedly with your last two points. We need a better strategy and our elected leaders have not given us one. I suspect they have become too reliant upon petro-dollars to do what is right.

    As to your other points, I don’t get how greener sources for electricity don’t make the whole system greener. To use your metaphor, the Ohio River is only as clean as its tributaries. If one tributary is cleaned up, the whole river is cleaner, even if it is only a very little bit. Sure, one clean stream doesn’t make the whole river potable, but you have to start somewhere.

    Ben

  14. Nancy Pelosi is a great lady who is now sitting in the hotseat that once was occupied by Dennis Hastart. She doesn’t smoke, drink fire-water, or sleep around. She’s my kind of Lady leader. After the Fall elections she will have a solid majority to work with in the House; then you can look for active Democratic leadership on environmental issues that affect our future. What we have been working with for the last two years is gridlock. This too, will pass!

    I look for a time when it will be unpatriotic to drive a vehical that gets less than 50 miles a gallon or travels more than 50 miles an hour.

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