Jay Richards has a helpful lecture in which he sketches a Christian perspective on the environment. I’m embedding a video at the end of this post where he gave the talk in 2007 at University of California, Davis. It’s about 45 minutes in length.
For the first twenty minutes or so he offers some general principles that all Christians should agree on. (He notes that these big-picture principles are distinct from prudential judgments and application of those principles to issues related to the environment.)
The four Christian truths he lays out are:
- The doctrines of theism and creation (Gen. 1:1; Ps. 24:1).
- Dominion (stewardship): we’re God’s crowning achievement, not a parasite on nature (Gen 1:26-27, 31; 2:15)
- The Fall affects nature: the world is not Eden, and we can mess things up (Rom. 8:20, 22)
- Redemption: Christ, the new Adam, foreshadows the kingdom to come, and the church is his body
The key question then becomes: How can we be responsible stewards and apply these principles?
He takes as a test case the question of global warming. To respond well, we first need to understand the basic claim and argument regarding climate change.
The basic claim is that climate change is catastrophic and caused by humans.
The basic argument goes like this: (1) For decades scientists have postulated that increases in carbon dioxide and other gasses have led to a greenhouse effect. (2) The temperature has risen in the 20th century, while greenhouse gasses have proliferated due to human activity. (3) Therefore, greenhouse gasses must be the cause.
How should a Christian respond?
Dr. Richards is really helpful here, because he helps us to make some distinctions instead of asking one big vague question.
Here are the four big questions we should think through:
1. Is the Earth warming?
The general answer is Yes. On a global average, we’re in a slight warming trend that started around 1850 (with a decline around 1940 to the 1970s), +.08 degrees Celsius.
2. Are we causing the Earth to warm?
It’s uncontroversial that concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere have gone up. But, correlation isn’t causation; the theory advanced for catastrophic man-man global warming doesn’t explain past climate change; and it ignores possible other causes (like solar activity).
3. Is it a bad thing if the Earth is warming?
Even if the earth is warming and we are causing it, we still have to ask if global warming is bad. The problem is, no one knows the answer to the question of what the optimum global temperature average is. Warming trends will make things better in some places and worse in others. There are always trade-offs, costs and benefits. We should remember that CO2 is plant food; it doesn’t just sit in the atmosphere but affects the growth of plants.
4. Would the advised policies make any difference?
Even if the earth is warming it, we are causing it, and warming is bad, we still need to ask this question—which most don’t do.
For example, even if every country in the world ratified the Kyoto Protocol—mandating a 5% cut in emissions from 1990 levels—the result (assuming the truth of the model) would be a trivial 0.07C drop in temperature by the year 2050—that is, a statistically negligible drop from what the model says the temperate would be otherwise in 40 years. But how much would this cost? $10—50 trillion! Compare that to the cost of worldwide sanitation of water: $200 billion.
Even if you don’t agree with Dr. Richards’s answers, I do think he is asking the right questions and advances clear thinking by making good distinctions.