Analysis: A Heated Debate

Climate change and the Christian dialogue

by Breanna Beers

For the past few decades, one question has dominated environmental policy worldwide: Is the climate getting warmer?

“The answer is yes,” biology professor Dr. Bill Jones said definitively. “The real issue is, to what level are humans responsible for this?”

On this question, Jones continued, the evidence is mixed. On one hand, pollution has dramatically increased since the Industrial Revolution. The warming effect of greenhouse gases is a known phenomenon; it’s just a question of how great an impact it really has on the temperature data scientists are seeing.

“We’re putting millions of tons of carbon compounds into the air,” Jones said. “You can’t think that nothing is going to happen.”

However, while man clearly has at least some role in climate change, the environment may also contribute to global warming, independent of human activity. According to Jones, the climate tends to shift by a few degrees every 1,500-2,000 years between warmer and cooler cycles. Some scientists suggest that the current trend may simply be the earth entering a new warm phase; others counter that the recent spike in global temperatures happened much too fast to be solely natural.

The current climate data can’t definitively prove the effects of either human or environmental contribution to global warming; it only shows that climate change is happening. So how serious a risk does it actually pose?

Jones described several ways global warming is slowly beginning to affect the experiences and livelihood of people around the globe. There are nine fewer frosty days on average for Ohio farmers, for example, which could lead to an additional crop cycle and/or the earlier invasion of insects and pests. Mosquitos are taking on new dormancy patterns in the north and tuna are moving into arctic waters. While these may seem like tiny, insignificant shifts, they have a greater impact than many guess.

These small but cumulative effects of climate change slip under the radar for many of us, said biology professor Dr. Mark Gathany. The majority of Americans don’t live in areas or work in industries that demonstrate daily evidence of the effects of climate change. Besides, he said, America has more resources than most countries to cope with these changes

“We live most of our lives in 70 degrees anyways, winter or summer,” Gathany said. “It will be more of a problem for other people internationally than it will be for us, because we’ll have the money to adapt where other nations won’t. But if you travel abroad, you’ll talk to people who are feeling it already.”

Gathany described crop irregularities in southern Africa leading to famines, melting of glaciers in the Andes disrupting local ecosystems, and droughts in Sudan triggering waves of political violence. The creation mandate in Genesis 1:28 calls us to stewardship of the earth, Gathany said — not for the sake of the earth itself, but for our common good and for God’s glory. Caring for the environment is caring for people.

However, when it comes to predicting what will happen if this trend continues, Jones was hesitant to make any outright assertions. He emphasized that while predictions have value, it is important to recognize them as what they are: guesses about a fundamentally unknowable future, based on models with a limited amount of data.

“As believers, we ought to start looking at ways to address this issue,” Jones said. “But there’s been a lot of speculation in the past that hasn’t come to fruition, so I’m cautious about speculating on what’s going to happen in the future.”

[infographic design by Tasha Peterson]

Enter the politicians. A 2012 study by Yale professor Dan Kahan and several co-authors published in the journal “Nature Climate Change” found that scientific literacy, mathematical skills, and logical reasoning abilities had little to no effect on Americans’ concern about climate change. What did? Political party.

Kahan and his co-authors found that when participants were sorted based on their answers to various questions designed to reveal political positions, the results became clear: hierarchical-individualists (aka Republicans) tended to see little danger attached to climate change, while egalitarian-communitarians (aka Democrats) tended to respond with more concern.

Politics professor Dr. Marc Clauson was unsurprised by these findings; the politicization of this issue was inevitable in an age of pettily polarized debate. Climate change is an ideal campaign issue, he said, due to the emotional response of voters, the extremist views at either end, and the subjectivity of the data to interpretation.

“It’s good for getting elected,” Clauson said. “Neither side wants to go toward a moderate position; they both want to move toward opposite poles to oppose each other and to draw the voters they need to draw. And then we don’t even think; we just use the parties as our proxies.”

The Kahan study also found that, counterintuitively, both views tended to strengthen their positions with increased scientific literacy. In other words, more educated Republicans tended to be less concerned about climate change than their less scientifically minded counterparts, while more educated Democrats were moreso.

These results show that there are intelligent, informed individuals on both sides of the debate — and that these people are even more talented than the rest of us at organizing the facts to fit their own ideas — what Kahan calls “motivated reasoning.” When engaging with issues such as climate change, theology professor Dr. J.R. Gilhooly cautioned Christians in particular against letting their ideology become their identity before the outside world.

“It’s common in these discussions for there to be a viewpoint that becomes necessary to have to maintain the identity,” Gilhooly said. “Then, from the perspective of the outsider, they see our view on something like climate change as being essentially of the same importance to us as our view on, for example, the authority of Scripture. And they shouldn’t be the same in importance.”
While Christians can and should be actively involved in the political sphere, Gilhooly said, too many believers consider themselves Christian conservatives rather than conservative Christians. The confusion of political agenda with biblical worldview becomes a turnoff to unbelievers from going anywhere near the church.

“We want to be careful about letting the gospel be in the center, and if there’s implications for gospel living in other areas, making a clear distinction between, ‘This is how we’re applying our best wisdom to these decisions,’ and, ‘This is essential to our identity,’” Gilhooly said. “Particularly when we’re acting as a political faction as opposed to God’s church.”
So how should Christians engage wisely in this sphere, on this issue? To an extent, that comes down to each individual’s convictions. Various solutions have been proposed, each favoring a different side in the controversial balance between industrial production and care for its costs.

Gilhooly pointed out that even if climate change is totally unaffected by human activity, it still seems like a good idea to reduce emissions, despite potential economic costs.

“I’m not sure that the pursuit of material prosperity is what constitutes human flourishing, so if there had to be a forestalling of some of these things so that we polluted less, super,” Gilhooly said.
The challenge, however, is that these economic costs do come with serious consequences — not just for individual businesses, but for the national economy.

The reality is that if climate change is truly a global phenomenon, it will take global-scale effort to slow or reverse it. However, any global climate accords, such as the Paris Agreement of 2016, are likely to give the United States an especially heavy burden as one of the world’s leading producers. While it makes sense for the U.S. to take responsibility for its contribution, Clauson said, heavy limitations on emissions often restrict economic output.

According to Clauson, as a world leader in power, profit, and pollution, the United States is caught in a catch-22 when it comes to these efforts. If the U.S. denies the restrictions imposed by a global climate agreement, other nations are incentivized to increase their production and pollution to fill the competitive gap left by the scaling back of the American economic contribution. However, if the U.S. accepts carbon restrictions, other nations are still incentivized to increase their output to compete with American industry.

Yet, according to Gathany, the environmental externalities associated with continuing to do “business as usual” have consequences that increase with every year they are left unaddressed. As of Syria’s signing in 2017, every nation in the world has ratified the Paris Climate Agreement except the United States. While some may view the burden placed on the U.S. as disproportionately heavy, analysis by Yunguang Chen and Marc A.C. Hafstead of Resources for the Future indicates that the estimated cost would be only about $20 per citizen per year.

Despite this, the current administration has declared its intent to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement in early 2019 (the soonest it is legally allowed to do so). So instead, Clauson favors a domestic solution that revolves around economists’ favorite word: incentives.

“What you need is some kind of set of institutional arrangements that will provide the right incentives for the right behavior that will lead to the right kinds of outcomes over a long period,” Clauson said.

According to Clauson, the key to effective environmental policy is giving businesses a sense of ownership over environmental resources. This looks different for different types and sizes of businesses, Clauson acknowledged, and will require careful thought for individual cases rather than the broad, bureaucratic solutions that are often proposed and often problematic.
Yet as challenging as this is, there’s also another group of nations that tend to suffer disproportionately when it comes to drafting global climate standards, even more than the United States. It’s the same group that also tends to receive the brunt of climate change’s effects: the least developed countries.

According to Clauson, these nations often have standards imposed on them by international bodies due to their dependence on foreign aid. However, excessive climate restrictions also limit these nations’ ability to economically advance, which can lock them in the cycle of poverty. Yet maybe the opposite approach would be even more effective at addressing both climate change and the economic struggles of these less developed countries: opening trade and increasing investment.

“The trend is that as nations get wealthier, they are much more concerned about environmental protection,” Clauson said. “In the long run, there will be a reduction in pollution overall, which should reduce global warming if it’s man-made. The question is, as always, how long do you want to wait? Which is more costly, in terms of lives and of human flourishing?”

In the end, many of the discussions around climate change come down to this question. Which is more costly, regulating emissions or risking greater natural disasters around the world? Which is more costly, converting to clean energy or adjusting to droughts? Which is more costly, taking a chance on a global climate agreement or genetically engineering crops to adjust to new harsh conditions? Which is more costly, creating technology to mitigate climate change or finding new ways to adapt to it?

All of this depends on each person’s views on what climate change is, how it is caused, and what its future effects may be. Clearly, there are still more questions than answers on these topics. Still, Jones encouraged believers to let biblical principles guide their thinking and their discussion, wherever they land on this issue.

“As believers, we have been guilty at times of allowing our political allegiances to cloud our biblical thinking,” Jones said. “We are first and foremost citizens of God’s kingdom … and we are reminded that we work His creation for His honor and glory.”

Breanna Beers is a sophomore molecular and cellular biology major and the interim off-campus news editor for Cedars. She loves exercising curiosity, hiking new trails, and quoting “The Princess Bride” whether it’s relevant or not.

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