Why I signed that evangelical scientists' letter on climate change

Clayton Carlson

Jordan Ballor
July 25, 2013

Stewardship is a matter that calls not just for the knowledge of physical sciences, but also insights from social sciences (e.g. economics, politics) as well as the wisdom of prudential judgment.

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
July 25, 2013

Care to expand a bit on that, Jordan? I'm thinking you might have your previous TC post on this topic in mind? http://thinkchristian.net/climate-change-and-the-church/

Jordan Ballor
July 25, 2013

Sure. I just mean that invoking the biblical principle of "stewardship," while certainly true and relevant, is not sufficient to make a particular course of political action morally obligatory. I appreciate that Dr. Carlson is speaking for himself out his own Christian conviction and signed this letter as part of advocacy related to an advocacy group, which obviates some of the concerns related to "church-based" advocacy in my TC post linked above.

The question of the "data" cannot simply be bracketed (and then assumed), however, concluding simply via "stewardship" that "we need to act to lower greenhouse gas emissions" via political action. The question of data is important, but relevant data is also not limited to ice core samples (or the findings of natural science more broadly).

James Gilmore
July 25, 2013

--"The question of the 'data' cannot simply be bracketed (and then assumed), however, concluding simply via 'stewardship' that 'we need to act to lower greenhouse gas emissions' via political action."--

Does it change if we use terms like "survival," or "preventing massive human suffering," or "leaving a planet that will be habitable by human beings in two centuries," instead of "stewardship"?

Social sciences like politics, economics, et cetera are great, but let's acknowledge that they are contingent sciences, dependent on the existence of some kind of human culture—whereas, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson is fond of saying, the thing about [physical] science is that it's true whether you want it to be or not.

The data clearly indicates a warming planet and clearly shows the processes by which that warming is taking place. No physical scientist, if looking at the science in an unbiased way, can honestly deny that anthropogenic global warming is taking place due to greenhouse gas emissions.

Once you accept that this is immutable, inflexible reality, then it's clear we have to do something about it if we can. Dithering over whether to call it "stewardship," "survival," or just "preventing untold human suffering," seems to me a bit like being on a ship heading straight at an iceberg, arguing about whether we want to turn the ship because we want to protect the passengers or because the designer of the boat didn't intend for it to hit icebergs. Let's turn the ship first, and then worry about why we did it.

July 25, 2013

Based on the reasons that Dr. Carlson gave here it seems to me that we should find any and every cause that could potentially cause some impact to the environment/world or our children and petition the government to look more critically at it. If we decide to ask the government to regulate every thing which impacts our world and environment there is no end to the petitions we would need to write. While I certainly agree that we should take the stewardship of the Earth very seriously as a God given command we should not automatically seek to ask the government to look more critically at every issue which may have an impact on how wise of stewards we are. Stewardship and posterity are good reasons to look closely at an issue, but I also think hard data is first needed to even determine if this is an issue or not. Otherwise I am emotionally reacting to any subject I want to pull out of the air and petition the government about. Just my thoughts.

James Gilmore
July 25, 2013

--"Based on the reasons that Dr. Carlson gave here it seems to me that we should find any and every cause that could potentially cause some impact to the environment/world or our children and petition the government to look more critically at it."--

You write as if global warming is a small-scale threat to our quality of life. It's not. There is ample evidence that if the trend continues as it has been for the past few decades, hundreds of millions—if not billions—of people will suffer and die, resources like food and fresh water will grow significantly more scarce, and the world our children inherit will be significantly less habitable, less peaceful, and less bountiful than the one we inherited from our parents. Global warming represents, quite literally, an existential threat to life as we know it.

--"I also think hard data is first needed to even determine if this is an issue or not."--

There is no shortage of hard data available to anyone who wishes to see it. This is science, not a matter of opinion.

--"we should not automatically seek to ask the government to look more critically at every issue which may have an impact on how wise of stewards we are."--

Who else should we ask, then? If every Christian in America went 100% carbon-free tomorrow, that still wouldn't stop the coal power plants from belching out greenhouse gases. What other entity has the authority to stand in the way of those who would put their own private self-interest ahead of the interest of humanity?

Clay Carlson
July 25, 2013

Hi DrPhil,

My point here is really that I think we, as believers, should be the most cautious when it comes to the health of God's creation. The science makes a strong argument for human caused global climate change, but even if we only believe 10% of the science that should be plenty. Followers of Christ should be the first to keep an eye out for a threat to God's world and our children's inheritance.

The point of the post is that, for Christians, the science should be enough by this point. We have to do something. In the last paragraph I list areas that need change. It starts with families and churches. I don't think this is a problem that will be fixed with just a new set of laws. We need change at every level, from our own decisions to federal policy.

Thanks for your thoughts.

July 25, 2013

I would think that the question of obligation comes with politics. How else do we address externalities (and that certainly is what global warming is)? In economic terms, it's the problem of the free rider. So even as say farms swelter and aquifers dry up, free-riding industry continues in its (self) destructive way.

Where I would agree with Ballor is that we do not need one-size fits all approaches, but a multiplicity of ones. We need policies that respect trade-offs with other social goods, particularly as touching the weak and the poor; and we simply need to respect the data we do have. As a Christian, I need to pay attention to what data says, it's a fundamental part of respecting Creation. It's also Incarnational: we cannot dismiss creation which God has taken on, and through which He continues to display himself sacramentally.

It would be a tragedy were we to dismiss realism about this world for the sake of ideology.

Jason Summers
July 26, 2013

I'm reminded of a discussion I had about this topic with nonscientists some years ago, most of whom were conservative Catholics leary of talk of climate change.

What I said, which I think still holds, is that there is no significant ambiguity about climate change or its clear relation to human activity. Rather, the hard questions are related to a fully faceted analysis of how to address the problem. That entails both scientific analysis (with respect to predicting outcomes of proposed remediation) in addition to assessment all of the other social factors and, frankly, a good bit of prudential judgement in the face of uncertainty. --- So I find myself, oddly enough, in partial agreement with Jordan.

The questions we must ask are about what we ought do and who ought do it. In this, Clay's last paragraph is important: the groups that hold responsibility to act are plural and the actions to remediate will be diverse.

Christians occupy a plurality of roles in society and likely will be involved with these efforts within multiple groups. This is not the "church-based advocacy" Jordan fears so deeply. Rather, it is an appropriately pluriform acting of Christians within their various spheres of competency. Christians who are scientists ought make statements as scientists.

Of course, speaking as scientists, thy can only address certain aspects of policy prescriptions (i.e., likely outcomes of various scenarios). But, they have other roles too, as citizens, for example, in which their prudential judgement ought take public form.


Whitney H
July 26, 2013

"Skeptics may decry my lack of faith and assure me that God will provide a solution to global climate change. God has provided a solution."
I love that you made this point. A couple Sunday's ago, after reading from the book of Amos (farmer, prophet, social justice advocate), I asked a congregation to think about whether or not we have prophets in our world today.
God can speak to us through any person He chooses, including scientists (Christian or otherwise).

Jordan Ballor
July 31, 2013

It's interesting that you use something like "prophetic" to describe activism like this. I recommend considering the implications of what Thomas Lessl has called the "priestly voice" of science for how we deal with scientific claims. Simply invoking the fact/value distinction, for instance, and placing everything that isn't a "hard" science in the latter camp is highly problematic. http://www.galilean-library.org/site/index.php/page/index.html/_/interviews/thomas-lessl-science-and-rhetoric-r44

Andrew Wabomba
August 1, 2013

Well, I think climate changes is one of prophesied pestilences .So I doubting if human beings are capable of controlling pestilences

Eric Wilbanks
September 27, 2013

It sounds as if you are suggesting that it is not possible to believe in a biblical mandate to be "stewards" of the earth unless we also believe in global warning. If that's true, there's an awful lot more here that is questionable than the scientific data. And then there's this: UN report takes the steam out of "climate change" | Human Events http://ow.ly/phhuE

Clay Carlson
September 27, 2013

Hi Eric, thanks for reading my piece.
The new report says, "Human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and understanding of the climate system." One of the main points of my post is that if there is even a chance that this is correct then we as believers should be the first to act. If we claim that the whole world belongs to our God and that he has called us to redeem it with him, we should be first to sacrifice in order to see it protected. Despite protests from critics (which is an important part of the scientific process) the general thrust of the data is clear. The world is changing for the worse because of our action.
Please God, give us the courage and wisdom to respond.

Eric Wilbanks
September 27, 2013

So that would be a "Yes" from you: if one does not believe in global warming, one cannot possibly be considered a biblical, godly steward. Thanks for clarifying.
Meanwhile, "the monthly journal Nature Climate Change reports that over 20 years (1993-2012), the warming trend computed from 117 climate model simulations (0.3°C per decade) is more than twice the observed trend (0.14°C/decade). Over the most recent 15 years (1998-2012), the computer-simulated trend (0.21°C/decade) is more than four times the observed trend (0.05°C/decade)—a trend that is pretty close to a flat line" (Marlo Lewis, Ph.D. Senior Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute).
"The global warming crowd has a problem. For all of its warnings, and despite a steady escalation of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, the planet’s average surface temperature has remained pretty much the same for the last 15 years" (Richard A. Muller, professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley).
Finally, let me say this. Resorting to "if there is even a chance that this is correct then we as believers should be the first to act" is the very worst kind of naivete. Were it ANY OTHER subject, Christians would literally be ridiculed off the planet for such a position--even by other believers. Why not drop the global warming message and simply encourage Christians to be men and women of action in how they care for the planet, not because of some theoretical global meltdown, but simply because it's a biblical way to think. Why hang on to such a questionable and debatable subject? You only further the divisiveness surrounding the issue by doing so. Romans 14 issues the best advice, advice that can even be appropriately applied to this subject. We all agree that we have been called to be good stewards of this planet. Why not just leave it at that? Theologically, you could spend a lifetime making that case and never once have to dip into the global warming war chest.

September 27, 2013

Jordan, I don't think Lessl is after the kind of language Whitney uses here. His critique of the priestly voice is not about calls to action, but of the "it's true because SCIENCE" variety that obfuscates where that knowledge came from.

June 19, 2015

In this matter, I have found Matthew Sleeth, MD, to be particularly compelling in his approach. Founder of Blessed Earth (http://www.blessedearth.org/why-care/) he makes the case that Christians need to be engaged in caring for and protecting the environment because it brings glory to God, helps other people, and is a witness to others about our values, and can draw them into a relationship with Christ.
Regardless of an individuals feelings on the science of global warming, it should not change our behavior, and that is why I am happy Pope Francis has weighed in. The global church should lead the way in identifying ways humanity is damaging the planet, and advocate for those activities to cease through as many avenues as possible, personal behavior, political pressure, and moral appeals.
Keep up the fight, I just noticed the age of this article, still pertinent nearly 2 years later.

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