Recently the Evangelical Environmental Network and Young Evangelicals for Climate Action took a delegation to Malawi for first-hand examination of global warmings ostensible impact.
One participant wrote for Religion News Service (RNS): At first blush, it is difficult to understand why there is so much suffering in Malawi, but the changing climate neutralizes the benefits of Malawis natural resources. Noting changes since 2000, he cites droughts, spontaneous floods, and heavy rains. And he quotes a NASA scientist blaming carbon dioxide-induced warming for erratic global weather.
The sufferings of Malawian farmers who are victims of climate change are recounted. The representative of a British-based evangelical relief group tells them the impact is more pervasive than HIV/AIDS, noting: Climate change is carrying with it a slow death.
Many Americans rely on talk show hosts or political commentators, but Malawians dont have that luxury, the RNS column reports. It also cites the National Association of Evangelicals booklet Loving the Least of These: Addressing a Changing Environment, which warns: Unfortunately, the realities of climate change mean that those suffering millions may become billions. All of us who follow Jesus will need to respond.
A column by another delegation member about the Malawi trip appeared in Huffington Post, quoting a Malawian Presbyterian farmer telling the U.S. evangelical visitors: You tell those Doubting Thomases that climate change is real and has a negative impact on people, plus animals, including elephants. The writer sadly notes a poll showing U.S. evangelicals skeptical of human-induced global warming.
Rains are coming later, and food becoming scarcer, the Huffington Post piece reports, exacerbating hunger and poverty. I used to be a Doubting Thomas, the writer confesses. And even though in recent years Ive been convinced by the overwhelming scientific and anecdotal evidence for anthropogenic climate change, I was still blissfully ignorant of the current human toll of climate change.
But visiting fellow evangelicals in Malawi finally opened my eyes, forever changing my view of climate change, the writer shares, recalling the lyrics to Amazing Grace: I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.
Both columns rely almost exclusively on anecdotes to the exclusion of factual data (though the RNS piece includes a graph showing increases in floods and droughts in Malawi from 1970 to 2006). Their narrative is familiar: Indifferent Christians in America are warming the earth with their callous generation of carbon dioxide, causing increased poverty and suffering in an already very poor nation like Malawi.
Except that actual data does not confirm this storyline. From 2003 to 2011, Malawis GNP increased from $2.4 billion to $5.6 billion, a 133 percent increase. Per capita GNP has increased from $580 to $870, a 50 percent increase. Average life expectancy has increased from 47 to 54, a 15 percent increase. From 1998 to 2010, the poverty rate fell from 65 percent to 51 percent, a 20 percent fall. The visiting evangelicals stressed declining water access. But rural access to water has increased from 71 to 80 percent from 2006 to 2010, a 13 percent increase. (The relevant data can be found here.)
The evangelical environmentalists visiting Malawi emphasized climate changes dire effect on farming. But food production from 2003 to 2010 increased 66 percent. Crop production in those years increased 76 percent. Livestock production increased 72 percent. Cereal production per hectare increased 82 percent. (Data here.) Malawi of course remains a very poor nation. But available data seemingly show it becoming less, not more, poor, irrespective of climate trends.
Skeptics of cataclysmic, human-induced global warming note that global temperatures have not increased in fifteen years despite constantly increasing carbon dioxide production. Believers cite computer models predicting eventual future temperature increases. Whoever is right about global warming, the world, especially the global south, is getting wealthier. From 1990 to 2010 about one billion people escaped extreme poverty, which fell from 43 percent to 21 percent of the worlds population.
Most of this poverty reduction happened in places like China and India, quickly growing economies that also produce increasing amounts of carbon dioxide, unlike Western nations, where carbon growth rates (and economies) are mostly flat.
Evangelical environmentalists spotlight the worlds poor as victims of carbon dioxide-induced global warming. But in fact hundreds of millions have escaped extreme poverty mostly due to economic growth fueled by fossil fuels. The RNS article noted 90 percent of Malawi lives off an electrical grid. Malawian electricity is mostly geothermal generated. But Malawi is increasingly purchasing electricity from South Africa, whose electricity is over 70 percent coal produced, with most of the rest oil or gas. And the Chinese are helping Malawi build a coal fired electrical plant. The Malawian government estimates electrical demand will double by 2020, citing especially the needs of its mining industry, while the UN says they will triple.
Should Malawi and other poor nations be denied access to greater electrification, which is essential to increasing living standards, because it will generate more carbon dioxide? Its estimated that lifting most of Africa out of poverty would require increasing power supplies by ten or twenty fold.
God bless the concerned environmentalists who visited Malawi. But we must reckon with the possibility that the people of Malawi need and want more electricity and economic growth than U.S. and Western climate activism.
Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.