The pope has stepped up his rhetoric in favor of it. The retired cardinal archbishop of Washington recently expressed sweeping public support. The National Association of Evangelicals regularly issues policy statements outlining the urgency of action. But perhaps religious fervor for curbing global warming and protecting the environment more generally reached a confusing peak this week when a member of the Council for Culture at the Vatican, Monsignor Melchor Sánchez de Toca Alameda, announced that offsetting carbon emissions¯which the Holy See will be able to do almost completely in the future thanks to a donation of land in Hungary to be planted with trees¯is roughly parallel to doing penance for your sins.
There’s nothing wrong and a good deal right with contemporary religious leaders pointing out our responsibilities to care for the Earth. All human life depends on certain planetary conditions and, therefore, if there are threats to the natural order they may involve urgent moral questions. Further, now that we know that our growing power could have real and lasting effects on the planet, no responsible religious figure can simply ignore the fact that there may be a kind of moral theology of the environment. But with all due respect to the good monsignor, it’s a very bad idea, even perhaps in jest, to suggest that steps to deal with environmental questions are like doing penance for sins.
Carbon emissions are not intrinsically wrong. All animals that inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide do so by natural design all the time. Even cars, electricity generating plants, and mechanical appliances¯though artificial devices¯do much good in addition to adding to atmospheric greenhouse gases. Deciding when and how to use them is not like deciding to cheat on your wife, an intrinsic wrong that requires confession and penance. It’s more like deciding how much of the family income to allot for a better gas-mileage car, and how much for food, housing, healthcare, or education for the children. In other words, it’s always a choice among competing goods¯not between good and evil¯within limited resources.
In addition, though the potential negative consequences of global warming are worthy of serious consideration, they need to be put in the proper perspective of the potential benefits, to say nothing of the actual nature of the world that God created. These latter two points are unfortunately often absent from even the very best of our religious leaders’ comments on the environment. Most troubling is their failure to understand the simple nature of the creation. Temperatures on the earth have changed drastically without benefit of human intervention. In the multiple Ice Ages that have regularly occurred over geological time, glaciers miles thick covered Northern Europe and much of North America. At their retreat, they scraped the earth cleaner than any logging company would dare, but enabled the growth of the lovely boreal forests we prize today.
In historical times, the changes have been less drastic but still quite striking. Leif Eriksson found grapes growing in Newfoundland, which is why he called it Vineland. Other explorers seem to have had similar reasons for giving the frozen expanses of today’s Greenland its name. From just before 1000 A.D. and continuing for a few centuries, the earth experienced what is sometimes called a Medieval Climate Optimum¯a period of significant warming that may have helped in the cultural recovery of Europe¯followed by a cooler period called the Little Ice Age beginning in the sixteenth century and lasting until around 1850. Since then, the earth has generally warmed but with another cooling dip from around 1950 to 1975. These simple facts of geology are much cited by both sides in the debates about global warming. But it’s rare to find any religious figure who shows any familiarity with the fact that God did not create a world of stable climate where species and habitats are forever fixed and or that change represents anything other than a violation of¯and perhaps a sin against¯the created order.
When it comes to the possible benefits of global warming and the need to weigh these and various courses of action, if not for a quixotic minority among the sacred and the profane, we would hear almost nothing about them at all. NASA administrator Michael Griffin was vilified in June of this year when he called it "rather arrogant" to assume that the present climate was optimal for human beings. Contrary to the claims of his critics, Griffin was not saying that global warming should not be examined carefully; NASA keeps a careful eye and extensive records on global climate. What he was saying¯that we need to calm down and examine evidence more fully¯is so outside the generalized hysteria among the media and the political class that his opponents could not fathom it.
A similar fate has befallen Bjorn Lomborg, whose just-released book Cool It looks to be a worthy sequel to his controversial The Skeptical Environmentalist . This cool-headed Danish statistician has actually tried to weigh the various potential harms and benefits of global warming, which he not only believes is occurring but concedes is significantly owing to anthropogenic (i.e., man-made) causes. There are two unforgivable sins among the most fervid environmentalists. As Al Gore has taught us, one is being a global-warming denier, which is on a moral level with the Holocaust deniers. Deniers at least can be summarily excommunicated. But it is precisely the Lomborgs and his like who are more infuriating to a certain type of true believer. To acknowledge anthropogenic global warming and to believe it may be effectively handled through anything but curtailing global capitalism through reducing carbon emissions, or, even worse, that we ought to add some of global warming’s benefits to our deliberations seems, to some, on a par with calling evil good.
But the facts are the facts. In Cool It , for example, Lomborg analyzes the conditions that produced the thirty-five thousand deaths in Europe during the infamous and much reported on heat wave of August 2003. That was a great tragedy, but every year, in Europe and around the world, far more people die of cold. In August 2003, some two thousand Britons died from the heat; on average, twenty-five thousand Britons a year die of cold and in some years more than twice that figure. Global warming will, in raw numerical terms, save more than it kills. Lomborg is no simpleton and does not cite this figure or any of dozens of other phenomena in order to suggest that we simply ignore the potentially negative effects of warming. But he does say that we have been ignoring such positive effects as reduced deaths from cold that might occur, as well as the human capacity to adapt to conditions in ways that have already saved millions of live around the globe every year.
We have been so catechized by the media and certain scientists that, on its face, this seems both scientifically implausible and morally crude. But just the opposite is the case. If you turn to any ordinary media outlet, you will hear the usual litany of impending catastrophes: twenty-foot sea rises owing to Greenland melting that will submerge Florida and Bangladesh; widespread famine and death because of changes in precipitation patterns; the spread of tropical diseases to warmer environments (even Vermont); and of course the disappearance of charismatic flora and fauna. This, we are told, is the scientific consensus that should tug at our heart strings, and only reduced carbon emissions can prevent such an apocalypse. The retired archbishop of Washington said at a conference in Greenland the other day: “We can see this beauty, but we can also see, unfortunately, that all of this is being destroyed. I believe that we must participate and come together to be able to do something good in this moment for the future of the world and for future generations.”
This is a mixture of truth and misapprehension. Anyone but a moral monster wants to make choices today that will benefit humanity and our children and grandchildren. But making such decisions has to be informed by careful attention to what really hurts or helps. If the Greenland ice pack melts, for example, it will take one thousand years and over the next century will produce a sea-level rise of about one foot, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) best guess in 2007. (One foot is about the same increase as we’ve already experienced and managed easily since 1850.) Furthermore, it is not at all clear that this Greenland, which was naturally green around 1000 A.D., is being ravaged by human activity. Glaciation naturally varies a great deal in the Northern Hemisphere and similar doomsday scenarios were common in the 1930s, a naturally occurring warm period that preceded emissions of large quantities of greenhouse gases.
Cost-benefit analyses of attempts to curb carbon emissions vs. other approaches equally undercut the apocalyptic fashions of the present moment and orient us toward more effective policies. There will, for instance, be some negative impact on food production in the tropics, particularly Africa, as the world warms, but policy changes can mitigate those and will be far offset by better growing seasons in Northern latitudes, since plants will flourish under slightly higher temperatures and more atmospheric CO2 . Similarly, no serious scientist foresees some vast spread of tropical diseases like malaria, which were common just decades ago in North America and Europe. Any society with a good health system (the Centers for Disease Control is located in Atlanta because malaria was once concentrated in the American South) can deal with this relatively weak problem. And even loss of species, which is unfortunately inevitable for the near future, can, at least in some instances, be reduced by policies like prohibiting the shooting of polar bears. Managing these challenges is a far better use of resources than pouring money into global carbon-reduction schemes, which are both expensive and will have little impact on the very problems we are told they will solve.
There is some deep psychological factor among a certain segment of well-off people in the modern world that wants to deny this possibility. For them, there is something spiritually wrong with the fossil-fuel economy and curbing the use of such fuels seems the only proper penance. Of course, there’s lots wrong with our use of fossil fuels, as there is with all human activities. But it is a political impossibility in the developed or the developing worlds to abandon or vastly reduce the use of current fuels without affordable replacements, which currently do not exist. And anything less than truly massive reductions won’t make much of a dent in anthropogenic warming. Using our resources for research into developing alternative energy sources and practical responses to problems created by global warming is a far wiser and more moral response to our historical moment.
Our religious leaders cannot be expected to be experts in environmental sciences or policies. But it would be a great help toward a better climate debate if they made greater allowance for the complexities of creation and the inevitable trade-offs in policy decisions while calling us all to responsible action. Our technological developments have brought great benefits to the whole of humanity in the past century. Failure to spread those benefits further may be the greatest harm we can do to the poor and marginalized. And it is beyond question a mistaken application of a crucial religious notion to suggest that the costs of those benefits are, even metaphorically, like sins.
Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of The Virgin and the Dynamo: Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates (Eerdmans).