How Seriously Should Christians Take Warnings of Climate Change?
Over the last two or three hundred years, human beings have taken countless billions of tons of coal, oil and gas from underground and have burned it. Today, a large majority of climate scientists tell us that doing this has caused an increase in the number and intensity of droughts, floods and storms. They tell us too that unless we significantly reduce the amount that we burn these fuels, we can expect the number and intensity of these weather events to continue to increase.
I am convinced that there is nothing un-Christian about these claims and that they should be taken very seriously. Droughts, floods and storms often cause widespread death and suffering, especially in poorer parts of the world. If these climate scientists are right, we should definitely aim to do something about this. Even if we think that they are only probably right, we should still aim to follow their advice, since the stakes are so high.
I am well aware, however, that not all Christians are persuaded that we should follow these climate scientists’ advice. In what follows, I will list some objections that have been or could be made, and I will give what I believe are reasonable answers. I am not a climate scientist myself, although I have found that that has not prevented me from reaching some clear conclusions on this issue. I do have a university degree in chemistry, which I will use a little in the arguments that I will make.
Let’s turn, then, to the discussion.
The media are guilty of misrepresenting scientific opinion on this subject. It is not actually the case that a large majority of climate scientists claim that climate change is an issue we can do something about.
It is true that there are some climate scientists who openly disagree with what the majority say. And it is true too that the media is surely sometimes biased on this issue.
Nevertheless, most climate scientists live in countries where freedom of speech exists. And it is simply not reasonable to think that the media have deceived the world into believing that climate scientists generally don’t make the claims they are said to make.
Climate scientists are typically dishonest in what they say. In order to get funding for research, many pretend to believe in the standard position without in fact believing it.
It may well be true that a few climate scientists do this.
However, firstly, it is just as easy to think that dishonesty works the other way too. Oil companies fund the research of some climate researchers, and it is not hard to imagine that a few of these might dishonestly deny the majority position in order to gain funding.
Secondly, it is not reasonable to think that more than a small proportion of climate scientists are knowingly dishonest about what they say. There is usually something in the psyche of a scientist that is oriented towards a genuine search for truth. And to think that most climate scientists have deliberately deceived the world on the issue of climate change is very implausible.
Most climate scientists have deceived themselves into believing what they want to believe on the issue of climate change.
It is true that a small number of climate scientists who support the majority view may have fallen into this trap.
However, firstly, it is just as easy to think that a few who deny the majority view may also have fallen into this trap.
And secondly, scientists are generally quite rigorous and careful in their analysis. It is very difficult to imagine that most or even many climate scientists just believe what they want to believe on this issue.
The majority view is simply mistaken. Besides, the Bible tells us that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). Most climate scientists are not Christians. Therefore, what they say is bound to be suspect.
It is right to say that most climate scientists are not born-of-the-Spirit Christians. However, the type of knowledge being referred to in this verse of Scripture seems to be something deeper than scientific understanding. It is apparently about the deep things of God, life and relationships.
Christian and non-Christian scientists alike clearly have a very good understanding of many areas of science. Take the marvel that is a smart phone, for example. Surely only a minority of the scientists who developed this were saved believers. Yet the technology is extremely complicated. And they must understand it correctly, at least to a large extent, or they wouldn’t have got it to work. In many other areas of science too it is clear that non-Christians have a good understanding of things.
It is true that non-Christian scientists go seriously wrong when they come up with God-less theories of how the universe and humans originated. But climate science, like most science, is very different from this. It has to do with analysis of things that exist in the here and now, as well as predictions based on this analysis. And there seems to be no good reason for thinking that climate scientists have a poor understanding of these things.
The Bible makes it clear that God causes weather. It is therefore wrong to suggest that people can alter the weather by reducing the use of certain types of fuel.
The Bible certainly portrays God on numerous occasions as behind weather events. However, this objection is far too simplistic, for a few reasons:
(1) Throughout Scripture we often find that both God and human beings are portrayed as responsible for the same events. It is a mistake to think that if God is behind something, humans cannot therefore be behind it too on another level.
Importantly, even when a person commits a sin, in a real sense the event comes from both God and the sinner. In Acts 2:23 and Acts 4:27-28, for example, we are told that Jesus’ crucifixion – obviously a sinful act – was ordained by God, and it would be right to understand the crucifixion as from God.
That is not to say that God caused the crucifiers to crucify. Nor is it to say that the crucifiers caused God to ordain the crucifixion. There are two levels of responsibility, one divine and one human, neither of which causes the other. And the same is true of human actions generally, including sinful human actions.
It wouldn’t contradict the Bible, then, if some weather events were caused by human actions, even by sinful human actions.
(2) It is questionable whether picturing God as behind every weather event is the best way of looking at things.
I do believe, as I have just said, that on one level every single thing that happens comes in a real sense from God. But nevertheless, on another level we are perhaps better not to think of God as behind all weather.
Note how in Matthew 8:26, Mark 4:39 and Luke 8:24 Jesus rebukes a storm. God can’t be divided against Himself, so it is at least difficult to suppose that He should be pictured as causing that storm.
I think a better approach might, as a general rule, be to think of God’s relationship to weather along these lines:
God created the phenomenon that is weather, but He usually lets it follow its own course according to natural laws that He also created, while intervening supernaturally from time to time when it suits Him.
These natural laws would include weather being affected by varying amounts of certain gases. And because human actions can cause variation in the amounts of these gases, we can easily understand how we are able to affect the weather.
(3) It is clear that humans have the ability to significantly affect nature.
For example, breeding of crops and animals has gone on for thousands of years. Extensive breeding has meant, for instance, that most bulldogs can now only be born by Cesarean section.
Importantly too, in recent history we have seen much greater human influence over nature. Leaving ethical issues aside, it is now possible to allow babies with three biological parents to be conceived in test tubes.
We must remember that human beings are extremely significant and valuable in God’s sight. We are made in His image. So if we can alter nature in such a monumental way that three-parent babies are conceived in test tubes, how much more might we expect to be able to alter something as comparatively unimportant as the weather?
Even with regard to the atmosphere, we have seen how humans have altered nature by their actions. A few decades ago, scientists found that a hole in the ozone layer, high in the earth’s atmosphere, had formed. Research was done and it was discovered that certain chemicals, used in some manufacturing processes, were to blame. So, many manufacturers switched to using different chemicals, and the ozone hole has now reduced in size as a result. Human choices caused this problem in the atmosphere, and other choices have begun to solve it.
For a number of reasons, then, the argument appealing to God’s sovereignty as a reason why people can’t affect the weather is mistaken.
God has given us coal, oil and gas. There is nothing wrong with engines or power supplies, and burning these things to drive engines and create power is useful for us. Therefore it must be fine to do this.
Again, this is far too simplistic. Just because something found in nature can easily be used for a worthwhile purpose doesn’t mean that it is right to use it in that way.
Take the metal, lead, as an example. This is found abundantly in nature, and, for a metal, it has a very low melting point. It is therefore ideal for cheaply molding into things, and until a few decades ago it was widely used to make cold water pipes.
The problem was that the lead came off in the water and caused serious health problems. So today cold water pipes are usually made of copper or plastic instead.
Just as lead can be easily and cheaply used to make cold water pipes but it is actually a bad idea to do this, so too the same could easily be true of burning coal, oil and gas for engines and power.
Unlike lead, which should never have been made into clean water pipes, we don’t even have to say that burning coal, oil and gas was always a problem. Maybe God intended that they should be used to a certain extent until we found other ways of powering things. But to say that they should continue to be extensively used simply because they are plentiful and useful is completely wrong.
Many people have experienced very cold winters in recent times. The whole idea that the atmosphere is warming up is questionable.
This argument should be quickly dismissed. It simply won’t do to look at a few isolated weather events and draw conclusions from them alone. The big picture using a vast amount of data is needed. And globally, the last few years have all been the warmest on record.
It is true, for reasons to do with wind directions and seasonal melting of ice, that some years in the near future might not be quite as warm as some recent years. Global warming doesn’t mean that each year will automatically be warmer than the previous one. But the overall trend is clearly that the atmosphere is heating up. And for every unusually cold spell somewhere there is more than one unusually warm spell somewhere else.
Besides, global warming doesn’t mean that we should expect heat waves all over the place. The amount of warming is not predicted to be especially noticeable, at least in the short term. The big factor is that the warming that does take place means that there is more energy in the atmosphere. And this is predicted to lead to unusual weather and more severe storms. “Climate change” is a better label than “global warming,” since the climate, unlike air temperature, is predicted to change significantly. “Global weirding” is another good label.
There have always been plenty of droughts, floods and storms. There is no evidence that they are increasing in number or intensity, or that there is an increase in unusual weather.
The number of people who believe this is surely decreasing. Recent years have seen more than a few unprecedented weather events all around the world. There have been storms of unparalleled strength, record-breaking temperatures and record rainfall in many places. And in many parts of the world droughts, floods and storms are now noticeably more common than they were even a few decades ago.
The amount of carbon dioxide emitted by volcanoes is far greater than that produced by humans. Therefore, any efforts to reduce carbon emissions are going to be pointless anyway.
This argument is surely wrong. If volcanoes produce more carbon dioxide than people do, climate scientists would certainly realize and accept this. And they wouldn’t claim that human activity causes more emissions.
We must bear in mind that most of what volcanoes emit is not carbon dioxide. And we must bear in mind too that in the world at any one time there are hundreds of millions of motor vehicles burning oil, and thousands of planes and ships doing the same. There are also hundreds or thousands of power stations burning coal, oil or gas around the clock, as well as a multitude of industrial plants doing likewise.
It is not difficult to believe that all this burning produces far more carbon dioxide than volcanic eruptions.
Coal, oil and gas are the products of ancient plant life. Getting them out of the earth and into the atmosphere is actually a very natural thing to do, since the carbon in them is then able, through photosynthesis, to form plants again.
This would be a good argument if the number of trees in the world were increasing significantly. Then the carbon would indeed end up in trees.
However, the number of trees is actually decreasing dramatically. This means that the carbon from coal, oil and gas stays in the atmosphere, apart from some that is absorbed by the oceans.
In fact, in a real sense there is something unnatural about taking billions of tons of a substance from underground and basically putting it in the air by burning it. Nature, as God has created it, is full of cycles. Day is followed by night, which is again followed by day, and so on. Winter is followed by spring, summer and autumn, and then the process is repeated. Water evaporates from the oceans, falls as rain and flows down to the sea, whereupon the same things happen all over again. Plants and the bodies of animals grow, die and decompose, and then the elements are taken up into new plants and animals.
Burning coal, oil and gas, by contrast, doesn’t involve a cycle. These things don’t go back underground. Nor, with the decrease in trees, does the carbon find its way into new plant life. Or, strictly speaking, some of it does, but even more is added to the atmosphere by deforestation.
Climate scientists do concede that some carbon dioxide is absorbed by the oceans. But they say that this doesn’t happen enough to stop the amount in the atmosphere increasing significantly.
It would be surprising if taking so much material from underground and putting it in the air in this way didn’t affect the climate somehow.
Many of the people who warn most strongly about climate change also support immoral things like abortion on demand and so-called “gay marriage.” Therefore, we would expect them to be wrong on climate change too.
These issues are completely separate. Just because people support some evil things doesn’t mean that they can’t be right on another important issue. No human beings are as bad as bad can be, and everyone believes some things that are right.
Jesus will return soon, so efforts to control climate change will prove to be unnecessary.
In the last 2000 years many Christians have made similar predictions, but time and again they have proved to be false.
Of course, Jesus will return at some point in the future. But it is extremely harmful when Christians make overconfident predictions about the timing of this.
Instead, what we should do is take a twofold approach to the timing of the Lord’s return. On the one hand, we should understand that end-times events could occur very rapidly and that He could return within a few years. And on the other hand, we should understand that it may be a great many years before He returns.
The Bible prophesies that there will be famines. It is futile to try to prevent these by aiming to reduce climate change.
The Bible does indeed prophesy famines (Matthew 24:7; Mark 13:8; Luke 21:11), and some of these may well not have happened yet. However, Scripture doesn’t tell us how many famines there will be. If we can make them fewer than they would otherwise be, that is obviously the right thing to do.
Our attitude to famines should be similar to our attitude to war. The Bible prophesies that wars will happen (Mark 13:7-8 etc.), but we are still called to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9).
Droughts, floods and storms are God’s judgment on people. We shouldn’t try to prevent God judging by reducing the number of these weather events.
This argument is badly mistaken.
First, it is extremely doubtful that all droughts, floods and storms are acts of God’s judgment.
Second, our role as human beings is to do good to everyone. We should never avoid treating people well for fear of getting in the way of God’s judgment. He will succeed in getting any judging done despite what we do.
We can’t be 100 per cent sure that the majority view of climate scientists is correct. Therefore, there is nothing wrong if we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and choose not to follow their advice.
It is true that we can’t be totally sure that the majority view is correct (although I would say that it is highly probable that it is).
Nevertheless, that gives us no warrant for not following their advice. If the majority view is right, then taking steps to tackle climate change will prevent huge numbers of people from suffering horrible deaths in droughts, floods and storms. It would be completely immoral to do nothing about this just because we think it’s only highly likely that it will happen.
That would be like an engineer examining a bridge used to transport many people and concluding that it will very probably fall down, but because he isn’t sure it will fall he won’t authorize repairs. Or it is like an aircraft mechanic deciding that a plane is so dangerous that it will probably crash, but authorizing use of it simply because he isn’t certain that it will crash. People with any sense at all don’t act like this.
An individual person or family isn’t going to make any difference to climate change. Therefore, it is not worth trying to do anything about it.
It is true that as an individual person or family, reducing our use of carbon-based fuels isn’t going to make much of a difference in itself. But individual actions often have a way of encouraging others, leading to a snowball effect. In many countries emissions of carbon dioxide are less than they were a few years ago. And the impetus to this surely began with just a few people, maybe even a single person.
Secondly, it just seems wrong for someone to say that they will aim to do nothing about a practice that will very probably lead to greatly increased human suffering and death, simply because they think that not enough other people are doing anything about it.
None of the above objections to the advice coming from climate scientists is at all convincing. When a large majority of them tell us that we can take steps to prevent many people suffering and dying, we should therefore pay close attention to what they say. If we ignore this advice or act against our consciences in responding to it, we are committing a grave sin.
If someone is absolutely convinced, for some reason or other, that the majority view of climate scientists is wrong, then it would make sense for them to act accordingly. However, whenever we find that we believe something we want to believe, that is a time to double- and triple-check things. We are all tempted at times to believe what suits us. And I would suggest that many, including Christians, have fallen into this trap on the issue of climate change.
There is also another important reason why we should follow the advice of climate scientists. For huge numbers of non-Christians, climate change is a very big deal. When non-Christians who take the majority view see believers rejecting this view, it often puts them off the Christian faith.
Of course, it shouldn’t put them off the faith. If they thought things through properly, they would realize that the truth or falsehood of the Christian faith and the truth or falsehood of the majority view on climate change are separate issues. But the fact of the matter is that people often don’t think things through properly.
When people are put off the faith because Christians are standing firm for something true, then so be it. But when they are put off the faith, and therefore off the salvation that is in Christ, because Christians themselves have a faulty understanding of something, that is a terrible tragedy.
Steps we should take
So what steps should Christians take in response to warnings of climate change?
Well, we can certainly pray that the problem is solved by such things as the development and use of low-carbon sources of energy. We can also lobby politicians. And we should also take a long, hard look at how much carbon-based energy we use ourselves.
I do believe there is a balance to be struck here, however. At the present time, much of the world runs on coal, oil and gas, and we can’t expect people to avoid all that. I am not suggesting that anyone should live in a cold home, for example. Nor am I saying that everyone should give up driving non-electric cars. I own one myself and my conscience is clear about that, although I do try to drive less than I used to. Each Christian needs to go to God humbly and openly to ask for direction on exactly what steps they should take.
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