Climate Change: The Politics and Theology

Posted on July 11, 2013 at 11:15 am,

This is the latest in a series of posts critiquing Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible. Today, we’re finishing up the chapter on the Environment, looking at what he says about climate change and a couple of other issues. In the previous post, we examined the science of climate change. Grudem claims that the scientific evidence shows that it isn’t happening, but we pointed out that the actual evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the view that it is happening, and is mostly our fault. Today, we’re looking at the implications of climate change for our theology and politics, as well as dealing with his arguments about fuel economy for motor vehicles and cap and trade.

Grudem prefaces his look at the science with some theological points that he believes point to the idea that climate change is not happening. This gives the impression that he is letting his interpretation of the theology dictate his understanding of the science. He follows the section on the science with two points about the political impact. We’ll be looking at each of these points in light of the scientific evidence, and working out the implications.

The Theology

Is the Earth resilient?

Grudem claims that the idea that human activity could cause dangerous climate change portrays God as a dodgy builder, rather than somebody who made everything good. Because of this, he believes that the planet is fundamentally self-regulating and self-correcting, and that temperature changes in the planet’s past are evidence of this.

Whilst this view makes sense, it is not the only one a Christian can take. There are several flaws in it. Firstly, it assumes that creation is still as good as God made it. But the result of the fall in Genesis 3 is that creation was cursed, and is no longer the entirely good thing it was before. Secondly, there’s the question of how we understand humanity’s stewardship of creation. In Genesis 1:28, God put us in charge of creation. If we cannot do anything that would actually damage it, then this is a calling that carries no real responsibility. Which, in turn, calls into question how much we are made in God’s image. Thirdly, there are a number of passages in the law of Moses that we now understand as being, at least in part, about ensuring that human activity does not unduly damage the local environment. The implication there is that if we can damage the environment at one scale, then we can do so at another.

Finally, of course, there’s the question of whether our theology matches reality. Climate change isn’t the only example of human activity damaging the environment on a global scale. In the 1980s, it became clear that human emissions of gasses called CFCs had been responsible for damaging the ozone layer (part of the atmosphere that protects us from harmful radiation). This damage caused a large hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic. CFCs are now banned across the planet, and ozone levels have begun to slowly recover. There are no scientists who would seriously dispute that CFCs were the main reason for the damage to the ozone layer. Yet Grudem’s theology would say that they could not have been.

Are seasons stable?

Grudem also mentions God’s promise to Noah, that the seasons would remain in place, and that there would never again be a flood to destroy the earth. He also brings up Jeremiah 5:22, which talks about God establishing a barrier that the sea cannot cross. Such promises are, of course, of fairly little relevance to the climate change debate. Nobody says that climate change will destroy seasons, though it might make bad seasons more common than they once were. Nobody says that climate change will destroy the earth. As for the passage about the sea having barriers, there are documented examples of the sea advancing inland in some places (e.g. the village of Dunwich in Suffolk is now mostly underwater), so we cannot understand such a passage to mean that the coastline will always stay constant.

Is God in control?

Grudem cites Jeremiah 5:23-25, which rebukes the nation of Israel for turning away from God, and mentions that He controls the weather. Grudem says that this passage rebukes them specifically for not believing that God controls the weather, which seems to be stretching the meaning a bit – their specific sin is not fearing the Lord who controls the weather. Grudem then goes on to claim that fears about climate change are rooted in rejecting God, and for much of the environmental movement about being devoted to “Mother Earth” rather than God.

Now, there is some element of truth in these accusations – the environmental movement has a lot of people who are not Christians, and who, therefore, do reject God and hold the planet in higher regard than its creator. But this is a completely irrelevant point. There are plenty of God-fearing Christians who are active environmentalists, and plenty of non-Christians who say climate change is not happening, for reasons that are not God-centred. I believe that the scientists are correct when they talk about climate change being mostly our fault, and I also believe that God is ultimately in control of the planet, its climate, and its weather. The evidence shows that God is allowing human carbon emissions to warm the planet. Believing this to be true is in no way a rejection of God.

Did God design a destructible planet?

Grudem refers to Genesis 1:28, where God tells humanity to “fill the earth and subdue it”, and claims that this would make no sense if God designed the planet so that we could “destroy” it by using resources such as fossil fuels, and speculates that there could be a number of feedback mechanisms that would prevent climate change from getting too far out of hand. He also claims that “global warming alarmists” are saying that there is no safe level of fossil fuel use.

His portrayal of the arguments on climate change in this section is, of course, completely misrepresentative. Nobody is saying that climate change will destroy the planet. Or even that it will wipe out the human race. What is being said is that it will have severe consequences for us. I’ve yet to see a worst-case scenario that directly kills off a higher proportion of human beings than the black
death on Eurasia, or Smallpox in the Americas. These were plagues that were spread by human beings. For our theology to be credible, we must acknowledge that God allows that level of devastation to happen in a fallen world. Which leaves the onus is on those on Grudem’s side of the argument to explain why God would allow such plagues but not catastrophic climate change (assuming that we don’t get our act together in time to prevent it).

Does climate change conflict with thanking God?

Grudem cites Genesis 1:31, Psalm 24:1, and 1 Timothy 4:4 as evidence that Christians should thank and praise God for the excellence of creation. He then claims that the belief that man-made climate change is happening removes the motivation to thank God for creation, because of feeling guilty about using fossil fuels.

I strongly disagree with his conclusions on this point. One of the reasons I care about reducing my carbon emissions is because I appreciate the world God has given us, and want to demonstrate that appreciation by taking good care of it. Those Christians who are involved in some form of environmental activity – whether it be conservation in their area or political campaigning tend to be more aware of just how awesome creation is than Christians who aren’t. So concern about climate change might actually have the effect of making us more thankful.

The Politics

Does fighting climate change mean we lose our freedom?

Grudem’s first political point about climate change is to claim that allowing the government to control energy use would lead to an unacceptable loss of human freedom. This point depends on his views on human freedom, which was shown to be somewhat lacking earlier in this series. In this section, he basically claims that climate change is a massive conspiracy by left-wingers to seize control over most aspects of peoples’ lives. Which is, of course, utterly ridiculous, and deserves the same response as the people who claim that Barack Obama is secretly a Kenyan-born Muslim who hates America.

Will reducing our use of fossil fuels cost too much?

Grudem claims that fossil fuels and nuclear energy are the most abundant and affordable sources of energy available (which contradicts what he wrote about solar power earlier in the chapter), says that because humans already live in a range of climates we can easily adapt even if the climate changes, and says that reducing our use of fossil fuels will hurt the poor hardest, because prices for everything would rise.

In response to his first point, it is worth noting that nuclear power is more expensive than renewables, that wind power is now cheaper than coal, and that the cost of renewable energy is going down, whilst peak oil means that the cost of fossil fuels is going up. Since Grudem wrote his book, we have seen significant global inflation driven mostly by increasing oil prices (plus some crop failures – possibly linked to climate change), despite the fact that the global economy has not been growing since about 2008.

In response to the second, yes we could adapt to climate change, but it would be very expensive and disruptive. Opinions differ on the cost/benefit analysis of preventing climate change vs mitigating its symptoms, but doing nothing now on the basis that we can adapt later is to abandon the principle of stewardship.

Finally, reducing fossil fuel use will actually affect the global rich more than the global poor, whose lifestyles are not totally dependent on burning oil, coal, or gas. The rural poor will barely be affected at all. The urban poor might be affected by increasing food prices, especially if it means their country exports more of its food. Climate change, however, will affect the poor more than the rich – as they will not have the resources to easily adapt or to mitigate the effects. There is a good reason why all the major international development agencies have been pressing for action on climate change.

Fuel Economy

Grudem spends some time arguing against a set of American Federal laws called CAFE, which require motor vehicles to reach certain standards of fuel economy. I won’t go into the details of the law, but Grudem says that, as a result of fuel economy standards, cars are now smaller and lighter, less comfortable, and more expensive than they used to be, and provide less protection in the event of a crash.

The cost argument can, of course, be dismissed out of hand – even if the upfront cost of more fuel-efficient cars is greater, the lifetime savings from lower fuel bills will more than balance this out. And, of course, lighter cars mean that governments do not need to spend as much on maintaining the roads. The argument about the number of deaths is rather more difficult to prove either way. Smaller cars will, of course, reduce the number of pedestrians and cyclists killed in road accidents. And the general long-term trend in developed countries is that fewer people are dying in road accidents. But it might be that Grudem’s preference for bigger and heavier cars would reduce the number of deaths even faster.

He also argues that building smaller and lighter cars is bad for the American economy because Americans like to drive big cars, and so will import them. Assuming that the law Grudem objects to only covers cars made in the US, rather than those sold in the US (which would make it extremely badly thought-out), making only those kinds of cars would leave the US trailing the rest of the world. Like it or not, fuel economy is increasingly necessary in order to sell to foreign markets. If the US wants a thriving car-building industry, then it is better served by keeping pace with fuel economy standards in other countries so that it can compete in the export market.

Cap and Trade

The final thing that Grudem mentions (albeit only in two paragraphs) is cap and trade. Also known as carbon trading, this is a system where a government issues licenses to businesses to emit carbon dioxide. If a company creates carbon emissions above its license, it will be punished. If it does not use all of its allowances, it can sell the license on to another company. The theory is that, by gradually reducing the number/size of licenses, carbon emissions can be reduced. Grudem worries that cap and trade will penalise productive companies and reward unproductive ones, thus damaging the economy.

For what it’s worth, I agree with Grudem’s conclusion that cap and trade is a bad idea, but I do so for entirely opposite reasons. In practice cap and trade does not work, and actually allows polluters to profit from their pollution. Whilst it could be made to work if the allowances were a lot smaller than at present, the initial cost of licenses was a lot higher, and the penalties for emitting without a license were very severe, current cap and trade schemes do not. Economists from a wide variety of economic schools seem to agree that a carbon tax would be the most effective way of reducing emissions, and this is the approach I favour.

One Comment