Point: Puzzling Over Climate Change Skepticism

by David P. Gushee

I am puzzled about the vociferous opposition among some evangelicals to doing anything about the problem of climate change. Actually, t he issue is not fundamentally the opposition to doing something about climate change – it is the opposition to even acknowledging the reality of human-induced climate change. This is what I am puzzled about, and what I really want to write about in this exchange.

Having endured a three-hour debate with the for­midable Dr. E. Calvin Beisner on this subject, hav­ing engaged in endless point-counterpoint discus­sions in various types of venues from the classroom to the media, having experienced polite and not so polite forms of criticism for even being involved with the Evangelical Climate Initiative, I have to acknowledge a deep weariness and a profound lack of interest in rehearsing the arguments yet one more time. The differences seem to be completely intractable. And yet I have been asked to try again in this forum. Let me tackle the problem in the fol­lowing way.

Every day brings more news about a growing national and international “climate” of opinion that includes three main elements:

(1)   Human beings are noticing that the climate is changing in some freaky, noticeable ways, all over the world. Mainly, it is warming. Cue the vari­ous undeniable pictures of Arctic ice melt, endan­gered polar bears, receding glaciers, crashing ice shelves, rising sea levels, animal habitat changes, bleaching coral reefs, the spread of infectious dis­eases to new areas, accelerating species loss, European summer heat waves, flowers blooming in January, empty European ski resorts without snow, etc.

(2)  Using the highly sophisticated tools of their trade, and the time-tested processes of peer review, the great majority of the world’s statured, creden­tialed, respected professional scientists and scientif­ic bodies specializing in climate issues are now convinced that the behavior of human beings is pri­marily responsible for this noticeable change in cli­mate. In particular, the emission of greenhouse gases receives most of the blame for warming the earth’s atmosphere, though deforestation also plays a key role. Whether human beings are primarily responsible for the obvious changes in climate is not now a matter of serious debate in the profes­sional guilds and government science agencies most responsible for serving the human community by working on these issues.

(3)  Because of (1) and (2), responsible actors all over the world are seeking ways to address the problem of human-induced climate Even while basic scientific research continues (as it always does), these responsible actors are acting on the basis of what they do already know and/ or have good reason to anticipate. These actors include most of the world’s nongovernmental organizations, relief  and development groups, gov­ernments, businesses,  environmental  organizations, trade associations, and so on. Every day’s news brings new information about alliances, coalitions, initiatives, legislative proposals, business decisions, and so on, that are attempting to respond to the realities just outlined. Many of these are coming from businesses whose narrowly conceived eco­nomic self-interest would lead them to be opposed to such initiatives unless they were convinced that it is now both inevitable and necessary to deal with a problem that is real. I am looking at a news story from today  (1/19/07) in which  GE, Dupont, Alcoa, BP, Caterpillar, Duke Energy, Lehman Brothers,  PG & E, and PNM Resources  announced their support for legislation that would mandate reductions of greenhouse gas emissions from the major sectors of the U.S. economy. This is happen­ing all over the world.


Somehow, it seems to me that God-given human intelligence is here working the way it is supposed to. Let’s rewind and summarize this way. (1) Using an ability to “read” creation that most of us pos­sess by just  opening our eyes and looking around us, we see signs of change and much distress in the created order. (2) Using the highly developed tools of the scientific process that represent some of the most impressive skills ever achieved by human beings, the sources of this change and distress are being identified, as well as the possible long-term consequences of various courses of action and inaction. (3) Using the hard-fought  achievements of rational  decision-making  and democratic delibera­tion, as well as a sense of moral responsibility and the ability to exchange short-term convenience for long-term wisdom and well-being, the human com­ munity is seeking to figure out the most creative ways to respond to what is emerging, unexpectedly but undeniably,  as a major planetary problem. This will be a messy process, because human beings do not make major social changes easily; but it is a process that is well underway and showing some signs of making real progress. The political momentum, at least, is clearly shifting as I write. Now, it would seem like the most natural thing in the world for evangelical Christians, like all people of good will, to welcome the process that has moved from the observations of (1) to the diagnostic efforts of (2) and to the emerging behavioral responses found in (3). We live on this planet too, as will our grandchildren, so we have every basic human reason to want this process to work the way that it is now working. Indeed, one would think that a robust theology of creation and of stewardship would lead evangelicals to want to be on the forefront of this process, both as practitioners and as supporters of the most honest, creative, and effective scientific work and behavioral change that can be undertaken.

But is that what is happening? Yes and no. Some evan­gelicals are coming around to acknowledging the obvi­ous climate changes (1), listening to the scientists (2), and getting involved in the effort to find the least dis­ruptive but most constructive solutions (3). I count myself in this group.

But a number of other evangelicals have joined the dwindling number of other Americans who have done everything possible to deny (1) until it really has become almost impossible to do so anymore, to con­fuse (or be confused by) the picture related to (2) by distorting or misunderstanding the weight of scientific findings and the nature of the scientific process, and to oppose any changes whatsoever on (3). Some of these evangelicals include some of our most visible and vocal conservative Christian leaders. I think that they are making a historic mistake which they will come to regret deeply, which hurts evangelicals now, and will haunt American evangelicalism for years to come.

I have sought to understand why this is happening. I see four main factors most likely to lie behind this strik­ing reality:

(1)            Evangelicals  mistrust mainstream  science due to the historic creation-evolution  debate as well as the worldview problems  (scientific naturalism) associated with many leading scientific thinkers. I sense that in some cases a certain kind of conservative evangelical­ ism is inclined to resist the overwhelming majority position among scientists just because it is the over­ whelming majority position. By definition, it must be wrong. This is a devastating problem for us, and requires the best efforts of evangelical scholars, especially evangelical scientists and environmentalists,  to help us heal this breach.


(2)           Some evangelicals have bought economic libertarianism hook, line, and sinker. They are convinced that essentially unregulated laissez-faire capitalism is God’s Plan for economic life. This marriage between conservative theology and Friedmanesque economics leaves these evangelicals deeply suspicious of any tin­kering with the market in any arena of the economy. Therefore, by default, they resist even the most modest policy measures under discussion in Washington (or anywhere else). They are convinced that any such measures will destroy the economy. I would simply suggest in response that evangelicals (across the board) need to do a whole lot more thinking about economic theory and how it fits with biblical teaching.


(3)           Many evangelicals are instinctively loyal to the Republican Party, and to President Bush. Indeed, many happily consider themselves part of the Republican bloc, just like, say, organized labor has been part of the Democratic bloc. President Bush and many Republicans have been relatively slow to acknowledge climate change, accept mainstream  science on the sources of  this problem,  and support any mandated policy responses. Ergo, many conservative evangelicals have taken the same view. Here the only response I will make is to plead for much more political independence than this, especially among Christian leaders. (Not that this should determine our views, but there are signs that President Bush is about to move on this issue in any case.)


(4)            Finally, I am now convinced that subtle theological problems contribute to the “doubting Thomas” stance related to climate In our debate, Cal Beisner seemed to argue that God has promised (Gen. 9) not to flood the earth again, so therefore we are mis­trusting God’s Word if we are worried about such things as sea level rise. I said that God did not promise to prevent us from flooding the earth. I have heard many say that human beings can’t affect such a mas­sive, God-created reality as the planetary climate-we’re too small for that. But God places great stewardship responsibility and power in our hands-that’s part of what it means to be made in God’s image, and the evi­dence of our power to affect the created order is  around us everywhere we look. And of course many operate with a theology in which everything that hap­pens is God’s will, directly and without remainder,  so therefore if we are damaging the climate that must be God’s will. This stance lacks the balance provided by an adequate theology of sin. There are issues related to eschatology as well. Our theologians need to help us work on these fundamental issues. Some already are doing so.


It is my plan to make this the last venue in which I will debate the climate change issue with evangelical skep­tics. I am blessed these days with exciting opportunities to play a small role in contributing to the lifestyle changes and policy developments that need to happen in this country, not just on climate change but on the whole array of creation care issues. The new partner­ship opportunities that are emerging with a wide array of Christians, and with many non-Christians, are in my view a sign that God is at work moving both the church and the human family toward an appropriate response to the problems we ourselves have created. I’m looking ahead to participating in such efforts, not looking behind me toward those who for whatever rea­ son will not be joining us.

David P. Gushee  is Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy and Senior Fellow, Carl F H Henry Center for Christian Leadership, at Union University. A columnist for Christianity Today, Editor of the Jossey-Bass “Enduring Questions in Christian Life” series, and widely sought speaker, Gushee is the author or editor of nine books, including the award-winning Kingdom Ethics (Intervarsity Press).