Fossil Fuels, Enemy or Friend? Divine Design in the Carbon Cycle

Despite disagreements on some specific questions, I was glad to get acquainted with David Jenkins through his article Are Climate Skeptics Ignoring God's Design? It's always heartening to encounter another admirer of four of my favorite conservative thinkers, Edmund Burke (1729–1797), T.S. Eliot (1888–1965), Richard Weaver (1910–1963), and Russell Kirk (1918–1994)—the last of whom mentored me through my master's degree and introduced me to my wife. It's even more heartening when he shares both my evangelical faith and my commitment to Biblical earth stewardship.

Jenkins affirms, as I do, that:

• "God has charged us with the responsibility to care for His creation" (which some evangelicals neglect or even deny, especially those whose eschatology leads them to protest, "Why polish brass on a sinking ship?").

• "Nature is resilient over time," something many environmentalists fail to recognize, speaking of "irreversible" harm to nature despite the fact that, for example, areas once covered by ice sheets thousands of feet thick now host magnificent forests, prairies, farms, and cities, or, for a more recent example, life is returning to the over 600 square kilometers of land obliterated by the Mt. St. Helens volcanic eruption 33 years ago.

• Human actions often have unforeseen consequences that might run contrary to our best intentions.

• Quoting Eliot, "A wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude toward God"—which artfully graces the home page of his blog, Climate Conservative.

In short, Jenkins and I clearly share commitment to many of the same principles—not only these but also, I'm sure, the basic theological doctrines that unite all evangelicals regarding God, creation, humanity, sin, and salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone because of His atoning death and life-giving resurrection.

Yet we disagree on some significant scientific, theological, and policy questions. Some of the apparent disagreements stem from mischaracterization. Clearing those away might pave the way for better communication about real disagreements.

Most of his mischaracterizations involve transforming my nuanced positions into all-or-nothing views. He attributes to me the views "that an infinitely wise designer would not create something so fragile that mankind can mess it up"; "that God wants us to dig up and use [fossil fuels] without limitation"; "that God designed the earth and its atmosphere to be immune from mankind's actions, … implying that we can do anything we want to it without serious consequence"; and that "our actions are without consequences." None of these things did I either say or imply in the article to which Jenkins responded. Indeed, I not only have never said them, but I've often denied them.

Then he infers from those mischaracterizations further views that I don't hold and then, in offering contrasting positions, says things that are at least questionable.

For instance, having mistakenly said I believe "an infinitely wise designer would not create something so fragile that mankind can mess it up," he then reasons, "That view is at odds with both Biblical scripture and physical evidence. From the beginning, man's actions have had a profound impact on the earth, both good and bad. According to the Bible the first instance of human sin, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, resulted in profound ecological changes."

Yet there is a difference between God's cursing the ground because of man's sin of eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:17–19) and land's becoming barren because people strip it of vegetation and its topsoil washes away, or a lake's becoming fish-free because people dump enough toxic wastes into it to kill them all. In the former case, God supernaturally causes ecological harm in judgment of human moral failure that had no physical link to the harm. In the latter case, a physical link exists. The Prophets often warned of the former (e.g., Jeremiah over 70 times just in the first 17 chapters), but it's difficult to find any clear references in them to the latter—which is not to say ecological abuse isn't wrong (It is.); it's just to say that ecological abuse differs from ecological judgment by God.

Or consider another of Jenkins's objections to the view, mistakenly attributed to me, that God made the earth so that man can't "mess it up": "While nature is resilient over time," he says, "it is also intricate and fragile." To illustrate that he writes, "The smallest bacteria or virus can kill the largest person or animal."

Can bacteria harm people? Well, yes, but Jenkins seems to have lost sight of the real issue—whether we have added, or will add, enough carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to cause dangerous results. Having done so, he seems to have papered the real issue over with statements that at first blush seem true but on careful reexamination turn out not so.

It's not true that "The smallest bacteria … can kill." A whole lot of bacteria, each small, can kill, but a single one can't. It's only when the population of bacteria multiplies to a certain level that they can kill. Even more important, when the body's God-given defense mechanisms, normally stimulated by an infection, resist and kill the bacteria, they might not only not kill the person but even leave her stronger than she was before—witness vaccines.

These two points lead to the real issue on which Jenkins and I disagree about anthropogenic global warming: whether the warming caused by human emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is likely to be good, indifferent, or harmful to humanity and the rest of earthly life, and if we think it's going to be harmful, what would be our best response? How we answer those questions depends significantly on things embedded in what I just said about bacterial infections.

First, that it takes not a single bacterium but a large population of them to sicken or kill someone points to the important relationship between dose and consequence. Just as infection by a few bacteria may be no threat and by stimulating the immune system may even strengthen someone, so also the addition of a tiny amount of carbon dioxide to the earth's climate system (even doubling it from pre-industrial times would leave it at only 54 thousandths of 1 percent of the atmosphere) might pose no threat of dangerous warming and might even make it better for humans and other life. Just what it does is a question that must be answered by careful empirical research, not by guessing.

Second, the immune system's response to infection is what scientists call a feedback mechanism—a natural system's response to a stimulus. Some feedback mechanisms are positive, magnifying the initial impact of a stimulus. Others, like the immune system, are negative, reducing the initial impact. The vast majority of natural systems are dominated by negative feedback mechanisms—otherwise they'd all collapse due to positive feedback loops engendered by any given destabilizing stimulus.

Fairly basic physics indicates that doubling CO2 concentration in the atmosphere would raise earth's average surface temperature by about 1.2°C (about 2.16°F). But basic physics also tells us that if we drop a feather and a rock from the same height at the same moment, they'll hit the ground at the same moment—unless, of course, there's air, in which case the rock will still drop very quickly and straight, but the feather in a slow spiral; and if there's wind, the rock will still drop quickly and fairly straight, but the feather might blow high in the sky and alight on a mountain miles away at much higher altitude, never to descend at all.

How much warming will come from added CO2 in earth's climate system depends far more on feedbacks than on the basic physics of CO2's heat absorption and re-radiation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) relies on computer climate models that assume that overall climate feedbacks (and there are hundreds, and the IPCC claims only poor understanding of many of them) are strongly positive—raising CO2's initial warming by anywhere from 1/3 to 3-and-3/4s times.

But those models grossly exaggerated the amount of warming that occurred from 1980 to the present, as this graph prepared by University of Alabama climatologist Dr. Roy Spencer, illustrates. A very few of the models overestimated by as little as 60%, the model average by about 300%, and many by as much 600% to 800%—and the margin of error between models and reality is growing wider all the time.

Further, the models utterly failed to predict the complete absence of statistically significant warming for the past 16 to 23 years (depending on what dataset one trusts).

Both failures by the models indicate that the assumption of strong net positive feedbacks in the climate system is wrong. This is why many climatologists are reassessing "climate sensitivity," that is, how much the planet will warm, after feedbacks, in response to doubled atmospheric CO2 concentration. New estimates range from about 0.3°C to about 2–2.5°C, the former actually concluding that overall feedbacks are negative, and the latter that though positive they are far weaker than previously thought.

I'll conclude by turning from the scientific to the theological focus of Jenkins's article. In contesting my belief, based in part on the parable of the talents, God intends us to use fossil fuels to human benefit, he writes, "One must be careful when ascribing intent to God, especially when the claim appears to run counter to His design."

I agree wholeheartedly! But I'm not convinced that, with regard to fossil fuels, he's discerned God's intent or God's design better than I have.

He says that part of God's

… design is the carbon cycle, a miraculous process by which trees and other plants, animals, people, and the ocean remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transfer it into the ground where the excess is sequestered. This is how the proper balance of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is maintained. The intended resting place for a significant amount of that excess carbon is deep underground in the form of oil and coal.

Ignore for the moment the mistake of saying "animals, and people … remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere." They do the opposite. Ignore also that he simply assumes but does not prove "the proper balance of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere"; many biologists consider earth's vegetation starved for carbon dioxide, and paleoclimate studies show conclusively that in the past the atmosphere has had many times more CO2 in it and that plants grew much better (and thus animals ate much better) because of it. Indeed, a recent study has concluded that improvements in crop yields because of rising atmospheric CO2 concentration have added about $3.2 trillion worth of food to the world in the past half century and will add about $9.8 trillion worth in the next. These scientific errors are not my focus now.

Rather, I want to ask three—okay, four—questions: Has he rightly described the "carbon cycle"? Has he rightly identified the "intended resting place for a significant amount of that excess [And how, incidentally, does he know it's excess?] Carbon " as "deep in the ground"? And does his vision really better fit "God's design" than an alternative one?

And here are my answers:

No, he doesn't rightly describe the "carbon cycle." Rather, he describes a carbon dead end—a one-way street, into the ground. As the hydrologic cycle has water falling in precipitation, evaporating, condensing into clouds, and falling again in precipitation, a true carbon cycle would have carbon going down and back up again.

No, he hasn't rightly identified the "intended resting place for a significant amount of … carbon"—or rather, at least, he hasn't given us any particular reason to think deep underground is God's intended resting place for it. (Neither does he know it's "excess"; that's the very point in debate about anthropogenic global warming. We certainly know that plants do much better with more CO2 in the air; we don't know more CO2 will cause counterbalancing catastrophic results.)

No, his vision doesn't better fit God's design than an alternative one: a vision of the true carbon cycle. Here's that vision:

Energy from fossil fuels—whose energy density is vastly greater than that of wind, solar, wood, dung, or biofuels, and therefore vastly more affordable—has been one of the key instruments by which such great strides in human wellbeing have been achieved. Quite literally, these fuels have been crucial to the vast increase of human life—in both numbers (from perhaps half a billion in 1700 to perhaps 7 billion today) and longevity. And they've also benefited the rest of the biosphere, as environmental economist Indur Goklany points out: "By lowering humanity's reliance on living nature [wood for heat, feed for animals for transportation and other work], fossil fuels not only saved humanity from nature's whims, but nature from humanity's demands."

How did the fossil fuels get where they are? They are the remains of trillions of dead plants and animals, buried under vast layers of sedimentary rock and transformed by heat and pressure into coal, oil, and natural gas. Many young-Earth geologists think they died and were buried in the universal flood of Noah's time, when God's judgment on man's sin led to His wiping out almost all life on Earth. Whether that is so, I leave for discussion at some other time. The fact is that they died and were buried. All (but the humans) were innocent. They were not sinners. They bore God's judgment on a sin not their own.

They died. They were buried. And now they are being lifted out of the ground and transformed from matter into energy, leaving a gas, carbon dioxide, as a byproduct. Carbon dioxide is essential to all life. Plants use it in photosynthesis, and the higher its concentration, the better they grow. For every doubling of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere there is, on average, a 35 percent increase in plant growth efficiency. Since all other life depends on plants for food—either directly or indirectly—this boon to plants is a boon to the rest of life, too. The increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration over the past sixty years or so seems likely to account for some 12 to 15 percent of the increase in average crop yields per acre during that period—contributing some $3.2 trillion worth of food, helping the poor more than anyone else.

Stop and think for a moment: Innocent creatures die, are buried, are brought up out of the ground, and bring life to others. Haven't you heard that story before?

Of course you have. It is the basic summary of the gospel: Christ (who knew no sin but became sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him; 2 Corinthians 5:21), died for our sins according to the Scriptures; He was buried; He rose again from the dead on the third day according to the Scriptures. At death the human body "is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, 'The first man Adam became a living being'; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:3–4, 44–45).

Rather than seeing fossil fuels as permanent carbon sequestration, we see them, when transformed into energy, as both literally giving life—long and healthy life—to billions of human beings who are not carbon footprints but the footprints of carbon, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, beautifully picturing the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

May we think not of the carbon dead end (Jenkins's vision) but of the carbon life cycle? Why, if we recognize and celebrate the beautiful design of the water cycle, ought we not also to celebrate the beautiful design of the carbon cycle? And might I even venture that this could be one way in which the Book of Creation points to the gospel in the Book of Scripture, and that by embracing this understanding we might not only bring enormous benefit to human health and prosperity to the world's poor but also increase our effectiveness in reaching some of its lost and dying people?

E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., Founder and National Spokesman of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and a former seminary theology and ethics professor, is the author of Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate. The Cornwall Alliance is a network of evangelical theologians, scientists, economists, and other scholars working to promote Biblical earth stewardship, economic development for the poor, and the proclamation and defense of the gospel of Christ.