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?").

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• "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.

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.

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