In the first chapter of the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are commanded to "tend and keep" the Garden of Eden, as well as to "fill the Earth", and "subdue" and "have dominion" over the creation. It is clear that mankind is given a dominant role in the biblical creation, with God's permission to use the Earth's natural resources to serve our needs.
Yet, we now know that it is possible to damage the creation in ways that makes portions of it unfit for further use for many years. Some chemicals we have developed are very hazardous to humans. For instance, the generation and safe storage of nuclear waste from power plants remain challenges. The Earth is marvelously resilient, constantly cleansing our air and water, yet we know from experience that there are limits to this resiliency.
The tension over what constitutes environmental "stewardship" has led to a wide range of opinions within the Christian church on the subject. Some churches have been actively involved in the environmental movement since the 1970's. The concern has been expressed in ways as small as recycling waste, to what can only be called "Earth worship", elevating the value of the creation to a position above that of mankind.
The past several months have had considerable activity in the Christian church on the subject of climate change. On February 1st of this year, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) announced that they would not adopt a position statement on global warming that they had been considering since 2004. The NAE, which claims to represent 30 million church members, noted that there is considerable disagreement within the church regarding the causes and severity of, as well as the responses to, the global warming threat. The NAE decision greatly disappointed environmentalists.
Then, later in the month, 86 evangelical leaders calling themselves the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI) issued a statement at a press conference that called for action to fight global warming. The ECI claimed that the threat from global warming was greatest for the world's poor, and so Christians must be involved in the issue.
The diverse approaches represented by the positions of the NAE and ECI illustrate the wide range of views within the church on the subject of global warming.
Meanwhile, a new group calling itself the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (ISA) has joined the fray by calling for prudence in how the global warming threat is approached. The ISA, in which I participate, tries to point out that the biggest threat to the poor is, not surprisingly, poverty.
Inexpensive forms of energy are required for the poor of the world to have just the basic necessities of life (clean water, refrigerated food, etc.). The ISA believes that approaches to fighting global warming that end up making energy more expensive will actually hurt the poor before the poor ever become aware of climate change. We adhere to the "Cornwall Declaration", which folds in the economic realities that must be considered before one can truly 'help the poor' without doing more harm than good.
Indeed, the developed world has made itself relatively immune from most of nature's threats through advanced technologies in home construction, heating and cooling, refrigeration, medicines, transportation, agriculture, and a wide variety of modern amenities that we take for granted.
Would you rather live where the women spend most of their day walking great distances to carry water, firewood, and dung home so that food can be prepared in a smoke-filled hut, where everyone then breathes in a variety of life-threatening contaminants? This is how much of the undeveloped world lives.
Now, as a result of the recent heat wave in the eastern U.S., Pat Robertson has joined those who consider manmade global warming to be a serious problem, even though the country has experienced higher temperatures in the 1920's and 1930's. It seems to be human nature for people that experience some perceived weather change over their lifetime to think that the change is not only real, but is part of a long-term trend. Even James Hansen has admitted that the global warming signal is still not big enough to reliably discern in the presence of natural climate variability.
All Christians are united in the belief that the poor should be helped. But in today's world, with a global economy, what constitutes 'help' can be muddy. Sending millions of dollars in aid to an African country where most of the funds are siphoned off to help keep a tyrant in power is one illustration of the complexities involved in simple applications of Christian charity. Farm subsidies in the United States have the unintended consequence of making the price of produce in poor countries uncompetitive, perpetuating poverty in those countries.
Bjorn Lomborg, a self-proclaimed environmentalist, assembled a panel of experts in economics who were charged with determining -- given a fixed amount of money to be dedicated to improving the human conditions -- what actions give the biggest returns for the least money. The result was the "Copenhagen Consensus", with over a dozen policy approaches prioritized in terms of bang-for-the-buck. Fighting climate change was at the bottom of the list. Fighting malaria, AIDS, provision of clean water and other sanitation measures were a few that were at or near the top of the list.
As has often been the case where economics and policy intersect, good intentions are not enough. The lesson for the church is, while it is one thing to agree to "help the world's poor", it is another thing entirely to determine how to best spend limited financial resources. Unless we examine the consequences of our charitable efforts, it is entirely possible to inadvertently make matters worse, rather than better.
Dr. Roy Spencer is a principal research scientist for the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the U.S. Science Team Leader for the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer (AMSR-E) on NASA's Aqua satellite.