September 28, 2019
Reflections on the Man-made Climate Change Discussion
I do not frequently write about the perceived climate crisis.
There are numerous reasons for that. I am not a science buff, much less a scientist.
Moreover, I don’t have time to write all the things I really want to write. There are books in biblical studies and novels residing in my head, along with numerous shorter pieces, and they await me impatiently: I frankly have little time to write at this stage of my life.
Aside from that, the climate issue is a polarizing debate, and it’s not necessarily the discussion I want to serve as the cause of alienation.
Nonetheless, I am writing now in spite of it all. I am not presenting myself as an expert in climate science, nor am I primarily interested in putting forward expert expositions of others defending competing scientific viewpoints. My curation would surely be inadequate for such a task.
My aim here is to approach things from another angle. (Although I do want to come back — and who would not? — to the wonderfully scientific subject of cow farts, attributed with being responsible for more greenhouse gas [!] emissions than “cars, planes and all other forms of transport put together.”) The reason I am willing to risk such a polarizing discussion is that biblical reflection is at the heart of my calling, and the crisis of the times virtually demands at least a bit of such reflection. So here it is, very briefly.
A Brief History of Experts: A Firsthand Nutshell Account
The full decade within which my childhood occurred was the 1970s. When I was child, I distinctly remember two things which the experts were telling us.
The medical science experts were telling us how bad breastfeeding was, and that concocted formulas were healthier for babies than their own mothers’ milk.
And throughout the decade, climate experts were warning us of an impending ice age. (You may have seen the Photoshopped covers of Time magazine; but make no mistake, the stories were real, as is witnessed by this Time archive as an example.
For much of my lifetime, the medical community almost universally assumed that consumption of saturated fat led to obesity and heart disease.
In the 1980s, health experts were warning us that AIDS was going to kill huge swaths of the (heterosexual) population.
By 1990, the climate scientists had taken the pendulum ride: in place of an impending ice age was the momentous threat of impending global warming.
Throughout that same decade, tech experts warned us of the catastrophic effects the turn of the millennium would bring with it, because so much core civil infrastructure was based on computing that had failed to prepare for the year 2000. Yes, the “Y2K” debacle.
I have learned two things over the course of my life. (Okay, perhaps more than two, but these two are particularly pertinent in the context of our current discussion.)
One, the experts are frequently wrong — catastrophically and uncategorically so. (For a sampling of failed ecological predictions, for example, see this page.)
And second, the world seems to instinctively lean toward a secularized apocalypticism—a notion of a world-shattering event coming up fast on the event horizon. And more often than not, that apocalyptic vision is tied to attempts to meet the challenge by governments wresting absolute power, thus saving the day. Every apocalyptic vision, it seems, needs a savior.
But This Time Is Different (?)
Despite the failures of the previous apocalyptic visions, there is a desperate push to act against man-made climate change “before it’s too late.” Yet despite the fact that worldwide efforts to mitigate the disaster have been only a fraction of what the experts said was required, early prognostications have by and large proven false. (Just one example: In 2004, experts predicted that major European cities would be underwater by 2020. Time is running out.…)
But like the dispensationalist preachers predicting the rapture, failed predictions have proven no disincentive; there are always more dire predictions to be made.
I am no expert in climate science, but I can’t help feel that somebody is at least exaggerating.
It is also not lost on me that the tech experts of the 1990s knew infinitely more regarding their subject than the most brilliant climate scientists know of theirs.
That’s not a denigration of climate scientists, but a reminder that computer infrastructure is wholly man-made and therefore actually intrinsically knowable by tech experts. And yet, the fact was that “Y2K” ended up being an utter fiasco for many of them.
In comparison to technological experts, natural scientists know a miniscule fraction of their subject, because creation has its source in the infinite mind and inscrutable wisdom of God and not the minds of men, and we have barely begun to probe its mysteries. Is it so strange to think that natural scientists not only do not account for all the data they have available to them now, they almost certainly do not have all the data they would actually need in order to understand and predict long-term climate patterns? These are legitimate questions, even were the track record not so … spotty, shall we say.
The Earth is the Lord’s
The bigger perspective is that the earth is Yahweh’s. Now there are many sides to that, and one corollary is indeed that we should treat it with respect and care. Yahweh’s earth is the gift of home, and as I wrote in Metanarrative (p 8),
All that God has already created is given to this man and this woman. The biblical terminology is indeed dominion, which of course gets a pretty bad rap, because it’s popularly taken to mean selfish pillaging.
But that’s the wrong picture. When God presented the man and the woman with the world he had created, he was giving them the keys to their home.
When you think home, do pillage and plunder come to mind? Surely not. You likely want to make the most of it, yes, but you do so by looking after it, by making it everything it can be. That’s how you treat your home.
In view of this, we should indeed care about the earth. We should indeed minimize pollution. As those who look forward to a new heavens and new earth, in which righteousness dwells, the appropriate way to lean into that promised future is to live as stewards of the earth that is now. It certainly is possible to harm our environment, and we can see countless instances of that. The faithful Christian response is to minimize that harm.
At the same time, we must resist the temptation toward primitivistic utopianism. The goal of God’s story is not a return to an unpopulated Eden, but the unveiling of a New Jerusalem teeming with people, and adorned with the various ways in which they have glorified the creation for the glory of its maker.
Human stewardship of the earth is delegated by God and forward-looking, but in this age human stewardship always involves tradeoffs. I suspect that on this side of glory, we are probably quite unable to come up with an absolutely unmitigated good.
Consider, for example, the explosion of food production that the earth has seen since the Industrial Revolution. More people have been raised out of starvation in the past two hundred years than ever before.
And yet some of those same advances have brought problems: after thousands of years eating bread, suddenly we are developing “gluten intolerances” (more likely: reactions to how wheat is now processed). We are discovering all sorts of accompanying issues with our advances.
Whether or not that is the most apt example, the point is that human development is always flawed and always has downsides.
The development of industrial means of travel has enabled unprecedented access to health care, communities and more. It has also has been the occasion of countless accidents causing death and injury, as well as serious property damage.
As Adam was told after his rebellion, he still retained his calling to till the ground, but now it would resist his efforts and he was going to sweat until he died in order to fulfill that calling.
But the calling remains a gift, and the gift is a mandate, both to exercise faithful dominion over the earth, and to act on behalf of its wellbeing.
Above and beyond this delegated human calling is the sovereign creator and sustainer. In his covenant with Noah, he promised that seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night would not cease (Gen 8:22). It is he who establishes the boundaries of the earth and makes summer and winter (Ps 74:17). He has fixed the patterns of heaven and earth, rain and harvest (Jer 5:24; 33:25).
In the face of every competing apocalyptic vision, the believer confesses: “I fear not, for I belong to the Lord of the heavens and the earth.” The shrill threat of climate change is answered by the Living One’s enduring promise of climate continuity, of the fundamental stability of creation until he himself renews everything as he has purposed.
Utopian visions and apocalyptic visions both are poor substitutes for the gospel’s affirmation of the creation, its adoration of the world’s creator and sustainer, its exaltation of the Lordship of Jesus the Messiah, its real world implementation of the kingdom, and its anticipation of a graciously given new heavens and new earth.
So what about those cow farts?
It seems clear to me that the owner of the cattle on a thousand hills is not destroying his creation by virtue of that very ownership. It is much more likely that cow farts are a feature of his wise governance rather than a demonstration of divine destruction.
We confess that the earth is the Lord’s. He set his colorful bow in the sky as a promise to all of us that the world will never again be destroyed by a flood. I think it no leap to take that to mean that, not only will he not destroy the world with rain that he himself sends, but he will not allow us to destroy it by causing the tides to rise.
In the final analysis, the earth is sustained, not by us, but by the living God who created it.