Getting into Hot Water: Evangelicals and Global Warming

Article excerpt


The subject of anthropogenic global warming has become an issue of much discussion in American culture in general and among evangelicals in particular. (1) Both the national news media and the national political parties have taken note of the disagreement among evangelicals with varying degrees of approval. (2) Evangelicals do indeed have significant areas of disagreement with respect to climate change, yet, they also demonstrate considerable agreement over what theological data is relevant to the discussion, as well as over some of the principles important in judging proposed solutions.

This article will trace the development of engagement by evangelical groups and denominations (3) with the issue of climate change and global warming and describe the areas of agreement and disagreement between evangelical environmentalists and their opponents. This will provide a basis for evaluating the evangelical contribution to the broader discussion. Evangelicals have contributed a needed, distinctively Christian voice to correct some of the assumptions and arguments of secular environmentalists. Unfortunately, some evangelicals have also demonstrated a surprising failure of concern for truth and are at risk of undercutting the traditional evangelical strategy of using concrete help for the poor as a means of winning a sympathetic hearing for the gospel of salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

Historical Overview of Evangelical Statements on the Environment

The past few years have seen considerable division among evangelicals over the question of anthropogenic global warming. Competing statements, beginning with the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI) (4) in 2006, and culminating in the Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change (SBECI) (5) in 2008, have received much attention from politicians and the national news media. Yet, the history of evangelical statements on the environment begins much earlier than 2006 and is characterized by a surprising degree of agreement.

In 1990, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution, "On Environmental Stewardship." (6) This resolution was followed four years later by the establishment of the Evangelical Environmental Network and the publication of its signature document, "An Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation." (7) While neither of these documents directly addressed the question of global warming, they did lay the foundation for the debate that was to begin in 2000 and come to fruition in 2006.

The true beginning of the evangelical debate over global warming was marked by the creation of the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance in 2000. This group of conservative Jews, Catholics, and Protestants expressed concern about the nature and content of the growing debate over anthropogenic global warming. The work of this group formed the foundation for the position taken by many prominent evangelicals in the global warming debate. The writers of what came to be known as the Cornwall Declaration had three major concerns. (8) The first was that many in the global warming debate demonstrated a theologically flawed view of humanity. Secular environmentalists often hold to an overly negative view of man that ignores the positive potential of humanity to impact the environment for good. In contrast, unpeopled or pristine nature is idealized. The Cornwall Declaration, however, asserted that while humanity could do harm to nature, it could also manage the environment beneficially. The second concern was a focus on what the writers took to be improbable dangers instead of on firmly established risks to human life and the environment. Finally, the writers were concerned that many of the policies being proposed to deal with global warming would have an immediate and deleterious effect on the poor, especially those in developing nations.

In August of 2005, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention also expressed formal concern about the issue of global warming. …