We hear now (in full-page ads) from the Evangelical Climate Initiative. Their summons, signed by 80-odd evangelical leaders, is to address the global-warming crisis. The opening statement declares that "as evangelical Christians, we believe we're called to be stewards of God's creation."
That isn't an inflated claim; ministers of the Gospel are expected to address common concerns. This time we are advised that "global warming can and must be solved. It is no small problem. Pollution from vehicles, power plants and industry is having a dramatic effect on the Earth's climate. Left unchecked, global warming will lead to drier droughts, more intense hurricanes and more devastating floods, resulting in millions of deaths in this century."
The premise is that the planet is suffering from rising levels of greenhouse gasses, which are bringing on increasingly sharp climate changes. As Anthony McMichael of the Australian National University in Canberra has articulated the problem, climate change would lead to "an increase in death rates from heat waves, infectious diseases, allergies, cholera as well as starvation due to failing crops."
Two questions arise. The first, and most obvious, is: Is the information we are receiving reliable? There is a certain lure to apocalyptic renderings of modern existence. Some remember, not so long after the first atomic bomb was detonated, predictions that we were directly headed for nuclear devastation. After a bit, a Yankee skepticism came in and informed us that Dr. Strangelove was a creature unto himself -- that he could be isolated, and that nuclear armament could proceed, with high levels of caution. Today the problem on the nuclear front is proliferation. And the crisis is at our doorstep in the matter of North Korea and Iran. But even if they develop the bomb, we do not go straightaway to the end of the world with Strangelove.
The environmentalist alarum is strongly backed by evidence, but there are scientists who believe that the data of the last few years, indeed of the last century, attest to cyclical variations that make their way irrespective of the increase in fossil-fuel consumption. Professor Robert Jastrow, a distinguished astrophysicist, is skeptical in the matter. Yet recent reports of measurements done in the Antarctic have not been fully absorbed by the non-believers, and they aren't likely to ignore as simply inconsequential the increase in greenhouse gases, whatever dispute there may be about their exact effect.
There is no disputing that, over the recent period, temperature changes have been in an upward direction. The latest figure is one degree in the last generation. The nation's temperatures this January were the warmest on record, and NASA scientists have informed us that 2005 was the hottest year ever recorded worldwide.
The issue of Kyoto divides the world. The protocols agreed upon there were affirmed by President Clinton, but were rejected by the Senate. The grounds for doing so were that unrealistic demands were being made on the developed nations, without realistic attention to what the less-developed countries were prepared to do in the way of reducing their dependence on fossil fuels. China, for instance, would simply refuse to abide by schedules that failed to take into account its spectacular demands as a country moving to western levels of consumption at singular speed.
Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman have endorsed a bill that would set for the United States a goal, by the year 2010, of a reduction in emissions to the level of 2000. President Bush has refused to sign on to any schedule whatever that would mandate national goals, or would restrict normal impulses.
The pressure of the environmentalists has combined with a more direct pressure, which is the scarcity of those fuels that do the most damage. There are visions knocking on the door, of fuels without the heavy carbon-dioxide emissions. But mostly there is a recognition that economic and environmental concerns might combine to discourage profligate consumption of the toxic stuff.
One way to go would be a surtax on gasoline. Another, a heightening of federal requirements in the matter of energy-efficient automobiles; these began many decades back, when the impulse to formalize our concern for nature began to take concrete legislative form. Add now the moral concern. We are indeed stewards of nature, and calls to conjoin our concern with a sense of Christian mission are noteworthy.