Is There a Theological Defeater for Anthropogenic Global Warming?

I recently had the pleasure of hearing Professor Craig Nicholson – director of the MS program in sustainability science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst – give a series of talks to a group of Yale graduate students on the role of the Christian scholar in secular academia. While his chief aim in these presentations was to outline good spiritual and intellectual habits that maximize the effectiveness of our Christian witness in hostile academic environments, Professor Nicholson indulged his eager audience in hours of casual conversation canvassing an array of issues relating to his work in environmental conservation.

Over the course of these discussions Professor Nicholson shared the story of his conversion from climate change agnostic to cautious believer in anthropogenic global warming (AGW). As he spoke I became cognizant, without at first knowing why, of my growing discomfort with the conversation. Nothing Professor Nicholson said of his gradual transition on climate science struck me as unreasonable or politically motivated, and by this point in our weekend-long retreat I fully appreciated his commitment to orthodox theology. What unsettled me, I realized, was a vague but deeply felt skepticism for AGW per se, skepticism I typically associated with my encounters with climate dogmatists who promote radical policy agendas and who disparage my political and religious affiliations. In the absence of such hostile attitudes, my discomfort at hearing a Christian scientist soberly reflect on his efforts to understand climate change seemed entirely unwarranted. Ignorant as I am of the relevant data and methodologies of climatology, I could not claim to have principled scientific objections to Professor Nicholson’s rationale, nor could I discount his testimony as ideologically motivated in the same sense I could militant climate dogmatists. Despite a lack of compelling reasons I still felt a strong aversion to AGW. What sorts of a priori commitments were coloring my reception?

It occurred to me that, as a Texan, I was at least somewhat culturally conditioned by my conservative environment to doubt the motives of the liberal left’s climate alarmism and to exercise caution when weighing the implications of inconclusive climate models against the certain economic risks of radical reforms. But those considerations did not obtain in the present case, as Professor Nicholson did not fit the liberal ideologue mold and in fact shared my doubts over the accuracy of climate projections. It struck me finally that perhaps my discomfort over his defense of AGW resulted from a theologically motivated aversion to discussions of humankind’s potential role in the destruction of the planet. The more I entertained the idea, the more certain I became that I did in fact hold previously unarticulated a priori assumptions about the degree to which, given a Christian worldview, humankind is capable of affecting the planet. The same might be true, I thought, of thousands of other conservative Christians like me who, having grown up in red states and associated with right-leaning Church congregations, may have come to think of their ecological politics as somehow bound up with their fundamental theological outlook. In Professor Nicholson’s presence I began to question whether my theological commitments alone precluded the possibility of humankind inflicting lasting harm on the planet.

The prima facie biblical case against AGW appears weak. After all, the concept of stewardship invoked in the Genesis creation narrative seems to entail the possibility of failing in some respect to discharge that duty responsibly. In conferring dominion of the planet upon humankind God entrusted us with His creation, a trust that was eventually violated with original sin. God commands Adam in Gen. 2:15 to “take care of” Eden, while in Gen. 1:28 God orders him to “subdue” the earth, a command that presumably extended outside the boundaries of the Garden to the corrupted world beyond. Perhaps a result of sin was to attenuate the degree to which humankind retained dominion over the natural world and thereby to limit our capacity to deface it, but it seems equally plausible that humankind incurred new, more dire consequences for poor stewardship in the wake of sin. Why then think that, endowed by God with significant ecological responsibility, we should remain incapable of significant ecological harm?

I suspect that one source of enduring skepticism for AGW among Evangelicals in particular lies in various theological notions of divine providence, and perhaps in Calvin’s distinct articulation most of all. In the Institutes he writes, “Therefore, since God claims to himself the right of governing the world, a right unknown to us, let it be our law of modesty and soberness to acquiesce in his supreme authority regarding his will as our only rule of justice, and the most perfect cause of all things.” If God governs the world exclusively it is difficult to imagine how we might be capable of upsetting His plans on the scale that many defenders of AGW claim possible. All sorts of questions concerning divine foreknowledge arise in this respect, and perhaps only the most theologically adventurous of open theists can entertain the possibility that humankind’s ecologically irresponsible actions could totally derail God’s redemptive plan for the universe. But even a limited disruption of God’s ideal intentions for the planet, while not fatal to God’s ultimate salvific victory, would constitute a disastrous failure to “take care of” the earth. We might not be capable of irrevocably destroying the climate, but perhaps it falls within our power to temporarily alter the abundance and diversity of life on the planet, or to spoil the fertility of its soil for a thousand years by ignoring our ecological impact. Uncertain as we are of the timing of Christ’s return, might we place too great a confidence in God’s willingness to mitigate the consequences of our failure to “subdue” the earth responsibly?

To be clear, I am not addressing scientific possibility; I remain uncertain of our actual capacity to harm the planet. Rather, I am raising the question of theological possibility, and I see no reason – Calvin notwithstanding – to assume that a robust doctrine of divine providence necessarily rules out the possibility of humans altering the planet’s climate dramatically.

To take seriously our stewardship of creation seems to require that we recognize at least some potential to fail to meet God’s expectations. While I remain an AGW agnostic, I am less convinced that my theological presuppositions provide a conclusive defeater for every scientific scenario advanced by AGW proponents. It remains true that climatologists are fallible and may simply be wrong about our impact upon the climate, but we should be willing to consider all but the most fantastic and apocalyptic of climate projections. For while God’s sovereignty ensures that He has final authority over the whole of the universe, we might still be capable of temporarily marring the gifts He has entrusted us.



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