And on the Eighth Day, God Went Green

New York Times JOHN TIERNEY February 11, 2006

And on the eighth day, God said, Let there be a thermostat for the heavens and the earth, and God saw that it was good. And God said, Let no man adjust it more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1 degree Celsius, until the end of time.

Now that evangelical Christians have joined the battle against global warming, we may as well acknowledge that America has one truly national religion: environmentalism.

Its tenets, already taken for granted in the blue states, were embraced this week by the Christian leaders who formed the Evangelical Climate Initiative. They haven’t yet rewritten Genesis, but their advertising campaign warns of “millions of deaths” from biblical scourges — floods, droughts, pestilence — unless humans make a “sacred commitment” to stop global warming.

It may look odd for evangelicals to be taking up Hollywood’s most fashionable cause, but the alliance makes perfect sense. Environmentalism has always fundamentally been a religion — “Calvinism minus God,” in the words of Robert Nelson, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Maryland. He calls the global warming debate the latest example of environmentalist creationism.

The Puritans and other Calvinists believed that God was revealed not just in Scripture but also in the “Book of Nature.” To them, the wilderness was an unchanged record of God’s handiwork at “the Creation,” offering a glimpse of the world before man’s pride and sinfulness alienated him from nature and caused him to be expelled from Eden.

Environmentalists have had similar notions, starting with John Muir, who considered nature “a mirror reflecting the Creator.” Al Gore urged the “moral courage” to secure “our place within creation.” When Bruce Babbitt was secretary of the interior, he called plants and animals “a direct reflector of divinity,” and he warned Americans not to “recklessly destroy the patterns of creation.”

There is one large problem with this version of creationism. The world we see was not created in a week, and it has looked a lot different in the past.

The forests that seemed divine to the Puritans and to Muir and Babbitt were not present at the Creation. They were merely the latest adaptation to changing climatic conditions and competition with other species, including humans — Indians had been managing the forests by cutting trees and setting fires. There is no such thing as a “natural” forest in America, Nelson writes, unless you reject creationism and define nature as “the Darwinian vision of unremitting struggle for survival.”

Darwin’s Book of Nature isn’t as morally satisfying as Calvin’s, at least not for those who enjoy berating Americans for their sinful desires to cut down trees and burn fossil fuels. But it does make for a clearer way to think about global warming. Instead of assuming that humans will be punished for tinkering with God’s handiwork, you can consider the best strategy for our species’ survival.

That means rejecting the assumption that we must immediately start atoning for our excesses. Solutions like the Kyoto treaty amount to expensive hair shirts that appeal to penitents but not necessarily to economists. Even economists who support the Kyoto treaty acknowledge that it will make only a small difference far in the future while imposing serious costs today.

And those costs seem too high to other economists, like the four Nobel laureates and their colleagues who met in Copenhagen in 2004 to study proposals to help the world’s poor. The Copenhagen Consensus, as they called it, was that programs to slow global warming are one of the worst investments — far less worthwhile than programs to immediately combat disease and improve drinking water and sanitation.

Saving lives now makes more sense than spending large sums to avert biblical punishments that may never come. Scientists agree that the planet seems to be warming, but their models are so crude that they’re unsure about how much it will heat up or how much damage will be done. There’s a chance the warming could be mild enough to produce net benefits.

For now, the best strategy is to refine the forecasts and look for the cheapest and least painful ways to counteract global warming, including heretical ideas like geo-engineering schemes to cool the planet by blocking sunlight. It’s hard today to imagine how that would be done — or how environmentalists would ever allow something so “unnatural.” But maybe they could be convinced that we’re just resetting God’s thermostat back to the eighth day of Creation.


8 thoughts on “And on the Eighth Day, God Went Green”

  1. “Greenland’s glaciers are melting into the sea twice as fastas previously believed, the result of a warming trend that renders obsolete predictions of how quickly Earth’s oceans will rise over the next century, scientists said yesterday.

    The new data come from satellite imagery and give fresh urgency to worries about the role of human activity in global warming. The Greenland data are mirrored by findings from Bolivia to the Himalayas, scientists said, noting that rising sea levels threaten widespread flooding and severe storm damage in low-lying areas worldwide.

    ..’This study underscores the need to take swift, meaningful actions at home and abroad to address climate change,” said Vicki Arroyo, director of policy analysis at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

    The data highlight the lack of meaningful U.S. policy, she added: “This is the kind of study that should make people stay awake at night wondering what we’re doing to the climate, how we’re shaping the planet for future generations and, especially, what we can do about it.'”

    Glacier Melt Could Signal Faster Rise in Ocean Levels, Washington Post, Friday, February 17, 2006;

    We have to stop finding excuses to procrastinate and realize that global warming is posing a serious threat not only to the planet we have been given by God to be stewards, but to human life as well.

  2. Enviromania provides a good excuse for pushing people around — one of the most enduringly popular pastimes down through the ages.

  3. 1. Christian values make concern for human life one of our highest priorities.
    2. Human lives will be definetely be threatened by flooding, droughts, storms and famine resulting from climate change. Evidence of climate change resulting from human activity is growing stronger with every new study.
    3. Therefore our Christian values dictate that we need to be concerned about climate change, and that we have a duty to take action to minimize potential harm.
    4. Deliberately ignoring a duty arising from our Christian values is tantamount to a sin of ommision.

  4. From Jim Hansen, the director of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, President George Bush’s top climate modeller: “We don’t have much time left.”

    “Our Nasa scientists have measured this in Greenland. And once these ice streams start moving, their influence stretches right to the interior of the ice sheet. Building an ice sheet takes a long time, because it is limited by snowfall. But destroying it can be explosively rapid.

    How fast can this go? Right now, I think our best measure is what happened in the past. We know that, for instance, 14,000 years ago sea levels rose by 20m in 400 years – that is five metres in a century. This was towards the end of the last ice age, so there was more ice around. But, on the other hand, temperatures were not warming as fast as today.

    How far can it go? The last time the world was three degrees warmer than today – which is what we expect later this century – sea levels were 25m higher. So that is what we can look forward to if we don’t act soon. None of the current climate and ice models predict this. But I prefer the evidence from the Earth’s history and my own eyes. I think sea-level rise is going to be the big issue soon, more even than warming itself.

    It’s hard to say what the world will be like if this happens. It would be another planet. You could imagine great armadas of icebergs breaking off Greenland and melting as they float south. And, of course, huge areas being flooded.

    How long have we got? We have to stabilise emissions of carbon dioxide within a decade, or temperatures will warm by more than one degree. That will be warmer than it has been for half a million years, and many things could become unstoppable. If we are to stop that, we cannot wait for new technologies like capturing emissions from burning coal. We have to act with what we have. This decade, that means focusing on energy efficiency and renewable sources of energy that do not burn carbon. We don’t have much time left.

  5. Well, Dean, perhaps the environmentalists are like the boy who cried wolf too often. As I look at the earnest pleas about global warming, I wonder how to distinguish them from the earnest pleas to dismantle dams and other flood-control systems.

  6. Augie – I agree with you about the dams. Consider California which relies on the snowpack that falls every winter on the Sierra Nevada range. As this snow melts during the rest of the year when there is no precipitation, the runoff fills streams, rivers and reserviors and provides the state’s 35 million people and valuable agricultural export industry with water for drinking and irrigation.

    If, because of global warming, the amount of the annual snowpack steadily decreases and rain falls on the Sierra instead of snow, California is going to be in very serious trouble indeed. We will then need dams and resevoirs to capture every rain drop possible.

    Rising ocean levels mean that salt water from the San Francisco Bay will push into the Central Valley, swamping the low-lying Delta region (much of which is already below sea-level like New Orleans) and increasing the possibility of flooding in the rest of the Valley. The aquaducts that carry water from wetter Northern California to drier Southern California where 25 million people live, could be cut off by the salt water of as well.

    Nevada, next door, will be even worse shape. The mining industry has nearly drained every fresh water aquifer in that State for industrial use. A loss of water from Sierra and Rocky Mountain runoff due to global warming means Nevada goes back to being an empty desert.

    So maybe that’s why people in California are a little more alarmed about global warming then the rest of the country. The midwest and northeast may be a little hotter, and the south wetter, but out West we will literally run out of water.

  7. If the majority of environmental scientists are correct, it wouldn’t be the “environmentalists” pushing people around, but rather it would be the ocean pushing people out of their coastal homes and properties. We just witnessed that on a large scale with Hurricane Katrina. Whether or not this had any relation to global warming, its not suprising that people in the U.S. are now paying more attention to these things.

    One of things that “environmentalists” sometimes attempt to attack is consumerism. The Church also attacks consumerism, or the idea that we must be continually consuming things in order to be fulfulilled. The Church has been attacking consumerism before there ever were environmentalists. Perhaps an ideology of manifest destiny has led some Christians in America to embrace consumerism also.

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