Acton Commentary

Thou Shalt Not Burn Fossil Fuels: Global Warming and Religious Faith


A flurry of news stories in recent months suggests a monolithic, nationwide response to global warming within the religious community. The movement depicted often speaks in apocalyptic terms and looks to government regulation of the economy to protect us. However, these stories mistake a small but well-funded effort on the part of some in the religious community for a consensus within the entire religious community.

In fact, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment and the National Council of Churches' Interfaith Global Warming Campaign have received little support from the faithful in the pews. Efforts in the five states currently operating climate campaigns average fewer than fifty supporters per state. And these endorsers rarely represent their denominations. Nevertheless, organizers claim to speak authoritatively for America’s faithful.

The cold reception among religious leaders to these efforts is understandable. Over 17,000 scientists signed a petition circulated by the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine saying, in part, “there is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate.”

The threat posed to the economy by the climate treaty, on the other hand, a worry expressed by both business and labor leaders alike, raises significant concerns. The poor would be hardest hit by the economic disruption resulting from the treaty’s ratification. Studies like the WEFA analysis conducted on the impact of ratification on individual U.S. states suggests tremendous economic costs.

Meeting the Kyoto target for carbon dioxide emissions would, according to WEFA:

  • Nearly double energy and electricity prices, and raise gasoline prices an additional 65 cents per gallon.
  • Cost 2.4 million US jobs and reduce US total output $300 billion (1992$) annually, an amount greater that the total expenditure on primary and secondary education.
  • Harm U.S. competitiveness, as developing countries will not need to raise energy prices (or product prices) to meet mandatory greenhouse gas targets.
  • Reduce the average annual household income nearly $2700, at a time when the cost of all goods, particularly food and basic necessities, would rise sharply.
  • Diminish state tax revenues by $93.1 billion due to job and output losses attributable to lost US competitiveness in the global market and higher energy costs.

Furthermore, the Kyoto Protocol does not include mandatory emission reductions for less developed countries, which are expected to emit three-quarters of all carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Many producers currently located in the developed world will simply shift their base of production from the developed world to the less developed world under Kyoto, in an effort to avoid mandatory reductions. This would impose tremendous economic costs on the developed world and increase real pollution in the developing world because of lax commitments there to the environment. It would do this without significantly reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact, Bert Bolin, former chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change , the UN body responsible for many of the global warming fears, says that, if fully implemented, the present plan would cut warming twenty-five years from now “by less than 0.1 degree C, which would not be detectable.”

Religious leaders are right to remain skeptical of this effort to transform unsound science and policy into a moral crusade. Sound environmental stewardship requires reasoned, prudent judgments about the earth that take into account incentives for human action. Competitive pressures in the marketplace encourage energy conservation by entrepreneurs, especially when the costs of using a resource rise due to its scarcity in a time of great demand. Companies that fail to adopt cost saving, energy efficiency measures in the face of scarcity end up less competitive than their environment-friendly competitors. Thus the market helps to see that the good environmental steward is properly rewarded for his efforts.