Acton Commentary

Faith and Reason Trump Scare Tactics


A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to take part in a panel discussion at a local church with three other committed Christians who share a concern for the environment. The audience was made up of a group of Christians who were considering whether to endorse an environmental action proposal embracing the tenets of the Kyoto Protocol. While I strongly disagree with the adoption of this proposal, I do appreciate the depth of concern—based on the strong convictions of faith—that all of the participants brought to the discussion. Furthermore, I am always impressed to see Christians engaging in thoughtful, prudent discernment concerning their faith commitments.

It is when the "thoughtful" and "prudent" parts begin to break down that Christians need to be concerned about the effect and effectiveness of their witness in contemporary public life. Secularists in the public square often point to Christians as extremists who are out of touch, morally posturing, and anti-scientific.

To be sure, these are caricatures of faithful persons. It is important to consider a primary conviction of the Judeo-Christian tradition: Faith and reason must interact, and faith does not necessarily contradict the hard facts of scientific discovery. Faith and reason operating in concert provide the moral framework within which the hard facts of science can be interpreted. Reason is, after all, one of the ways that human beings can know moral and scientific truth, and discern the presence of error, both moral and scientific. As a result—and this cannot be overstated—Christians who propose activism in the public square must base their work on sound science and sound moral reasoning. To ignore these would be to play into the hands of secularists who seek to eject Christian truth from public debate.

This brings me to the forum I described earlier. During our discussion, I was struck at the scare tactics employed to frighten believers into adopting a set of positions (in this case, embodied in the Kyoto Protocol) that are, at best, scientifically dubious. The Kyoto Protocol and related studies consistently describe speculative, futuristic environmental models that, by their very nature, are uncertain. When considering policy solutions, such speculation provides a shaky foundation for Christians who are legitimately engaged in environmental stewardship issues.

The environmental study that formed the basis of much of the discussion is the constantly changing study commissioned in 1990 by the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This study has predicted significant climate changes by the year 2100. In 1990 it predicted a 5.8° Fahrenheit increase by 2100. In 1992 this claim was adjusted to a lower number; a 4.5° Fahrenheit increase by the year 2100. This ever-changing study yet again readjusted in 1995 to a 3.6° Fahrenheit increase by 2100, a 40 percent decrease from the study’s original prediction. These nebulous numbers come from the same environmental activists who predict that a single degree of change results in cataclysmic events. Radical environmentalists trump these numbers as certain and scientific. Should not the fluctuations of these "certain facts" give us pause to reconsider the "impending ecological disaster" referred to by my fellow panelist?

During the discussion, I mentioned the fluctuation of the temperature predictions by the IPCC. One of the panelists readily agreed that the adjustments were accurate and that the United Nations study now accepted a "range of temperature adjustments that included estimates of 3.5° to 10° Fahrenheit changes in world temperature." It remains to be seen whether or not the United Nations will adjust its policy prescriptions based on this new flexibility.

I stressed during the discussion that it is also important to employ reason in examining not only the science of climate change but also the economic effects of recommended policies. As recently reported by the National Center for Policy Analysis , "the Energy Information Administration, the official forecasting arm of the Department of Energy, predicts meeting the Kyoto greenhouse gas limits would:

  • Increase gasoline prices by 52 percent
  • Increase electricity prices by 86 percent
  • Decrease Gross Domestic Product by 4.2 percent.
  • Reduce personal disposable income by 2.5 percent."

It is apparent that the Kyoto Protocol will produce very real effects in our way of life in the United States, not to mention the economic hurdles it would create for the developing world.

The location of this panel discussion is important—it took place in a church. Environmental activism is not some far away reality for consideration in the White House and various state capitals. Grassroots efforts that often begin with our churches are being used to build a foundation to influence how society thinks about these issues. Those that would encourage activism in the pews intend for more than a parish-level recycling program. They are building a foundation in order to widen their efforts.

In this discussion, a fellow panelist overlooked an important element of the Christian vision—hope. Man is not destined for some eco-apocolyptic end, which is the fear such scare tactics invoke. Rather, man has within him the image of God, which means he participates in God’s creative activity. It is the human person, in interacting with creation as a free moral agent, who has the greatest potential of arriving at solutions for proper environmental stewardship. The "impending environmental crisis" tactics used by Christians to promote a theologically and scientifically questionable environmentalism is an appeal to fear, which contradicts the Gospel injunction of "be not afraid."

If Christians want to be leaders in the environmental movement, they must embrace sound science and sound theology, which puts man in his proper role as steward and co-creator. Doing anything less makes Christians pawns in the hands of cynical secularists who fail to understand the human person’s transcendent and dynamic role in stewarding creation.