Acton Commentary

Carbon Dioxide's Day in Court


Debates over global warming tend to create more heat than light, and that pattern is about to accelerate as lawyers for the environmental lobby go before the Supreme Court to argue that carbon-dioxide (CO-2) is the most pernicious “greenhouse gas.”

Lawyers representing assorted cities, states and environmental organizations are asking the court to reject the Environmental Protection Agency's 2003 decision that carbon dioxide (CO-2) is not a pollutant to be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

That is because the problem with their position is twofold. First, CO-2 is a naturally occurring gas that supports life on this planet. We emit CO-2 every time we exhale, after all. Making a case against CO-2 without making a case against nature is like making an omelet without breaking the proverbial egg. It is impossible. Second, while our current sources of energy also emit CO-2, the scientific evidence that such CO-2 causes catastrophic global warming, and that this global warming is a threat to the earth, is tenuous at best.

Global warming certainly deserves more study, but we should not undertake draconian policies based on the myth that this is an emergency that demands a drastic cutback in CO-2 emissions. Doing that would create a decidedly non-mythical humanitarian emergency by imposing unnecessary costs on the people who can least afford to pay them. Greenhouse gas limitations would spike the cost of energy, bad news for any consumer who has to fill a gas tank or heat a home, particularly for lower income families.

On a global scale, forced cutbacks in CO-2 emissions would create an unconscionable setback for developing countries where economic development is just beginning to pull people out of poverty.

The theologian in me says there is a touch of hubris in the confident assertions of radical environmentalists that radical climate change is the result of man-made greenhouse gas emissions and a problem within man's power to solve. Dr. Roy Spencer of the University of Alabama-Huntsville has rightly noted that there is much we do not know about the climate system. The climate variability over the past several centuries and millennia reflects what he calls “a chaotic, nonlinear and dynamical fluid system.” This system involves factors as far beyond our control as natural sun cycles and volcanic activity. Policies should be based not on hubris but on knowledge of this complex network of causal factors. But we do not yet have that knowledge.

That does not mean, however, that responsible Christians should stop worrying about the environment and leave it to God or “Mother Nature.” The Bible tells us that the earth is the Lord's and we are its stewards. As stewards, we have a delegated responsibility over the earth for which we will be held accountable. Scripture is clear about fallen humanity's destructive tendencies. So we should not be surprised that humans sometimes abuse our stewardship over nature.

People of faith have a duty to correct environmental abuses. To do that, however, we need the knowledge necessary to be good stewards of the environment. I am delighted that the Acton Institute has joined a new organization called the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance to help Jews and Christians develop a positive environmental ethic that avoids the error of incomplete science and alarmist global warming rhetoric.

I do not mean to trivialize anyone's concerns about greenhouse gases and global warming. I support further research on both. But irresponsibly vilifying CO-2 in the name of the theoretical problem of human induced global warming would deny the world a vital fuel for economic growth. And there would be nothing theoretical about the problems that would create.

I can only hope that the Supreme Court will agree.