Since 2005, evangelicals have divided into two roughly opposing camps over the question of anthropogenic global warming. Official statements of the Southern Baptist Convention through its resolution process, its Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and the Cornwall Alliance have typically rejected the theory of anthropogenic global warming and catastrophic climate change predictions. They assert that it is more likely that global warming will be moderate and have moderate or even helpful effects on the environment over all. They also argue that the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions is unlikely to have significant impact on global warming. These groups have focused primarily on the impact of climate-change policy on developing economies and the poor. On the other side, the Evangelical Environmental Network, through its Evangelical Climate Initiative and (as it seems) the SBECI have affirmed the existence and danger of anthropogenic global warming and have called for action to prevent it.
Despite conflict among evangelicals over the existence of anthropogenic global warming, there has been a great deal of consensus on the theological basis for addressing environmental degradation. Most evangelical statements appeal to the fact that God is the creator of the world as a basis for understanding the value of nonhuman creation, and many note that God is its owner. Virtually every evangelical statement on the environment and climate change acknowledges that God has commissioned humanity with the responsibility of stewardship/dominion over the earth and that the execution of this responsibility has been perverted by sin, with negative impact on the environment. Evangelicals have also, almost without exception, affirmed the responsibility of Christians to care for the poor as an important factor in considering environmental policy.
One major motivation for all of the evangelical statements on climate change has been a genuine concern for humanity’s treatment of God’s creation. Another motivation, no less important, has been an apologetic concern to engage non-Christians with a Christian witness. The heart of the evangelical witness in the world is the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ Jesus alone. Seeking the conversion of men, women, and children is the sine qua non of evangelicalism. The priority of missions and evangelism has made evangelicals cautious about the potential of social ministry to overtake and swamp concern for the souls of men. As a result, evangelicals have traditionally subordinated social ministry to evangelism by seeing social ministry as a means to win a hearing for the gospel. Evangelicals have heeded the warning of James 2:14–16 that a faith that does not meet real physical needs is of no practical value.
Care for the poor, while a real good in and of itself, also serves the furtherance of the gospel. This strategy explains, in part, why evangelicals have taken great pains to tie their concern for the environment to concern for the poor. Some appeal to Christ’s command to love our neighbor; most affirm our responsibility to care for the poor. The connection between care for the poor and environmental concern is the fact that both the environment itself and human treatment of the environment by the private and public sectors will affect the poor, especially in developing countries.
Unfortunately, the public-policy response to global warming proposed by some evangelicals makes actually helping the global poor more difficult. The resources of the developed world are vast, but they are still limited. Addressing global warming through capping carbon dioxide emissions at 20 percent of current levels by 2050 will be hugely expensive. Directing a large portion of our resources at this problem will mean that other problems cannot be met. We may be able to meet some needs, but we cannot meet them all. Furthermore, if global warming prevention strategies have a negative impact on the economies of developed countries (as seems likely), this will further shrink the pool of available resources for addressing the pressing needs of the global poor.
If helping the poor in developing nations is made more difficult by the public policy proposals of evangelical environmentalists, then these policies would also undercut the traditional evangelical strategy of using social ministry to win a favorable hearing for the gospel. Drastic reductions of carbon dioxide emissions call for sacrifice on the part of both rich and poor nations. The rich however, are better able to absorb these changes with only marginal adjustments to their lifestyle. The global poor face the more difficult choice. To poor nations, the choice between electricity from expensive and/or unreliable carbon neutral sources and inexpensive, reliable fossil fuel burning sources is no choice at all. If required to build only carbon neutral power plants, which they cannot afford, they will not have power at all. The result will be continued exposure to a wide range of environmental hazards that lead to disease, malnutrition, and early death.
To hear a Western (i.e., rich!) evangelical environmentalist tell the poor that they must sacrifice the technologies that would improve the length and quality of life for them and their families in order to achieve a merely speculative benefit they will never see can only make the poor less likely to listen to the gospel that the evangelical brings. Such disillusionment will only deepen when it is realized that those evangelicals continue to enjoy the same lifesaving technologies they are effectively asking the poor to forego.
Benjamin B. Phillips is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Houston Campus. This commentary was based on an article in the Journal of Markets & Morality (Vol. 12, No. 2).