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A closer look at climate challenges

Gerald McDermott | Climate catastrophism does not help us think clearly about our responsibility to care for creation

Greenpeace activists stage a protest at a Shell refinery in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Associated Press/Photo by Peter Dejong

A closer look at climate challenges
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Pope Francis warns that we face a global “climate emergency.” In his opening address to students in September, the president of Harvard University said climate change is “the most consequential threat facing humanity.”

Climate catastrophists such as Pope Francis and Harvard’s president make frightening claims: Global warming from carbon dioxide emissions will make millions homeless because rising sea levels will drown whole cities, and higher temperatures are killing people with unprecedented heat waves, hurricanes, flooding, fires, and drought. The extreme weather is said to come from carbon emissions produced by human beings, mostly from fossil fuels. Only a speedy transition from oil and natural gas to renewable energy such as solar and wind will save the planet and, in return, the human race.

Are the climate doomsayers correct?

There are plenty of reasons to question these claims. But we do know that millions of poor people will die needlessly if climate change policies are pursued without considering the real needs of poor nations. That should concern everyone, especially Christians.

Global warming is a fact, but it does not necessarily follow that a climate catastrophe is inevitable. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) reported in August that the most disastrous scenarios of global warming are “very unlikely” and the dire emissions scenarios are “highly unlikely.”

The science supports this downgrading from catastrophe to chronic problem. As Stephen Koonin, the top energy scientist in President Obama’s Department of Energy, has reported in his book Unsettled, the global temperature has gone up one degree Celsius since the late 1800s. “Since human well-being has improved spectacularly, even as the globe warmed during the 20th century, it is absurd to suggest that an additional degree of warming over the next century will be catastrophic,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

It turns out that cold weather kills far more people than hot. A 2015 study in the Lancet showed that while heat caused 0.5 percent of all deaths, cold claimed seven percent.

The amount of land affected by fires, meanwhile, is down. Satellites have demonstrated a 25 percent reduction globally in burned areas over the last 18 years. Because the number of homes built in high-fire-risk zones in the American West has skyrocketed, we get the mistaken impression that fires globally have also zoomed up.

At the same time, extreme weather is not causing more catastrophic damage to human life. The world’s best database in Belgium shows that deaths from climate-related catastrophes have plummeted by 96 percent over the past century, mostly because of adaptations that people have made. That same period has seen increasing use of building codes, qualified first-responders, modern medicine, and a host of population movements.

Many will be surprised to learn that a transition from oil and gas to solar and wind and electric cars is hardly innocent of pollution and will hurt the poor. Extraction of oil and gases leaves a comparatively light footprint on the ground, but the production of electric cars requires big-footprint mines and chemical processing. Electric cars emit only 24 percent less CO2 than gas-fueled vehicles, and just as many dangerous air-pollution particulates.

The best-kept secret of this massive energy transformation is that it won’t help global warming in any significant way. Using UN estimates, even if the Paris Agreement were extended to 2100 and all its signers fulfilled their commitments (highly unlikely), the global temperature rise would be reduced by only four-tenths of one degree Fahrenheit. As Danish environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg concludes, spending trillions of dollars to achieve almost nothing is a bad idea.

Besides, it hurts the poor, who need cheap energy to get out of poverty. Climate change policy subsidizes solar panels and Teslas for the wealthy but raises energy prices to levels the poor cannot afford. The result, according to Lomborg, is that the Paris agreement is projected to keep 11 million more people in poverty by 2030.

What should Christians do? Lomborg and other climate scientists suggest we support innovation in cheaper green energy such as fusion, fission, water splitting, and—yes—nuclear which, as the French have found, is clean, cheap, and safe.

Christians are called to be stewards of creation. We should love the created world because God loves the world and created it for his glory. To express doubt about climate catastrophism does not absolve us of responsibility to care for creation or to find ever-more creative energy alternatives for a sustainable future.

We have work to do, and it starts with thinking clearly about the challenges.

Gerald McDermott

Gerald McDermott is retired from the Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School. The author, co-author, or editor of 23 books, he has written extensively on Jonathan Edwards, world religions, and the meaning of Israel. His most recent books are Race and Covenant and Understanding the Jewish Roots of Christianity. He and his wife Jean have three grown sons and twelve grandchildren.


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Very well said. The pending climate change warming "catastrophe" has been prophesied by many false prophets for at least twenty-five years now, yet millions still buy into the nonsense. Christians need to be wise and remember that every so-called "crisis" entertained by the elites of society often has an ulterior motive of monetary gain. What better way to make money than to sell a crisis?

Son of Thunder

What a breath of fresh air (if you'll pardon the pun)! Instead of insisting that human existence is the problem, a fresh look at some energy solutions that show actual promise is proposed. May the Lord grant us policy makers who will return to a more reasoned approach to the challenges faced by the human race.


Very nice! Admittedly a strange article based on the writer's stated area of expertise. Nevertheless lots of good stuff here and a breath of fresh autumn air on this popular dystopic topic. I am reminded of Julian Simon who pointed out similar historic accounts of how we humans overcame all kinds of environmental and global (reportedly) impending tragedies. For example the challenge of replacing whale oil with some other fuel for street lights. He claimed that humans are our "Ultimate Resource." The real impending tragedy is the killing of innocent unborn babies. Read his books!


Thank you for your article that brings some common sense as well as the scientific backup for your well made points. Our Christian response needs to take these factors into account as you say. Too bad having a more calm discussion isn't in vogue these days.

Tom HanrahanKPRE5001