Climate change and embracing complexity (with Dr. Nathan Howell)
What is climate change? How should climate issues shape the way we live–if at all? We’re back with environmental engineer Dr. Nathan Howell to explore this complex topic.
KELSEY REED: Hello, welcome to Concurrently: The News Coach Podcast from WORLD Radio and God’s WORLD News. Our mission is to come alongside you, learning and laboring with you as you disciple kids and teens through culture and current events. I’m Kelsey Reed. I’m here with Jonathan Boes.
JONATHAN BOES: Hello!
KELSEY: And today we have a guest who’s returning with us to this conversation we began a couple weeks back. We’ve been chatting over the course of the last several months about issues related to the environment and a discipleship response to it. So together, we want to model a conversation you might have with your teens and students. But before we dive in, we want to invite you to write or record a question for us to address in future episodes. Please send your questions to email@example.com.
JONATHAN: So on a previous episode, we joined environmental engineer Nathan Howell to talk about a biblical perspective on the environment, creation care, and stewardship. And we’ll be building off that foundation today. So if you haven’t heard that episode, we would highly encourage you to go back and give it a listen. We’ll post a link in the show notes. So today, we’re joined by Nathan once more to narrow our focus a bit and look specifically at the issue of climate change. What do we mean by “climate change”? Is climate change really happening? And how should Christians respond?
KELSEY: Welcome back, Nathan.
NATHAN HOWELL: Good to be back.
KELSEY: Thanks for your willingness to continue this conversation. And listener, we will always try to define our terms as we go, as diligently as we can. But please never hesitate to give us some feedback in this area.
Nathan, the questions you originally shared with us give us great structure for our conversations at home or in the classroom. So I’m going to pose them to you, but rest assured that we’re going to chime in. And we’re going to share our own thoughts and understanding on each of these areas as much as possible. But we’re starting to get into more of the area of your specialty, which I understand is water. And since you are in Texas, you’re specifically dealing with a more arid climate. So thinking about an arid climate, about the potential for climate change, and about water within that context. We’re going to give you that sense, listener, of his specialty, so you know where he’s coming from when we ask and answer these questions today. And here’s the list:
What do we mean when we say climate change?
Is climate change happening?
Is climate change happening in a way that is different from in the past?
Presuming that the answers to the first three questions are “yes,” do the activities of humans have any bearing on the existence of climate change?
And lastly, what responses by governments, companies, international organizations, and individuals do we see to climate change? How do these responses acknowledge or disavow God’s role in His creation?
JONATHAN: So before we go up to the top and start exploring those questions one by one, I think it’s important to acknowledge: Last episode where we were on with Nathan, we talked about how, sometimes in the church, environmental issues can lead to conflict. And climate change is definitely one of those issues. So I want to encourage us—and encourage you, listener—that as we go into this conversation, remember that this is not a closed-handed issue. This is an issue on which good and well-meaning Christians often come to different conclusions about exactly what climate change looks like and what to do with it. You know, this isn’t necessarily something we see specifically in the Bible. So it sometimes involves going outside of scripture to bring in a lot of science and data and other things we might, in the church, end up having different perspectives on. So I just want to encourage you listening to this, that as we dive into this topic, this is a complex issue to navigate. And it’s an issue where it’s okay for Christians, who love Jesus and care for creation, to sometimes land on different areas.
KELSEY: The new Concurrently byline: “It’s a complex thing.”
So from the top, this complex issue—first, let’s try to define climate change. What do we mean when we say “climate change”?
NATHAN: Well, I think in your common parlance, people generally mean that climate is the prevailing conditions of weather that can be expected on an annual basis in an area, usually a region of a particular size not as big as Texas but maybe as big as Rhode Island or something, that has a consistent climate. And the idea of it changing is that those average patterns are different than they have been, at least in the recent past, at least since—usually, people indicate, since modern weather records were recorded in about the 1880s or so. So some people want to get real detailed in like, which climate is changing and what time period, and they’ll talk about how climate and climate change has always happened. But I think when people just say it generically, they’re talking about the kind of change that’s happened in the last 150 years or so.
KELSEY: I think that’s so helpful. I know that when we did our episode on changing words and meanings, we had to split a phrase to make sure that we defined two words before we went back to define the phrase. And so we’ve had to do the same thing. “Climate change” is made up of two different words. What is climate? It’s the study of a weather pattern within a certain geographical context. And when we’re talking about change, you brought in historical thought, the historical record.
So again—you know, listeners, the Big Five is a solid tool to help remind us that we need to think about, what’s the context, what’s the definition? What are the relationships between history and its outcomes? Today, we’re thinking about changes as we compare or contrast with the record that we have, which only goes back about 150 years. So that’s very helpful to my own thinking, to be reminded, when we put that back together in a sometimes intimidating term, “climate change.” So thank you.
So then we move into some area of maybe more debate and interpretation, when we ask the question: Is climate change happening? And is it happening in a way that’s different from the past and the record that we see there?
It’s interesting. I’m going to jump in a little bit. While we think about that, I tried to think of some of my good science from the time that I was in my classes—back in college, I think, was the last time I took a science class. And when you’re learning about closed systems and open systems, and how to view the impact of the different aspects of an environment, or across the globe, or even external to our atmosphere on Earth—I wonder, could you help me review some of my science, Nathan, regarding closed and open systems, or, you know, maybe even you need to push back and give me some better terms to think about?
NATHAN: I teach this in my classes a lot. I’ll try not to get too detailed. But generally, when people say “closed systems,” they mean, it’s closed to exchanges of mass. So energy can exchange across a boundary, but mass does not. And that’s different with an isolated system, where an isolated system doesn’t exchange energy or mass.
At a technical level, Earth is an open system. We can lose gasses out of the atmosphere into deeper space. And if the boundary you’re using is, I don’t know, 1,000 feet under the surface of the Earth, then things can go below that boundary deeper into the core. In terms of climate it matters, because a lot of our climate is dependent on the Sun’s energy. Most everything that is powered in any way ultimately gets its energy from the Sun. And so in that way, it’s definitely open and open to exchanges of energy. And a lot of our understanding of what we think about
“climate change is or isn’t happening” is very related to the way we think the Sun interacts with the atmosphere.
And I would say also, when it comes to climate change, the first thing that people look at is—well, what is that doing to global average temperature? Like, climate is all kinds of things. But it’s often reduced to “What is the temperature history?” And if you look at a typical plot, where people try and show climate change happening over the last 150 years, they’ll often look at the global temperature anomaly. So it’s not even the temperature. It’s just the amount that it’s changing from a historical average. And for some people, that’s enough to just say that, the change from the average, that’s all I want to see. But I would encourage some people, go really understand “What is a temperature anomaly?” so that you can feel better about the difference between climate and weather when you begin to talk.
KELSEY: That’s so helpful. So when we start proclaiming that we’re on a trend towards global warming, you’re giving us kind of a sense of caution, is what I’m hearing there. Can you unpack that a little bit more for us? Tell us about—I think, for me, I need some repetition about this anomaly you’re talking about. Unpack this further, for at least for my sake?
NATHAN: Yes. Yeah. So it’ll be kind of like—I think it’s confusing for people, because it’s not just the difference between weather and climate, because weather is a part of climate, obviously. The aggregate of all these, you know, weather day after day after day becomes climate and climate, essentially, for us as people is an expectation—what happened last spring, what do we expect will happen this spring—and maybe there’s an earlier, higher temperature in the spring, but if it’s not outside of the usual, well, you adjust. You change your gardening, or you expect different things with birds or butterfly migrations, that kind of thing.
But when people are saying climate is changing, they’re saying that those deviations from your typical expectation are beyond what the expectations should be, based on the 150 years of live observed weather data that I talked about. And then further back than that, the preserved weather data in ice cores and sediment cores and those kinds of geologic records there. The idea of it changing really is—when people say that they believe that climate is changing there, they’re saying we think it’s changing from what we would expect based on history. And it’s changing more, at least in the sense of more rapidly, than in the past. Or they’re not saying that the temperature is rising more than it ever has, or that it’s colder than it ever has [been]. But the rate that it’s happening, instead of over thousands of years, is over is over tens or hundreds of years. And that’s what alarms people, is that they don’t have any particular evidence in historical record that it’s ever changed this quickly. And it’s difficult, because then we have to change quickly to deal with that.
KELSEY: I had a bug put it in my brain when you were talking about how the geological, what we observe geologically, also informs our thinking in this area. And so I’d love for you to help me understand how we look at the geological data and determine whether or not climate change is going on based on that data.
NATHAN: Well, it’s not really my area exactly. Sure. I’ll give you what I know.
KELSEY: And that’s still so far beyond what I know. And again, listener, we’re learning together. This is part of the joy of what we have, is this opportunity to ask these questions, to think about and share what we do know at this point, with this recognition that there’s always a lot that we can say, “I don’t know,” and “I can find out more; I can ask another question.”
NATHAN: So I would say, to some level, there’s a degree where I trust people I know or have read that know more of the understanding of it. But I’ll give you an example from my field that I think I can use to get there, which is in the Houston Ship Channel, in all the years I did exploring pollution there—people often want to look at at least maybe like a 200-year history in sediment to try and understand what’s happened because of man, in an estuary environment like that. And so we had research where we took all these sediment cores and analyzed a pollution profile as well as some minerals in there. So when you lay up the history of changes in the mineralogy, in sediment, and history in radionuclides, and history in pollution, you can link the history to open atmospheric atomic testing, and that gives you a date that then relates to pollution that you find. And then you can even see how the pollution has changed over time due to natural degradation processes or differences in the sources and get a pretty good picture of how industry has developed around an area and in a 200- or 300-year history.
KELSEY: Well, I’m already hearing at least three different terms that would be worthy of unpacking. And I’m not sure that I could even repeat them back in order to get that unpacking. But I know there was something like “radionuclides.” Am I even anywhere close?
KELSEY: So I think that deserves a good definition. But even before you say that, I’m reminded of some of what you said in our previous episode about how you want to be able to intricately know the science of something. I’m harkening back to that, you are motivated to know the ins and outs of something in order to be able to speak on it and engage in it well, and so it’s impressed upon me the expertise, the discipline that you have practiced, and I’m thankful for your posture towards this Earth, and towards learning, and that you’re willing to be generous with your learning with us. So maybe define a couple of those terms for us so that we can hang with you the best that we can, as you explore how your study of water and water environments gives us a sense of the geologic record in this particular area of specialty, and how that informs our understanding of climate change.
NATHAN: Well, so radionuclides are pretty much any substance, generally—it doesn’t have to be foreign, but it’s frequently going to be foreign, in the sense of not in the natural environment—and it has a known rate of decay. When we presume that—so hopefully, it hasn’t changed over time—when it comes to something like decay, people observe it in a laboratory and say it behaves like this, but they probably can’t observe it more than 50 or 60 years, because they can’t run an experiment longer than that. So if something changed beyond that time, we just have to trust that it didn’t, that the rate is consistent beyond that 50- or 60-year observation period. So in a lot of things in environmental studies, certainly radionuclides from atomic testing and isotopes from carbon and other substances, they’re really helpful, because they become like a clock that you can use, as long as you can measure correctly how much is really there. And then you apply a model—like, a lot of this, there will be a model, a numerical model of some kind, to help you say, “These things that we measured, in a sediment or in an ice core, translate to a certain period of time.”
That by itself, if you’re looking at core data, that really only tells you, how old is that little slice of the ice? Or how old is that slice of sediment? Then you have to relate that to other things you find in the core to say, well, what does that mean about climate? What was the atmosphere like? And if you’re going to say the temperature was warmer based on an ice core, while you’re not pulling that temperature literally out of the ice core—it’s ice so it’s at snow temperatures—there’s something else about what is in the gas that is essentially like a little sample preserved from the atmosphere that’s telling you something about what that climate was like. It gives you, when you put it together, what I like to call a conceptual model. You take all these numbers, and then—we’re humans, we do think in numbers, but we need imagination. We need concepts, we need diagrams, to help understand the larger picture. So many things that you find in a science text, or that are described anywhere relating to climate, are thousands and thousands of numbers we’ve used to try and summarize in a diagram or in a model that is a simplification. It’s not meant to confuse or over-abstract or to hide anything, but it’s meant to take so much detail in to try and make some coherency from it.
It reminds me of the way that things are preserved in the earth, so that we can understand the history, is kind of like the stars to me. And if you look at the history of astronomy and cosmology, it’s like God puts all the stars out there so that we’ll ask questions about what’s beyond our Earth, like God is giving us this record that He creates, His environmental samples—essentially, the natural processes that we can then collect and try and understand: What did you do before I was here? How can I understand the way you did it and appreciate the way you did it?
KELSEY: I have a couple more bylines to add. First of all: “Concurrently: It’s Complicated.” Next one: “Concurrently: It’s All about the Relationship.”
When you describe all the things that make us look in awe, you know, towards the heavens, where we believe is that, you know—we view that as the seat of the Author of all creation. We look to the heavens and we’re in awe with the amount of vast detail. And it’s about our increasing relationship with Him. I mean, what is man that you are mindful of him? It’s completely understood that that is the question that the Psalmist cries out, because this God of ours knows, with the infinite detail of His creation, that we are seeking to, in our limited time on this Earth, follow along in His footsteps, and to learn after Him, and just be put into our place as humans by that knowledge.
And this next question really relates to some of that: What do the activities of man have to do with climate change, if anything?
And we can observe the things that we’ve done, and we can compare it to what’s on record. And we can know even just by watching a child in a sandbox, that this child is having an impact on that environment they’re in. But we also know that it’ll rain tonight on that sandbox, and something will change, and the furrows that they dug in that earth, in that sand, they’re going to be patted out by the rain’s pattering into that environment. Ultimately, though we have an impact, it’s hard for us to see exactly how.
JONATHAN: Something I have heard from other Christians in scientific fields is that, among the scientific community, there isn’t much disagreement about whether the climate is changing, but there is disagreement sometimes about whether humans are having a significant impact on that change. Is that something that sounds right to you, Nathan? Or am I a little bit off the wall there with that thought?
NATHAN: It might depend a little bit on who you ask. I think there’s probably more disagreement in the scientific community about a lot of the models, about exactly when climate will change, and about specific things that change related to, like, electrification or carbon sequestration. Like, how much of an influence would they actually have?
KELSEY: Term alert.
NATHAN: So electrification means—y’all know generally what electrification is, but electrification in a lot of climate change policy is the general concept that, by electrifying as many energy consuming processes as we can, that in the end, we can diminish greenhouse gas emissions—greenhouse gases being gases that are naturally heat-trapping. And then carbon sequestration is the concept that any kind of carbon dioxide or carbon dioxide equivalent, any of the heat-trapping gases that are produced, that we can lock them up in some place where they are not in the wider atmosphere over time, and by doing so, they don’t have any warming potential because they’re locked away.
KELSEY: So both of these are related to our carbon emissions and our carbon footprint, are maybe the common terms for what we’re talking about in this area of how to mediate those things.
NATHAN: I mean, to me, it does make sense. It’s like your sand analogy. I think it is helpful to step back some and think about that there’s sand, and there’s ways that we’re changing the Earth—and we’re supposed to be able to change the Earth! That’s how you bring the potential out of the Earth. And it is a power that cuts both ways. It could cut kind of neutrally. I think one example that helps me to think about this is, in the early parts of the Industrial Revolution, there was a fair amount of high, for lack of a better word, high pollution that came out of a lot of the textile factories in New England. And it took a while before people could realize that, with all the pollution going into rivers, that it was depleting the oxygen and creating smells, and that the river could take some pollution, but it couldn’t take everything. And in an environmental context, we’ll call that assimilative capacity. So how much of some kind of disturbance that we produce, which is part of bringing the potential out of the Earth, but has the side products—how much of those side products can the environment naturally deal with in some way, do we get for free in a sense, before we create some larger change that we don’t want to see?
And so with water, in a lot of industrial processes, it was pretty evident in the early Industrial Revolution that we needed to have some kind of treatment of water, or some way to have less loading of pollution that goes out there in the environment, as you can see a pretty clear cause and effect between the factory and the water. With climate change, it’s a little trickier. I feel like because the evidence that—does carbon dioxide trap heat? It’s pretty agreed upon that that happens. How long does it stay in the atmosphere? You can measure that. But the atmosphere is a more complex system. So you have to rule out natural changes in the Sun’s heat and radiation. To me it does require some study to go to all those different physical objections about why any warming that we experience is caused by something other than greenhouse gases. But at least for me, as a person in science engineering, it’s hard for me to say that they have no effect. You could argue about how much effect, but to say that they have none would be—it’d be difficult for me to say that with honesty.
KELSEY: How do we look at the responses? You know, what have we seen in the way that governments and companies and organizations and even individuals respond to this idea, that either does or does not acknowledge Jesus as Lord, God as Author over His creation? I’m trying to figure out how personally to acknowledge God’s role in His creation as I seek to answer these questions. But I think it’s very important for us to discern, as we are rearing children who are inheriting this Earth from us, to discern how to observe and analyze these responses, to be able to see where we see something that is in line with an acknowledgement of God’s role in His creation, or where we actually see an atheistic type view that disavows, that just denies that there is an active and personal God engaged with His world. You know, we can talk about philosophies, like deistic philosophy, that believes the world was created by a God like a watchmaker who winds up a watch and then steps away and lets it tick down. We don’t believe in that type of God. We believe in one who is personally active in His creation.
So, parent and teacher, I think that those are areas that are going to be so manifold in their response, that these are questions that really need to be unpacked well, as you observe the world in which we live, and as you seek to analyze and speak truth into your children’s observations of the world, reminding them that there is a Father who is actively engaged, and who loves you. Listener, I’m speaking to you as parent—parent, speaking to your child. Your Father, who is in charge of all of this, loves you, and He has a plan. But are there other things we might want to use as a framework by which we can analyze a government’s response. What else could help aid our listeners in the analytical process with their kids?
JONATHAN: One thing that comes to mind for me is, we’ve touched on this in both of our previous episodes where we talked about the environment, but also the emphasis of human flourishing and love of neighbor. Because there can sometimes be responses to environmental issues that see humanity as a blight on the world. And you even have now anti-natalist movements, where there’s this belief that humans are bad and it’s better basically to not exist. And I think another framework we can use when looking at the responses of the world to the environment is, how do these responses treat humans? Do they treat them the way God treats them, as image-bearers, as worthy of preservation and flourishing? And also as people who can cause destruction, who are sinful and broken? Or do they treat them as purely destructive, purely broken? Or the other extreme—do they view humans as essentially perfect, with no moral limits. We can do whatever we want? I think you can sometimes see responses that lean to both of those extreme directions.
KELSEY: Such excellent questions. Nathan, do you have anything to add here as well?
NATHAN: I think it’s important, especially with any young person, they hear a lot of messages about climate change—not just climate change, but a lot of environmental problems—and many of them are bound up either directly or indirectly with fear. Like fear of the future, fear of ourselves—like you’re saying, Jonathan, about, you know, we just cause destruction. Even, like, there’s a T-shirt that people wear around, it says “Live simply so others can simply live.” You know, there’s some love of neighbor in that. But there’s also some thought of like, well, if you reach too hard to use too many resources, you’re causing a problem, you’re stealing from others in some way. So with a lot of the fear responses, there’s an underlying belief that God’s not really in control, or that there’s some problem we could create that God wouldn’t be able to rescue us from, or that maybe even the environment is more important than people. People will be eternal, and people are image-bearers, and the Earth is given to provide for us so we need to take care of it. But people are really important to God. So in any response that tends to lean more into fear is kind of a way of almost short-circuiting your thinking, your considering, and your prayer. If you’re just living in fear as a way to incentivize whatever your action is, well, then you’re not going to prayer, and you’re not thinking, and you’re not partnering with God with whatever is going on in His world.
KELSEY: As with everything we do, we are talking about a head response, a heart response, and the response in our habits. And it is an area that is full of future learning. The merit of these questions, the merit of this conversation as a whole, is that it pushes us to learn in each of those dimensions of our being, to carefully define our terms, to observe what we see in the world, in news media, in information from environmental or economic stakeholders, to inform our thinking as we also synthesize the logical truth with scientific observation. At the very least, what we’ve been able to do is break the ice on careful consideration of how we may seek to glorify the Father through application of scientific knowledge of our stewardship efforts. And we know that it pleases Him for us to do so. He has given a work into our hands.
And so I have some final questions for you, Nathan, which are related to the discipleship response in this area of culture. Based on what you know, what would you suggest are responsible discipleship and stewardship practices in the area of environment? Maybe give us three to five practical takeaways that you could offer to the average household.
NATHAN: One is just to not cease to learn, to not cease to ask questions. Because I think if you read environmental things in the news, they’re not going to explain all this stuff to you. If you want to understand, and if you want to make wise decisions based on truth and evidence, you have to go find some of that evidence. And I would encourage people that you don’t need to become an expert in environmental things between doing some research on your own and beginning to know others who do know what’s going on and then you can trust. Almost anybody who’s in a STEM field knows way more about environmental things than they might even realize. If there’s something that is being based on like fear or wrong information, somebody with a STEM background, they’re going be able to figure it out pretty quickly. They can just smell that kind of thing, I would say.
So continuing that, to honestly learn, and see it as a joy that you get to do. Because you’re not just learning about a problem. You’re learning about God’s world and how He has done what He has done. And that only leads to worship. So I don’t think that you could just—you can’t go wrong with that.
And another one is thinking about consumption, like your general level of consumption. You can get really deep pretty quickly into water footprints and carbon footprints and all those kinds of things. For some people, they really do need to get into that, and it’s good. But I think at a more heart level it gets to, where is your heart when you’re consuming things? If you’re wanting to use water, if you’re wanting to buy all organic, you know, whatever it is, what is driving that behavior? Do think about environmental side effects. But you’re not going to be able to understand it all. There’s some humility about saying “I don’t know all the effects of various consumption-based choices I have.” But it’s just wise to acknowledge that God is infinite, but His world is finite, and He’s chosen it to be that way. So to think carefully in what you’re consuming. The more you can know about it, the more you can make better choices about it. And there’s definitely a danger with consumption to make it a very legalistic kind of a thing, where you’re judging a lot of other people. So there’s room for a lot of discussion and grace for other people that think differently about it, because it becomes like a division point. And it doesn’t need to be. I think people can agree that the environment is important, and they’re trying to do their best to take care of it, then start there.
And then probably two others. I wrote down one, it’s “Can I or should I?” There’s a lot of things that we can do, but should we do them? So it could be something environmental you’re responding to, or it could be something that you can do when it comes to, like, technology, or having all your food delivered directly to your house. You know, yes, you can do that. But there are environmental consequences of doing that. Just because you have that convenience, should you do that?
And then lastly, I found helpful, thinking about things in terms of scarcity versus generosity. Like just asking yourself, yes, the world is a place of finite resources, but God is generous, and He calls us to give away, to give up things that are rights in some ways, so that we can be generous to those that are in other places in the world or for future generations. And I think it very well can be our joy to do that. It’s just natural to look at environmental things and want to hoard, and want to make sure that we have enough oil, that we have enough land, and all that. But what are those things for? They’re there to bless people in some way. So if you’re just storing them up, and you’re saying it’s for the sake of the environment—well the environment is for man, and if you’re keeping it from man, then you’re missing its purpose. You’ve made the means to bless man the end, and that’s not what it should be.
KELSEY: So be curious and learn, and ask questions. Check your motivations. Why are you doing something—and this is heart level—refrain from judging. I know that the last one is about scarcity versus generosity. So can you repeat the fourth one for me one more time, and that simple phraseology?
NATHAN: Oh, the “Can I or should I?”
KELSEY: Can I or should I? Those are all great. We will have those clearly in the show notes too. And thank you for unpacking them beautifully. Thank you for taking the time with us to be with us today. And Lord willing, if we have some more challenging topics in this area, we’ll do it again.
So for today, I want to wrap up again with scriptural provision and anchors for our theology in this area. So from Romans 8:19-26—it’s not all of those verses. I would encourage you to read them together as a family or in the classroom. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies . . . Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”
Parent, teacher, mentor of kids and teens: He has equipped you for the work.
What is climate change? How should climate issues shape the way we live–if at all? We’re back with environmental engineer Dr. Nathan Howell to explore this complex topic.
Check out The Concurrently Companion for this week's downloadable episode guide including discussion questions and scripture for further study.
We would love to hear from you. You can send us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org. What current events or cultural issues are you wrestling through with your kids and teens? Let us know. We want to work through it with you.
See more from the News Coach, including episode transcripts.
- Listen to our previous episode with Dr. Nathan Howell, where we explore the broader topic of Christian environmental stewardship.
- For another deep dive into this complex topic, watch the Gospel Coalition’s Good Faith Debate, “How Should Christians Care About the Environment?”
- Below, find follow-up thoughts on climate change from Dr. Howell:
On climate change specifically, I wanted to offer a little more information to I hope help give some context on my opinions. One is that I think it helps to know the basics of climate change science as we understand outside of any particular policy concerns. People might feel that climate change is too complex to understand. I think this short report form the Royal Society and the National Academies is pretty good at summarizing the evidence for the existence of climate change and all of the common questions and objections that people raise. The short report is free to read. All of the questions about climate in the past, sun cycles, volcanoes, seeming irrelevance of CO2, etc. are addressed there.
These things answer the question, “Why are Christians sometimes skeptical about the existence of climate change?”
(1) Conflation of science and policy - There is a correct concern that acceding to the existence of human-caused climate change suddenly will force you to agree with all of the agenda of the Green Left. This would be to say that all uses of fossil fuels are bad, we need to turn over all aspects of energy policy to the federal government, we have to agree to ESG principals in publicly held companies, and we have to start taxing ourselves for carbon pollution. To me, all of these ideas are ways of possibly reducing carbon emissions. But Christians don’t have to agree with them all. One problem with the Green Left is that they do not fully consider the complexity of their solutions. If you make climate THE thing, then you can end up hurting many people through your policies. If climate becomes the focus rather than the people and their lives who depend on climate, it is easy to turn a blind eye to hardships you create on others. It is also easy to be paternalistic to those who disagree with you. “We know better as the climate elites. You should just do what we say.”
I really do think it is hard to deny the existence of man-made climate change in light of the evidence. I know that people talk about having doubts. They certainly can have them. It is not wrong to question the evidence. But I think that many doubt without actually looking at the evidence. Most science-based objections to the existence of human-caused climate change have been addressed pretty well I think as I hope you can see in the article I provided. Despite this, it is very important to separate agreeing that (a) climate change is happening vs. (b) what we should do about it. There is NOT a scientific consensus on what we should do about it despite what you might hear. One reason I think this is the case is that what to do about it is not simply a question of science. You have to bring in economics, policy, ethics, fairness, and theology in what “what we should do” question.
(2) The worldview behind climate - The other reason I find that Christians might be skeptical about climate change is that there is often a worldview clash that is unstated in climate advocates. They do often have a belief in secular materialism, do think that humans are a problem, or see the climate problem as “up to us”. In other words, they have little belief that God is involved in his world. So they put all this pressure on us to avoid catastrophe for our species. There is an alarmism that contradicts the quiet reliance we have on God as father. There can also be a pride that says that if we understand so much about climate change, then we have this technological power to mitigate it. I’m not sure that this is a foregone conclusion. To me it provides an opportunity for us as the church to acknowledge that we need to intercede in prayer for global environmental issues like climate change. The size of the problem may be something God allows for that very purpose. We really do not understand the entire global environmental system in every way (though we do know a lot), and may not be able to find a technological or techno-policy solution for it all. It may be that it is God’s will to allow many millions of people to suffer through climate change effects in order for a greater purpose.
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