Pope Francis’ proposals to remedy climate change will likely harm those he most wants to help, according to a Baptist seminary president and an evangelical spokesman.
The pope issued the Vatican’s first encyclical on environmental issues – “May You Be Praised (Laudato Si’): On Care for Our Common Home” – in mid-June, prompting widespread praise from those who stress manmade causes of global warming.
Others, including R. Albert Mohler Jr. of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and E. Calvin Beisner of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation found shortcomings in the letter – especially regarding the effects on the poor of the Roman Catholic leader’s prescriptions.
Pope Francis’ 191-page letter on care for God’s creation addressed climate change in only four of its 246 sections. While he did not focus on government efforts, the pope endorsed public policies in one of those sections to dramatically reduce the “emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases” in the next few years – policies such as the development of sources of renewable energy.
The pope connects the plight of the poor with threats to the environment in his encyclical, but Mohler and Beisner said his recommended policies could actually perpetuate poverty.
“While fossil fuels are surely contributing to an increase in carbon emissions, it is hardly helpful to tell the poorest nations among us that they must forego immediate needs for refrigeration, modern medicine, and the advances of the modern age that have so extended and preserved life,” Mohler said in written comments. “At this point, there is no alternative to dependency on fossil fuels, and this is as true for the Vatican as for the United States and other advanced economies.”
A fossil fuel is material – such as oil, coal or natural gas – collected from the remains of ancient animals and plants.
Beisner, founder of the Cornwall Alliance, wrote a piece in The Washington Times that the policies endorsed by the pope “would slow, stop, or reverse the rise out of absolute poverty (less than $1.25 per person per day) for the world’s 1.3 billion poorest who have no access to electricity and rely on wood and dung as primary cooking and heating fuels.” Smoke from such sources, Beisner wrote, “kills about 4 million yearly.”
In addition, Beisner stated in the article, about 2 billion people “who left absolute poverty for merely severe poverty over the last 25 years would find their progress checked or, more likely, would be driven back into absolute poverty.”
Such policies, Beisner wrote, would reduce “access to the abundant, affordable, reliable energy absolutely necessary for any society to rise out of poverty, and available now and for the foreseeable future almost entirely from fossil fuels.” More than 85 percent of all energy use in the world is from fossil fuels, he wrote.
Southern Baptists and other evangelical Christians have addressed creation care during recent decades. The SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) sponsored a seminar on the environment as far back as 1991, and messengers to the convention’s annual meeting have passed resolutions on global warming and other environmental issues in 2006, 2007 and 2010.
In its 2010 resolution, the convention called for prayer for the end of the massive oil spill that began in the Gulf of Mexico two months before. The resolution endorsed actions by the government and corporations to prevent future catastrophes, as well as prudent and safe energy policies. Russell Moore, now the ERLC’s president, was chairman of the Resolutions Committee.
In a 2007 resolution on global warming, messengers urged government officials to “ensure an appropriate balance between care for the environment, effects on economies, and impacts on the poor” when contemplating policies to diminish emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Mohler said the pope is correct in identifying “our care for creation as a theological issue.” As stewards of creation, he said, “we are called by the Creator to take care of the world He has made.”
Yet, Mohler said, “several of the pope’s central claims about climate change have more to do with the current scientific consensus than with theology.”
Beisner called the pope’s climate change sections “riddled with vigorously debated, if not outright false, claims.” These sections are based on “unsourced claims passed on by [the [pope’s] advisors,” he wrote in The Washington Times. Among facts not reflected in the encyclical, Beisner noted, are:
“Computer modeling, not real-world observation, is the only basis for fears of dangerous manmade global warming.”
On average, the more than 110 computer models relied on by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and “other climate alarmists … simulate more than twice as much warming from enhanced atmospheric [carbon dioxide] as actually observed over the relevant period.”
No model “simulated the complete absence of statistically significant global warming over the past 16 to 26 years.”
As a result, the models “not only are not validated but are invalidated – falsified,” Beisner wrote. “Therefore they provide no rational basis for predictions about future global temperature, and no rational basis for any policy whatever.”
Beisner wrote his commentary after a copy of the encyclical was leaked a few days before the letter’s actual release. He stood by his comments after the encyclical’s official release. Beisner is a member of a Southern Baptist church, Palm Vista Community Church in Miami Lakes, Fla., and a former associate professor of historical theology and social ethics at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Although evangelicals have been more active in recent years in speaking out on the environment, finding agreement across the board among those who identify themselves with the movement has been elusive.
More conservative evangelicals, such as Mohler and Beisner, expressed concerns about the pope’s recommendations, but a collection of leaders identifying themselves as evangelicals joined Catholic leaders in a statement from the left-leaning Faith in Public Life in sympathy with the pope’s encyclical. Among the signers were Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, Tony Campolo of the Red Letter Christian movement, Mitchell Hescox of the Evangelical Environmental Network, former Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw and Religion News Service columnist Jonathan Merritt.
The pope, unlike many secular advocates for protection of the environment, called for care for vulnerable human beings, as well as for creation.
“[I]t is troubling that, when some ecological movements defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, they sometimes fail to apply those same principles to human life,” the pope wrote. “There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos. We forget that the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development.”
President Obama commended the pope’s encyclical, saying he is committed to “taking bold actions at home and abroad to cut carbon pollution, to increase clean energy and energy efficiency, to build resilience in vulnerable communities, and to encourage responsible stewardship of our natural resources. We must also protect the world’s poor, who have done the least to contribute to this looming crisis and stand to lose the most if we fail to avert it.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)