Many politically-involved Christians, such as Dobson, have made the argument that the environment shouldn’t be an important part of their agenda because it pales in comparison to other values issues such as abortion. In fact, I held this stance for quite some time in the past and considered myself a one-issue voter. When I was in college, I was fond of saying that I felt in politics I had two poor choices: kill babies, or trash the environment. Given those choices, I would trash the environment. That was really my view of the two parties as these were the two issues that seemed most important to me. However, I have come to think that this simplified view is simply wrong. I think that this type of view has promoted a culture of callousness within the Christian right toward many other important issues, such as the environment.
I do agree that many environmental ‘save the whales’-type issues fall well short of the importance of abortion. Dying humans are more important than dying whales. However, this is precisely where the environmental debate has changed over the last few years, and I think many Christians have been woefully late to realize this. Global warming is a human life issue. More and more, climate scientists have been coming to a consensus view (something it is very difficult to get scientists to do). The consensus is: 1) Observable global increases in temperature have been occurring at least over the last 50 years, 2) This warming has an anthropogenic cause, namely humans are dumping large quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the environment, 3) We are at a crucial point in time where we can possibly limit the effects of rapid climate change, 4) Climate change will result in increased weather extremes – causing wet regions to become wetter, dry regions to become drier, and extreme weather events (such as hurricanes or heat waves) to become more severe. Thus, it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny that our neglect of this environmental issue will result in a significant decrease in quality of life in many regions and a significant increase in mortality due to increased drought, famine, extreme weather events, and disease. Those who will be most affected by this are those who are already marginalized and have few resources available to adjust to these changes. For example, Africa is likely to be particularly hard-hit, as large regions are expected to have drought and a significant decrease in agricultural productivity. Some of these effects are already unavoidable, and significant changes are already predicted for as early as 2020. Hundreds of millions of people will be affected in significant ways.
While the effects of global warming are difficult to quantify exactly, as they span a range of severity for different regions, and predictions still have some uncertainty, I have begun to think that this issue is on par with abortion (where 1 million babies are aborted each year in the US). Climate change will not be as disastrous for most humans as abortion is for aborted babies, but for some it will be, and it affects a lot more humans than does abortion. I don’t buy Dobson’s argument that promoting this environmental issue will detract from the pro-life issue. On the contrary, in order to have a consistent ethic of promoting human life we must also act to reduce the effects of climate change as it is likely to result in many deaths of the young, old, and helpless.
The lack of support among Christians in the United States for reducing climate change has another negative effect. The US is the largest producer of greenhouse gases, yet we are not the ones likely to feel the worst of the negative consequences. It appears we are absorbed in our own self-interest – unwilling to inconvenience ourselves in order to help others. This is certainly a poor witness, particularly since many in the world view us as the “Christian” nation, and connecting this self-interest to our Christianity is only a small leap. While this appearance may not be correct, its effects are real.
It is useful to think about why we have a tendency to ignore environmental issues. I think for most Christians, it isn’t really our self-interest. For some, it may be a loyalty to the Republican party platform, which promotes other values that we feel are important. Remember that our loyalty should be to Christ. For others, it may be a sense that God is in control, and he won’t let us create a major global disaster. However, if we look through the story of the Bible we see that God constantly gives us choices, and constantly allows humans to make poor choices which can have dramatic consequences. Think of Eden. He refuses to save us from ourselves if we don’t let him. Yet another factor is a general suspicion of science among Christians. I think this suspicion is not only misplaced but damaging (perhaps the subject of another post). Another possible reason might be a belief that Christ will be returning soon, and that therefore we shouldn’t worry about destroying the environment. We’re going to get a new one. This argument seems pretty tenuous as well. Christ says that no one knows the day or the hour. Should we knowingly degrade the lives of potential future generations? Do we promote being poor stewards in other areas of our life?
I’ll leave you with one final thought – that of the parable of the good Samaritan. I think that we should look at our political stance on climate change and ask ourselves, “Are we the good Samaritan, or are we the priest?”
-Matt, the elder brother