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Love thy neighbor, love the neighborhood

Debate over global warming heats up among evangelicals

Glaciers are melting. Sea levels are rising. Coral reefs are bleaching. And summer months are scorching. Since the 1980s, numerous environmental organizations have used such claims to push an agenda that would make life harder for the U.S. poor and for those with large families who need large vehicles. Now, with sincere evangelicals lining up on both sides, the environmental debate is getting even hotter.

Popularizing the phrase "creation care," the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) is partnering with the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) to cast traditionally materialistic or pantheistic environmentalism in terms conservative Christians can embrace-or at least consider. "We don't use the word environmentalist," explained Rich Cizik, the NAE vice president of national affairs. "We are here to say we worship the creator, not creation."

EEN executive director Jim Ball, who launched the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign against SUVs in February 2002, distinguishes creation care from conventional environmentalism in its commitment to "declare the lordship of Christ over all creation." Mr. Ball considers the issue of global warming more about neighborly love than protecting the environment; he says climate change threatens to harm Third World farmers, leading to increased malnutrition or starvation among the poor.

Despite differences of ideology and motivation, creation-care advocates do not disagree with left-leaning environmentalists on policy objectives. Mr. Ball told WORLD, "You can't just assume that because these liberal environmentalists have identified something as a problem, that it's not a real problem. Don't do guilt by association."

While not opposed to the concept of biblically based care for creation, numerous evangelical leaders have chided creation-care advocates for failing to separate true ecological concerns from those rooted in questionable science or ideology. Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy at Focus on the Family, has criticized the NAE for siding with extremists on an "issue that seems to put plants and animals above humans."

But some evangelicals are joining the outcry concerning global warming. In March, NAE president Ted Haggard and fellow association board members convened in Washington for a briefing on the science behind climate change. The NAE intends to release a statement, probably this fall, outlining its findings. Mr. Cizik has declared global warming to be "the result of human impacts."

The original creation-care manifesto, signed by hundreds of prominent pastors, Christian scholars, and para-church leaders, appeals to a wide scope of conservative evangelicals without broaching the details of individual issues. It includes among its list of environmental sins the "alteration of the atmosphere," a likely reference to greenhouse gas emissions, but ambiguous enough to denote smog or general air pollution.

E. Calvin Beisner, a professor at Knox Theological Seminary and author of Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate, emphasizes Christian stewardship but says the application of that concept is tricky amid competing political ideologies. In the interest of "testing all things," as the New Testament advises, he argues that the evidence for global warming points to a very slight change, and one not necessarily connected to human activity.

Indeed, the scientific consensus is that global air temperatures have climbed almost 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past century. Whether that rise is due to normal variation or the emissions of human industry remains hotly contested. Last month at the G8 Summit in Scotland, President George W. Bush maintained his prove-it-to-me approach regarding global warming but joined fellow world leaders to declare climate change "a serious and long-term challenge that has the potential to affect every part of the planet."

Some say that statement might augur a shift in the Bush position, but the president at the G8 summit refused to cave on his rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, a voluntary pact among the seven other G8 nations to achieve specifically outlined reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2012. Mr. Bush maintained that extreme emissions reductions in the United States would devastate the economy, outweighing any potential benefits. He stood by his initial goal of reducing U.S. emissions by 18 percent.

Recognizing Mr. Bush's resolve, British Prime Minister Tony Blair conceded, "There is no point in going back over the Kyoto debate." Mr. Blair has laid plans, however, for a Nov. 1 reconvening of G8 leaders along with leaders from China, Brazil, India, Mexico, and South Africa to discuss further strategies to combat global warming.

In the past, the Bush administration has sided with scientific evidence that suggests the bulk of atmospheric warming over the past century took place prior to 1940 when industrial emissions were minimal to nonexistent. French President Jacques Chirac claimed that the U.S. signing of the summit's vague declaration represented a "visible, real evolution in the American position." But Mr. Ball stated, "There was no movement in the administration's perspective as a result of the G8 summit. The statement that the G8 put out is consistent with the Bush administration position they've held for a couple of years now."

The G8 declaration stated that while uncertainties remain, current information justifies embarking on "a path to slow, and as the science justifies, stop and then reverse the growth of greenhouse gases." The clause invoking further scientific justification is one on which the Bush administration has consistently hung its hat.

A recent University of Maryland poll found 86 percent of Americans believe the United States should act to limit the greenhouse gas emissions often associated with climate change provided other G8 nations do so as well. That number includes 81 percent of Republicans. Only 52 percent of respondents, though, agreed that there is a scientific consensus regarding the potential for global warming to produce significant damage. That's a 10 percent increase from 2004 numbers, but far from a popular consensus.

Mr. Ball believes a continued sway in evangelical opinion could foster a further shift among Republicans that would put pressure on administration leaders: "I would hope that we can help them have new eyes to see on this issue." But convincing Bible-believing churchgoers to ally with political factions notoriously hostile to Christianity is no easy task. Mr. Haggard has sought to avoid any such associations. He told the London Telegraph last month he does not return phone calls from environmentalists. "We are not their allies," he said.

Mr. Ball explained his strategy to promote creation care: "A big part of this is doing it in an evangelical way, which is evangelicals talking to evangelicals. . . . They're leery, and in some respects justifiably so. There's a lot of stuff out there about climate change-some of it true, some of it not true."

Mark Bergin

Mark Bergin