A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Getting Religion on the Environment

Two interesting and hopeful items on the religion/environment front this morning. First, the Southern Baptists issue a strongly worded statement on climate change, which the AP describes as a "major shift":

In a major shift, a group of Southern Baptist leaders said their denomination has been "too timid" on environmental issues and has a biblical duty to stop global warming. The declaration, signed by the president of the Southern Baptist Convention among others and released Monday, shows a growing urgency about climate change even within groups that once dismissed claims of an overheating planet as a liberal ruse. The conservative denomination has 16.3 million members and is the largest Protestant group in the U.S. The signers of "A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change" acknowledged that not all Christians accept the science behind global warming. They said they do not expect fellow believers to back any proposed solutions that would violate Scripture, such as advocating population control through abortion.However, the leaders said that current evidence of global warming is "substantial," and that the threat is too grave to wait for perfect knowledge about whether, or how much, people contribute to the trend. "We believe our current denominational resolutions and engagement with these issues have often been too timid," according to the statement. "Our cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill-informed. We can do better."

Second, the Vatican discusses environmental degradation as a sin. From Reuters:

Thou shall not pollute the Earth. Thou shall beware genetic manipulation. Modern times bring with them modern sins. So the Vatican has told the faithful that they should be aware of "new" sins such as causing environmental blight. The guidance came at the weekend when Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti, the Vatican's number two man in the sometimes murky area of sins and penance, spoke of modern evils.

About the Author

Eduardo Moisés Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the subjects of property and land use law.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Given that the latest science supposedly requires us to reduce carbon emissions to ZERO, there are only two possible ways to deal with carbon emissions: 1) develop a new technology that can "scrub" the air clean ... 2) move all carbon-based power generation and industry off the planet (to orbiting factories or moon bases); the power generated in nsapce can then be beamed as microwave energy to the earth.If the zero-emissions requirement is to be believed, NOTHING else will matter one little bit--not replacing incandescent light bulbs, not recycling, not hybrid cars, not wind farms (which plenty of environemtnalists oppose anyway) ... face it--if you truly believe that the science is right, then the only solutions are the ones I've outlined here ... otherwise, even the Dictatorship of the Environmentalists and the green gestapo tactics that I and others have discussed here won't make much difference. And if you truly believe we can reduce carbon emissions to zero, you're loony--because there are lots of perfectly natural carbon emissions out there, from volcanoes to cows.Actually I'm quite pleased by all this since I've always beena strong supporter of the space program and now it looks like that's our only hope!

Too bad the Vatican didn't include sexually abusing youths, transfering the priests who sexually abused youths to other positions where they could prey on more youths, trying to just pay off the abusees, etc., etc., etc. among its list of modern evils! Then again, perhaps such sex abuse is too longstanding a practice to consider it "new" or "modern"

Let's stay on topic here. Getting people to face up to their duty to deal effectively with climate change is going to be extraordinarily hard because it will require such difficult adjustments in our everyday lives, adjustments that are hard to imagine at this point. Generating the political will to do so, and the will to enforce necessary changes, will be staggeringly difficult. I; for one, am very grateful for this signal from the Vatican. By the way, here is an issue on which the laity will have to take the lead. Can we muster the will?

You seem to be arguing that if we can't do everything, we shouldn't do anything. Is that your intention?

Not at all--what I am arguing is that the best available science says we are all doomed, DOOMED!!!!!! And there's NOTHIONG we CAN do about it!!!!! OK, that's what the hype about global warming adds up to when you put it all together. Given that the latest reports suggest we must cut carbon emissions to absolute zero (look it up, if you haven't already heard about these reports--they're front-page news) I am again arguing that NONE of the proposals being considered (whther it's Kyoto, carbon caps, hybrid cars, wind farms/solar panels, etc., etc., etc.) will do anything at all to change the expected results. But as you know well, I don't especially believe in the gloom and doom scenarios--I expewct people will look back on global warming in 50 years and laugh about it.But ... if you do believe in the threat, then you need to propose something real. Either an outright dictatorship that will shoot anyone who burns any carbon (presumably with non-carbon producing boiws and arrows!) because remember--the new magic number is ZERO carbon emissions or else all hell breaks loose on earth ... or: start pumping money into a Manhattan Project-style program to develop some kind of "scrubbing" technology" to cleanse the atmosphere of greenhouse gasses--only you'd better be ready to hand it over (probably on a no-bid basis) to giant corporations like Halliburton, since they're the only ones with the technical expertise to tackle such a project ...Either that, or pump trillions into moving ALL industrial production off the planet--to orbiting space factories or factories on the moon (which I heartily support since it would finally kick our space program into high gear) ... but you've got to do it for all industrial countries, and all developing countries too (magic number = Zero!) ...This Zero goal is the best thing that could happen to global warming skeptics--because it will demonstrate how impossible the goals of the tree-huggers really are ... I do Not believe that ANY industrial country has even come close to meeeting their Kyoto goals--which were only a first step--and certainly the developing countries have icnreased their emissions (as has Japan, the very home of Kyoto--what a telling irony!) So the new Zero goal is a thousand times more unrealistic! If someone will propose something realistic and sensible, I'll gladly listen--and maybe even support it. But I've heard nothing so far that even comes close to actually "solving" the problem.

Reference, please, for the ZERO emissions requirement?

Today's Washington Post: ... or just go to and click on "print edition" and look for: Carbon Output Must Near Zero To Avert Danger, New Studies SayBy Juliet EilperinWashington Post Staff Writer Monday, March 10, 2008; Page A01 The Post article quotes one scientist stating that a zero-emissions world is technically achievable but probably not politically possible, though he gives NO explanation of how such a zero-emissions world could be achieved ... I agree only with the latter half of the statement--about its political impossibility. If there is a real-world problem, we need a real-world solution--not a no-(carbon)-pie-in-the-sky reply!

A good baseline for Carbon emissions reduction is 80% by 2050, using either 1993 (Rio) or 2005 (Kyoto) as a baseline year. Of course, in addition to Carbon Dioxide, we must also consider volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, NOx and SOx, water pollution (which includes thermal pollution), and the massive amounts of waste produced through inefficient use of items (bottled water comes to mind). Transportation is extremely important in this regard. CAFE standards are very good and necessary, but implementing new standards would do nothing about the cars that are currently on the road. We must consciously choose not to drive cars by ourselves, but instead to carpool, bike, walk, or use the bus.

Robert, Thanks for the lead to the Post article. There is a lag between emissions and their effects. Previous modeling has predicted large reductions in greenhouse gases emissions are needed and we need to start soon to avert the worst of the effects of climate warming. I'll see if I can get a look at the Journal articles. The test is whether the modeling has good physics, what emission assumptions are used and how it compares with other modeling done to date.bob

I am glad that Bob raises "modeling," because this is something that I find most disturbing about this debate. Whether there is warming is something that can be determined with some accuracy based on observation of empirical data. This is why many, including me, are willing to accept that there is evidence that global warming is in fact occurring. That being said, all the important issues, whether warming is caused by human activity, how severe it will be, whether it will even continue, whether anything we do will have an impact, what the actual impacts will be, are all based on computer models. The accuracy of computer models is, a function of assumptions and data.In my work I have had some experience in the use of computer models as they relate to aircraft and aircraft systems. I can tell you, in that experience, that not a single model was every 100% accurate, and one that was 90% accurate would be considered a spectacular success, and several were spectacularly wrong. My favorite involved a high tech helmet that the model said, though slightly heavier than a traditional helmet, would nonetheless be safe. In the high-speed sled test of a prototype, not only did the helmet break apart, it practically took the test dummy's head off. Ask yourself, would you fly as a passenger on a new airplane, with novel technology, that had never flown, on which no accurate model, prototype, or wind tunnel test had beeen performed, but the computer models said would work?My point is that computer models, used extensively in industries like the aeronautical and automotive, are relied on, but only to a point. These are exponentially less complex systems than the Earth. We are being asked to make decisions with far ranging consequences based on assumptions and models that we have absolutely no idea are accurate. Remember, the predicted terrible hurricane season of last year was the result of a computer model based on far more current and reliable data than the model predicting catastrophe 50 or 100 years from now. Am I some sort of Ludite and sinner for being skeptical?That politics plays a role is belied by some politician's selective reliance on the predictive abbility of computer models. Star Wars anyone? One of the central technical criticisms of missile defense is that computers are incapable of computing with accuracy the exact position of an incoming projectile. This, given that we can know with near perfect accuracy, the launch locations, the mass of the projectiles, their speed, the wind speeds, temperatures, humidity, etc. Believe me, this is child's play compared to predicting what the Earth will be doing 100 years from now.I am in full agreement with the Vatican's statements regarding good stewardship of the environment - Amen. I just would like to be a little more prudent about the costs and benefits, and the motives, involved in the global warming "crisis."

The National Hurricane Center's hurricane season forecasts are not a direct result of atmospheric modeling. It is a subjective, qualitative process, not a computer model result. Last year "NOAAs seasonal Atlantic hurricane outlooks.... were based on the expected occurrence of La Nia during an active Atlantic hurricane era, which greatly increases the probability of an above-normal season. . . .The observed number of named storms was well within NOAAs predicted range, and theobserved numbers of hurricanes and major hurricanes were each one below the predictedrange. However, the combined intensity and duration of the hurricanes and major hurricanes, as measured by the ACE index, was far below expectations.The full report is at:

Speaking of the uncertainty of modeling, this is an interesting story.

Bob,I will grant the their method does not involve the same type of computer modeling that global warming predictors use, but it was still a modeling and simulation exercise. They used past data, scientific understanding of natural and physical phenomena, applied assumptions (e.g. the occurrence of La Nina and its affects) to make predictions. I strongly suspect they used computer predictions for the component parts. In fact, a key component of NOAA is the National Centers for Environmental Prediction's Environmenal Modeling Center that uses computer modeling extensively, including, so they claim, for hurricance prediction and modeling. If anything, these types of experiences, whether they use computer algorithms to make their predictions or not ought to give us pause. In fields where we have far more thorough and consistent data with far far more experience and history in understanding the import of that data, whether it is meteorology or aereonautics, we can see the limitations of our knowledge.Are you saying that there is no subjectivity in the models global warming enthusiasts use? That it is pure, non-qualitative, analysis?

Sean,Forecasting using qualitative methods of year-to-year changes in hurricanes is different from using models to predict where the overall climate of the planet is headed. We are seeing effects that the climate models predict. Including anthropogenic emissions predicts the warming we are already observing and unique features, like how the arctic warming more than the tropics. NCEP models are mostly for short-range weather forecasting. Scientists who do climate forecasting, e.g., at Goddard, run specialized climate models, using the same overall physics, but focusing on the overall patterns more than smaller scale details.bob

I have nothing to say about the sort of modeling that scientists who deal with the matter of global warming use. But let me return to the moral issues, the issues the Vatican statement raises.If I understand him, Robert Reid says two things. 1. If the outlook for the planet is as dire as some of the predictions have claimed, then we're doomed anyway. So eat, drink, and be merry. 2. There is no compelling evidence to show that human activity is having a significant deleterious impact on the planet. So there's no reason to make any significant changes in human activity. I hope that I'm not misrepresenting Reid's remarks.Let me propose another way to frame the issue. Suppose that there is some good reason to believe that human activity is endangering the human habitability of the planet, but that this evidence is not ironclad. Furthermore, suppose that the projected damage is unprecedented. That is, no one has ever had to deal with so momentous an issue as this is. Finally, the projected calamity is such that an urgent response, one that doesn't allow for waiting long for more conclusive evidence, is called for. In other words, while the riskiness of continuing present polluting human activity is not certain, the magnitude of the effects of losing the risk is staggering. And we can't delay deciding how to address this issue.Confronted with this risk and the status of the evidence concerning this whole issue, what is the our moral responsibility? Drawing on the discipline of casuistry, which tried to determine moral responsibility in cases of risk and non-conclusive evidence, I would argue that, in the extraordinary case of climate change, we ought to adopt the safer course. We should assume that unless we change our current policies and practices in a way that offers some reasonable prospect of averting the projected calamity, we would be acting irresponsibly and, therefore, immorally. I realize that the magnitude of the changes that would be needed to deal effectively with the horrendous scenarios that have bee projected would be extremely costly on both economic and political terms. And so, I'd be happy to be proven wrong. But, so far as I can presently see, the risks are just too high to run them.

Bernard Dauenhauer,You have made a well-reasoned discussion of a moral response to global climate change, or even the possible threat of major changes to our planetary thermostat. Your discussion is succinct and to the point. We've had the chance to take actions that would decrease the likelihood of extreme effects of anthropogenic climate change, measures that would have other immediate benefits, such as increased fuel efficiency, with decreased pollution and less dependence on foreign supplies of fuel. Now, the more we delay, the harder it will be to keep global warming in check. And we shouldn't wait 50 years to see if our playing with the thermostat will cause changes more rapidly than we can respond.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment