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Is The Good Book A Good Guide In The Climate Change Debate?

by Ursula Goodenough
Nov 18, 2010

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Ursula Goodenough

Last week I used a press conference with the Tea Party Patriots as a hook to offer some musings on the concept of revelation as it plays out in religious and scientific contexts. Over the weekend, I was directed to another revelation-related matter that so startled me that I've elected to lift it up here today.

The matter concerns John Shimkus (R-IL), just elected to his seventh term in Congress and a member of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod.Shimkus's district, across the river from where I live, includes large mining companies that work the Illinois coal beds. So, perhaps, it's not surprising that he's opposed to legislation that would regulate the coal industry. What is startling is the way that he frames his opposition to climate-related regulations: He cites revelations found in the Bible.

Shimkus offered such perspectives last year at a hearing of the Congressional Subcommittee on Energy and Environment (YouTube). More recent iterations of his views are here and here.

His 2009 testimony to the Subcommittee went as follows:

I want to start with Genesis 8 [the story of Noah], verse 21 and 22. "Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease." I believe that's the infallible word of God, and that's the way it's going to be for His creation.

The second verse comes from Matthew 24. "And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other." The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood. And I appreciate having panelists here who are men of faith so that we can get into the theological discourse of that position, but I do believe that God's word is infallible, unchanging, perfect.

Two other issues, Mr. Chairman. Today we have about 388 parts per million in the atmosphere. I think in the age of the dinosaurs where we had most flora and fauna we were probably at 4,000 parts per million. There is a theological debate that this is a carbon-starved planet, not too much carbon. And the cost of a cap and trade on the poor is now being discovered.

I'll offer a few comments on his science and then a few on theological politics.

The science:

  • While it is indeed the case that CO2 levels have been higher in past epochs than they are today (albeit estimates for the Jurassic have been more like 1500-3000 ppm, and these have recently been challenged as being overestimates), it is also the case that the planet was vastly different in the age of the dinosaurs: there were no polar ice caps; 1/3 of what is now North America was under water; and it was very hot.
  • The argument that the planet is "carbon starved" and that plants could use more CO2 is a favorite of climate-change deniers. It has no scientific support that I've been able to find, perhaps explaining why Shimkus describes it as subject for "theological debate."
  • One of the deep climate-change concerns, as elegantly laid out by John Baez, is the rate at which the CO2 levels are increasing. The current flora and fauna have evolved in the context of ecosystems that arose and flourish in the recent past. To be sure, over the long haul, new ecosystems establish themselves in the wake of climate fluctuations, but when the fluctuations are sudden, the die-offs are calamitous.

Theological politics:

There's nothing new about cherry-picking divine revelation to justify a practice or a point of view. But I find it particularly egregious in this case. The Matthew 24:31 passage derives from a consideration of the end times of Christ's followers and bears no relationship to the planet. And while the Genesis passage states that God will not destroy the earth, it says nothing about whether humans - evil in heart from childhood - will or will not do so.

As it happens, the other "man of faith" at the hearings was Bishop Callon Holloway, testifying on behalf of the National Council of Churches. Holloway elected to refer to the injunction in Genesis 2:15 to care for the earth, an injunction gaining exciting momentum in the spiritual ecology movement.

That a Bishop would quote biblical texts to make a point is to be expected. That an elected politician would do so, and claim biblical inerrancy in doing so, and do so at a Congressional hearing, really disturbs me.

Rep. Shimkus is one of four contenders for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Another candidate is Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), a climate-change denier who opposes wind turbines because they he says they might slow down the wind and heat the planet. We can let Mr. Barton take us out:

Adapting is a common natural way for people to adapt to their environment. I believe the earth's climate is changing, but I think it's changing for natural variation reasons and I think mankind has been adapting to climate as long as man has walked the earth ... It's inevitable that humanity will adapt to global warming. The longer we postpone finding ways of doing it successful the more expensive and unpalatable the adjustment will become.

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