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Op-Ed: Faiths Excepting Global Warming
[Rachel's Introduction: Religion and science come together on global warming in a contemporary application of both Blaise Pascal's Pensees and the "precautionary principle."]
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By John Hart
A few years ago, scientists testified confidently before Congress that there was no universally accepted scientific proof linking cigarette smoke and lung cancer.

Senators listened respectfully to Big Tobacco's witnesses, and concluded that since there was no scientific unanimity, they should take no action. But people in increasing numbers contracted smoke- caused cancer until a whistleblower from corporate tobacco released memos that demonstrated that companies knew about carcinogens in commercialized tobacco, but continued to prioritize profits over people. Finally, citizens won lawsuits and politicians passed effective laws.

Enter the global warming "debate." Big Oil now mimics Big Tobacco. Industry reps and their supporters argue that there is no conclusive scientific evidence that humans are causing, or even exacerbating, global warming. Some even deny that Earth is warming, despite evidence that since the time scientific instruments first began measuring Earth temperatures in 1850, eleven of the twelve hottest years on record occurred in the 1990s and into the present century.

Two recent news stories highlight the debate. "Lawmakers doubt science behind climate change issues," in the Helena Independent Record on March 11, reported on conflict at the Environmental Quality Council meeting when government action was proposed to address global warming. "Southern Baptists Back a Shift on Climate Change," in the New York Times on March 10, presented a contrasting decision, by Christian leaders, to take action on the issue. In its editorial "Climate denial is persistent" on March 12, the IR noted that no amount of science will convince people "when 'faith-based politics' based on the gospel according to the likes of Rush Limbaugh" take precedence over scientific evidence.

In contrast to conservatives living by their political "faith," members of religious faiths have increasingly accepted scientific findings related to global warming, and urged their followers to "care for Creation." Southern Baptist leaders, not exactly flaming liberals, called for a greater response to climate change from their members, who comprise the second-largest U.S. Christian church. Their current president and his two predecessors, along with 41 other leaders, signed "A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change," which was issued officially on March 17. The document states: "Our cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill- informed." The document calls for "prudent action" by individuals and governments, which should include "responsible policies" in response to global warming. Acceptance of such responsibility was evident in the policies proposed to the Environmental Quality Council.

The Southern Baptists are not alone. In 2001, the U.S. Catholic bishops, leaders of the largest Christian church, had issued "Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good." Each year since then, representatives of the bishops have written letters to and testified before congressional committees calling for responsible governmental action to address global warming. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have proposed international responses to planetary warming.

Two years ago this month, the National Association of Evangelicals promulgated "Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action." The document observed at the outset: "As evangelicals we have hesitated to speak on this issue until we could be more certain of the science of climate change, but the signatories now believe that the evidence demands action." The NAE statement resulted from the pleas of an evangelical British scientist that Christians in the U.S. should address global warming issues. Evangelical leaders noted when issuing the statement that while they ordinarily agreed with President Bush on social issues, on this one they disagreed with him.

In these church documents, the scientific basis for religious teachings has included the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an association of some 2,500 scientists from around the world. The IPCC was a co-recipient, with Al Gore, of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. The IPCC findings corroborate findings and statements by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), whose members include Nobel laureates in the sciences. All three churches' statements, the IPCC report, and the UCS express concern that global warming will especially harm the world's poor.

Over the centuries, conflicts have occurred periodically between religion and science. In recent decades, however, and in regard to environmental issues, theists and atheists have been able, in the words of Harvard biologist (and atheist) E.O. Wilson, to "meet on the near side of metaphysics." Church members have increasingly worked to take care of God's creation.

Religion and science come together on global warming in a contemporary application of both Blaise Pascal's Pensees and the "precautionary principle."

In the seventeenth century, philosopher-mathematician Pascal pondered the relationship between believing in God and doing good works. He proposed that we can wager on whether or not God exists, and act accordingly. We could act as if God exists and live a morally good life, and lose nothing if we are wrong. We could act as if God does not exist and live a reprobate life, and lose everything for eternity if we are wrong. He suggests that the prudent thing to do is to wager that God exists, even if we are uncertain.

The precautionary principle in science states that if a possible course of action has unknown consequences, which might be either minimal or catastrophic, prudence would dictate that we not take a chance (a wager) with catastrophe, but reject the action. If we choose to act while hoping that no harm will result, and we are wrong, then there will likely be terrible consequences. But if we act to avoid catastrophe, ultimately we will be better off.

In the global warming debate, will we wager that we need do nothing, and throw caution to the winds? If we're wrong, global catastrophe will result. But if we wager that it's better to be careful, whether we're right or wrong, we and our descendants will benefit because we'll take better care of our Earth home.

As we think about global warming, two questions confront us: "Who's your scientist?" and "What are you willing to wager?" The vast majority of scientists studying the issue, including Nobel laureates, warn of warming's impacts, and urge caution; a handful of politically motivated scientists are in denial and advocate inaction. Our responses to these questions will affect Earth and all life now and for generations into the future. How will we wager?

John Hart teaches and writes about environmental issues in Helena and Boston, and serves as president of the Montana Environmental Information Center. His latest book is "Sacramental Commons: Christian Ecological Ethics."

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