Rules Are for Schmucks: It’s Not Okay to Cite the Bible When Talking about Global Warming

Illustration by outsiderzone / 123RF

Secretary of State John Kerry did a great disservice to the debate over the response to global warming last month by dragging religion into a discussion where it doesn’t belong.

“Before God created man,” theologian Kerry preached, “He created heavens and Earth. Confronting climate change is, in the long run, one of the greatest challenges that we face, and you can see this duty or responsibility laid down in scriptures, clearly, beginning in Genesis … And for me and for many of us here today, that responsibility comes from God.”

It’s hard to agree with Rush Limbaugh on anything, but his response to Kerry was right on: “I don’t believe what I just heard. So it’s okay to cite the Bible. It’s okay to broom the separation of church and state when talking about global warming outreach with Muslims.”

No, Rush, it’s not okay to cite the Bible when talking about global warming. Kerry screwed up. Nobody’s perfect.

Kerry’s logic is dumbfounding. What does the claim that Genesis says God created the heavens and earth before he created man have to do with anything, much less global warming? How exactly could God have created man before creating the heavens and earth? The same passage in Genesis says that God created insects after he created heaven and earth, so why aren’t insects responsible for solving global warming? Just because A is created before B says nothing at all about what B should or shouldn’t do with regard to A.

The more persuasive interpretation of what the words in Genesis and other scriptures mean—not what a modern politician wants them to mean, but what they actually mean—leans in the opposite direction. Genesis commands humans to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.” Humanity carrying out God’s will by “multiplying” itself up to the seven billion level and “subduing” everything in sight would seem to be the cause of the carbon emissions feeding the warming trend, would it not? Psalm 8:6 confirms,  “Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.”

Some of the most rigorous theological reasoning on warming has been done by a group calling itself the Cornwall Alliance, which after analyzing numerous Bible passages concludes, “The Biblical worldview instead suggests that the wise Designer of Earth’s climate system, like any skillful engineer, would have equipped it with balancing positive and negative feedback mechanisms that would make the whole robust, self-regulating, and self-correcting.” According to Cornwall, God takes care of the environment; what man needs to do is obey God’s explicit commandments, not one of which mentions carbon emissions.

Other Christian theologians cite other passages to reach an opposite conclusion. Their reasoning is a little more cogent than Kerry’s, but not much. Then there’s the Hindu God expert Narendra Modi, currently serving as India’s prime minister, who announced last week that the way to deal with climate change is for everyone to take up yoga. But on the other side is the Saudi scholar of Islam, Sheikh Mohamed Al-Najim, who says that the use of renewable ethanol is sinful.

It’s tempting to dismiss those who try to inject religion into a desperately important scientific and economic discussion as crackpots. But they’re worse than that. They are people who have made up their mind on a certain position, then claimed, “By the way, God’s on my side.” That gets us exactly nowhere, especially when it can only be confronted by the equally unpersuasive “No, he isn’t.”

The quickest, surest way to reduce carbon emissions would be to slap a $10 a gallon global tax on carbon-emitting fuels. That would get the job done at a 100% level of certainty. It would also probably result in the death by starvation of millions of people, and grinding misery for billions more. But if it’s really God who wants emissions reduced, as some argue, then doesn’t God’s will come first?

I’ve seen plausible arguments by economists that claim it may be more efficient to deal with the symptoms of warming than to try to suppress the cause by devoting whatever environmental improvement resources we can afford to more manageable concerns, like potable water for the billions who don’t now have it. I don’t know if they’re right or not, but when you consider the trillions that any successful effort to reduce emissions will cost, maybe they have a point. There are intensely difficult tradeoffs that will have to be made. What role should the Book of Genesis and the rest of scripture play in these deliberations? Absolutely none whatsoever, and having Secretary Kerry and the Cornwall crowd muck things up with irrelevancy does us all a grave disservice. The best thing for God experts to do on the environment is to shut up, so the rest of us can think.