Beware False Profits

The Evangelical Climate Initiative has issued “An Evangelical Call to Action” on global warming. Signed by 86 evangelical leaders, it calls for Evangelical Christians to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Sadly, these good men and women have been taken in by fables based on half-truths and unsound logic.

Besides making claims that overstate how much we know about the science of climate change, the Initiative’s main claim bases its call for action on the notion that “the consequences of climate change will be significant, and will hit the poor the hardest.”  This ignores the extreme uncertainty involved, as the consequences depend on the projected temperature rises, which are themselves in dispute. There is significant uncertainty even within the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as to what the temperature rises will be. Rises of 1.5°C may not have much effect, whereas rises of 5.4°C may have a profound effect. But the actual data, as opposed to the models, suggest a modest temperature rise of just over 1°C.

The group goes on to claim that “millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors.” Therefore, “The need to act now is urgent. Governments, businesses, churches and individuals all have a role to play in addressing climate change—starting now.” And the way do to this is to “reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.” Yet even if you accept the need for action, the logic driving the case for reduction in fossil fuel use is faulty.

There is a terrible opportunity cost to drastic action to reduce climate change, and that cost would likely weigh heavier on the world’s poor than would the effects of global warming itself. The deleterious effects of global warming, assuming they do come about, are actually exacerbations of existing problems. Indur Goklany, writing for the National Center for Policy Analysis, examined the degree to which global warming would make worse the problems of hunger, drought, sea-level rise, disease, and threats to biodiversity. He found that we can do more to help the poor by combating those problems today than by reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Moreover, every responsible economist acknowledges that drastic action to reduce fossil fuel use would increase energy costs, which would in turn reduce household income around the world. Wealthier is healthier, and richer is cleaner. Limiting economic activity therefore can have a dramatic impact on quality of life, not least by reducing life expectancy. Researchers have found a direct correlation between income and mortality, with a disproportionate impact on poorer communities. Thus, policies that reduce societal wealth can be expected to induce premature mortalities, and increase disease and injury rates.

For example, it is often asserted that global warming already kills 150,000 people per year worldwide. Yet a recent econometric study by Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Harvey Brenner found that replacing U.S. coal with higher-cost fuels for energy production would result in at least 195,000 additional premature deaths in the United States alone. Given that recent “Kyoto-lite” measures proposed in the U.S. Senate—such as the Climate Stewardship Act sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R.-Ariz,) and Joseph Lieberman (D.-Conn.)—would result in the replacement of about 78 percent of coal with high-priced fuels, it is entirely plausible that even “baby steps” towards climate mitigation would kill more people in the U.S. than global warming kills worldwide. The effects of such strategies adopted across the globe could be far more devastating than global warming even if alarmist predictions come true.

The evangelical leaders need to give more thought to the unintended consequences of their well-intentioned acts. During the Middle Ages, good people left their property to the Church. This acted as a brake on economic development as the dead hand, or mortmain, of the Church took this useful land out of the economy—with the poor paying the price through lack of opportunity to improve their lot. By devoting spiritual and temporal energy to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the evangelical leaders will probably hurt the poor more than they help them. As Matthew 7: 15 says, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” By adopting a green agenda, the evangelicals may have thrown the poor to those wolves.