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The Role of Religion in the CO2 Emissions Reduction Debate
Volume 6, Number 41: 8 October 2003

At 0930 on 1 Oct 2003, the Honorable John McCain of Arizona opened a committee hearing of the U.S. Senate on The Case for Climate Change Action.  He began by stating "there is broad scientific consensus that global warming is occurring, that human activity is causing it [via greenhouse gas emissions], and that its consequences are extremely serious."  Declaring that "no excuse for inaction on this issue is acceptable," he went on to say that he and Senator Joseph Lieberman "believe that a market-based approach, combined with mandatory caps and federal oversight, offers the best way for the nation to respond to a growing global environmental threat."  Hence, he reported they were calling for "a mandatory carbon dioxide reduction program."

One of the witnesses presenting testimony in support of this legislative initiative was the Executive Director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, Mr. Paul Gorman, who invoked various religious reasons for supporting what he called "an energy policy which reduces greenhouse gas emissions."  As there is nothing in Holy Writ that even remotely broaches this subject, however, he was forced to rely on concepts that can readily be misapplied if one does not have his facts straight, i.e., if he does not correctly understand a number of scientific truths.

Mr. Gorman cited Genesis 1:31, stating humankind is called to stewardship of God's creations.  We agree.  He cited Psalms 24:1, concluding that creation's gifts are intended for the well-being of all.  We agree.  He cited Psalms 82:3 and Mathew 25:35, declaring we have an obligation to defend the poor and the orphan, do justice to the afflicted, and care for vulnerable people.  We agree.  And he cited Genesis 9:12, stating we have an obligation to the future well-being of all life on earth.  And, again, we agree.

So where's the argument?  Why does Mr. Gorman believe there should be "an energy policy which reduces greenhouse gas emissions and steadily moves us beyond reliance on fossil fuels," and we do not?  The reason certainly cannot be religious; for we agree on the basic meanings all of the scriptures he cited.  Much more likely, our divergent views are the result of Gorman's ignorance of a number of scientifically-demonstrable truths and what they imply about the future.

Consider the study of Tilman et al. (2001), who conclude that our projected inability to meet the doubled world food demand that will likely exist in the year 2050 will exact an environmental toll that "may rival climate change in environmental and societal impacts."  Based upon historical and projected population trends, and even considering expected concomitant advances in technological expertise, they calculate that over the next fifty years, the net loss of natural ecosystems to cropland and pasture in developing countries will amount to about half of all potentially suitable remaining land, which could, in their words, "lead to the loss of about a third of remaining tropical and temperate forests, savannas, and grasslands."  And in a worrisome reflection on the consequences of these land use changes for global biodiversity, they rightly report that "species extinction is an irreversible impact of habitat destruction."

What do these observations have to do with the air's CO2 concentration?  Plenty, for Idso and Idso (2000) have calculated that the shortfall in farm production foreseen by Tilman et al. can be overcome - but just barely - by the additional benefits anticipated to accrue from the aerial fertilization effect of the ongoing rise in the air's CO2 content, assuming, of course, no forced cutbacks in anthropogenic CO2 emissions.  Therefore, in light of this knowledge, which rests on a firm foundation of experimental and observational data, as opposed to highly questionable computer projections of future climate change, it can be appreciated that attempts to reduce the rate of rise of the air's CO2 content will seriously impair our ability to feed humanity fifty years from now, while maintaining sufficient land to support what currently remains of earth's natural ecosystems.  Viewed in this light, Gorman's appeal to "stewardship, covenant, justice, [and] intergenerational equity" for humanity and nature alike would suggest just the opposite policy of that proposed by McCain and Lieberman.

Consider also the study of Wallace (2000), who states that "the massive and inexorable increase in the number of human beings in the world should be recognized for what it is - the most important global change facing mankind."  The rationale for this statement derives from four simple facts.  First, the projected increase in the number of people that will join our ranks in the coming half-century - a median best-guess of 3.7 billion - is more sure of occurring than is any other environmental change currently underway or looming on the horizon.  Second, these extra people will need a whopping amount of extra food.  Third, it will take an equally whopping amount of extra water to grow that extra food.  And fourth, there is no extra water.  "Over the entire globe," therefore, says Wallace, "a staggering 67% of the future population of the world may experience some water stress."  And this situation translates into one of food insufficiency.  And food insufficiency means malnutrition and, in extreme cases, starvation.

So what's the solution?  There's only one answer, according to Wallace: we must produce much more food per unit of available water.  Fortunately, this is precisely what happens when the air's CO2 content rises.  Elevated levels of atmospheric CO2 reduce plant water loss while they simultaneously enhance plant photosynthesis, which dramatically boosts plant water use efficiency and enables earth's vegetation to produce considerably more food per unit of available water than it does currently.  Literally thousands of laboratory and field experiments have verified this fact beyond any doubt whatsoever.  Once again, therefore, well-established scientific knowledge clearly demonstrates that the ultimate consequences of the McCain-Lieberman proposal would be at severe cross-purposes with the religious principles that Gorman invokes in support of their bill.

The take-home message of our analysis of this subject is that religious principles cannot be properly applied without a knowledge of pertinent scientific facts.  We all (hopefully) want to see stewardship, justice, and intergenerational equity prevail within the context of what to do, or not do, about the ongoing rise in the air's CO2 content.  But those desires cannot be brought to fruition in a state of ignorance of how the world of nature operates.  We must do what we do on the basis of truth, else before long we may find ourselves anxiously engaged in activities that are at cross-purposes with the mind and will of God.

Sherwood, Keith and Craig Idso

Idso, C.D. and Idso, K.E.  2000.  Forecasting world food supplies: The impact of the rising atmospheric CO2 concentration.  Technology 7S: 33-55.

Tilman, D., Fargione, J., Wolff, B., D'Antonio, C., Dobson, A., Howarth, R., Schindler, D., Schlesinger, W.H., Simberloff, D. and Swackhamer, D.  2001.  Forecasting agriculturally driven global environmental change.  Science 292: 281-284.

Wallace, J.S.  2000.  Increasing agricultural water use efficiency to meet future food production.  Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 82: 105-119.