The Briefing 06-02-17

Dominion, stewardship, and the Paris Climate Agreement: Thinking biblically about climate change

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Worldview Book Recommendation: "Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky" by Paul Johnson

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The Briefing

June 2, 2017

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, June 2, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Dominion, stewardship, and the Paris Climate Agreement: Thinking biblically about climate change

All eyes were on the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington yesterday. The reason was simple: President Donald Trump there announced that the United States would be officially and immediately withdrawing from the so-called Paris Agreement on international climate change. The word “immediate” there has to be contextualized. The agreement itself calls for an official withdrawal period of between three and four years. But the effect was immediate, at least in terms of the United States and the Trump administration in terms of putting this particular decision into action, and it is a decision that marks a very clear distinction between the Trump administration and the administration previous, the administration of President Barack Obama.

It was President Obama who signed the Paris Accord just last year. The agreement was hammered out in 2015, but the signing period began in 2016. The United States in 2016 joined with almost 200 other nations in the agreement that was known in the French as the Paris Accord. That particular agreement was set in the context of following the Kyoto Protocol that was negotiated in 1997 but went into effect in 2005. But just as the word immediately has to be qualified, so do the words in effect with the Kyoto Protocol. That’s because it is generally, if not universally, understood to have been a complete failure. Nations simply did not meet the agreement that was established in 1997; most absolutely didn’t even come close. Canada actually withdrew from the Kyoto Protocols—give that country at least credit for honesty in terms of their official action—but it’s really interesting to note the development of the issue of climate change and the larger controversy, which it is a part, going back to 1997, continuing through the first decade of the 21st century, and now well into the second decade.

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Now if you’re looking at 1997 and the Kyoto Protocol, just keep in mind this is 2017, we’re talking about 20 years of controversy and argument. The issue here goes at least back 25 years. That is when the United States became a signatory to the United Nations framework convention on climate change. That was a treaty, by the way that actually received the support of the endorsement by the United States Senate. That’s 25 years ago. That’s 1992. That’s when the conversation began to be serious in terms of scientific and political circles concerning what was then called global warming, now more generally, specifically, referred to as climate change. In the 1990s the idea grew more common among scientists and political leaders that climate change was happening, but that’s not the issue. The most important issue is that they believed that climate change was happening due to a human contribution, most importantly to the use of fossil fuels, carbon-based fuels that led to emissions that have led to the changes in the climate.  It was first identified as global warming because it was warned that the climate change would lead to a disastrous warming of the entire planet with the resultant melting of the polar ice caps and other very dire circumstances. The evidence later led to a more generalized concern. That’s why it’s now called climate change because many of the warming effects that were predicted in the early 1990s didn’t actually turn out according to the predicted pattern.

The immediate aftermath of the President’s decision is exactly what you might’ve predicted. There are more sides to this than just two but there are two main responses, two main positions when it comes to climate change. One is the position that was undertaken by the Obama Administration, generally identified with the Democratic Party and with the cultural left in the United States. It holds that there could be no question that the climate change is real, and that it can be directly traced to human activity in the planet. On the side of that argument is a great deal of the scientific community that has been tracking the issue of climate change now for decades.

But we also have to recognize that that particular set of science is also set upon an enormous set of assumptions, assumptions that include the attempt to try to retroactively create a record of climate conditions in order to establish a norm over against which the future predicted climate change would be understood to be the problem. Also hand-in-hand on this side of the equation, this side of the argument, is an entire set of political policies based upon the scientific assumptions that have also led to huge economic issues. There is a huge investment in an entire array of industries, mostly now referred to as alternative energy industries, that have to do also with a great deal of the funding of the Democratic Party and many issues of economic and political interconnectedness on the political left.

On the other side of the issue, there once again is a set of political and economic and policy alliances with a good deal of complexity, but the bottom line is this: on the political right and on the side opposed to the Paris Agreement, you basically have a constellation of those who disagree with the claim that human activity, in particular carbon emissions, can be the entire explanation behind the pattern of climate change, with those who disagree with much of the science in terms of the retroactive recreation of climate conditions in order to create an argument concerning the future. And furthermore, there is a deep investment economically in many ways with the older energy sources, in particular with fossil fuels.

Now something else has changed hugely between 1992 or 1997, or even 2005, in the present, and that is the fact that in the beginning of this controversy the United States was the largest emitter of carbon emissions in terms of the world picture. And furthermore, the United States was an energy-dependent nation. You jump now 25 years and the situation is radically changed. Carbon emissions in the United States are falling and may have been for a number of years. And they are falling, not only because of government policy, but because of basic shifts in this nation’s economic picture as well. The United States is emitting far less carbon than was in years past. The other thing is that the United States has become an energy-sufficient nation. The United States now has within its own resources due to natural gas and fracking and coal and other energy sources enough energy supplies in terms of fossil fuels to perpetuate its economy into what is now projected as to be far beyond the economy based upon fossil fuels in the first place.

Thinking about all this from a Christian worldview, we actually have to step back a good bit from the contemporaneous controversy and ask ourselves, what would a biblically minded Christians think about these things? Well in the first place we have to begin with the doctrine of creation, reminding us that the cosmos generally and the planet earth specifically are not accidents, but are God’s good creation. And furthermore, that in this creation he has made human beings as the only creature made in his image, and to human beings he has given a particular responsibility. Biblically defined, that responsibility is dual. It is a responsibility that is given to humanity in Genesis chapter 1, verse 28, and affirmed throughout Scripture, a responsibility of dominion, a responsibility to subdue the earth and to use it, to rule over it even in the Creator’s name and for his glory.

But at the same time that second biblical theme is stewardship. We are not the owners of this planet. We are not the owners of this world. We did not create it. We are the stewards. A biblical image that is repeated often is that of the garden. We are assigned a responsibility in the garden. We are not to leave it fallow; that would be unfaithfulness. But we are to deploy all of our efforts of dominion in order to subdue the earth in ways that will lead to human flourishing and will honor the earth that’s God’s creation. So for that reason, there is a proper Christian ecology. This was reflected even back in the 1970s when Francis Schaeffer wrote about pollution and the end of man, making very clear that Christians have a responsibility to oppose pollution, to oppose the desecration of the planet, and to exercise stewardship. Because after all, we are not just answerable to a political system, we’re not even just answerable to successive generations, we are immediately and ultimately answerable to the Creator himself.

But the secular worldview that has been largely behind the environmental movement since the 1960s and 1970s is predicated on a very un-biblical notion of the cosmos and of human beings. That worldview largely sees human beings ourselves as the problem and the exercise of dominion as the great evil. As a matter fact, people on the left politically and in the scientific community increasingly refer to the current historical epic as Anthropocene, that is the age of man. And you need to note they see this largely as a problem. It was as if the cosmos was perfect until human beings arrived on the scene with our needs and our wants and our building of cities and the building of houses and the building of communities and, yes, eventually the use of fossil fuels.

Oftentimes in this heated controversy you will hear the two positions sometimes reduced to simply the scientists and the science deniers. But that doesn’t reflect upon the fact that the science itself is predicated upon a worldview, and that worldview in so many ways is very clear in seeing human beings as the problem and denying any kind of divine purpose to the creation, not to mention to the role of human beings within.

It’s also important to recognize, I think, that when you look at the Paris Agreement there is a great deal of political hypocrisy at work here. As a matter of fact, much of this is acknowledged by those who were even the supporters of the agreement.

In the aftermath of the President’s announcement yesterday, there were many who rushed to the microphones and to the TV cameras to state that the United States was in the words of Fareed Zakaria on CNN “abandoning its position as the leading nation in the world.” He said it’s nothing less than that. But actually when you look at the text of the Paris agreements, no one believed that this text was going to be followed roughly any more faithfully than the Kyoto Protocol. Even many of the staunchest defenders of the Paris Agreement, those who were decrying the President’s announcement yesterday, said that they acknowledge that the Paris Agreement was not going to make that much of a difference but that nonetheless, it might make some difference. And at least politically speaking, it was the kind of statement the United States needed to make.

But we need to recognize that the Paris Agreement was predicated upon their own scientific claims that during this period the climate change would have to be reduced by 3.5 degrees globally, and the most ambitious reach of the Paris agreement was actually 2%. But those who are behind the agreement acknowledge that it would actually effect at most about 1%. Bjorn Lomborg, who has been writing about these issues longer than most and with a great deal of responsibility, points out that the sum-total of the Paris agreements would postpone global warming by about eight months at the end of this century.

There are two other issues economically and politically that are involved in the Paris Agreement. For one thing, it involved a rather significant transfer of billions of American dollars to nations around the world, especially in the so-called developing world, in order to encourage them towards a lack of dependence upon carbon-based fuels. But those nations already had a good deal of incentive to move in those directions. It didn’t have to come at the expense of the American taxpayer. Something else to keep in mind is that with every one of these agreements globally and with every national economic policy related to energy, someone is going to benefit and someone might not benefit as much from every single detail almost every word of the policy.

The Obama administration was quite publicly tipping the scales towards these new alternative energy sources, which amounted to a federal subsidy for those particular businesses. When he was running for president in 2016, candidate Donald Trump made it very clear that he believed the scales had been tipped in the wrong direction and unfairly. The bigger picture is that even as the United States has achieved energy sufficiency, there is a fundamental change in our own energy economy. There is unquestionably a shift towards more alternative energy sources and away from, especially in the long-term, dependence upon fossil fuels. But a bit of economic, political, and worldview honesty would be very healthy here.

Point number one, Americans are simply not going to tolerate massive increases in the cost of energy when there is available energy at relatively low cost and when Americans are not convinced that there is going to be any immediate or long-term effect that would offset the incentive of those lower energy prices. That’s one of the reasons why, truth be told, Democratic lawmakers, especially in states that are heavily dependent upon the energy industry, are really no more likely to cheer the Paris Agreement than the Republicans, which leads to a very interesting political question. One of the things President Trump could have done or might have done would have been to say, President Obama signed the Paris agreement last year; I’ll just send it to the United States Senate and see if the Senate will affirm and endorse it, maybe even ratify it. That would’ve led to a very interesting circumstance in which you not only would have had Republican senators who would have to declare themselves on the issue but Democratic senators as well. That wasn’t constitutionally necessary, it is argued, since the United States Senate did affirm that 1992 protocol, but it would be really interesting to see what would happen if many of those who are talking about this issue actually had to declare themselves on it before their own voters. And while we’re thinking about the morality of the situation, it has to be placed truly in a global context. We do have a responsibility to the planet. Christians understand that, and we have a responsibility to our neighbors. The question is, how would that responsibility rightly be enacted in terms of national and international policy?

It’s one thing to say that there are those around the world who are particularly endangered by climate change, and we owe them the respect of doing our very best to make certain that they are not adversely affected. It’s another thing also to acknowledge that there are many people around the world who are living in standards that no American could imagine, much less accept, and what they are looking for is just basic, dry, safe housing; what they are looking for is food on their table. They are looking to what Americans now take for granted in terms of transportation and security and food and shelter and also basic energy, including things like refrigeration and even air-conditioning—first, perhaps in hospitals, but also in their homes. There is indeed a moral dimension to telling people around the world that they can’t have those things while we do.

At the end of the day I believe there clearly will be a migration from traditional energy sources to alternative energy in a way that will lower carbon emissions in terms of the atmosphere, and we can hope it will be not just in the United States but around the world. There’s good reason to expect that that actually will happen but not do so much to government policy—that’s not irrelevant—but rather due to market conditions that will make it financially advantageous for the nations of the earth to move in this kind of direction.

As Christians we simply have to look beyond the headlines and understand we’ve got to look more carefully and closely at the moral issues that are at stake. It’s far too easy to pontificate on these matters; they are simply too complex; they defy that kind of pontification. But they certainly do lead to the kinds of hothead debates that you see on the cable news networks, not often actually exchanges of ideas, but only of truncated talking points. As Christians we’ve got to weigh those dual responsibilities, the responsibility of dominion and of stewardship, understanding that in a biblical frame, a biblical theology, the two are not at war, but rather they should be ultimately in cooperation and in concert.

That is say that a rightful exercise of dominion will be simultaneously a rightful exercise of stewardship. And if it fails the test of stewardship, it should also fail the test of a rightful domination. But we do clearly see this conflict of worldviews, between a secular worldview that sees humanity as the problem and a biblical worldview that sees humanity as the point—at least the point in this sense, that as human agents, it is to human creatures, to whom God the Creator has delegated a very important responsibility. And we dare not fail in that responsibility, fail in our exercise of it, and fail to exercise it.

One last point of honesty on this: it’s interesting to observe that in the modern age, no society has ever willingly forfeited a technology it has developed and embraced. What are we saying honestly? I’m saying that those who will decry the President’s position and energy emissions will continue to fly on airplanes burning fossil fuels back and forth around the world making their arguments. They will continue to touch the thermostats in their air-conditioned and heated homes. And that’s true for all of us. The peoples around the world who do not have these technologies want them, and they have a moral cause to demand them. No society having developed these technologies has ever willingly forfeited them. That is true of Europe right now. It is true of all the nations in the advanced world that already have these technologies. The technologies may shift in terms of their efficiencies. There’s good reason to expect so, to hope so, and to be glad of that. In terms of the larger world, we can simply say a little bit of honesty would go a long way. But for Christians it’s not just honesty that is demanded of us. It is also a commitment to the hard thinking—that is our assignment—but a hard thinking that must be based in and judged by the Christian worldview.

Worldview Book Recommendation: "Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky" by Paul Johnson

We can count on the fact that there will be plenty of discussion and controversy about this issue going into the weekend and well into next week, but at least I want to end of this week in terms of mentioning the worldview book of the week. And this time it’s a book that was written back in the 1980s when much of this controversy began. The book was written in 1988, and it’s by Paul Johnson, a very important British historian. The book is entitled “Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky.” It’s Johnson’s effort to try to look at the outsized role of intellectuals in modern society and to try to understand where this came from. He deals with the rise of the intellectual and points to a significant shift in the beginning of the 20th century, a shift amongst the intellectual class from what he calls utopianism to hedonism. That leads to our understanding of how the intellectuals were in so many ways behind the sexual and moral revolutions we have been experiencing.

But he also deals with the secularization of the intellectual class. As he says, they turn their critical faculties more upon theism than upon anything else. He also deals with a fundamental question: why are so many in the intellectual class, sociologically defined, so politically liberal, so given over to a very liberal and secular worldview? He deals with that straightforwardly in a series of vignettes, vignettes in which he demonstrates very clearly that one of the biggest issues with the intellectual class is that the intellectuals seldom actually live by the ideas that they propound. But at the same time, Paul Johnson clearly values the intellect and the role of ideas within society. One of the benefits of this book is that it points out, even with almost 30 years of retrospect, just how ideas do influence society and how bad ideas lead to bad influences, even as good ideas lead to good effects.

Another fundamental issue that Paul Johnson addresses is why the intellectual class is often so opposed to humanity, why they often speak on behalf of a humanism but without respect to real human beings and the effects of their ideas. As he says, reminding his reader,

“Above all, we must at all times remember what intellectuals habitually forget: that people matter more than concepts and must come first. The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas.”

Reading a book like “Intellectuals,” I think it’s one of the most important books on the history of ideas written at the popular level for our times. Reading this book helps us to remember that we are constantly in a battle of ideas, but they’re not disembodied ideas. They’re ideas that are propounded by, taught by, published by human beings, and of course there are human beings whose stories are themselves very interesting. They often explain the ideas, which is one of the most interesting parts of this book. The ambition of the intellectuals—remember he starts with Karl Marx—is very clear. As he writes,

“For the first time in human history, and with growing confidence and audacity, men arose to assert that they could diagnose the ills of society and cure them with their own unaided intellects.”

The Christian worldview holds out a great respect for ideas and the intellect. But the Christian worldview simply makes impossible any confidence in intellect as the solution to our problems, intellect alone.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing