Recently the Cornwall Alliance sent to over 2,900 faculty members of Christian colleges and universities around the country an email asking them to consider endorsing our An Open Letter on Climate Change to the People, their Local Representatives, the State Legislatures and Governors, the Congress, and the President of the United States of America. The email had the name of Dr. Roy Spencer, Cornwall Alliance Senior Fellow and Principal Research Scientist in Climatology at the University of Alabama, as sender, and was signed by six scholars (including Roy), including three meteorologists, one of whom is also a climatologist and another of whom is also a pastor and theologian; three economists, one of whom is also a theologian; and one other theologian.
Some recipients signed, we’ve had no response from some, and some wrote to us, some in agreement, others in disagreement. Here’s one in disagreement:
I am not sure about this open letter. Why do these people think they know what the poor need? Have they asked the poor what they want? I bet you the poor would rather have a clean environment, clean water without the pollution often caused by industrialization that promises economic growth. Climate change is affected by the emissions from these industries. I am for an industry-free world. People should learn to depend on the land and grow local food with their hands.
With this said. I am not willing to sign this open letter. My people of _____ valley [in Kenya] were not consulted.
My heart went out to this brother as I read his email, so I decided to write him a substantial answer. Here’s what I wrote, with minor omissions to prevent anyone’s identifying him, and with graphs slightly improved from those I sent him:
Grace and peace to you in Christ. Thank you for your poignant email in response to Dr. Roy Spencer’s message asking you to consider signing our Open Letter on Climate Change …. I am truly grateful that you took the time to explain why you would not sign the letter.
I hope you won’t mind my replying first on Roy’s behalf. I know he has a busy research schedule at the University of Alabama, so I’m not sure he would be able to respond any time soon. Having read your bio at ________’s website I feel a strong love for you and admiration for your own love for Christ and His people. I pray that we can discuss this issue with a spirit of Christian love and mutual respect. Having lived in Calcutta, India, early in my life and seen, literally, hundreds of bodies of those who died on the streets there of starvation and disease, I have a deep and powerful awareness of the horrors of poverty, and a strong desire to see more and more of the world’s people overcome it.
Dr. Spencer and I, and all the rest of us at the Cornwall Alliance, absolutely agree that the poor (and indeed all people) prefer, and should have, a clean environment, with clean water and without pollution (or, rather, with as little pollution as possible granted the unavoidable tradeoffs), to a dirty environment with germ-ridden water and lots of pollution, and indeed making such an environment possible is a significant part of our educational mission. But your email seems to assume that industry and economic development are incompatible with such an environment. Have you considered the possibility that instead they are compatible?
Dr. ______, you are a professor of theology …, and you therefore no doubt have knowledge and understanding in those that Dr. Spencer, a climatologist, might not have. He, on the other hand, as a climatologist, is likely to have some understanding in climate science that you might not have. Is that not so? I am a former professor of historical theology and social ethics (Knox Theological Seminary, 2000–2008) and of interdisciplinary studies on the application of Christian worldview, theology, and ethics to economics, the environment, and public policy (Covenant College, 1992–2000), and have devoted a great deal of the last 30 years of my life to studying the relationship between economic development and environmental quality, having written two books dealing with that (Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future, Crossway Books, 1990; Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate, Eerdmans/Acton Institute, 1997) and many articles through the years. I’d like to share with you some insights I’ve gained from that study, interacting with several specific things you’ve said.
- You wrote, “I bet you the poor would rather have a clean environment, clean water without the pollution often caused by industrialization that promises economic growth.”Economic and environmental history show very clearly what environmental economists call the “environmental transition” or “Environmental Kuznets Curve.” What is that concept? It is that in early stages of economic development, when a society transitions from subsistence agriculture to low-tech industrialization, emissions of air, water, and solid waste pollution rise, but at the very same time health and longevity increase, that is, death rates fall because the benefits of the early industrialization outweigh the risks they impose. Then, as those societies adopt more high-tech forms of industrialization, followed by the move to a more service-and-technology-oriented economy, pollution emission rates peak and then begin to fall, at various income levels. After a while (and the transition period gets shorter and shorter as societies get to take advantage of technologies already developed), pollution emissions, and actual ambient pollution concentrations, fall below what they were at the start of industrialization. Meanwhile, the greater supplies of safe drinking water, food, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, transportation, and other benefits of the economic development result in rising health and life expectancy.One of the best books to communicate this insight is by my friend, the Indian economist Dr. Indur M. Goklany, The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet.To simplify this a bit—to get it out of the realm of abstract theory and down to the concrete—just consider these questions: Where are you more likely to contract a disease by drinking the tap water, in a restaurant in Johnson City, TN, or in a restaurant in Nakuru, Kenya? Where is human life expectancy higher, in Bangladesh or in France? Where is the urban air cleaner, in Tokyo or in Kampala? These are just the beginnings.At bottom, the truth is that a clean, healthful, beautiful environment is a costly good, and because wealthier people can afford more costly goods than poorer people can, a clean, healthful, beautiful environment is more likely to prevail among wealthy people than among poor people. It is true that industry can pollute, but its pollution can be kept at safe levels in a society that, like most in the developed world, requires firms to refrain from polluting at levels that cause harm—and requires them to make compensation when they fail.
Let’s consider for a moment just the issue of safe drinking water. Access to it is tied very closely to gross domestic product per capita. The higher the latter, the higher the former. The following two graphs (constructed using the wonderful tool at Gapminder World. illustrate this for countries around the world, with Kenya highlighted, first in 1990 and then in 2010:
The horizontal axis illustrates GDP per capita, rising from left to right. The vertical axis illustrates access to pure drinking water in percent of the population, rising from bottom to top. As you can see by comparing the two graphs, as a country’s GDP per capita increases (as its circle moves to the right), the percentage of its people with access to pure drinking water rises (its circle moves upward). Kenya moves from GDP per capita of $2,376 in 1990 to $2,503 in 2010, and from 44% of its people with access to pure drinking water in 1990 to 59% in 2010. (You can access the graph and manipulate it yourself if you like by clicking here and highlighting various dates and various countries or clicking “Play” at the lower left to see all the countries’ circles move through the years.)
- You wrote, “Climate change is affected by the emissions from these industries.”We’re happy to affirm that, in principle, but the really important questions are, “How much? And what is the balance between the risks posed by the impact of those industries on climate and the benefits they deliver?”We know that some people think the risks outweigh the benefits, but we also know that some think the opposite, and we are among the latter. We’ve offered some reasons for our view in the Open Letter and in various supporting documents you’ll find on Cornwall Alliance’s website, such as A Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor 2014: The Case against Harmful Climate Policies Gets Stronger, by David R. Legates, Ph.D., Professor of Climatology at the University of Delaware, Newark, DE, and G. Cornelis van Kooten, Ph.D., Professor of Economics and Research Chair in Environmental Studies and Climate, University of Victoria, BC, Canada—both evangelicals, and both outstanding scholars in their fields.All we’d ask you to do is to carefully consider some of the reasoning behind our conclusion that human activity’s contribution to global temperature is likely very small instead of large, and is not dangerous; that nature’s contributions to global temperature are much larger; and that the risks from poverty far outweigh the risks from climate change.
Again, to simplify a bit: People even moderately wealthy people—say, with income levels equivalent to the bottom fifth of Americans—can live long and healthy lives in any climate from the Arctic Circle to the Sahara Desert or the Brazilian rainforest, but the very poor cannot thrive, cannot live long and healthy lives, in the most ideal tropical paradise. This is borne out by life-expectancy and disease statistics from all over the world.
- Finally, you wrote, “I am for an industry-free world. People should learn to depend on the land and grow local food with their hands.”Before the Industrial Revolution, average life expectancy at birth all over the world was around 27 to 28 years. Nearly half of all children died before their fifth birthdays. (These two facts were equally true of the very poor, who constituted about 99% of the human race, and of the “rich” 1%—who despite their wealth lacked the vast majority of material benefits that the vast majority of people in developed countries now take for granted. Britain’s Queen Anne [1665–1714] was pregnant 18 times; five of her children survived birth; none survived childhood.) I sought to give a concise description of pre-industrial life in an article published in a special issue of World magazine in July, 1999, which we’ve republished on Cornwall’s website. Depending on the land and growing food with our own hands sounds romantic, but it’s not a likely path to health and long life—let alone many other benefits that people in economically developed societies enjoy, such as good education, safe transportation, easy and rapid communication, etc.One of the things I learned in my years of study of this subject is that even the best natural habitat cannot support more than 1 or 2 people per square mile through hunting and gathering, and not many more (perhaps 15 or 20?) through subsistence, non-mechanized farming. With current world population at about 7 billion and total land suitable for human habitation of about 29 million square miles, current human population density on that habitable land is about 240 people per square mile. To return to subsistence, non-mechanized agriculture as people’s primary way of life would mean having to rid the world of about 92 percent of its people. I cannot imagine you would want that.
What we all want, dear Brother, is for our neighbors all over the world to enjoy health, long life, and, most important, reconciliation with God through the shed blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. May the Lord give us growing understanding of His truths so as to bring these things about for more and more people everywhere!
Featured Image Courtesy of Ahron de Leeuw/Flickr CC