Fossil Fuels, Enemy or Friend? Divine Design in the Carbon Cycle

A Rebuttal to David Jenkins’s “Are Climate Scientists Ignoring God’s Design?”

by E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., Christian Post, October 28, 2013

Despite disagreements on some specific questions, I was glad to get acquainted with David Jenkins through his article ”Are Climate Skeptics Ignoring God’s Design?” … Jenkins and I clearly share commitment to many of the same principles ….

Most of his mischaracterizations involve transforming my nuanced positions into all-or-nothing views. …

For instance, having mistakenly said I believe “an infinitely wise designer would not create something so fragile that mankind can mess it up,” he then reasons, “… From the beginning, man’s actions have had a profound impact on the earth, both good and bad. According to the Bible the first instance of human sin, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, resulted in profound ecological changes.”

Yet there is a difference between God’s cursing the ground because of man’s sin of eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:17–19) and land’s becoming barren because people strip it of vegetation and its topsoil washes away, or a lake’s becoming fish-free because people dump enough toxic wastes into it to kill them all. In the former case, God supernaturally causes ecological harm in judgment of human moral failure that had no physical link to the harm. In the latter case, a physical link exists. …

These … points lead to the real issue on which Jenkins and I disagree about anthropogenic global warming: whether the warming caused by human emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is likely to be good, indifferent, or harmful to humanity and the rest of earthly life, and if we think it’s going to be harmful, what would be our best response? How we answer those questions depends significantly on things embedded in what I just said about bacterial infections.

First, … [just] as infection by a few bacteria may be no threat and by stimulating the immune system may even strengthen someone, so also the addition of a tiny amount of carbon dioxide to the earth’s climate system (even doubling it from pre-industrial times would leave it at only 54 thousandths of 1 percent of the atmosphere) might pose no threat of dangerous warming and might even make it better for humans and other life. Just what it does is a question that must be answered by careful empirical research, not by guessing. …

How much warming will come from added CO2 in earth’s climate system depends far more on feedbacks than on the basic physics of CO2’s heat absorption and re-radiation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) relies on computer climate models that assume that overall climate feedbacks (and there are hundreds, and the IPCC claims only poor understanding of many of them) are strongly positive—raising CO2’s initial warming by anywhere from 1/3 to 3-and-3/4s times.

But those models grossly exaggerated the amount of warming that occurred from 1980 to the present, as this graph prepared by University of Alabama climatologist Dr. Roy Spencer, illustrates. …


Further, the models utterly failed to predict the complete absence of statistically significant warming for the past 16 to 23 years (depending on what dataset one trusts). …

I’ll conclude by turning from the scientific to the theological focus of Jenkins’s article. In contesting my belief, based in part on the parable of the talents, God intends us to use fossil fuels to human benefit, he writes, “One must be careful when ascribing intent to God, especially when the claim appears to run counter to His design.”

I agree wholeheartedly! But I’m not convinced that, with regard to fossil fuels, he’s discerned God’s intent or God’s design better than I have. …

I want to ask three—okay, four—questions: Has he rightly described the “carbon cycle”? Has he rightly identified the “intended resting place for a significant amount of that excess [And how, incidentally, does he know it’s excess?] carbon” as “deep in the ground”? And does his vision really better fit “God’s design” than an alternative one?

And here are my answers:

No, he doesn’t rightly describe the “carbon cycle.” Rather, he describes a carbon dead end—a one-way street, into the ground. …

No, he hasn’t rightly identified the “intended resting place for a significant amount of … carbon”—or rather, at least, he hasn’t given us any particular reason to think deep underground is God’s intended resting place for it. (Neither does he know it’s “excess”; that’s the very point in debate ….)

No, his vision doesn’t better fit God’s design than an alternative one: a vision of the true carbon cycle. Here’s that vision:

Energy from fossil fuels—whose energy density is vastly greater than that of wind, solar, wood, dung, or biofuels, and therefore vastly more affordable—has been one of the key instruments by which such great strides in human wellbeing have been achieved. Quite literally, these fuels have been crucial to the vast increase of human life—in both numbers (from perhaps half a billion in 1700 to perhaps 7 billion today) and longevity. And they’ve also benefited the rest of the biosphere, as environmental economist Indur Goklany points out: “By lowering humanity’s reliance on living nature [wood for heat, feed for animals for transportation and other work], fossil fuels not only saved humanity from nature’s whims, but nature from humanity’s demands.”

How did the fossil fuels get where they are? They are the remains of trillions of dead plants and animals, buried under vast layers of sedimentary rock and transformed by heat and pressure into coal, oil, and natural gas. … All (but the humans) were innocent. They were not sinners. They bore God’s judgment on a sin not their own.

They died. They were buried. And now they are being lifted out of the ground and transformed from matter into energy, leaving a gas, carbon dioxide, as a byproduct. Carbon dioxide is essential to all life. … For every doubling of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere there is, on average, a 35 percent increase in plant growth efficiency. Since all other life depends on plants for food—either directly or indirectly—this boon to plants is a boon to the rest of life, too. The increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration over the past sixty years or so seems likely to account for some 12 to 15 percent of the increase in average crop yields per acre during that period—contributing some $3.2 trillion worth of food, helping the poor more than anyone else.

Stop and think for a moment: Innocent creatures die, are buried, are brought up out of the ground, and bring life to others. Haven’t you heard that story before?

Of course you have. It is the basic summary of the gospel: Christ (who knew no sin but became sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him; 2 Corinthians 5:21), died for our sins according to the Scriptures; He was buried; He rose again from the dead on the third day according to the Scriptures. At death the human body “is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4, 44–45).

Rather than seeing fossil fuels as permanent carbon sequestration, we see them, when transformed into energy, as both literally giving life—long and healthy life—to billions of human beings who are not carbon footprints but the footprints of carbon, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, beautifully picturing the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

May we think not of the carbon dead end (Jenkins’s vision) but of the carbon life cycle? Why, if we recognize and celebrate the beautiful design of the water cycle, ought we not also to celebrate the beautiful design of the carbon cycle? And might I even venture that this could be one way in which the Book of Creation points to the gospel in the Book of Scripture, and that by embracing this understanding we might not only bring enormous benefit to human health and prosperity to the world’s poor but also increase our effectiveness in reaching some of its lost and dying people? [Read the whole article.]


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