Christian Environmentalism: Plastic or Paper

By Forrest M. Mims III

Is the quality of air and water declining or improving? Is our planet really warming? If so, is the warming a product of human activity, a natural cycle, or a combination of both? These are among a host of environmental questions with confusing and even conflicting answers. Environmental issues often have potentially negative consequences if left unaddressed, and this poses a dilemma for non-specialists. How do we sort out objective environmental information from that which is influenced or controlled by hidden agendas and exaggerations? Who do we believe, and how do we respond? Can we really save the Earth?

Organized evangelical Christians showed relatively little interest in environmental issues until 2005. Now some evangelical organizations are actively encouraging environmental stewardship and even activism. Environmental stewardship is a worthy goal. But some Christians have gone much farther and coupled specific environmental stands with scriptural commands and injunctions. The Evangelical Environmental Network and Creation Care magazine have endorsed climate change legislation and zeroed in on cars and SUVs, “because transportation is a moral issue.”

The What Would Jesus Drive?” web site is not a parody. It’s a serious, albeit curious, mix of Scripture and environmental doctrine, some of the latter being either speculative exaggerations or based on uncertain or even discredited information. How is the committed Christian supposed to respond to the “What Would Jesus Drive?” assertion that, “Pollution that causes the threat of global warming violates the Great Commandments, the Golden Rule, and the biblical call to care for ‘the least of these’, and therefore denies Christ’s Lordship and His reconciliation of all things ‘through his blood, shed on the cross’ (Col. 1:20).” (What Would Jesus Drive Resources)

Whether or not driving a particular car denies the Lordship of Christ is a question best left to theologians, philosophers and, perhaps, psychologists. It’s much simpler to examine the issue of automobile pollution and global warming. Let’s begin by looking at some statistics for the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is the pollutant of concern in the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign.

According to the Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy, total rail, car, truck and boat transportation in the U.S. generated 33 percent of total U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2004 (Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States in 2004). Motor gasoline accounted for 60 percent of these emissions. Thus, motor gasoline accounted for 19.8 percent of CO2 emissions in the U.S. in 2004. Also according to the Department of Energy, the emission of CO2 that can be accounted to residences amounted to 21 percent of the U.S. emissions. Thus, the emission of CO2 required to operate residences was slightly higher than that emitted by motor gasoline.

This poses interesting practical and theological questions for the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign. If driving a particular car denies the Lordship of Christ, do we also deny Christ by taking a hot shower, burning wood in a fireplace, using electrical lights at night, switching on an air conditioner or heater, cooking meals and using machines to wash and dry clothes and to mow the lawn? After all, these and other routine residential activities collectively cause more CO2 emission than gasoline fueled vehicles.

Conservation reduces petroleum imports, saves money, and reduces air pollution. In short, conservation is responsible stewardship of the environment and it makes practical sense. But its effect on global warming is less certain. Although a growing number of scientists believe the increasing amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is the major impetus behind global warming, the issue is not yet settled. For example, recent findings published in Nature conclude that the sun is more active than at any time in the past 8,000 years. Other natural cycles may also be playing a role. Deforestation and other land use changes contribute to warming. Towns and cities and the roads that connect them form heat islands that cause significant local and even regional warming.

Scientists are especially uncertain about the global warming roles of water vapor, clouds and particles in the atmosphere. Water vapor is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. If the atmosphere were devoid of the warm air trapped by water vapor, the Earth would be so cold that the oceans would be frozen. Warm air can hold more water vapor than cool air. Increasing the water vapor in the atmosphere can trap more heat, thus increasing temperature. On the other hand, increasing the water vapor can also increase cloud cover, which reduces the solar irradiance that increases the temperature. The interactions of these poorly understood mechanisms contribute to the uncertainty of global warming models. So does the presence of particles in the atmosphere, which can either reflect sunlight (a cooling effect) or absorb it (a warming effect).

The melting of glaciers is powerful evidence that the Earth is indeed warming. Or is it? Consider Alaska’s Bering Glacier, the largest in North America. According to NASA’s Earth Observatory website, warmer temperatures and changes in precipitation over the past century have thinned the Bering Glacier by several hundred meters. Since 1900 the glacier has retreated some 7.5 miles.

It seems only logical to blame the retreat of a massive glacier on global warming, but checking the temperature record suggests something else must be at work. The temperature has been measured on either side of the Bering Glacier since 1909, and the temperature record at both sites does not show obvious warming or cooling trends that are found elsewhere around the Earth. So why is the giant glacier receding?

James Hansen, NASA’s primary global warming advocate, has shown that soot may be causing significant melting of global ice and snow. Major sources of soot include agricultural fires around the world, coal-burning power plants in China, cooking fires in India, and massive forest fires in Alaska, Canada and Russia. The smoke from these fires is clearly visible in NASA satellite images. The possible role of soot in melting glaciers might someday be viewed as a major discovery, particularly if it explains the melting of glaciers, such as Bering Glacier, in the absence of any warming trends. Meanwhile, global warming advocates continue to claim that warming alone is melting glaciers.

This brings us to the issue of the magnitude of global warming, for there is great controversy over the accuracy of measurements used to determine temperature trends. The central issue is that many stations that measure temperature around the world have become surrounded by development that causes an artificial warming effect. Climate modelers have attempted to remove this heat island effect, but there is controversy over their success.

The problem was hammered home in a recent scientific paper published by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (“Microclimate Exposures of Surface-Based Weather Stations: Implications for the Assessment of Long-Term Temperature Trends,” 2005). Atmospheric scientists Christopher A. Davey and Roger A. Pielke Sr. visited and photographed 57 rural weather stations that provide temperature data to the National Weather Service. They found that only a minority of the stations were properly located with respect to buildings, roads, gravel and other things that interfere with temperature readings. They concluded, “This poses a potential problem in constructing long-term climate records.”

The Davey-Pielke study reinforces concerns that the accuracy of the historical temperature record is far more problematic than previously recognized. For if only a minority of stations in a modern temperature network can be trusted to provide reliable data, how can antiquated measurements be trusted? Or is it possible that some of the historical measurements might be even better than modern ones?

Consider the temperature record kept by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, Virginia, from 1810 to 1816 and the modern temperature measured nearby by the Southeast Regional Climate Center from 1982 to 1994. This is a rural site, and the mean of the modern measurements (13.2 C) is only 0.1 degree C warmer than the mean of Jefferson’s measurements (13.1 C). It’s interesting that Jefferson believed that the temperature in his day was warmer than during the Roman era. It’s even more interesting that Jefferson’s data show no significant warming between his time and the recent measurements.

A seemingly simple question illustrates the complexity of environmental issues: Is the overall environment better off if we sip water from a paper or a plastic cup? Plastic cups are made from petroleum, which does not break down in landfills. Paper cups cost more, but they are manufactured from wood, a renewable resource. Thus, we should use paper cups. Right?

Canadian scientist Martin Hocking analyzed this issue in a paper published in the distinguished journal Science (“Paper Versus Polystyrene: A Complex Choice,” 1991) and concluded, “The paper cup consumes 12 times as much steam, 36 times as much electricity, and twice as much cooling water as the plastic cup.” Hocking also found that producing a paper cup produces about 580 times the volume of waste water required to produce a plastic cup. Making a paper cup also causes more air and water pollution than making a plastic cup.

Hocking’s study stimulated a flurry of responses from environmentalists. While his numbers have since been refined, his basic conclusion that a plastic cup is more environmentally friendly than a paper cup still stands.

The cup story is one of many that demonstrate how seemingly simple environmental questions can have answers that often involve practical tradeoffs and considerations that go well beyond the issue at hand. The full cost of resolving such questions is often unknown or completely overlooked. The old adage about following the money often applies, as when industry groups and developers do battle with environmental organizations, all of whom often have a monetary interest in the process and its outcome. Then there are the businesses, regulators, scientists and fund raisers that depend on pollution for their survival. Businesses have sprung up to capitalize on environmental laws and regulations. Universities and technical colleges offer a wide range of courses and degree plans for students aspiring to become environmental engineers and regulators. Scientists compete with one another to receive government grants to study environmental matters. And, yes, exaggerated claims about the positive or negative status of the environment serve as a rallying cry for all sides of environmental issues.

An environmental issue with far more at stake than the relative merits of plastic and paper cups is personal transportation, which pollutes the air and requires expensive roads. Thanks to its mandates governing emissions from power plants and both gasoline and diesel fueled vehicles, the Clean Air Act has had a major impact on improving air quality in the United States. But there is a heavy-handed side to the Clean Air Act that unjustly punishes communities for air quality violations that occur when polluted air arrives from neighboring States.

While the Act supposedly excludes air quality violations that originate from outside the U.S., the Clean Air Act establishes a Napoleonic rule of law that cities are guilty until proven innocent. As the citizens of Texas learned in 1998, this is no small task. Government regulators long accustomed to sanctioning cities downwind from fires they didn’t start and power plant smog they didn’t produce were loathe to exempt Texas cities from huge ozone violations caused by major fires in southern Mexico and Central America.. Numerous appeals and various studies were required to persuade the government regulators that the historic smoke event did indeed cause major ozone violations.

Being penalized for air quality violations they did not cause is not the way to engender sympathy from the public for environmental causes. Nor is the public honestly won over by environmental misinformation and exaggerations, much of which I have observed in my years of monitoring the environment and serving on two government air quality committees.

There is plenty of middle ground between environmental activists, industry, agriculture, power plant operators and energy and resource consumers. Perhaps all sides would do well to carefully reassess their positions, for responsible and scientifically valid environmental stewardship can improve air and water quality, save money and reduce oil imports without ruining the economy. Let us hope that the emerging Evangelical environmental movement will review its positions as well, for those who boldly claim that the Lordship of Christ is denied when a particular environmentalist agenda is not followed raise troubling theological questions that go far beyond a Christian approach to environmental stewardship.

In a world of contradictory needs and limited resources, there are no perfect environmental solutions. A wise Christian environmentalism accepts that tradeoffs are inevitable, factors in all relevant data, and strives for the best overall outcome.


Published March 30, 2016