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Panelists outline concerns on global warming

With time scales, maps, photos and scientific data, Tom Ackerman, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, gave a picture of global warming as he opened a panel presentation on climate change in September at Whitworth College.

Tom Ackerman

Tom Ackerman

“The global greenhouse effect is real and will grow as we add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.  It’s a problem for us, our children and our children’s children.  It will affect society, water resources, agriculture, energy usage, weather damage and sea levels, so we need coherent policies to reduce global warming,” said Tom, one of three speakers on “A Christian Response to Climate Change,” presented by the Interfaith Council’s Faith and Environment Network.

Bill Robinson, president of Whitworth, shared 10 reasons he signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative, saying he wanted to depoliticize the issue, because it’s about everyone’s wellbeing.

Peter Illyn, an evangelical Christian with Restoring Eden in La Center, Wash., works with students in 40 colleges.  He calls them to treasure the earth and see that caring for the environment—loving, serving and protecting God’s creation—is the “ultimate pro-life issue.” 

“We are to give our minds and hands—made in God’s image from the earth—to break the apathy and disconnection that overwhelms this generation and culture,” Peter said.

Tom, a member of the Christian Reformed Church and graduate of Calvin College, is affiliated with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.  He said while weather forecasting is about tomorrow, the next day or week, climate is about atmospheric conditions over a year or more. 

Projections into the future are developed from the past and current conditions. 

For example, he showed data on surface air temperatures increasing in the last 100 years, with a rapid acceleration in the last 30 years, using a map with U.S. temperature trends from 1901 to 1998.  Dots of different colors represented increases of one, two or three degrees, visibly depicting that the West and Northeast have warmed, and the Southeast is colder.

Tom contrasted photos of glaciers in Argentina in 1928 and Austria in 1875 with 2004 photos showing less or no ice.

From tree rings, coral reefs, lake sediment and sample cores from the earth’s crust and ice in Greenland and Antarctica, he said, scientists have concluded that this period is warmer than any other in the last 1,000 years.

“Carbon dioxide, a minor component of the atmosphere is now at 375 parts per million (ppm) compared to a pre-Industrial Revolution level of 285 ppm. That increase is primarily from burning fossil fuels,” Tom said.  “It will rise to 550 ppm by about 2050 if we keep on the present course.  It has the potential to increase much higher than that in the next few hundred years depending on what we do about energy usage.”

Higher temperatures and carbon dioxide levels feed the greenhouse effect, trapping solar radiation, warming the earth’s surface and increasing the amount of water in the atmosphere, he explained.

Tom said the United States has been “the big dog in emissions since 1950.   Americans produce five metric tons of carbon dioxide a year per capita, in contrast with one metric ton average per capita for the world.” 

Based on scenarios about energy production, emissions and carbon cycles, scientists have developed models of climate changes and the economic and sociological impact.

 “Increasing temperature even one degree matters.  The last glacial period was only five degrees different from today.  Warmer temperatures mean more rain in some areas and less in others, rising sea levels, melting ice and more intense storms,” he said.

Tom summarized: The climate is warming partly from a continual increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The 1992 United Nations Convention on Climate Change calls for “stabilizing carbon dioxide at the present level to prevent dangerous, anthropological interference with the climate system.”

“We can prevent warming by using alternative and more efficient energy sources—solar, wind, biomass and nuclear—and developing coherent policies,” Tom said.

“The people least responsible will face the greatest losses.  Will we take responsibility?  Who will pay for the losses?  What will immigration policies be?” he asked.  “We must act now.”

Tom said Christians are to be involved in all aspects of life, not limited by a false split between science and church. 

We can be scientists and Christians,” he said.

“Every-day simple choices—such as using paper rather than Styrofoam cups—have a cumulative effect.  Students need to understand issues so they can talk intelligently to relatives and write Congress,” he said.

Speaking next, Bill listed 10 reasons why he signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative, though he rarely signs such documents:


Bill Robinson

• As a boy, his parents taught him Bible verses, particularly a passage in Revelations that says God created everything for God’s pleasure.  “So I have a duty to take care of it,” he said.

• As a teen tempted to smoke, he saw tobacco industry studies saying that smoking really was not unhealthy.  Claims that global warming isn’t really a problem remind him of propaganda from the tobacco companies.

• He is friends with a potato farmer and an apple farmer.  He asked them if they believed in global warming. They concurred that it’s dramatically warmer.

• Scientific findings make it clear global warming will be destructive and the poorest people will be hit the hardest.

• The culture and political realms “focus on the wrong questions,” he said. “Instead of asking if humans caused it, we should ask if human actions can arrest it.”

• Students need to deal with this issue.

• The potential for exponential growth in global warming “is frightening.”

• “I got sunburned in Australia.”

• “The issue is politicized.  I want to depoliticize it.  It’s not about being Republican or Democrat, but about our wellbeing.”

• The most powerful reason is the consequences of being wrong.  “If we follow the prophets of global warming and they are wrong, we’ve reduced emissions, cleaned up our air and conserved fossil fuel,” he said.  “If we take the advice of those who tell us not to worry about global warming and they are wrong, we could be looking at a world catastrophe.”

“We need to use our influence to reduce emissions to reduce the consequences.  The harshest effects will be on the poor, and we have responsibility to care for them,” Bill said, adding Whitworth College has explored green building for new buildings.  “I believe the college can meet significant criteria on use of energy, resources and recycling.”

He suggests developing a mentality of being conservers, rather than consumers.

Peter said Restoring Eden makes it theologically and culturally safe for Christians to love nature as a “pro-life issue.”


Peter Illyn

When he thought he was dying from eye cancer, he took time to relish nature, wondering:  “Are we so cavalier with life that we would squander it? 

“We need to love, serve and protect God’s creation,” he said.  “If you love the Creator, you need to take care of creation, not worship money and stuff.”

He calls Christians to love God, neighbors and creation, too. 

“We should be like little children in awe of creation as sacred and beautiful.  We should help people move from limited arguments of owls vs. jobs.  We need to recognize that we are dependent on the rest of creation.”

Peter knows that young Christians concerned about the degradation of creation are pursuing solutions, and some corporations find they can make a profit using sustainable practices.

Believing global warming is real and that it will be deadly, he calls for prophetic leadership of Christians to challenge elected leaders to adopt policies that will reduce global warming.

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By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - Copyright © November 2006