Climate change has been one of the most debated subjects around the world in recent years, with various opinions about its reality, origins and dangers. Join Scott and Sean as they interview theologian Brent Waters about his insightful take on climate change from a distinctly Christian view of the world, that comes out of his book, Just Capitalism.
About our Guest
Dr. Brent Waters is Stead Professor of Christian Social Ethics and Director of the Stead Center for Ethics and Values at Garrett Evangelical Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. He is the author of multiple books on the intersection of Christian theology with bioethics, biotechnology and economics.
Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of faculty and professor of Christian Ethics.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your cohost Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics.
Scott Rae: We're here today with our special guest, Dr. Brent Waters, who is the Stead professor of Christian social ethics and director of the Stead Center for Ethics and Values at Garrett Evangelical Seminary outside Chicago in Evanston, Illinois. He's the author of numerous books on the intersection of Christian theology and ethics that has to do with bioethics, technology, and in his most recent book, on the ethical issues related to the marketplace entitled Just Capitalism. Those of our listeners who've been with us for awhile may remember a couple of years ago, we had Brent on for two sessions when his book on Just Capitalism came out initially. Today, we'd like to focus on one specific aspect of that book, and it's the ending chapter on the issues related to the environment and climate change. So, Brent, welcome, first of all. Really glad to have you with us. Thanks for taking the time to hang out with us for these 25, 30 minutes.
Brent Waters: Glad to be here with you.
Scott Rae: So just to give our listeners some context, since this discussion of climate change comes from your book Just Capitalism, if you had to summarize sort of the big idea, the big takeaway of your book overall, what would it be?
Brent Waters: Well, the big idea one-A is that capitalism is not incompatible with Christian teaching so long as it's ordered correctly. And what I mean by that is that it's ordered toward fair competition, rule by law. And that enables more people to participate more broadly in the economy. Part one-B is that if you take the notion that there is in scripture a preferential option for the poor, then capitalism is really the only game in town because it's really the only method that can draw the world's inhabitants out of dire poverty.
Scott Rae: Now, you had said to me privately that in the book, you alienated your friends on both the right and on the left. For one, knowing you, it's not hard for me to imagine how you managed to pull that off. But specifically, what did you say in the book that alienated those on the left and then those on the right?
Brent Waters: Well, I didn't alienate all my friends.
Scott Rae: That's right. I am still your friend.
Brent Waters: Yes. But the ones I did alienate... Well on the right, they were peeved at me for two reasons. And it depended on which part of the right that you're on. Some accused me of not being sufficiently nationalistic enough, that they wanted protectionism to protect jobs, to protect industries, and things like that. Whereas some of the libertarians on the right thought I still was maintaining too much government interference and regulation in the markets and was therefor interfering with kind of the natural course of events. On the left, I simply alienated those who believe that the state should really dictate economic policy and wanted a much more activist role, whereas, I was arguing for a very limited state.
Sean McDowell: In a book on economics in the Christian faith, why did you decide to address climate change?
Brent Waters: Well, I think it's one of those issues that you really can't ignore. And how we respond to climate change is going to have pronounced implications for the economy. Whether you go, for example, renewable energy, or whether you go for nonrenewable, that's going to have an impact both upon the climate and upon the economy. So I think that to really talk about economics today, you can't really avoid the question of climate change. And also, how are you going to respond to it in ways that do not destroy the lives of individuals who are dependent upon certain kinds of economic trends? And if you do create these kinds of displacements, what kind of moral obligations do you have to retrain them and retool them for the different kinds of economies that you endeavored to take? I think one of the things we have to learn is no matter what we do, there are going to be consequences that we have to deal with. And we can't ignore that, that it's not a simple either/or solution.
Scott Rae: Brent, the way you set this up in this last chapter in the book, you mentioned that the proper stewardship of creation involves a couple of different things that seem, I think, to a lot of people to be contradictory. That is the global pursuit of widespread prosperity and also protecting the creation's ability to promote human flourishing. In a lot of corners of culture, I think people regard those two things as almost a zero sum arrangement, that you can't protect the environment and have widespread global prosperity at the same time. How do you resolve that particular tension?
Brent Waters: Well, I think first of all, you just have to say the tension's fault. Because if you look at what are the most green societies that we have in the world today, they're all affluent. You have to be rich to be green. And in order to develop the kinds of technologies that you need, you need to have the affluence to be able to do that, both in terms of any kind of government programs it might take on, it's going to take tax revenue, or private initiatives, you're going to need investors and people to produce and use these kinds of technologies that you develop. So I think it's a false notion that somehow if you're going to care for creation, you have to have a, say, for lack of a better term, very primitive society. If you're going to go that route, then you also have to decide how many billions of people do you have to get rid of in order for the earth to sustain a very small population.
Scott Rae: Wow. And knowing you, you're not exaggerating on that either, right?
Brent Waters: No, I think that's right. And I remember one day in class, a student pushing for exactly this issue, and I said, "Well, you're going to have to help me out here. How many people ideally can the world sustain?" And the answer is somewhere around a half a billion. And I said, "You only say we have about 20 or 30 years left to make that decision." So I said, "So who are the six or seven billion people are going to be killed and who's going to decide that?" And I said, "Don't look shocked. If you're going to will the ends, then you must will the means."
Sean McDowell: Wow. Well, Thanos will do it, that's for sure. Which shows these are real questions people are asking. Well, you insist that human domain is a real thing, but it's not absolute, but it's been treated as absolute. Can you explain what you mean by human domain and why it's real, but not absolute? Dominion, I'm sorry.
Brent Waters: Well, I think the reason, first of all, why we've slipped into the trap of believing that it is absolute is that the short answer to that is sin. The thing is that we tend to see ourselves as the center of the universe and therefore somewhat omnipotent. And we get ourselves into all sorts of mischief when we believe that we're really in control of things. So the dominion is limited because we are creatures and not the creator, that God has entrusted us with a dominion over creation, but it's limited from the standpoint that we're not God. So our job is really, I think, to maintain the creation and make it into a suitable habitat until the creator comes back to reclaim it. And that means... I think there's sound biblical teaching into the aspect then that we do our best when we recognize the limits of our efforts, but we do them well. And I think there's a old agricultural principle that you pass on the land in better shape that you inherited it to your offspring. I think that's, in general, a good principle that's hard to beat.
Scott Rae: Brent, let me just sort of cut to the chase here on when we get to climate change specifically. Is climate change a real thing? And are you concerned about it? And sort of what would you say would be your level of concern about it, if you do think it's a real thing?
Brent Waters: Well, having grown up in Southern California, it is a real thing. I can remember as a boy joking saying, "I never trust air that I can't see." And the smog was terrible. And I think there were health problems. And I think there's no reason to deny that both probably over time, climate does change. And it changes whether humans are here or not. Now, whether the technologies that we've introduced are going to exacerbate changes that are going to be deleterious, I think that's the dispute, and how do you respond to them? So I think you have to take it seriously, of saying, "Okay, if the world's going to be experiencing some kinds of climate changes, then what are appropriate responses to it?"
And here's where I think the debate gets really interesting. It's not just simply that you cut back necessarily on all the use of energy and things like that. The Copenhagen Consensus offers a very different response, of saying that basically you may have to endure and adapt to the climate change rather than trying to control it. And there again, I think what we're witnessing right now is the agenda of affluent countries being imposed upon the poorer nations of the world, saying, "You're going to do it our way or it's not going to get done." And I think that's just a recipe of disaster for most people who are already impoverished and will never have an opportunity to get out of poverty because the energy simply will not be there because it's going to be withheld from them and there goes their only chance to escape poverty.
Scott Rae: Yeah. And the developing countries have already started commenting on how immoral it is for the developing world to impose their standards on them, from their position of relative affluence. Let me put it a different way. It seems to me there are some different ways to approach climate change. And I'll use a disease analogy. Some people have said, and this is how I read somebody like Al Gore, for example, that climate change is sort of akin to the Ebola virus. It's deadly, it's dangerous, and we've got to do something about it now and it's urgent. But others, I think, would view it more like the common cold, something that's really not anything to be concerned about. But a third group, I think, views it as something akin to type 2 diabetes, not immediately urgent, but if you don't manage that well, it's going to become urgent at some point. Which of these best fits your view of climate change? Or I'm even open to if you want to suggest another disease-type imagery that might fit it better.
Brent Waters: Well, I don't think it's Ebola. I wish it were the common cold, but I think it's probably worse than that. So I'm going to go with the type 2 diabetes. And that is, is that you're right. If you ignore it, then it's going to catch up with you and it's going to be deadly. Where we do know in diabetes 2, you can treat it with a diet, with exercise, with different kinds of medications. And through that combination, you can make responsible choices and still have a good quality of life. And I think that that's maybe what we need to be doing at this point is saying, "Look, it's no good for anyone to keep pouring pollutants into the atmosphere. But that doesn't mean then that you can't have other forms of transportation." We know that the use of natural gas, the use of nuclear energy, all of these would be cleaner forms of energy we could use. We could even scrub coal if we need to. So that there are alternatives and there's a way in a sense of treating the diabetes of the planet. Now, an imagery I would toy with, but it may not be suitable to discuss on the podcast, is it could also be similar to treating a hangover, that you've had the excess, and now you have to kind of find ways to compensate for that.
Sean McDowell: Can you give me some examples of where you think the larger climate science is right specifically that we are concerned and some areas that maybe have been overstated, like, for example, Michael Shellenberger talks about the polar bear population and how that's an example that was blown completely out of proportion from his perspective. Give me an example when you say, "Yes, this is what gives me concern and here's some examples of those that I think are maybe overstated."
Brent Waters: Yeah. What gives me concern is that it seems that we're less and less able to predict with any kind of accuracy events, weather-related events that come up and surprise us when we should know better. So I think that maybe the storms are growing stronger, that sort of thing. The ones I think have been overblown is, now, I don't think the polar bears are going to go extinct and I don't think necessarily that whole continents are going to be flooded and go away. I think we don't do ourselves a favor by trying to turn climate change into a secular form of apocalypse.
On the other hand, again, I don't think you can ignore it, but I think people will respond actually very well when you take the time to explain, "Here's what we think is at stake and here are different kinds of solutions that we can take a look at." Then I think people begin to think about it and they begin to make some determinations that are reasonable, that are just, that will have the least amount of bad impact on people's lives. Because again, we have to be determined that no matter what we do, it's going to affect someone. And I think, again, a good principle that we have to keep in mind is it's always going to be the poor who are going to suffer the most for any decision you make. So how do you begin to think through that of saying which of the solutions that we want to entertain will have the least amount of negative impact upon the poor?
Scott Rae: Yeah, Brent, is seems to me that that's the theological principle that runs throughout your discussion, not only of climate change, but of economics as a whole, that our policies should impact the poorest of the poor in the least harmful ways and in the most beneficial ways that we can. Now, one of the ways that you talk about this is how you connect climate change with energy, and particularly how that connection impacts the poorest of the poor in the developing world. Can you spell out that connection a little more clearly?
Brent Waters: Yeah. We forget how vital readily accessible energy is to an affluent society. Because we just take it for granted that when you turn on the switch, the power is there and the lights are going to come on. For good portions of the world, either A, they just simply don't have the access to those kinds of infrastructure, to those kinds of power grids, or B, they're unreliable. So that even healthcare, something as basic as that, becomes effective because what do you do if you have to treat a very serious disease and even the hospitals don't have reliable sources of power? What do you do in terms of food storage? What do you do in terms of just keeping homes lighted and heated or cooled? So that energy is directly there in terms of either promoting or discouraging economic development and therefore the lives of people. Because economic development is not an abstraction, it's just not a GDP number. It's the lives of people. And if people don't have the access to the energy, it's almost impossible for them to be affluent.
Scott Rae: So the laws restricting the use of fossil fuels or laws that are mandating renewable forms of energy in an unrealistic timeframe, what do you see as the impact of those laws that restrict readily available forms of energy?
Brent Waters: Well, I think there's two things. I think number one, is that the laws that are overly severe and restricting, again, is, let's be blunt, that's a tax upon the poor. Because the rich are always going to find some other alternative forms of energy to meet the needs that they have. So let's just be honest and say if you're going to restrict access to fossil fuels, then you've decided to tax the poor, that's effectively attack that they can't afford. Now, having said that, once you loosen up the restrictions, there are good ways to do it and there are bad ways.
And two examples that I'm familiar with is one bad way to do it is that you just don't pay any regard to the impact on the natural environment. So for example, my mother grew up in Butte, Montana, and they had, they called it there the pit, the hole. It was a copper mine that got bigger and bigger, an open copper mine, and eventually took in most of the hill part of the city and later just became a toxic dump. And they're still cleaning up Butte from bad forms of mining. On the other hand, I live in Western Pennsylvania now, which does a lot of fracking for natural gas. And if you drive out in the countryside, what people are amazed at is that they have passed by wells they don't see because it makes a very small impact upon the natural environments and it's a great way of extracting natural gas from the earth.
So again, when you open up access, it doesn't mean that you're condemning the natural environment to decay. It means that you have to think through and be smart about how you go ahead and extract what you need in ways that are environmentally responsible. And I believe that we have the capability of doing that.
Scott Rae: For for the foreseeable future?
Brent Waters: You mean do I think fossil fuels are there for the foreseeable future?
Scott Rae: Yeah. I remember when I graduated from high school, that was the year that the Club of Rome said we're going to run out of energy in the 1990s. With fracking and other things like that, that has clearly been shown to be false.
Brent Waters: Well, eventually you are going to run out of that energy. I think the debate, again, is how long will it last? How much is there? How much has still not been discovered? All those are unknowns. But eventually the goal has to be is an alternative forms of energy, renewable forms. And I think, again, we begin to believe everything's an either/or option. It's probably both/and. I think we need multiple forms of energy to meet different kinds of goals, different kinds of needs that need to be met. And therefore energy policies, I think, again, actually markets are a better way to determining the use of energy than I think command and control economies. Because consumers are pretty wise. They're pretty smart about what kinds of energy work best for them.
Sean McDowell: your main point seems to be that you described fossil fuels as a bridge to renewable energy. You argue for a longer, rather than a shorter, bridge. So explain why you think fossil fuels are a bridge to renewable energy and what you mean by this longer bridge.
Brent Waters: Well, what I'm assuming is is that if developing economies are become more prosperous, they need readily available and affordable forms of energy. And right now, that means fossil fuels, whether it be coal, whether it be oil, whether it be natural gas. But again, that's not necessarily a goal that it's going to be in perpetuity. So therefore, it's really a bridge until we discover alternative forms of energy and technologically the best ways to use them. Okay, why do you want a longer bridge than a shorter bridge? If your bridge is too short, say that we're going to be completely... Your goal is in 10 years to stop all fossil fuels, that may prove too short. And either your alternatives then is you leave a lot of people in very dire straights, destitute, or you have to quickly build the bridge longer anyway, and that's going to be expensive. Better off to say, "Okay, maybe 50 years is the goal," and if you need it in 30 years, that doesn't mean you have to build the rest of the bridge. I think it's easier to say, "Okay, we can shorten the period rather than extend it."
Sean McDowell: And those who get hurt most are the poor because they're not developed enough yet to have those renewable energy, whether it's wind power or solar power, they need fossil fuels. So us pulling them would hurt their development and a greater good in the end. Is that fair?
Brent Waters: That's fair. That's exactly right. That again, I think the principle we have to keep in mind and always thinking about in economic policy is not only who will benefit, but who's going to be harmed. Almost invariably, the ones that get harmed the worst are those who are the most vulnerable, who are already living paycheck to paycheck or worse.
Sean McDowell: Tell us what's distinctly Christian about your approach to climate change. What biblical or theological principles or ideas are you bringing in to help solve this issue?
Brent Waters: It's really a good question. My hope is that what is most distinctly Christian is that I'm trying to avoid what I would call environmental idolatry. That the creation is a good work of God, but is not God, that only God is sacred and the earth is not sacred. The earth, rather, has been entrusted to our care. And therefore, we treat it with respect, but we don't turn it into an idol. Because when you turn into an idol, you come up with some rather preposterous ideas like human beings are the cancer of the universe and they need to be eradicated. I'm not sure what value of that teaching is, except that it's kind of a self-loathing, a self-hatred. And ultimately, we know that idolatry destroys people. And when you turn the natural environment into an idol, I don't think you can be good stewards of it because you begin to worship it rather than care for it.
Scott Rae: Brent, one final question here. As you think about kind of where we're headed in light of climate change and the movement from fossil fuels eventually to renewable sources, regardless of how long that bridge is, what gives you hope for the poor of the developing world and what gives you hope for the future of the planet?
Brent Waters: Well, my hope for the poor of the world is that I'm finding human beings are extraordinarily creative in how they go about finding ways to survive, to flourish. And they find ways to get things done. We are remarkably resilient people. And particularly, if we can get out of the way and let people find the solutions that they need to find, I have hope that they will find what they need to do. And it's the group, it's what [Hayak 00:25:15] teaches, it's basically the group of people that really find the better ways to getting things done rather than leaving it to the tyranny of experts. I have to tell you, though, I'm less hopeful now than I was four years ago when I wrote the book, because I think right now in the world, we are less free than we were four years ago. We see it in the geopolitics of greater confrontation between the great powers, some of the events in China, everywhere it seems that the state is on the move to increase its regulations. Even in the United States, I think we're flirting with becoming less free as you saw in some of the more draconian reactions to the COVID.
But ultimately, what gives me hope for the future of the planet is that God is in charge. And I don't think that's Pollyannish, but it's recognizing that ultimately it's not our efforts that is going to save the universe. It's going to be God who saves the universe. And therefore, I think it was Reinhold Niebuhr who once said that, "Christians are short-term pessimists, but long-term optimists." And I think there's a lot of wisdom in that.
Scott Rae: I think, Brent, that's super helpful. I think our hope for the poor of the developing world, I think, is coming from the expansion of global markets and greater participation in the global marketplace. And I think you're absolutely right, that the best hope for the poor around the world has been, and it's empirically, I think, irrefutable, has been their participation in the global economy. And I think you're right theologically too, that our best hope for the planet is that God's coming back to reclaim it and to set things right and to heal what had been previously broken. So thank you. Thank you for, as I have come to expect from you, a clear, well-thought out and very insightful conversation on this issue that we have not tackled before on our podcast. And so to do this within a distinctly Christian theological framework, avoiding, I think, environmental idolatry. And I think recognizing that human dominion is something that is not absolute because we're not God, but also recognizing that it's a real thing. Those, I think, are a good start at some sort of distinctly Christian theological principles to bring to bear on this.
So I want to come in to our listeners. Your book, Just Capitalism, is, in my view, the most insightful work written on the intersection of Christian faith and economics. It's a great read. Brent is perhaps the most insightful theologian that I know and does really the work that we expect theologians to do, which is bring theological principles, theological frameworks to bear on the issues that matter most to human beings and communities. So, Brent, thanks so much for being with us. All the best to you and to the Stead Center. In fact, before we close, you're welcome to do a little promotion for the Stead Center website, if you'd like to do that.
Brent Waters: Well, you can visit the Stead Center. We post original articles, one coming up by Scott Rae, and this can be reached at www.steadcenter.com.
Sean McDowell: And how do you spell that? Give us the spelling.
Brent Waters: S-T-E-A-D is for Stead, there again, it's C-E-N-T-E-R.
Scott Rae: Great. Thanks. That's a terrific resource for a lot of good material on the intersection of Christian faith and ethics and values. So, Brent, again, thanks so much for being with us and we'll look forward to another conversation when your next book comes out.
Brent Waters: Thanks for having me on.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. Think Biblically broadcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our new fully online bachelor's program in Bible theology and apologetics. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation with Dr. Brent Waters, give us a rating on your podcast app and feel free to share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.