CRC Taking Climate Change Seriously

Growing up in Holland, Mich., one becomes accustomed to water fairly early in life. Some of my most powerful childhood memories include water: learning to swim in Grandma’s pool, playing with my siblings on our inner tube in Lake Michigan, running through the sprinkler in our backyard.

Another powerful memory from my childhood includes water too; specifically, the water from Lake Macatawa—or, as all the kids from Holland called it, “Lake Maca-Toilet.” There was something deeply wrong with Lake Macatawa that even young children from the community had picked up on. It was brown and smelly. Everyone’s mother warned them to not so much as touch it, much less eat anything that came out of it.

It wouldn’t be until I got a little older and learned something about biology and ecology that I would understand better what exactly was wrong with Lake Macatawa (astronomical levels of phosphorus from agricultural and residential runoff was creating an ideal breeding ground for bacteria like E. coli and salmonella).

All I knew back then was that there was a vast and plentiful resource that was going to waste--unapproachable for all the mother-fearing children of Holland. Far from being its intended source of joy, delight, and provision, Lake Macatawa was a risk; a threat to be avoided. Even my young mind could comprehend that this was not the way it was supposed to be.

Lake Macatawa is not unique. It is estimated that 42 percent of U.S. streams are in poor biological condition, and 23 percent of Canadian streams are in similarly dire straits. While there are many complicated, interrelated factors that contribute to this reality, one of the most important pieces of the water quality puzzle is watersheds.

If you are like me, you probably have a vague notion of what a watershed is (informed mostly by a 9th grade Earth Science class), an even vaguer notion of why they matter, and no hint of a notion as to which watershed you are sitting in as you read this.

Ignorance about watersheds is surprisingly widespread, but that is a reality that organizations like the Plaster Creek Stewards (PCS) are working hard to change. A collaboration of Calvin College faculty, staff, students, and regional partners working to increase the quality of the Plaster Creek watershed, PCS defines a watershed as simply “an area of land where all the water drains to the same place.”

Since water, wherever it falls, will flow somewhere, every person, building, and institution on earth resides within a watershed--including Calvin College.

In fact, Calvin College, Calvin Theological Seminary, the Christian Reformed Church denominational headquarters, over half of Calvin’s faculty, over 3,000 Calvin alumni, and more than 2,000 CRC households reside within the Plaster Creek watershed.

This realization, coupled with the fact that Plaster Creek is one of the most degraded watersheds in all of Western Michigan, served as the impetus for the formation of PCS. As Gail Heffner, cofounder of the group, put it, “The most Reformed watershed in Michigan should not be the most degraded.”

That’s why PCS is marshaling all of Calvin College’s resources to pursue research, community education, and hands-on restoration of the Plaster Creek watershed. There is plenty of work to do.
Plaster Creek, the watershed’s main tributary and namesake, contains E. coli levels 50 times higher than is safe for even partial body contact--a product of close to a century of unchecked pollution by local residents and industry.
Though discouraging facts like these abound, and though true restoration of Plaster Creek will take decades, PCS remains indefatigable. “I like to think of our work as embodied faithfulness,” says Heffner. “Reconciliation is needed between humans and the nonhuman creation. Our work is about practicing that reconciliation and inviting others to practice it with us.”

In the years since PCS was founded, many such partners in the work of practicing reconciliation within the Plaster Creek watershed have emerged. As of two years ago, one such partner is the CRC denominational headquarters.

Synod 2012 made a prophetic and critical proclamation: “Climate change is occurring; it is very likely due to human activity; it is a moral, ethical, and religious issue; and urgent action is required to address it.” Among its several recommendations to CRC congregations and individual members, the report also directed the denominational building to mitigate its carbon emissions. Perhaps Synod 2012 didn’t know it, but efforts at the denominational building to reduce carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency had already been underway for years.

In 2009, John Bolt, chief financial officer of the CRCNA, was approached by Michigan-based technology giant Johnson Controls with an offer to revamp the denominational building’s entire heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system in order to make it more energy efficient.

If net savings were not seen within the time frame that they guaranteed, they would cut a check for the difference. Three years since the project’s completion, the results are compelling. As of January 2014, the changes made by the denominational building have resulted in a savings of 2,680 metric tons of carbon dioxide--the equivalent of taking 564 cars off the road for one year--totaling $544,000 in recuperated energy costs.

Other efforts that focus on the landscaping of the denominational property are also underway. Partnership with PCS has resulted in large swaths of water and fossil-fuel intensive lawn being replaced with mulched beds and native perennials. Multiple rain gardens have been installed--including one on the very prominent corner of Kalamazoo and 28th Street--further enabling the property’s ability to absorb and trap rainwater rather than letting it run off of the asphalt parking lot into the already polluted Plaster Creek, carrying with it dangerous pollutants and suffocating sediments.

Bolt hopes that these efforts will not only be faithful responses to synod’s instructions but also an encouraging example both to the Grand Rapids community and to the CRC as a whole. After all, “Our number one obligation is to be the best stewards that we can of the resources God has given us,” says Bolt.

Related articles:

Climate Care (by Calvin DeWitt, The Banner)

CRC Statements on Creation Care

Mobile Justice Editorial: Responding Faithfully to the Reality of Climate Change

About the Author

Kyle Schaap is a policy analyst and advocacy fellow at the CRC Office of Social Justice. He lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., and attends First Christian Reformed Church.

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Comments

The implication made by this article that CO2 is a pollutant, by juxtaposing it with the water and air pollution issues of decades ago, is unfortunate.  CO2 is actually an invisible trace gas that plants need to live and thrive.  Each one of us exhales CO2 with every breath, just as plants inhale CO2 and then exhale the oxygen that we in turn inhale.  CO2 is simply not a pollutant by any traditional definition of that word, certainly not something that would make "Lake Macatawa—or, as all the kids from Holland called it, 'Lake Maca-Toilet' ... brown and smelly."

Not so long ago, Al Gore predicted that by the 2014, the Arctic ice cap would be gone because of increased CO2 output.  Nothing close to that has happened.  Rather, after a short swing of reducing, the Artic ice is currently on a swing of expanding.  And there is in fact less of a "northwest passage" than existed in the early 1900's.  If Al Gore and other global warming alarmists were/are correct, that should not be the case.  Nor should global temperatures have been flat for the last 18 years (as they have been).

This article illustrates the problem when theologians and other elders who are not climate scientists insist on making authoritative pronouncements about highly complex scientific issues they know little to nothing about.  While it is true that "Synod 2012 made a prophetic and critical proclamation," the remarkable point is that this body that so prophesied and proclaimed did not include a single climate scientist, let alone one of world class reputation or stature.  Rather, these men and women, half of them with degrees in theology, and only some of them at that, read articles and watched television shows and movies written/made by others (including Al Gore) about climate change, and from that secondary source of information, prophecied.

Global temperatures have been flat now for about 18 years, defying about all the predictions made by pretty much all the experts who believe in global warming alarmism.  Indeed, according to the predictions of nearly all those experts, the human race has already passed the "tipping point," the purported "point of no return" that destines the world to catastrophe.  Still, global temperatures have been flat for 18 years while global CO2 levels have steadily increased?

Cleaning up part of a water shed is certainly good thing to do, but that good lacks any meaningful anology to CO2 reduction.  The same can be said about making efficiency and expense improvements in HVAC systems.  And both of these kinds of improvements (cleaning watersheds and improving HVAC systems) have been happening for decades now, all over the country.  Still, there no meaningful analogies to be made between those things and CO2 reduction.

"It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens. When he utters his voice there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth. He makes lighting for the rain, and brings forth the wind from his storehouses."  (Jeremiah 51:15,16)  "So Samuel called upon the Lord, and the Lord sent thunder and rain that day, and all the people greatly feared the Lord and Samuel." (1 Samuel 12:18) - "Climate change is occurring; its very likely due to human activity; its a moral, ethical, and religious issue; and urgent action is required to address it." (Qoute from above article)

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Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Kyle. This piece serves as a compelling challenge and encouragement to all of us to steward God's resources well.

The denominational building is getting beautiful landscaping, the energy cost savings are amazing, and the rain gardens are preventing toxic runoff from getting into Plaster Creek -- Sounds like a win, win, win to me! God has given us great minds and resources to help protect all the plants and waterways he has entrusted to us. More CRC churches should look to the example of the denominational building. Thanks for filling us in on the happenings of 1700 28th Street, Kyle!

I applaud the CRCNA head office for actions to make their facility more efficient . I also applaud Doug Vande Griend's comments that care should be taken about the church's pronouncements on climate change (preferably they should stick to their area of expertise). Rather than boast about what has been done, which sounds a bit self righteous to me, let's just keep on doing things and encourage research how we can be better stewards. We have enough folks saying "do what I say not what I do" (Al Gore and Co.) Harry Boessenkool

I applaud Doug Vande Griend and Harry Boessenkool for recommending that we listen to experts when discussing climate change, and I applaud the leadership of the CRC for indeed doing so. I also applaud the Banner for showing leadership here. The theologians and elders at Synod in 2012 heard the wisdom of the National Academy of Sciences (as well the national academies of several other countries, the most distinguished scientific bodies in those countries); they also heeded the words of our own experts such as Thomas Ackerman (here's an example: http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2007/PSCF12-07Ackerman.pdf) and Cal DeWitt.

The 10 hottest years in recorded human history have all occurred within the 18 year window stated by Mr. Vande Griend. That window starts in 1998 not because it was the start of a pause in warming but because it was an unusually hot year.

But let me stick to my field, which is chemistry (primarily biochemistry). Carbon dioxide is indeed a pollutant. It would only take concentrations double what we have in our atmosphere to start affecting human health directly; if you breathed into a paper bag, you would soon become dizzy and then pass out long before the oxygen ran out. When CO2 dissolves in water it forms carbonic acid, which acidifies the water; high CO2 concentrations are damaging coral reefs. It's a pollutant in the context of climate because it readily absorbs the energy from sunlight, so more CO2 leads to more energy absorbed (though there are certainly many other factors involved in warming). Calling CO2 a trace gas minimizes the damage that trace gases can do--both carbon monoxide and cyanide are lethal at ~100ppm.

Plants did just fine when the CO2 concentration was in the 280 ppm range as opposed to the 400 ppm now. RuBisCO, the plant enzyme that uses CO2, is perhaps the slowest, least efficient enzyme around, though it performs even worse when the temperature increases (plants like poison ivy and crab grass have a way around this, so warming will help these plants thrive relative to other plants). Few plants find their growth limited by CO2; rather, they are typically limited by nitrogen and phosphorus, which is why those are the components of fertilizer rather than carbon (in fact, Kyle Schaap noted that the ready availability of nitrogen and phosphorus caused the troubles in Lake Macatawa).

God is indeed in control, and we should continue to pray for His creation. But I'm reminded of the wise words of my middle school teacher Mrs. Vredevoogd who warned us that only a foolish man drives his car at 100 mph saying that God will only take him when his time comes. God left us as caretakers--we should use the gifts He gave us to study His creation and respond accordingly, even if this means we have to change the way we do things.

I appreciate the expertise of Calvin DeWit and Thomas Ackerman -- and yours too Eric Arnoys -- but none of you are climatologists, let alone world class climatologists.  And only one of you (Tom Ackerman I believe) were among the 180+ delegates at synod 2012.There are world class climatologists on both (or more accurately on multiple) sides of this issue but none of them testified to a week-long "jury" (that is, synod) composed mostly of those with theology degrees only, who took this horrendously complex subject matter up for no more than a single day.

Morever, this particular jury (that is, synod) had no particular expertise in hearing and evaluating technical testimony (which wasn't given by any world class climatologists in any event) to make a decision about what was true and not true in this relatively new, infinitely complex inter-disciplinary area of science.   As admitted in the climate gate emails, even the most ardent proponents of global warming catastrophe realize we simply don't know at this point what the global energy equation is.  We don't understand what all the inputs and outputs are and we don't know what the planet does to compensate for the constantly shifting variables.  Which is why are alarmist theories rely for their conclusions not merely on the increase of CO2 but rather on the unproven assumption of net positive feedback which is purported to act to substantially multiply the effect of CO2 (and methane, etc) increase.  But most net feedbacks are negative, not positive, and virtually no one claims to know whether the net feedbacks would be positive or negative.  They may anectdotally cite to examples of positive feedbacks, but we have no idea what the total net feedback is.  In short, alarmists, even those who are world class climatologists, assume significant net positive feedbacks, create simulation software that assumes net positive feedbacks, and then run the software to produce predictions.  And there's their biggest problem: their predictions from decades ago are increasingly demonstrating that the real world is simply not acting as they have predicted. 

A cornerstone principal in science is that if you can't predict a result, you don't adequately understand the science, or put in other words, your understanding is wrong.

One of the biggest problems with the entire subject matter of climate change (fka global warming) is that is became badly politicized a very long time ago.  When that happens, it is simply counter-productive for organizations/institutions that have no expertise in the subject matter (like the CRCNA) to jump onto one political bandwagon or another (or another or another).  Doing that converts the scientific inquiry into a political struggle.  That by itself is cause enough for the CRCNA (whether by synod or otherwise) to stay out of the science argument.  Our Church Order Article 26 is another another really good reason to stay out of it.

I'm not saying the CRCNA, including by Synod, should not encourage its members to consider creation as something precious made by God that they should steward.  But it should refrain from morphing into a political body, or a science body for that matter, that purports to be able to discern truths it simply can't for lack of meaningful expertise.

Finally, we should all recall that ice core sampling was at one point thought to provide the "smoking gun" evidence that CO2 increase caused rapid global warming.  After all, the ice core samples show a historical association between increases in global temperature and increases in atmospheric CO2.  Debate over, right?  (I thought so actually).  Well perhaps so, except that when the capability to more precisely discern the ice core samples improved, it was determined that temperature increases preceded (that is, did not follow) the CO2 increases.  This was the wrong cause and effect order (it showed effect and cause, which of course doesn't happen).  But by then, some in the scientific community had bought the "truth" based on prior evidence.  More significantly, Al Gore decided the question needed to be political issue #1, and he made it so.  It's been downhill (the science, that is) since then.  Again, the last thing we need when that happens is "me too" bandwagon jumps from 180+ member synodical bodies who literally possess no substantial expertise as to the questions involved.

Further responding to Eric Arnoys' comment:

First, I should correct what I wrote.  Thomas Ackerman is in fact a climatologist (I lumped him in a statement about two others).  And I typed Church Order Article 26 when my finger should have pressed 28.

Second, the article (PDF) cited in Eric's comment (Thomas Ackerman's article) is in fact quite good -- and illuminating in many ways.  It covers the fundamentals of CO2 warming theory and also (starting at pg 6 in the PDF, printed pg # 255 of the article) discusses feedback loops.  The feedback loops discussed in the article were positive feedback loops.  And while mention was made that negative loops also exist (otherwise, the loop becomes "run-away"), no attempt was made to claim that anyone is confident they know all that needs to be known about feedback loops, positive and negative, nor whether in fact the feedback loops aggregately net out positively or negatively.  Rather, Ackerman's article discusses (see PDF pg 7) computer simulations: "Simulations of climate are made with a global climate model (GCM). A GCM is the best possible mathematical representation of all the processes that affect climate in the atmosphere, ocean, and cryosphere (ice on land and ocean), as well as some of the biological connections."

OK, simulations by GCM aren't a bad thing in and of themselves but computer simulations are no better than the assumptions put into them.  The assumptions put into most GCM's is what the above quote describes as the software user's "... best possible mathematical representation of all the processes ...". But remember, we don't know all those processes.  No matter how fast and powerful the computer, the input of incorrect or incomplete assumptions will render something quite other than an accurate prediction of the real world.

Almost no so-called "climate skeptics" (which is a misnomer) have quarrel with basic CO2 theory.  The argument is about feedbacks because that is the great uncertainty.  And the problem with this great uncertainty is that it may well overwhelm the basic CO2 effect.  If the planet reacts with a certain degree of net negative feedbacks to CO2 increase, the effect of CO2 increase will be insignificant and of no meaningful effect.  If the planet reacts with a certain degree of net positive feedbacks to CO2 increase, the warming will likely be that predicted by the GCM simulations.  But that's where alarmists have trouble.  The real world has not warmed as the GCM simulations predicted.  There is little explanation for that except to suppose: (1) that natural oscillations in the real world climate have masked the CO2 and net positive feedback effects (in which case, the GCMs didn't account for those), or (2) the feedback assumptions provided to the GDM simulations were wrong.

Of course, many alarmists claim #1 is the case (but decline to adequately explain why exactly all those oscillations weren't also input to the GCM simulations), but each year global temperatures fail to rise, that claim is harder and harder to support.  Conversely, each year global temperatures fail to rise, #2 would seem to be true.

And #2 is exactly what many world class climatologists have said is likely the case, that is, that the planet is much more resilient than alarmists give it credit for, that the complex feedback loops probably net out negatively such that increased CO2 is in fact no cause for alarm. 

Certainly, the fact that even a single human being is alive on the planet would change the climate in some respect, but the amount of that change is the critical question.  Billions of people on the planet will also change climate (not to mention a lot of other environmental characteristics of the planet), but acknowledging that doesn't end the inquiry.  Each one of us exhales CO2 and engages in a life that produces CO2.  Should we plan a mass kill-off of humans in order to avoid the possible effects of CO2 production that will occur if there is indeed a significant net positive feedback?  Most alarmists agree that the baseline problem is the existence of too many human beings on the planet.  Ackerman's article is pretty silent on that question (except he seems to belittle the position that we should trust God about the question of "earth's resources and population" by describing that as the "Cock-eyed Optimist" position).  OK, so if that is being a "cock-eyed optimist," then what should we do about the human population.  There is little argument about the fact that human population is ultimately what drives increased CO2 output in the modern era.  And speaking of the effects of human population, it also results in the production of methane (via domesticated cattle production, rice production, and other human activities), a gas that has significantly more atmospheric heat trapping ability than CO2.  To be consistent, shouldn't Ackerman, other alarmists and CRC synods also call for reductions of rice and cattle production?  For that matter, shouldn't they also be calling for a dramatic increase of nuclear energy production (CO2 free)?  James Hanson, the grand-daddy of climate change alarmism, calls for a dramatic increase of nuclear energy production.  And when he does, his otherwise supporters go silent.  There's a reason for that and it is telling.

Finally, Ackerman's article was written in 2007.  Seven years have passed and alarmists GCM predictions have increasingly failed to match what has happened in the real world.  Back in 1988, James Hanson predicted that certain NY City streets would be under water.  The Arctic sea ice was predicted to be gone by now as well.  None of this has happened.  Not only that, but none of these dramatice scenarios have even come close, or have even significantly begun in any meaningful way.  Yes, temperatures are gradually increasing over the decades/centuries, but we are in an ice-age recovery period, geologically speaking (which "skeptics" point out and alarmists ignore), and so that would be normal.  It should be, as Eric Anoys points out, that the "10 hottest years in recorded human history have all occurred within the 18 year window" (and keep in mind that recorded human history is pretty short, especially as to temperature record keeping, and the middle of the 20th century witnessed cooling such that scientists were then warning of a coming ice age).  The bottom line is that clear and specific predictions have been made by alarmists who claim they know (or at least know enough) and each passing year increasingly demonstrates the disparity between their GCM predictions and the real world.

Yes, this is complicated, and yes, this argument has become rather visciously intertwined with global, national, regional and even local politics.  Again, this is just the kind of place where the institutional church, including any CRC synod, should exercise the wisdom of CO Article 28.  I and many other CRC members are not asking that Synod (and the CRCNA) join with those Ackerman's article calls "Cock-eyed Optimists."  We're just asking that Synod (and the CRCNA) stick with doing that which has expertise to do, and leave matters requiring other expertise those to members of the organic church who are inclined and able to take them up.

I appreciate that Doug Vande Griend modified his comment about Thomas Ackerman, the Director of the Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and the Ocean at the University of Washington. ;-)

This is not the place to argue, nor do I indeed to offer a point by point rebuttal. But I humbly request that members of our denomination trust us scientists (especially our scientists) to share with them how science works. I am not asking that you accept our interpretations without question (please, continue to question), but that you give us the benefit of the doubt when you examine our motivation. Most scientists I know enjoy studying creation and are hoping to learn things that will benefit humanity. And we are thoughtful...neither Michael Moore nor George Will has ever raised a question that was truly a "gotcha" to the scientific community.

I appreciate your your disinclination to argue climate change, Eric, but here's the problem: our synod has purported to speak for the entire denomination on this matter (contrary to its own rule in CO Art 28 that constrains assemblies from dealing with other than ecclesiastical matters).  And when synod does something like that, then folks from agencies like OSJ springboard that into more science/politics statements.  After a time, the CRC evolves (even if with semi-geological speed, pun intended) into an institution less church and more political.

If you read my comments carefully, you should see that my greater concern is not with climate change alarmists but with the CRCNA -- via Synod, OSJ people, Hope Equals, exec director or otherwise -- opining (and proclaiming) as to matters not ecclesiatical (again, see the clear constraint of CO Art 28).  I might also be disinclined to argue climate change theory in the context of the Banner's on-line comments, but it is difficult to avoid that (and be a responsible CRC member) when assertions are made that shouldn't have been in the first place.

So do you really think the CRCNA should be taking positions on scientific questions like this

I understand your wanting CRC members to "trust you," but I know of CRCers on staff (scientists) in various CRC affiliated colleges who have very different opinions on this.  And, as you know, John Christy is a brother in Christ who happens to be one of world's preeminent scientists in this specific area and his conclusions are significantly different from Mr. Ackerman's.  Do we disregard or even not trust Christy because he's not a CRC member and Ackerman is?  I'm not at all sure either you or I want to be that parochial.  And then what do we do with other issues that present essentially the same question?  Should all CRC members favor the Senate version of the Agriculture Bill and oppose the House verion because OSJ does and says we should?   Should synod take a position about free markets, about whether the fed should bail out banks that are purportedly "too big to fail," about whether the Tea Partiers or the Occupy Wall Street folks are right or wrong, about whether the federal estate tax threshold limits should be raised or the brackets lowered, and about whether the government should incentivise the construction of nuclear power plants?  Certainly, the institutional church (CRCNA and others) should advocate that its members be mindful of and work for proper creation care, for justice, for care for the poor, but should the institutional church also (necessarily as representative of all CRC members) drill down on these ecclesiastical admonishments and become the policy wonk and scientist itself in behalf of its members (or point to those who supposedly have the right specific answers and say "what he/she says," which is the same as becoming the policy wonk and scientist itself)?

Would you say that synod should pronounce about climate change if its conclusions aligned with the thinking of the Cornwall Alliance or John Christy?

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