Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Follow the Money: Calvin Beisner, ExxonMobil, & Global Warming

ExxonMobil, the world’s largest and richest oil company has been financing a network of think-tanks and events who then trot out a scientist (or other academic) who proceeds to claim either that Global Warming isn’t real or that it exists but may not be caused by humans, may heal itself, etc. This flies in the face of mainstream science such as documented by the National Academy of Sciences or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in which debate over Global Warming long ago left “whether” and “caused by what,” and started focusing on “how fast,” and “what will it take to slow, stop, or limit the damage” questions. But the conservative think-tanks that ExxonMobil funds are large and adept at getting media attention and obscuring the climate change consensus for the public.

Full disclosure: My source for much of this information is Exxonsecrets.org, a project of Greenpeace. Aha! So, the source is suspect–it is just as ideologically motivated as anything funded by ExxonMobil. Believe me, I thought of that. I searched for and found corroboration wherever I could because Greenpeace’s highly confrontational style of activism discredits it in so many eyes. (For further corroboration, see here and here.) But here’s what made me begin to rely on this websource: Every claim made is backed up with documentation (public records), usually ExxonMobil’s own records and the public documents of the think-tanks in question. I checked repeatedly and did not find a single error in fact–and you can too.

Caution: Those concerned for information integrity, as I try to be, have to be clear what the evidence does and does not show. Nothing in Exxonsecrets.org ‘s files shows a direct payment X to scientist or scholar Y with instructions to make claim or statement Z. I cannot find any evidence that particular scholars have been bribed through working for these think-tanks. I cannot claim that particular scholars are “making it up” or lying, etc. They may not even be aware of ExxonMobil’s involvement in some cases and may, in every case, believe in their interpretation of the evidence and their conclusions. We tend to join or support or respond to invitations of organizations whose basic values or perspectives we share. So, the few working scientists and larger number of scholars who are swimming against the tide of the scientific consensus on climate change are not necessarily involved in a conspiracy or cover-up as with those who worked for the tobacco companies clearly were.

This info. does show that ExxonMobil has attempted to skew the necessary national debate. ExxonMobil does have conspiratorial motives: hoping to prevent legislation that would mandate lower carbon emissions or other legislation designed to stop or reverse global warming at the cost of lower short-term profits for ExxonMobil and its fellow oil companies. It’s also clear that the general public, not being able in most cases to judge the scientific evidence personally, should put more confidence in information and perspectives that reflect the mainstream consensus or are from groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists or Environmental Defense who do not have wealthy backing by corporations with a clear profit motive distorting their perspective. It matters who funds research and scholarship because “where your treasure is, there will be your heart also,” as Jesus warned us (Matt. 6:19-21).

Church people are especially vulnerable to being manipulated in this area of climate change politics and need to remember Jesus’ warning to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16). Because SOME environmentalists have been linked to “New Age” or “neopagan” perspectives, many evangelicals begin with a natural suspicion of the environmental movement. Also, many have developed deep loyalties to the Republican Party or to leading figures in the GOP, such as Pres. Bush, because they see them as fellow believers and as being “on their side” in struggles about which they care deeply (e.g., abortion, stem-cell research, prayer in public schools, etc.). Knowing that Bush disbelieves in global warming and is opposed to strong action that would work to correct the problem at the expense of oil company profits (and, possibly, would only work with great lifestyle sacrifices on the part of the U.S. public), they want to be “on his side” as he has been on theirs. This is not an ad hominem attack against conservative Christians, but simply an acknowledgement that our deep loyalties and interests always shape our perspectives. Becoming aware of them and correcting for possible bias is a form of removing logs from our eyes (Matt. 7:1-7).

Therefore, such conservative Christians are especially vulnerable to being led astray by individuals they perceive as “one of their own.” A major example is Calvin Beisner. Beisner is a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), a conservative denomination which broke away from mainstream Presbyterian life during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s. Probably the PCA’s most famous current member is Rev. D. James Kennedy, pastor of the mega-church Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, a TV evangelist and prominent leader of the Religious Right. Beisner is Associate Prof. of Historical Theology and Social Ethics at Knox Theological Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, a PCA school. He is NOT a climate change scientist. His B.A. is in Interdisciplinary Studies in Religion and Philosophy from the University of Southern California; His M.A. is in Economic Ethics from International College and his Ph.D. is in Scottish history from the University of St. Andrews.

Beisner writes often on apologetics and in defense of the idea that Christians should support libertarian economics–being especially enamored of the idea that free markets and political freedom inexorably go together (then how does one explain China?) and produce virtuous individuals. He has also written a major work in environmental ethics, Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate (Eerdmans, 1997) which challenged the theology and social ethics of evangelical environmentalists such as the Evangelical Environmental Network. (Full disclosure: I have been an EEN member since its founding and its Executive Director, Jim Ball, is a friend. So, my loyalties and interests are found in the same perspectives that EEN shares.) Beisner’s book was subsidized by The Acton Institute, a think-tank named for the 19th C. British politician, Lord Acton (“power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”), but the think-tank is dedicated to promoting laissez-faire capitalism. Beisner is an adjunct fellow at the Acton Institute and ExxonMobil is a major funder of the same–to the tune of $160,000 between 1998 and 2005.

In 2000, Beisner helped found the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship, now called the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance and helped draft its manifesto, “The Cornwall Declaration,” which takes aim at the global warming consensus. Again, ExxonMobil is there with money. ISA does not seem to have any direct funding by ExxonMobil, but Beisner and others at ISA are often the keynote speakers at events with ExxonMobil funding.

Beisner is also on the board of scientific advisors (with zero scientific training!) for the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), a free-market policy organization designed to challenge global warming. CFACT has been instrumental in getting the Bush administration to censor or change data on global warming studies done by the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), and NASA, as well as dissuading Bush from attending the UN Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa in 2002. Between fiscal years 1998 and 2005, CFACT has received $472,000 from ExxonMobil.

Calvin Beisner may be a good Scottish historian. He may even be a good apologist for his form of conservative Reformed Christianity. But as a reliable guide to environmental matters, he shouldn’t be trusted. I write not to defame Beisner nor impugn his motives, but in order that church folk who want to care for God’s creation can realize that the threats posed by global warming and human-caused catastrophic climate change are real. We know that carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide are the largest “greenhouse gases” and the largest source of their overabundance in the atmosphere is exhaust from the internal combustion engine–the private automobile. The answers to this threat will involve greater public transportation, alternative fuels, and massive restrictions on the use of oil and coal products. It will not be solved by market forces alone because of the way powerful corporations like ExxonMobil use their influence to distort the market. It will take private and public initiatives and the sooner, the less damage to the planet (which will disproportionately harm the poor) and the less draconian the laws correcting the problem need be.

ExxonMobil is using Christian leaders like Calvin Beisner to lead churches astray and harm God’s Creation. Churches need to trust organizations like the Evangelical Environmental Network, instead. Yes, I am involved, but EEN’s list of partners includes numerous groups with impeccable evangelical credentials such as World Vision, Habitat for Humanity, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, International Bible Society, Youth with a Mission, and the Baptist General Convention of Texas! In addition to EEN, faith-based groups which work on the environment with information integrity, relying on the best science to help care for the earth include: The American Scientific Affiliation (composed of scientists who are Christians as well as theologians interested in science), The Au Sable Institute of environmental Studies, Restoring Eden: Christians for Environmental Stewardship, Target Earth (formerly known as the Christian Environmental Association).

Always follow the money. Check loyalties and interests–one’s own and others.’


August 23, 2006 - Posted by | ecology


  1. Only in America…

    I thought we had alot of white woolley sheep here but there seem to be rather alot of sheepish types over there… Surely just the fact that Bush denies it would suggest …

    Good post, good on you.

    Comment by steph | August 23, 2006

  2. Michael:

    My understanding of the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (and many others like them) is that they would say the best solution for the warming globe is to economically enable developing nations so that they are better positioned to adapt to the changing climate. In light of your research do you find this to be a true characterization?

    If so, did you find anywhere that the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance has put these words into action? Has this group pushed for acceleration of any existing programs to help the developing world? Has this group pushed for any NEW programs to assist the developing world in this direction?

    Or, is this group seem happy with the status quo – seeing the current trajectory for helping the developing world as the correct pacing and seeing any change to whatever direction as incorrect?

    As a daily listener to the Focus Radio Show for about a year now, Dobson has made two or three statements similar to what the ISA puts forth. He’s had one show that featured the leader of Compassion International. Outside of that Dobson’s interest in the developing world is not evident from the show.

    His critisism of NEA VP Richard Cizik’s global warming concerns was clear in that Cizik was offering a distraction for evangelicals from gay sex and abortion issues.

    Comment by mytzpyk | August 24, 2006

  3. Dobson was initially just opposed to EEN and he tried to get Cizik fired for promoting EEN’s climate change concerns at the National Association of Evangelicals. He started supporting ISA as a way to put down EEN. You are right that Dobson has not shown much concern for the developing world. He might have some and just choose to let others carry that ball. My sense is that Dobson especially didn’t want any evangelicals concerned about climate change because he didn’t want to weaken evangelical support of Bush–so as to give Bush no reason not to completely support the Focus’s agenda of banning all abortions, stem cell research, gay marriage, burying the ERA even further, etc.

    Dobson, once considered by evangelicals as just a counselor with some good parenting advice (I disagree with that, but that was the common assessment) is in recent years the most powerful voice of the Religious Right–taking the place once occupied by Falwell, then Robertson, and then Ralph Reed.

    As for ISA, your characterization is correct. They argue that attempts to curb or stop global warming would economically harm the poor of the Global South (as if catastrophic storms, etc. wouldn’t do worse). But their advice on “adapting” reads like a recipe for continued global corporate rape of the Two Thirds World–and very little changes in U.S. policy designed to curb carbon emissions.

    Beisner’s theology (as I found in reading Where Garden Meets Wilderness) is that the rest of the planet is here just for humans to use. “Stewardship” in his view does not entail any responsibilities to the rest of God’s creation, although he does acknoweledge responsibilities to future human generations (thus his argument for “wise use” of natural resources)–it’s just difficult to see how his policy recommendations show that responsibility in action.

    Me, I’m still wondering how a Ph.D. in Scottish history qualifies someone to decide that the prevailing scientific consensus is “junk science,” while the small number of oil-funded scientific skeptics is “sound science.” (For that matter, how does a Ph.D. in Scottish history qualify someone to hold a faculty post in Theology and Ethics? )

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 24, 2006

  4. I mostly agree with you here Michael. I honestly do. I don’t think we should trust Exxon Mobile’s (or any oil company’s) sponsored research on anything that can affect the sale of their product. And I think Calvin Beisner should stay out of the global warming debate and instead worry more about ethics and theology. Though I disagree with your previous statement questioning his ability to teach about those 2 things holding to a degree in Scottish history since it is likely that he had enough inter-disciplinary study to teach such things given that his Ph.D. probably focused on the Scottish Reformation and it’s impact on society, which would at least qualify him to teach theology and possibly ethics were he to stick to theology-based ethics, since the two do intersect, though not nearly enough in our churches.

    And I am interested in hearing more about laisse faire capitalism. It sounds much better than free trade because of free trade’s negative effect on local farmers. I am starting to get into that subject and am worried that conservatives are doing as Ron Dreher suggests in his book Crunchy Cons and actually are betraying true conservative thought in favor of out-of-control corporate-driven capitalism. But enough on that and back to the point.

    I think that the EEN sounds good for the most part, but I do believe we must be wary of throwing full support into concepts that are dependent solely on scientific evidence, which often is two-sided. Now, before you go kicking me and accusing me of being anti-intellectual, let me explain.

    I see what is obviously a global warming. I don’t think we can deny that the temperature of the poles, the average temperatures of many regions of the world, and the temps of the oceans have risen in the last 30 years or so. There is no doubt about that. However, there is doubt about what is causing it and what can be done to fix it or at all avert it and disagreement about whether this is a temporary phenomenon or a permanent irreversable trend that we must avert at all costs.

    And scientists have to decide all of this based on 100-150 years of recorded weather data. That’s it! And even among that data there are some clusters of years that seem to show even more intense weather that anything we have experienced in the past 30 years. Take for instance the summer of 1930, the records of which have not been broken in 70+ years. And those records aren’t close to complete. We only know about a small selection of cities that year. And then take this year’s hurricane season over last year’s – scientists were unanimous about their predictions that it would horrid, almost or maybe even as severe as last season. Some even said worse. Yet, we have only had 2 named storms and many scientists are backing away from their predictions and claiming we might not see even one hurricane now this season.

    My point here is not to try to play scientist. It is to suggest that we don’t have all the data we need to make as educated of a guess as some are saying we do. There is a great deal of hype associated with “global warming” and some of it might be well overstated. We must be honest enough to say that. But the herd mentality is great among scientists and it is rare to find even one who will stick his or her neck out to disagree, fearing retribution, alienation, and de-funding. The scientific community isn’t nearly as objective as many have tried to make it out to be.

    So based on that, my point is this – LET’S CONSERVE. Let’s take care of God’s creation in which we were entrusted. Let’s support restrictions and regulations. Let’s make this an issue. But let’s not do so to the exclusion of more pressing needs like the Gospel being preached to the nations or the call to Lordship in our churches, or even the feeding of the poor and clothing of the naked. My fear – and that of other Evangelicals who are wary of the EEN – is that the organization will mistake what it is doing as equivalent to proclaiming the Gospel or to making disciples of all nations. That is why the SBC said in this year’s annual meeting that they wouldn’t join the EEN, but still called for conservation and for stewardship of God’s creation. And there are millions of conservatives who do it every day without needing another organization to give money to telling them they should.

    Honestly, I think Christians need to bundle conservation and environment issues with stewardship of family and rejection of consumerism and materialism. They all flow together, but are yet distinctly Christian. And that is something I think all Christians can get behind and preach from our pulpits with full assurance of its Biblically relevent content. And all without having to consult with scientists who are just as fallen and depraved as seminary professors.

    Comment by D.R. | August 25, 2006

  5. Briefly, D.R., we mostly agree, but I don’t see any need to choose between mission and earthkeeping. Earthkeeping or creation care was entrusted to all humans in the Beginning. So, it is part of Christian discipleship. And, like all compassionate faithfulness, it provides a silent witness and an opportunity for public witness–one that shows consistency and which opens doors for the gospel rather than giving Christians the reputation of those who do not care for the creation! The gospel is its own stumbling block–we don’t need to create our own!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 25, 2006

  6. Hmmm, interesting stuff.

    I am not informed about global warming at all. I feel like it is a cop-out saying that because I can essentially say that anytime I don’t have a firm philosophical footing on the typical conservative position.

    This is just to contribute to the discussion, but I’ve heard the saying that scientists have a vested interest in predicing global warming because the state tends to fund cautionary science as opposed to “everything is OK” science. Of course, those that say that also want to keep markets as free as possible.

    It is frustrating though because I feel that if I want to be more informed, the subject is so politically loaded.

    Comment by Chance | August 25, 2006

  7. Chance,
    One of the root meanings of “conservative” is “cautious.” If free-market conservatives were really in doubt about the science of global warming, the CONSERVATIVE thing to do would be to stop (as much as one could quickly) dumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere while further investigation goes on–instead of waiting until absolute proof comes too late! After all, we know many other reasons to ban greenhouse gasses than just the fact that they might cause global warming. So, taking action helps no matter what.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 26, 2006

  8. Prudence, in all things, my good friends. Prudence.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | August 28, 2006

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