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.’
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