Communication Regarding Overture 8 to Synod 2019

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The communication below was submitted to the officers of Synod, after consultation with the Executive Director and the Director of Synodical Services of the CRCNA regarding process and timelines. The officers of Synod responded with this communication:

The officers of synod reviewed the communication submitted by Sanctuary CRC, Seattle, Washington, and considered the request to share it with the synod advisory committee addressing Overture 8. The officers have decided that the communication cannot be shared with the advisory committee or synod because it did not follow the adopted process for communications to synod nor was it submitted within the deadline. They also added that the advisory committee has similar material before it that it will be considering.

I am personally extremely disappointed in the lack of transparency regarding the treatment of this communication and the impossibility of following the procedures (as I understand them). In addition, I am disappointed by the fact that the officers of the CRCNA did not request input in a timely fashion from the Taskforce Committee that wrote the report begin discredited in Overture 8. I post this comment here so that it can at least have some exposure after being dismissed by the officers of Synod. (This action is mine alone and should not be associated with the Council of Sanctuary CRC in Seattle.)

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The council of Sanctuary CRC offers this communication in response to Overture 8: Withdraw Assertions by Synod 2012 about Climate Change included in the Agenda for Synod 2019, pages 505-509. This commentary was written by Dr. Thomas Ackerman, a member of Sanctuary CRC and Professor Emeritus, Department of Atmospheric Sciences, the University of Washington. Dr. Ackerman was reporter for the Creation Stewardship Task Force and attended Synod 2012 in that capacity. We send this letter with the full support of our council, and trust that it will be a help to Synod in the discussion of this critical topic.

We had hoped to send this through Classis PNW, but as there was no scheduled meeting between the publication of the Agenda and Synod’s gathering in June, we felt it best to send along this communication from our council to the appropriate committee.

In faith, hope, and love:

Tammie Haulter, President                                                                 

Alex Pulver, Clerk

Sanctuary Christian Reformed Church

sanctuarycrc.org

204 N 85th Greenwood Ave N, Seattle, WA 98103

Communication on Overture 8: Withdraw Assertions by Synod 2012 about Climate Change included in the Agenda for Synod 2019, pages 505-509.

Overture 8 asks Synod 2019 to withdraw two assertions made by Synod 2012 in accepting the Creation Stewardship Task Force. It supplies two grounds for this request:

  • The principal ground is that Statement 3a of the Creation Stewardship Task Force Report adopted by the Synod of 2012 (Acts of Synod 2012, pages 804-05) is no longer valid. Statement 3a, as adopted, reads “It is the current near-consensus of the international scientific community that climate change is occurring and is very likely due to human activity.”
  • The secondary ground is that this issue of climate change is not an ecclesiastical matter and should not be considered by Synod.

This commentary addresses three specific questions regarding the factual ground of Overture 8. The questions and brief answers are summarized here, with more extended discussions following.

  1. Has the consensus on climate change science changed in the past seven years?
    The scientific consensus on the nature and cause of climate change has strengthened in the last seven years and is still agreed to by the very large majority of climate scientists nationally and internationally.
  2. Is the climate change material cited in Overture 8 reliable?
    The material cited in Overture 8 is not drawn from the published, peer-reviewed literature [Endnote 1] of the scientific community and represents the personal beliefs of two individuals, rather than the considered opinion of the climate science community. This material has been extensively rebutted by other scientists, which is the reason it has not been published.
  3. Did Synod 2012 and the Task Force consider whether climate change is an ecclesiastical matter?
    The Task Force and Synod 2012 considered this issue. The conclusion was to recognize the consensus of the climate science community, and then, as an ecclesiastical matter, to consider the church’s response to that consensus in terms of the Biblical call to creation care and social justice.

Both grounds cited in Overture 8 fail to support the requested actions.

Climate change science consensus

The scientific consensus on the occurrence of climate change and the causal impact of human activity has actually strengthened over the past seven years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is charged by the United Nations to produce periodic assessments of what the scientific community knows about global climate change. These reports are produced through the efforts of hundreds of climate scientists from all over the world relying on peer-reviewed literature. They are then thoroughly reviewed by more than a thousand other scientists. The IPCC authors track every single comment received and are required to respond to every single comment; all this material is available to interested parties. The comments are critical and challenging because all the scientists involved in the review process are determined to make the report as accurate as possible. The effort to produce an IPCC document is unprecedented in science and the resulting set of documents truly represents the best assessment of the climate change issue that can be made by the scientific community.

The most recent report, the 5th Assessment Report, published in 2014, states “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia” and “their [anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions] effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century”. [Endnote 2] These statements are similar to the statements in the 4th Assessment Report, published in 2007 and cited by the Task Force, but are more emphatic in asserting the existence of global warming and attributing that warming to human activity.

The United States government is mandated by Congress to release a scientifically authored and peer-reviewed climate assessment for the nation, following a procedure similar to that of the IPCC documents. The Fourth National Climate Assessment, publicly released by the current administration in 2018, provides a detailed look at climate change in the United States and a sobering projection of climate change into the future. It states: “With significant reductions in [anthropogenic greenhouse gas] emissions, global temperature increase could be limited to 3.6°F (2°C) or less compared to preindustrial temperatures. Without significant reductions, annual average global temperatures could increase by 9°F (5°C) or more by the end of this century compared to preindustrial temperatures.” [Endnote 3]

Both of these scientific evaluations, one international in authorship and one national in authorship, provide similar statements that anthropogenic emissions are increasing, climate is warming at an unprecedented rate, the warming is a direct consequence of human emissions, and global temperatures will rise to very harmful levels by mid to late 21st century unless we drastically curtail our emissions. Evidence of warming can be found in many indicators including enhanced melting of sea ice, reduced length of winter as measured by frost-free days, migration of birds and insects, and an increase in the rate of sea level rise. The consensus of climate models run by nations throughout the world is that global warming is due to greenhouse gas increases and that the warming will continue at its current rate or greater unless emissions are reduced substantially. While climate science is indeed complex, the climate science community is clear regarding the causes and trends of global warming.

Material cited in Overture 8

Overture 8 relies on unpublished material from two climate scientists. This material is drawn from testimony before a US House of Representatives Committee hearing on climate change. The material cited in Overture 8 has not been published or reviewed [see Endnote 1]. It has been considered by the climate science community and found to be lacking in credibility [Endnote 4], which is the reason that it remains unpublished. As such, the grounds offered by Overture 8 rise only to the level of personal opinion, not reliable scientific findings.

Overture 8 also raises the argument that science is not consensus driven and that society should be wary of a scientific consensus. Nothing could be further from the truth. The primary objective of scientific research is to arrive at a consensus understanding of physical processes. Upon occasion, new research deviates from or contradicts the current consensus. It is then the work of science to either find the flaws in the new research or modify the existing consensus. The material cited in Overture 8 is not new research, but unpublished complaints about existing science. Without review and publication, it simply should not be taken seriously.

Climate change as an ecclesiastical matter

The Creation Stewardship Task Force Report does not take its own position on climate change science, precisely because the Task Force members collectively were not experts in climate science. The Task Force Report accepts the consensus opinion of the climate science community and then asks, “what is the appropriate response of the church to this major problem?” In Statement 3a, Synod 2012 adopted the thought process and the language of the Task Force. Synod 2012 did not speak on the issue of climate science, but merely accepted the clear consensus of the science community and then spoke to the need of the church to respond in faith, hope, and love. More erratic weather is already impacting fresh water availability, increasing extreme weather events, and driving millions of people around the world into food insecurity. Ample empirical and anecdotal evidence from World Renew and other relief and development agencies show that climate impacts are already reversing the economic gains of previous decades. If left unchecked, rising global temperatures over the next decades will have deleterious effects on crop yields due to water stress and growth of pests, the habitability of low lying land areas such as river deltas and atolls due to sea level rise, the productivity of ocean ecosystems due to ocean acidification, and death and destruction of humans and other species due to severe weather.

Synod’s own prior commitments to ending hunger (And He Had Compassion on Them, 1978) and addressing the root causes of global poverty (For My Neighbor’s Good, 1979) are consistent with Synod 2012’s assessment that the effects of human-induced climate change are matters not only of creation care, but also of social justice—both of which are addressed at length in the Bible. As such, they are certainly ecclesiastical matters.

Endnotes

  1. Articles published in scientific journals are first submitted to a journal editor. The editor sends the submitted manuscript typically to three other scientists who are experts in the scientific field of the article. These scientists provide reviews of the article to the editor recommending whether the manuscript should be published and what changes are required if it is to be published. These reviews are returned anonymously to the author(s) along with the editor’s decision on publication or not. Published, peer-reviewed literature is of a much higher standard than opinion pieces because it has been vetted by reviews by peers and an editorial evaluation.
  2. These statements are from the Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers, available for download at https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/syr/ (accessed April 2019). The IPCC summary contains a much more detailed discussion of these statements.
  3. Fourth National Climate Assessment, Chapter 2 (Katharine Hayhoe, lead author), available at https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/chapter/2/, accessed April 2019.
  4. For example, Dr. Gavin Schmidt, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has provided a detailed assessment of the shortcomings of Dr. Christy’s graph presented as Figure 1 in Overture 8. (http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2016/05/comparing-models-to-the-satellite-datasets/)
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This article claims "The Creation Stewardship Task Force Report does not take its own position on climate change science, precisely because the Task Force members collectively were not experts in climate science."

I disagree with this claim.  The report and Synod's actions based on the report do indeed take positions as to questions of climate change science, as well as about statistical analysis and polling (what scientists believe what), and chooses among the various positions highly qualified climate scientists hold to boot.

Synod 2012 said:

    "...  climate change poses a significant threat to future generations, the poor, and the vulnerable"
    "... climate change poses a significant challenge to us all"

The above statements cannot be made without presupposing (taking positions as to) conclusions about climate change science.  To assert the above but deny taking a position on climate change science is a baffling proposition that makes no sense.

Synod 2012 also said:

    "It is the current near-consensus of the international scientific community that climate change is occurring and is very likely due to human activity"

The above is also a scientific statement, even if the fields of science relate not to climate change but polling and statistics.  I disagreed then and disagree now that there is a near consensus of the international scientific community about climate change.  The Task Force and Synod simply assumed it did. 

And to say, "... and is very likely due to human activity" is a statement that on it face lacks scientific seriousness.  Are we to believe that only humans constitute 100% of the activity that creates climate change?  Of course not--no one believes that.  So what does the statement mean?  Good question--lacking any good answer, but a political point was made despite the scientific ambiguity of what was said.

The fact is, all climate change questions have been deeply enmeshed with political questions, such that real scientific answers are hard to come by.  These days, even honest scientific answers are hard to come by.  Such is the reality, even within the scientific community, when questions become highly politicized, and there are few if any sets of scientific questions (plural) today that have become more politicized than those involving climate change.

Both the Task Force and Synod intentionally accepted and adopted answers provided by some highly qualified climate scientists and rejected the answers provided by other highly qualified climate scientists.  In fact, almost all of answers by all climate scientists result in part (how much is not known) from conjecture, from making assumptions and projecting off those assumptions.  All climate computer model use assumptions in their algorithms and project/predict based in significant (perhaps critical?) part on those assumptions.  Even the IPCC makes its claims in the form of "degrees of certainty," which by definition means it acknowledges and has concluded that answers given about climate change are based in part on assumptions made, that is, on conjecture.

I'm not suggesting these aren't important questions, nor that climate change questions don't involve moral or ethical concerns.  The questions are important and do involve moral and ethical concerns.  But there are millions of questions (involving human actions or human responses to circumstances) that are important and all of them involve morality and ethics.  Should legal systems use "code pleading" or "notice pleading?" That's an important question in my world, law, about which I have a strong opinion and it too involves morality, ethics--and justice even?  Whatever the right answer is to this question, my church (the CRCNA) should not "take a stand" one way or another. 

CRC members should be allowed to decide for themselves on all sorts of questions, scientific, political and otherwise, that involve morality and ethics.  Should "we" pursue nuclear fission power production or put our bet on nuclear fusion production?  Should "we" ban GMO foods or allow them?  Should "we" build a high speed rail transportation system in California?  Should "we" try to establish a human colony on Mars?  Should "we" restrict the number of satellites in orbit to avoid space becoming a junk yard?  Should "we" regulate the internet more than is currently done?  Should "we" have a single-payor healthcare system in the US?  Should "we" break up Amazon, Facebook and Google under the Clayton Antitrust Act?  Should "we" stand in solidarity with the citizens of Hong Kong who as I type are marching in mass to resist a proposed law that would allow China to extradite people from Hong Kong to China?  Should "we" impeach Donald Trump?  Should "we" become a "democratic socialist" country, ala Bernie Sanders?  Should "we" support the Venezualan people in their current attempt to overthrown their dictator who refuses to leave?  Should "we" have an independent Federal Reserve System?  Should US public school be mandated to teach Spanish?  Should "we" have an open border?

I could go on of course, with not hundreds but thousands -- even millions -- of other questions on which the CRC could "take a position on" as to issues clearly not ecclesiastical but yet "important" (even very important) and that clearly involve moral and ethical concerns.

We need to be more honest about resisting the temptation to make the denomination our megaphone for our personal positions on ALL of these questions and the millions more the CRC could take up.  One overture to Synod 2019 wants the CRC to take a stand against Israeli injustice to the Palestinians, a set of questions not as complicated as climate change perhaps but also far more complicated than the overture authors are willing to admit, and also clearly not ecclesiastical.

Let's start being more honest here.  Let's abandon our political ways.  The institutional church has enough work to do (and disagree about) without taking on questions that are not ecclesiastical.  To be clear, the organic church should take on literally everything, politics included (hey, I've done law and politics for my entire adult life), but the institutional (CRC) church should NOT, and it long ago recognized that it shouldn't in creating Article 28 of its Church Order.  Let's choose the wiser path.

Well, here we go again, Doug. I was sorely tempted to sigh and ignore this response, because we have had exchanges before. However, for those that may have missed them, I am going to reiterate some of the points I have made before.

  1.  "It is the current near-consensus of the international scientific community that climate change is occurring and is very likely due to human activity". “The above is also a scientific statement, even if the fields of science relate not to climate change but polling and statistics.  I disagreed then and disagree now that there is a near consensus of the international scientific community about climate change.  The Task Force and Synod simply assumed it did.”
    Response: this statement is arrogant and condescending. You can disagree all you want. You can also disagree that the earth is round, that humans walked on the moon, that smoking is very likely to cause lung cancer, etc., but that does not make it so. The statement in italics is factual, not political. The statement I posted provides references to the IPCC reports and the US Report on Impacts. If you want more references on consensus, including statements by the national and international community, I refer you to https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/ and the references therein. We, the Task Force did not “assume” this. We looked at the relevant published information and this is what it says. Let me state it very simply for you. Less than 1-2% of the climate science community hold any view other than the one in italics. If you have any credible references to challenge this, please feel free to cite them. But your personal disagreement with the statement, in the absence of any references, is irrelevant.
  2. “And to say, "... and is very likely due to human activity" is a statement that on its face lacks scientific seriousness.”
    Response: Really? What is the basis for your denigrating comment? This statement is a DIRECT quote from the latest IPCC report. The scientists who wrote that report would be shocked to hear that they lack seriousness. Had you bothered to even read the IPCC summary (let alone the report), you would find that “very likely” is DEFINED to be a probability higher than 95%. So “very likely” doesn’t mean 100% (and no one said that it did – way to raise a straw man!). The statement means exactly what it says, at the 95% level of probability.
  3. “Both the Task Force and Synod intentionally accepted and adopted answers provided by some highly qualified climate scientists and rejected the answers provided by other highly qualified climate scientists.”
    Response: Another blatant attempt to promote a false dichotomy. We took NO statements from individual scientists, pro or con, but instead relied on peer-reviewed scientific reports. As I have stated earlier, the vast preponderance of these reports are consistent in their conclusions. In fact, I know of none that take the position being espoused by you.

I see no point in engaging over a set of questions purposely chosen to be argumentative. (I am sure we could have an interesting argument about the moral imperative of high-speed rail.) It appears that Synod may charge the Council of Delegates with determining what the Church means by “ecclesiastical” and to what extent that includes issues of justice, which I think is a good idea. It is my opinion that if the church ceases to speak on critical issues of social justice, then the church has lost its salt and light. Is climate change a critical issue? Well, we are on a path to a much warmer world, with corresponding changes in fresh water availability, food availability, and weather extremes. People will die, ecosystems will be decimated, and entire population groups will be displaced. These are the conclusions of the climate impacts community. You are of course entitled to your opinion, but I think this is a critical issue of social justice.

Community Builder

Tom: If these facts are so, so clear and indisputable, we certainly don't need Synod to tell reiterate the clear and indisputable facts.

Readers can make up their own minds about whether they think the institutional CRC should be the arbitrators about this facts for all its members, but I do have a question for you though: where does this stop?  About what questions that I listed and the thousands more beyond that, all of which involve moral and ethical issues, should the institutional CRC refuse to be the arbitrators for all its members? 

It seems to me you make no distinction between the institutional CRC and the organic church.  I think that's our baseline difference.

Community Builder

What synod approved regarding the way the church wants to change the MS process will bring to the fore what people in the pew feel about the ministries they want to support. So the in `pledge` (whatever that really means) my congregation may state that they do not support any funds for OSJ or the Canadian equivalent. We might suggest cutting air travel and reduce the pledge for Synodical expenses.  I think the leadership has punted the membership and financial issues down to Classis and the churches and hope and pray the problem will be resolved.

Doug,

Perhaps you are following along with Synod, but two things of note per The Banner:

1. "Only 2 speakers - one for, one against. #crcsynod voted - and the motion carried. Synod 2019 did NOT accede to overture 8. Synod 2012's assertions on climate change stands."

2. "The key consideration is to fully answer: “What is an ecclesiastical matter and what is the rationale for determining it?", re: Church Order article 28 #crcsynod"   "Now #crcsynod discussing about the Adv Comm's recommendation to instruct the Council of Delegates to clarify "ecclesiastical matters"."    "#crcsynod votes YES to adopt the Adv Comm motion, instructing the COD to research & define rationale for making those decisions in dealing with political/justice matters, & report back to synod 2020."

 

 

Eric,

To be clear, this is what happens when issues get delayed to the last session of Synod. There is no time for discussion because there is a hard deadline to finish. If you listened to the words of the president at the beginning of that last session, you heard him tell the delegates that he didn't want any discussion. (Well, it wasn't stated quite that bluntly, but it was clear.)

Tom 

Hi Tom,

I wasn't reading too much into it beyond passing on what was reported, but I do agree with you that when things get compressed, time for serious engagement evaporates.  Synod can be a bugger that way.  I do think that part of the reason that this particular advisory committee may have been late to report was the complexity of the multiple issues assigned to them.  Whatever the reason, I think we all desire robust consideration.  It's kind of like the last agenda item of a long Consistory meeting - some things tend to get short shrifted.  Be well, Tom.

 

Eric,

I wasn't reading anything into your comment, either, just making an observation. And maybe some small irritation about the timing and discussion. 

Thanks for the well wishes and the same to you. 

tom