Climate Warming in the Light of an Ethic of Responsibility: Full Article

Although there is unanimity about the warming of the climate, there are still people who deny that it is humanmade, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. The situation is very serious inasmuch as tipping points seem close, including the thawing of permafrost in Siberia and Canada and large land-based icesheets in Greenland and the Antarctic. The goal of limiting warming to 1.5 C or 2.0 C since 1780 appears optimistic.


Although there is unanimity about the warming of the climate, there are still people who deny that it is humanmade, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. The situation is very serious inasmuch as tipping points seem close, including the thawing of permafrost in Siberia and Canada and large land-based icesheets in Greenland and the Antarctic. The goal of limiting warming to 1.5 C or 2.0 C since 1780 appears optimistic.

The impasse has its roots in the Western ethos of a technological world picture or technicism, meaning that what can be made scientifically and technically should be made, regardless of consequences. It can be said that such actions amount to attempts to develop a counter-creation. This ethos can be changed only through repentance and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. A way towards this, open to all people, is an ethics of responsibility, of caring for the life of all creatures, present and future generations. It entails an appreciation of the goodness of God’s creation, a theme of Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’. A checklist is provided to allow policies and practices to be assessed as to their compatibility with an ethics of responsibility.


In 1988 the United Nations set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Since then, the IPCC has been publishing the findings of scientists from around the world about climate change. From the start there was no doubt that the climate was warming. The initial reports did not state with close to 100 percent certainty that humankind was causing it. 

The 2007 report, however, based on six years of study by 2,500 scientists from 130 countries, had no doubts in this respect, calling it unequivocal. This report, the largest prepared until that time, analysed 29,000 series of data, reported by 75 major studies. The authors increased all prognoses contained in preceding issues. The authors of this report, including New Zealand scientists Dave Lowe and James Renwick, received the Nobel Peace prize.

Despite such unanimity amongst leading scientists, there are still many people, including clergy, who do not believe that climate warming is humanmade. 

This paper summarises, first, the current situation, including evidence in favour of human-made climate warming. 

Second, it seeks the cause of climate warming in our Western ethos, which has reduced reality to a mechanical or technical world picture, with a technical imperative: what can be made should be made. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe even intimated that such action involves an attempt to develop an improved version of the creation. 

Third, it seeks a way towards a different ethos, based on an ethics of responsibility, which is consonant with both Pope Francis’s 2015 Encyclical Laudato Si’ and the stance of the Lutheran World Federation. The ethics of responsibility may be given practical shape in the form of a framework of analysis and a corresponding checklist to ascertain whether current and proposed practices increase, stabilise or reduce greenhouse gas emissions.   

The paper ends with a conclusion and outlook. The latter should involve a call to repentance and faith in Christ, who has promised to be with us till the end of the age (Matth. 28:20b). Our actions should reflect the love of God for all creatures, present and future. 


Although for many it seems obvious that the climate has been warming, even that humans are to blame, it is important to be aware how scientists have been trying to establish the truth of the matter. 

2.1 Climate warming (CW) is humanmade

In 1958 Dr Charles David Keeling started a regular analysis of air samples taken on top of Mauna Loa (over 4,000 meters high) on the Big Island of Hawaii, by means of gas analysers adapted from those used in coalmines. A sample of air is split into one million parts, enabling CO2 to be counted. The first count, taken in 1958, was 313 ppm. It has increased year after year (set out on the so-called Keeling curve). The rate of increase has been accelerating. It is still rising year after year. At present, it stands at around 413 ppm. (Raynaud, 2021:24-26).

In 1970 Dave Lowe, a New Zealand scientist, trained by Dr Keeling, started measurements at Baring Head (close to Wellington). They corroborated those from Mauna Loa. In 1975 Lowe studied isotopic techniques, which he describes as similar to DNA tracing for gas particles. Naturally occurring carbon dioxide is made up primarily of Carbon-12 and a very small volume of Carbon-13. However, in crude oil and coal there is slightly less Carbon-13 than in atmospheric CO2. Over time, the measurements showed that the percentage of Carbon-13 isotopes was falling. This was what Lowe called the smoking gun, unequivocal evidence that the extra CO2 came from the burning of coal and oil (Lowe, 2019: C1). Another scientist, Eduard Suess, had come to the same conclusion, given that the percentages of both Carbon-13 and Carbon-14 in the atmosphere have been falling and that crude oil and coal contain little Carbon-13 and no Carbon-14. This has become known as the “Suess-effect” (Schmitt, 2019).  

Keeling and Lowe were not the only scientists during the 1970s who became convinced that humans caused CW. Klaus Hasselmann (2021:35) demonstrated by means of a complex climate model that CW was humanmade, with a probability of 95 percent. 

However, the rising level of CO2 was not immediately reflected in higher temperatures around the world. They started rising during the 1990s.

2.2 A tale of two curves

Raynaud (2021:24-26) reports that during the 1960s glaciologists attempted to extract and analyse ice cores from the very thick ice sheets, some close to 4km deep, in the Antarctic and Greenland. It proved to be a formidable technical challenge. Next, they needed to date and analyse them. They wanted to test a hypothesis of the Swede Svante Arrhenius, formulated in 1896, that CO2 had played a role in the cycle of ice ages.   

Their findings were graphed, starting at 800,000 years prior to 1950. One line shows how the temperature in the Antarctic (at Vostok research station) changed relative to the average temperature of 1950. The other one indicates the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in ppm over the same period. There is a striking correlation between the two lines. In other words, the higher the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, the higher its temperature.

The record of fossilised air, as measured at Vostok, shows that it has never been as high as 413 ppm during the whole current Quaternary (2.6 million years). 

The publication of these results in 1987 led to the establishment of the IPCC. Its most recent reports (2018,2021) have been the most alarming, thereby sparking protest movements around the world, especially by young people (such as Greta Thunberg), who want decisive action. 

2.3 Political Bias Unlikely

At present 195 countries are members of the IPCC and participate in its work, Group 1 aims to understand how the climate works and why it changes. Group 2 traces potential repercussions of climate change and Group 3 seeks to elaborate strategies.

Never have so many scientists assisted so many nations to find a solution to a problem from which nobody can escape. One of the scientists involved, Dominique Raynaud (emeritus director of research of the National Centre of Scientific Research, Institute of Geosciences of the Environment, University of Grenoble-Alpes) dismisses the view that the exposure of scientists to politics might have interfered with their independence (Raynaud, 2021:24-26). How could the 259 climate scientists who participated in the Group 1 report of the IPCC in 2013 all have become guilty of connivence with politicians, given that around 50,000 commentaries were prepared by experts in a wide range of fields, to which the authors were obliged to respond?

2.4 COP26

The International Conference held in November 2021 in Glasgow was to take stock of how the world has been tracking since the Paris Agreement of 2015, especially whether pledges made then have been honoured, so that CW might be limited to 1.5C, since around 1780, or at most to 2.0C. There was plenty of goodwill, so that pledges were renewed and a new one, to phase down the use of coal, was agreed upon. Meanwhile, however, the extraction and burning of fossil fuels continues, especially by the world’s major users: the USA, India and China. Since 1990, the USA’s usage has remained constant, whereas India and China have raised theirs fourfold, in part because smoke-stack industries have been re-located from the Northern hemisphere.

2.5 The dynamics of CW

The scope of the problem is huge, affecting the whole world. Without a major speedy reduction in the emissions of greenhouse gas emissions, which would require a massive change in the generation and use of energy, and in patterns of production, consumption, transport, etc. it will be increasingly difficult to avoid the adverse effects of extreme weather events, and rising sea levels. The following table of the annual global emission and absorption of carbon dioxide emissions during the 2010-2019 period gives an indication of the problem (Durand, 2021: 14,15).

Table 1

Annual volume of carbon dioxide emissions and absorption during the period 2010-2019 in gigatonnes

 CO2 EmittedCO2 Absorbed
Fossil Fuels, industry, agric. 33.8 
Change soil surface (fire, deforestation, peat bogs destroyed, etc)   5.8 
Oceans, seas  9.0
Land, plants 12.2
Atmosphere 18.4
Total 39.6

It should be noted that the melting of the permafrost in Siberia and Canada, now underway, could potentially release a huge amount of both carbon dioxide and methane. Siberia alone holds an estimated quantity of between 1,300 to 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon. In the table above this would raise the annual level of emissions from land and plans significantly (Zeit für Klima, 2021).

Durand (2021:14) quotes from a study by the Group of Experts on the evolution of the climate that the frequency of extreme heatwaves has increased already from 1 every fifty years in the period 1850-1900 to 4.8 times at present, with the climate warming 1.1C, whilst the average intensity of such events has risen 1.2C. Should the climate warm by 2C, extreme heat events would occur 13.9 times in fifty years, with their intensity rising 2.7C.

2.6 Slow change

Yet, those concerned about the threats posed by an acceleration of climate warming, are baffled by the lack of decisive action to stop and to reverse it. Greta Thunberg put this recently in a speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations as: blah, blah, blah. 

Indeed, meaningful action requires a major change in our Western way of life, which nobody is happy to undertake in a hurry, partly because it would be very costly, and, partly, because it threatens the investments and profits of major producers of coal, oil and gas as well as those of producers whose equipment is constructed so as to burn those fuels.

Switching to a style of living which requires much less energy is difficult, especially because it involves a basic change in the ethos of our Western culture, which has developed over a long period, at least from the 15th to the 19th centuries. This ethos forms a deep layer in our culture so that it expresses itself in capitalism as well as in socialism and neo-liberalism.


This section seeks to place the issue of CW, within the context of our Western ethos of seeking to control and exploit the natural world by means of science and science applied in technology, to advance our material welfare, regardless of any potential adverse consequences for people or the environment.

3.1 Three levers 

The deep-seated Western ethos appears to be composed of three inter-related elements:

  1. Science,
  2. Technology,
  3. Economics.

These elements relate to the basic human functions of analysing (drawing distinctions), forming and being economical with what is given. They occur alongside and in relation to other human functions such as aesthetical, lingual, social, jural and ethical. By selecting three as more important than others, then, these other ones are devalued to servant roles. 

The three selected as rulers become, in combination, a mighty lever to force the kingdoms of inorganic things, plants and animals along with human labour to produce ever greater material prosperity and freedom (progress). Science is applied in technics to become technology. In turn, technology forms the basis for new, more efficient business, in all sectors of individual life and society, whatever makes money. Profits are invested in new scientific-technological ventures. If the natural world ‘protests’ by inflicting harm on the human world, then, our first inclination is to ask: how can we tackle this by means of new science and technology? 

If we, like Archimedas, want to use this lever to control the whole of reality, then, we will distort it, and we will be confronted with undesirable effects sooner or later.   

The roots of this approach can be traced back at least to the time of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, to thinkers such as Galilei, Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Newton, Adam Smith, Kant. The fascination with science, however, stretches much farther back in time, to the early Greek philosophers about 2,500 years ago. 

Since the steam engine was invented and perfected in the 18th century, we expect technology to work as automatically and as fast as possible. Acceleration is a key word as shown by Rosa (2005) and Virilio (2010, 2012). The combination of mechanisation and acceleration has increased the demand for energy inexorably. Easily accessible fossil fuels have been the main providers. CW has been the result. 

3.2 Goethe’s foreboding

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was not only a great poet, but also a scientist and a minister of economic affairs at the Court of Weimar. He had read the economic literature of his time. As he experienced the beginning of the industrial revolution, he became concerned about the direction of Western culture. His didactic poem ‘Faust’ expresses his foreboding. Bingswanger (2005) argues that Part II analyses the emerging market economy as a form of alchemy, a search for artificial gold which quickly turns into an addiction. 

Alchemists tried to transform a perishable product (lead) into an imperishable one, gold, within the space of a few weeks, rather than the eons taken by natural processes. They sought to triumph over time. They assumed that the creation was imperfect. In addition, they strove to gain spiritual gold, an elixir which heals all diseases and guarantees eternal youth. 

Paper money (credit) is imperishable in the sense that it can be used without suffering decay. It can be multiplied as required. Binswanger makes the point that paper money, officially issued (signed by the Emperor in Faust II) and generally accepted, would convert the hidden illiquid gold (and other mineral wealth) into liquid stuff (money in circulation). By investing money in technical-economic enterprises, property and wealth would expand continuously.

Asked what this is all about Faust says:

I want to rule and to possess: what need have I of fame? What matters but the deed? (10188-10189).

This statement echoed what Faust said in Part I at the time of Easter when he read St John, Chapter 1:

‘In the beginning was the Word’: why, now I’m stuck already! I must change that; how? (1224).

The spirit speaks! I see how it must read; And boldly write: ‘In the beginning was the Deed! (1236).

Bingswanger (2005:55) comments appropriately: ‘Hereby he states expressly that the modern economy is a continuation of the process of creation’. And: ‘This act of creation fascinates enormously. It is the fascination of what can be endlessly increased, eternal progress, so that the economy obtains a transcendent character of overstepping boundaries, which people used to search for in religion’ (2005:55,56, my trans.). 

Mephistopheles, who represents the Devil, succeeds by enabling Faust to realise his dream of technical-economic progress by means of artificial gold (money). Faust is allowed to reclaim a large area of land from the sea for a colonisation project. Useless land is turned into a basis for a productive economy, with canals, shipyards, fleets that trade around the world and allow monetary capital (the stone of the wise) to grow endlessly. The modern economy keeps growing by the input of energy, the multiplication of labour, invention and technical progress (Binswanger, 2005:44). Nature is turned into property. It is a creation out of nothing.

The first law of thermodynamics (conservation of energy) is put aside, as economic success is measured in money terms. Money originates in human’s thinking, but it allows the world to grow. However, it is a different matter for the second law of thermodynamics: disorder (entropy), in the sense of qualities, increases, unless there is a steady influx of new energy. Normally the sun provides this, but in the modern world it is insufficient to halt the increase of entropy. Hence, environmental problems arise and become ever more severe. Goethe lists three such problem areas: a) a loss of beauty; b) increasing risks and uncertainty associated with technical progress; and c) a growing inability to enjoy the wealth produced (Bingswanger, 2005: 44-63).   

A few quotes from ‘Faust II’ may underline its significance as a pointer to our modern ethos.  

At the start of Carnaval, the Emperor is worried about the state lacking the money needed to service debts incurred. He asks Mephistopheles, who has taken the place of a fool, what ‘gloom he can shed?’ He sees only light, of course, including:

Do we not all lack something, of one sort or another? Here it’s money that’s run short. It does not grow on trees, that’s true, I fear; But from the depths wisdom can bring it here. There is gold in the earth, coined and uncoined. Hoards hidden under walls, rocks precious-veined: This treasure’s for the wise man to collect, by nature’s power and human intellect (Goethe, 1832/1994: 4890).

In the conversation that ensues, the Chancellor observes that the reliance on Nature and Intellect is ‘a dangerous heresy to Christian ears’ (4900). He was close to the truth.

Faust is not hindered by such ‘heresy’. When he considers the working of the tides, he calls it a waste of energy:

I watch dismayed, almost despairingly, This useless elemental energy! And so my spirit dares new wings to span: This I would fight, and conquer if I can (10218-10221).      

At once my plan was made! My soul shall boast an exquisite achievement: from our coast I’ll ban the lordly sea, I’ll curb its force, I’ll set new limits to that watery plain. And drive it back into itself again. I’ve worked out every detail, and I say: This is my will, now dare to find a way! (10227-10233).

Indeed, a large polder is constructed, complete with canals, shipyards, and factories such that international trade can enrich the owners, albeit at the expense of the lives of simple folk: Philemon and Baucis. Although Faust had planned to resettle them his rogue assistants put fire to their abode. The enterprise required a great deal of energy.

Summing up, Goethe has pinpointed the modern ethos in our efforts to improve the creation, to make a counter-creation by means of science, technics and economics. He has also indicated the problems such endeavour would call forth.

3.3 A mechanical world picture (also known as machinism; technicism)

Lewis Mumford (1970: 164-169) has traced the origin of the modern ethos to Galileo Galilei, who believed nature to be a mechanical material product, a book written in mathematical equations. Inspired by this mechanical world picture, Western elites have deployed technology to establish and maintain a Pentagon of Power: power, property, profit, productivity, publicity or prestige. 

Mumford’s approach is very close to what Egbert Schuurman (1998/2003) calls technicism, using science as a means of developing technology. The way science is, legitimately, done, is projected into the way we design new technology. First, one abstracts one field of research, usually one human function, and analyses it. This is done by ignoring the concrete, unique features of a given phenomenon and focussing, second, on what is universal. Third, one asks which laws apply to this reality. The fourth abstraction is that scientists disregard their own and other people’s interests (Schuurman, 1998/2003: 96,97). The latter is difficult when business corporations are funding the research. 

In a historic overview, Mumford shows that the development of technology has led to a growing inequality between rich and poor (1970: 321). Those at the bottom of the ladder have been used as menial servants to provide cheap labour. After social improvements in the late 19th and 20th centuries, mass production plants have been moved to so-called ‘developing countries’, where workers are paid low wages for labouring in often atrocious circumstances, as documented by Klein (2001). New Zealand has come to rely on cheap labour from the Pacific for harvesting export produce. 

Free trade between countries, with free movements of goods, services and people, pursued since the end of World War II, has led to an elaborate global system of ‘just-in-time’ production, meaning that one can dispense with holding stocks. Parts of goods may be produced in a variety of countries, depending on costs. It takes little, a virus perhaps, to upset this ‘mechanism’, leading to shortages in supermarkets.   

There is no area of life that is not affected by mechanisation and automation. We drive cars, travel by planes for business and holidays. For work and leisure, we depend on a large array of gadgets that run on power. 

Naomi Klein identifies a disconnect between the establishment of IPCC in 1988 and the globalisation of the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, the USA and Mexico was signed in 1988, and the World Trade Organisation set up in 1994:

how market fundamentalism has, from the very first moments, systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change, a threat that came knocking just as this ideology was reaching its zenith (Klein, 2014: 19). 

Extensive trading patterns require transport, and hence, energy, in addition to production and consumption.  

3.4 Energy

Lewis and Maslin (2018) have documented our extraordinary demand for energy in the following table, which c0mpares energy use per capita for five modes of living since the Holocene, as follows:

Table 2

Use of Energy

Hunter-gathering  300 Watts
Agricultural2000 Watts
Mercantile capitalism2200 Watts
Industrial capitalism4000 Watts
Consumer capitalism8000 Watts

It should be noted that the average American uses 10,000 Watts rather than 8,000, or 160 light bulbs. The world as a whole consumes 280 billion of lightbulbs p.a. or 17 trillion Watts (Lewis/Maslin: 235).  

3.5 Coal, tar and crude oil 

From the Middle Ages until the end of the 18th century the use of energy rose steadily. With the invention of the steam engine, a technical operator able to work without human hands, the demand for energy began to accelerate. Coal, available in large quantities, initially in countries such as England and Germany, and later in Poland, USA, South Africa, Australia, provided most of the energy until at least the middle of the 19th century, when oil became an important source of energy.

Coal and oil, being easily combustible, provide not only energy, but are also bearers of many useful properties, which form the basis of many products. 

In 1834 Friedlieb F. Runge, a chemist, discovered that aniline contained in coal-tar could be used to produce paints (tar-paints). In 1856 the English chemist William H. Perkin discovered how to make mauve, a purple aniline dye. In 1857 he began to manufacture it, along with other synthetic dyes. These new tar-paints became very popular. Soon organic chemistry became the basis of oil-based industries in Germany, Switzerland, England and the USA, many of which still exist today. By means of this very cheap raw material, the new industry made enormous profits, which made them also politically highly influential. 

During the 1880s it was found that many aniline dyes killed bacteria, whilst other micro-organisms could be used to combat infectious diseases. 

However, the industry took off in a big way when natural resins and scents could be replaced by synthetic polymers.

Chemical industries are fed basic foodstuffs and by means of the input of a variety of chemicals and energy (coal, oil, natural gas), a gamut of useful materials is produced along with large quantities of waste materials, for which one attempts to find other usages. 

The problem of the chemical industry is that the fossil-based raw materials must be forced to react by means of chemicals such as ozone and chlorine, an energy-intensive process, unless catalysts can minimise the input of energy. Compared to natural processes, which are amazingly optimal, the volume of energy required is huge (Fischer, 2012:132-135). 

To feed this demand for energy we have been exploiting stocks of oil and coal formed 180 million years ago over more than 100 million years (Shah, 2005: xxii, 1). Montgomery notes: ‘It takes millions of years to produce a barrel of oil; we use millions of barrels a day (Montgomery, 2007: 199). 

As an industrial chemist Fischer is convinced that it is possible to substitute solar energy for energy from crude oil (Fischer, 2012: 141-172). He notes that world-wide the volume of products made by the petro-chemical industry is about 300 million tonnes (of 1000 kgs). In contrast, the volume of biogen-produced materials (through photosynthesis by plants and algae) is estimated at 200,000 million tonnes, without causing dangerous waste materials such as dioxin.   

3.6 The machine has become dysfunctional

By treating the earth as a machine that should serve our human needs and which should run at ever higher speeds, we have been wasting precious resources, by exploiting them for our material wellbeing, especially for the rich. By means of oil and coal, as sources of energy and a basis for producing chemicals, we have been polluting the biosphere, and transformed agriculture into an industry relying on large quantities of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides which impoverish soils, reduce biodiversity etc. Plastic wastes are polluting the oceans. As the plastics eventually break down, they release carbon dioxide. Fish ingest micro-plastics and birds ingest those fish. Thus, plastic enters the digestive system of humans.   

Greenhouse gases emitted by manufacturing, agriculture (including the potent methane), services, including transport by road, air and sea, and consumption, fuelled by fossil fuels are destabilising the world’s climate. This is not done by deliberate design, of course. It may happen serendipitously. For example, when parts of the Amazon Forest are converted into pastures for cows, to produce meat, termites invade with their mounds, releasing methane Reichholf (2006: 134). The rich biodiversity of this forest dwindles, and indigenous populations lose their age-old habitations. Some of them start exploring for gold, thereby contributing to pollution and destruction of forests. 

Climate warming, pollution (planet plastic), and dwindling biodiversity are clear signs that the machine, running at an accelerating speed, and encompassing ever more areas of life, has become seriously dysfunctional.  Yet, when we started on this journey, it all seemed entirely rational, having the sanction of science. We have been blinded to the consequences of our actions.

In addition to the story of fossil fuels, three more examples may illustrate this blindness. 

3.7 Chemical fertilisers

Plants need not only carbon and water, but also nitrogen. Although the latter is abundantly present in the atmosphere (78 %), plants must get it by their roots from the soil in the form of nitrate (NO3) or ammonia (NH3). They assimilate it thanks to its mineralisation by bacteria, in humus and other organic matter, including compost. Legumes are a rich source of nitrogen. 

In 1909 Fritz Haber discovered how to synthesise ammonia from nitrogen in the atmosphere and hydrogen (from methane and steam) under high pressure (200-300 bar) and a high temperature (450 C). Carl Bosch (employed by BASF) commercialised the process for manufacturing nitrate fertilisers as well as explosives. The process is highly energy-intensive, using mainly natural gas. At present, about 100 million tonnes of ammonia is produced world-wide, mostly in the form of fertilisers. 

Since the 1960s agriculture around the world has been revolutionised by such chemical fertilisers. They have doubled, even tripled yields. All farmers need to do is spread a few bales of such fertilisers on their plots. Animals can now be kept conveniently in feedlots.

Montgomery notes: 

Farmers abandoned traditional crop rotation and periodic fallowing in favour of continuous cultivation of crops. For the period from 1961 to 2000, there is an almost perfect correlation between global fertilizer use and global grain production (2007: 197).

The advent of the green revolution in the 1960s was impossible without chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Downsides have been a sharp increase in costs for small farmers, often leading to indebtedness and suicide; an increase in soil degradation (Montgomery, 2007: 199) and a contribution to CW. 

In addition, soils lose their ability to retain water, and as the speed of filtration slows, the risks of flooding and erosion increase. The absence of traditional long rotations exacerbates this problem, also by a loss of biodiversity. Moreover, predator insects (greenflies, for instance) multiply, in part through a higher content of nitrogen in leaves, and the incidence of diseases increases, which triggers a higher use of chemical pesticides. Over time soils become much more acid. Since plants cannot absorb all the nitrogen supplied by chemical nitrates and ammonia, soils release the rest via rain and run-off through streams and rivers. Ammonia becomes a human health hazard when it infiltrates potable water (Aubert, 2018).  

Although experts keep saying that agriculture cannot feed the world’s population without the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, various studies have shown otherwise. Aubert quotes meta-analyses which show that at world-level the differential in yield is about 19% less for agriculture without nitrogen fertilisers, which reduces to 8 or 9% when one uses a variety of rotations. Another meta-analysis indicates that regenerative agriculture, which cultivates a variety of species in the same field, allows an increase in production of 30 percent (Aubert, 2018: 19). 

Montgomery reports that: 

experiments at Rothamsted from 1843 to 1975 showed that plots treated with farmyard manure for more than a hundred years nearly tripled in soil nitrogen content whereas nearly all the nitrogen added in chemical fertilisers was lost from the soil-either exported in crops or dissolved in runoff (2007: 201).

However, a period of transition would be needed to move from completely industrialised to eco-biological agriculture. 

3.8 Nuclear energy

In 1938/39 Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman discovered the nuclear fission of uranium. They realised that this could be used to make bombs of enormous explosive power. Fearing, needlessly as it turned out, that the Nazis were busy developing them (Watson, 2019), the Americans started the Manhattan Project. In 1945 two bombs, one uranium and one plutonium were exploded above Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

During the so-called Cold War (1948-1989) between the USA and the Soviet Union a nuclear arms race took place, in which numerous nuclear bombs were exploded. To produce these weapons of mass destruction, historian Kate Brown notes: ‘colossal plutonium plants’ were built both in the USA and in the Soviet Union in ‘exclusive atomic cities’. Their purpose was: ‘to produce as much plutonium as possible as quickly as possible, and they polluted the surrounding landscape freely, liberally, and disastrously’. Indeed: ‘Each kilogram of final product generates hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive waste’ (Brown 2013: 3-5). In a study on the Chernobyl disaster, she reports that during the Cold War: ‘Globally, atmospheric tests released at least 20 billion curies of radioactive iodine alone. Chernobyl issued far less at 45 million curies of iodine-131 (Brown 2019: 248)’.

The American plutonium plants were constructed and run by General Electric. In 1944 its Chief Executive, Charles E. Wilson, who during World War II was also head of the War Production Board, when addressing military leaders, called for: ‘a new program of postwar weapons research and development, a program that was “once and for all, a continuingprogram, and not the creature of an emergency’. He also told the military men: ‘the leaders of industry are as much the leaders of their country as are the generals, the admirals, the legislators, and the chiefs of state’ (Brown 2013: 126).

In other words, Wilson believed in what became known as the military-industrial complex. New generations of nuclear bombs are now being designed which can be delivered hypersonically. 

In the early 1950s nuclear power plants were established also for the generation of energy for civil purposes (atoms for peace). There are currently 414 commercial nuclear reactors in operation around the world, despite three major accidents (Harrisburg, 1979, Chernobyl, 1986 and Fukushima, 2011). Two thirds of them are older than 30 years (Lobenstein, Yang 2021). They all produce highly radio-active waste materials, which cannot be safely disposed of. Even though now small modular plants are being designed (to come into production from 2030), they also produce dangerous waste materials. Even when they run on nuclear wastes, there must be fissionable material (uranium) in it, producing radioactive waste. 

3.9 The Internet and digitisation

In view of a possible nuclear war, which would destroy normal telephone communications, the US military designed a system in the 1990s where communications could be split into small packets to be sent over a number of lines to the intended address. This became the basis of the Internet. It has also become the basis of digitisation. Everything can be rendered as a set of numbers (0, 1) and communicated by the world-wide web. 

A detailed survey conducted in ten countries shows that the networks involved in these digital technologies consume 10 percent of the electricity produced in the world and are responsible for 4 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide, just a touch below the emissions of air traffic (Pitron, 2021: 1, 18,19). 

When one measures the material input per service unit (MIPS) a silicon chip requires 32 kilogrammes for an integrated circuit of 2 grammes, a ratio of 16,000 to 1. Data centres are becoming one of the most important consumers of electricity, which is still produced predominantly by coal.

Pitron concludes his survey by noting that the younger generation which wants to drastically reduce our impact on the climate and the earth’s ecology, relies heavily on the new high technologies (internet, telephones, computers, robots etc.), which impose a major burden on the planet (2021:19).    

3.10 Summary

The examples given show that the on-going lack of foresight, the unquestioned belief in science and technology, as a means of progress, or as an attempt to improve upon the creation, even as a means of salvation, have conspired to make the world a very tortured and dangerous place. Is there a way out?


The answer to this question should be affirmative. It is a way of questioning the technical picture of the world by an ethics of responsibility. The ethos associated with the metaphor that the earth is a machine requires office-bearers in government and industry to obey a technical imperative: what can be made should be made. Each of the examples given in the preceding section (using coal and oil as energy and basis for chemical industry; chemical fertilisers; nuclear energy; the Internet) showed this imperative at work. The imperative can be described as a perversion of the greatest commandment of love (Matthew 22:37-40), as summarised by Schuurman: 

“Be as effective as is technically possible,” and the second like unto it is, “Be as efficient as is economically possible.” The breadth and depth of a technological-materialistic culture hang on these two commandments (2005: 22).  

If we repent of this perversion and, by the grace of God, seek to find the way of the greatest commandment, we should be inspired by the metaphor of the garden in the beginning that should lead to the earth as a communal home that is promised to become a garden-city. This puts the emphasis on the services that technology can provide to keep and make the earth habitable for all people, present and future generations, and this involves that the kingdoms of inorganic things, plants and animals retain their integrity and ability to reproduce (Schuurman, 2005).

This section offers a brief Biblical reflection, shows how reformational philosophy has attempted to develop an ethics of responsibility, gives a few examples of how wonderfully rich the creation is, and ends with applying it to the problem of climate warming. 

4.1 Biblical reflection  

‘In the beginning the Lord God created the heavens and the earth’ (Gen 1:1). God speaks seven times the command to exist: ‘Let there be’. It means so much as: this is how it will be. And God saw that everything was very good (Gen. 1:31).

He made human beings in his image, to reflect his love in the created cosmos by developing it to His glory (Gen. 1). Humans are charged with doing things in history. In Gen. 2 this is elaborated as the cultivation of a garden, the naming of animals (which implied stating what their being entailed and would have initiated a loving bond with them) and protecting it against the intrusion of evil (Gen. 2).

The cosmos would be a home for all creatures. The garden in paradise should develop to a communal home, eventually a city-garden (Revelation 21). Human beings should deploy all their functions in this task, with their hearts open to their Creator and to the ordering, the law, to which He has everything subjected.

4.2 All modalities are equally important 

Genesis 1 tells us that the cosmos is richly structured. It is also subject to a structure, a building plan. A structure involves differences. One key difference is that of thus-or-so, involving different modes of being, called modalities. They represent different ways of functioning. Plants function organically, animals psychologically. People share all the functions of the kingdoms of inorganic things, plants and animals and have nine that are unique to them. Each modality is distinct and cannot or should not be reduced to that of another. Yet, the Western ethos prefers the analytical, technical and economic ones, using them as rulers of all. It has the effect of reducing the non-human kingdoms to technological-economic constructions.    

In reformational philosophy as developed by D.H.TH. Vollenhoven (1892-1978), H. Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) and others (Tol, Bril 1992) one distinguishes, empirically, between 14-16 modalities. 

They occur in an order from less to more complex, from the arithmetical mode to the ethical one (if this is seen as the highest). Each is dependent on those preceding and anticipates those following. This is expressed in analogies. For instance, farmers love their animals, whilst using them for productive purposes. Such care is an ethical analogy within the economic. Parents try to care for their children within their means. This is an economic analogy within the ethical modality.

Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd were not the first to discern the importance of modalities. St Augustine (354-431) was already aware of them. In the ‘Civitas Dei’, book V, 11, he waxes eloquent about the laws of God’s providence and enumerates what He has given to humans:

Humans share the material way of being with stones, the life of growth with trees, the life of perception with animals and the intellectual life with angels (Popma, 1965:73).

Popma notes: 

this quote implies the distinction of modalities: human beings share the physical mode with the things of the inorganic kingdom; the organic modality with the realm of plants; the psychic modality with the animal kingdom and the logical along with the specifically human modalities. The latter are all included in the ‘vita intellectualis’ (Popma, 1965:73, my trans.).

In Book X of the Confessions, Chapter XII, St Augustine emphasises the reality, in our memory, of numbers and spatial configurations, which are not images of what we observe empirically, but which, nevertheless are: ‘valde sunt’ (Popma, 1965:74,75). Indeed, the arithmetical and the spatial are the first two modalities in reformational philosophy.       

Gen. 3 tells us that the first humans, led by Adam, and all their offspring in them, fell into sin. Nevertheless, Satan did not win. Rather, the Lord promised a Saviour, the second Adam. In Christ, the Word, we are called to repent, believe and obey, withstand evil and work towards the common good. This is the only way to avoid falling into the trap of a technicistic/economistic counter-creation.

Let us praise God for the wonderful way in which He has made the earth our home. Let us note a few aspects of the wonder of the created cosmos.

4.3 The earth created to be our home

Cosmologist Peter Korevaar (2009: 10-13) has spelled out the amazing relationship between our planet, the moon and the sun, as follows (abridged):

  1. The distance between the sun and the earth is 150 million kilometres. If the earth were closer to the sun, oceans would evaporate; if farther away, they would freeze.
  • The combination of the earth’s fluid iron core and its rotation gives it a magnetic field, which shields it from the sun’s radiation, which would otherwise kill all life on earth.
  • The sun is of exactly the right size for life on earth. A hotter sun’s radiation would be much more damaging. If the sun were smaller, its distance from the earth would have to be smaller so as to get enough light. However, this would make for much more violent tidal movements, resulting in more volcanoes and earthquakes.
  • The earth is of the right size. If it were bigger, then, gravity would be stronger, making life impossible for larger animals, which could not stand up or fly. With a smaller size, the atmosphere would disappear, whilst cars would not go safely around corners.
  • The earth’ axis is not perpendicular to its orbit around the sun, but inclines from it at an angle of 23 degrees. This causes the annual seasons, which are indispensable for life on earth. It also increases the earth’s habitable part. If the axis were perpendicular, then, the tropics would be too hot and the polar regions too cold to sustain life.
  • The moon is quite large in relation to the earth. Other planets in our solar system have much smaller moons (Jupiter and Saturn). This has two advantages. First, it keeps the earth’s 23 degrees inclination stable, so that it does not wobble. Second, the size of the moon is such that it causes tidal movements, which are necessary for life to exist especially in oceans.
  • Seen from the earth the moon is just as large as the sun. In reality, it is 400 times smaller than the sun, which is 400 times further away. In Genesis 1 the Bible says that God created the sun as light for the day and the moon as light for the night, meaning that the difference between them lies in the strength of the light. For us humans, they appear to be of the same size. In a complete eclipse of the sun, the moon covers the sun exactly. 

With respect to point a) above, CW means that we have been busy destabilising the finely tuned relationship between warming and cooling of the earth by transforming stocks of fossil fuels into greenhouse gases. 

Another wonderful example of the thesis that God made everything just right, is photosynthesis.

4.4 Photosynthesis

Plants and algae make sugars and oxygen by extracting water through their roots and carbon dioxide from the air. The sun’s light, especially the violet and ultraviolet part of the spectrum, provides the energy for this process through the chlorophyl contained in the plants’ green leaves. In this way, plants make our planet habitable for animals and humans.  

The process can be described in terms of two equations:

  1. CO2 +H2O+light+chlorophyl yields HCHO (sugar) +O2

The sugars serve as raw material for the production of most other organic materials. Water drawn in provides metallic elements: sodium, magnesium, potassium and calcium, as well as a variety of minerals. Water constitutes eighty percent of the weight of plants, some of which is utilised to drive different synthetic reactions, including photosynthesis, and the rest is perspired into the atmosphere.  Part of the organic matter resulting from photosynthesis provides the energy for the plants’ existence and reproduction. 

2. HCHO +O2 yields CO2+H2O+energy

The carbohydrates, proteins etc. made by plants are consumed by animals and humans, who exhale carbon dioxide to serve plants. Of course, animals and humans do this also by eating meat. 

Photosynthesis makes the biosphere independent from earth-bound sources of energy, so that animals and people don’t have to worry about the side effects and waste materials which are inherent in the generation of energy from such sources (Fischer, 2012: 27). 

The power of photosynthesis is shown when during the Northern Spring the volume of CO2, as measured on Mauna Loa in Hawaii, falls when trees turn green again.

Photosynthesis shows how the kingdom of inorganic things serves the kingdom of plants. In turn, that kingdom serves the kingdom of animals. Together they form the substrate of human life. Humans should live responsibly so as to maintain the integrity of the other kingdoms. CW means in fact that we are doing the opposite by making the earth less habitable.

4.5 Towards an Ethics of Responsibility

We are exhorted to love the Lord our God with all our heart and our neighbour as ourselves. By obeying or disobeying this commandment we direct our functions toward either good or evil. In Christ, in principle, we begin to obey rather than disobey.

To implement the law of love, human office bearers, in states, families, business enterprises, trade unions, schools, universities etc. should issue laws and regulations under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, taking into account the structural law (including the modalities). In our brokenness, however, we tend to direct things toward evil rather than good. 

Nevertheless, when problems arise, we are compelled to change course. This is an important effect of the lawfulness of the creation, and it inspires hope that an appeal to change might be heard. 

Proposals to combat CW should be examined as to whether they are consistent with the idea of the earth as a communal home or would take us further down the path of environmental destruction and human suffering. 

The meaning of ethics is seen most clearly in friendship, marriage and family. All three flourish by practising troth. Troth should colour all of our other functions.

4.6 Laudato Si’: care for our common home

I believe that this is consistent with Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, where he used the word ‘care’ rather than stewardship to designate how we should relate to the earth and to our fellow humans. 

A checklist should help us to analyse whether practices and proposals involve a degree of care such that the kingdoms of inorganic things, plants and animals can function normally rather than suffer from human mismanagement. 

A checklist, as suggested by Schuurman (2005: 50-53), could comprise the following main questions:

  • Is the proposal likely to discriminate between rich and poor, to the advantage of the former?
  • Is the proposed law or regulation enforceable and likely to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases sufficiently to stabilise and/or reduce the volume of these gases in the atmosphere and in the oceans, within the next 5, 10 and 50 years?
  • Who would economically benefit or be disadvantaged from implementing the proposal? Would good care of the environment and its treasures be promoted?
  • Would human habitations become more or less friendly, safer or more dangerous, to people, children, elderly, disabled? Would people be encouraged to emit less greenhouse gas emissions?
  • Is the proposal understandable and easy to convey via news media etc. to all concerned?
  • Is the proposal likely to stimulate technical invention and innovation such that it would serve and save the ecology? What are the risks of achieving the opposite?
  • What is the judgment of the scientific community, especially ecologists, biologists, climate scientists, meteorologists etc.?
  • What are the effects on the animal kingdom, for present and future generations, and biodiversity?
  • What are the effects on the kingdom of plants, present and future?
  • What are the effects on the inorganic kingdom, such as whether emissions of greenhouse gases would increase or decrease?


What began in the Renaissance, the rule of humans, based on autonomous science and increasingly applied in technology (the mechanical world picture; technicism) has given rise in our time to a rule by powers such as portrayed in the prophecy of Daniel (Chapter 7, especially verses 19-27). Verse 7:19 shows a fourth beast: ‘so very terrible and different from the others, devouring and crushing with its iron teeth and bronze claws, and trampling with its feet what was left’. In verse 7:20 we read about a ‘horn with the eyes and the mouth that spoke arrogantly’, but when the court of heaven is convened (7:26,27):

‘his power is taken away by final and absolute destruction and ‘the kingship and dominion and majesty of all the kingdoms under the heavens shall be given to the holy people of the Most High, whose kingdom shall be everlasting; all dominions shall serve and obey him.

The Book of Daniel ends with these encouraging words: ‘Blessed is the man who has patience and perseveres’ (12:12a).  

As people of God, whether Roman Catholic or Lutheran, we can witness to the coming of God’s kingdom in the midst of climate warming, whilst serving our fellows via all of our callings. We should call our society to repentance from the technical world picture and all it stands for, pointing to the love and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has promised to be with us all the days of our life until He comes (Matthew 28:20b). Through Him, the creation is never lost, not even in the darkest days of intense groaning. Climate warming can be countered meaningfully by applying an ethics of responsibility. 


Aubert, C. (2018). Les engrais azotés, providence devenue poison. Le Monde Diplomatique, Paris, Décembre 2018, pp.18,19. 

Binswanger, H.C. (2005). Geld und Magie; eine ökonomische Deutung von Goethes Faust. Murmann, Hamburg.

Brown, K. (2013). Plutopia; nuclear families, atomic cities, and the great Soviet and American plutonium disasters. Oxford University Press, New York.

Brown, K. (2019). Manual for survival; a Chernobyl guide to the future. W.W. Norton, New York. 

Durand, F. (2021). Climat, une conference à la recherche du temps perdu. Le Monde Diplomatique, Paris, Novembre 2021, pp. 14,15. 

Fischer, H. (2012). Stoffwechsel; auf dem Weg zu einer solaren Chemie für das 21. Jahrhundert. Antje Kunstmann, München.

Goethe, J.W. von (trans. D.Luke). Faust, Part I (1987), Part II (1994). Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Hasselmann, K. (2021). Kriegen wir das hin? Der 90-jährige Nobelpreisträger Klaus Hasselmann ist optimistisch, dass sich die Klimakrise durch Technik lösen lässt. Die 25-jährige Aktivistin Luisa Neubauer hält das für eine Gefahr. Die Zeit, Hamburg, No. 44, 2021, p.35,36. 

Klein, N. (2001). No logo; no space, no choice, no jobs. Flamingo, London.

Klein, N. (2014). This changes everything; capitalism vs. the climate. Allen Lane, Penguin Group, Melbourne.

Korevaar, P. (2009). Liever 1 God than 10 the power 500 univers. Beweging, Centrum voor Reformatorische Wijsbegeerte, Amersfoort, Zomer 2009, pp. 10-13.     

Lobenstein, C. and Yang, X. (2021). Sie ist wieder da. Vor zehn Jahren explodierte das Kernkraftwerk Fukushima. Heute soll die Atomenergie die Welt vor dem Klimakolaps retten. Über das Comeback einee riskanten Idee. Die Zeit, Hamburg, No. 10, 4 March 2021, pp. 13-15. 

Lowe, D. (2019). I’ve lived this horror for 50 years. The DomPost, Wellington, 21 Sept. 2019, C1.

Lewis, S.L. and Maslin, M.A. (2018). The human planet; how we created the Anthropocene. Pelican, London.

Montgomery, D.R. (2007). Dirt; the erosion of civilizations. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles. 

Mumford, L. (1970). The myth of the machine; the pentagon of power. Harcourt Brace, New York. 

Pitron, G. (2021). Quand le numérique détruit la planète. Le Monde Diplomatique, Paris, Octobre 2021, pp. 1, 18,19.

Popma, K.J. (1965). Nadenken over de tijd. Buijten en Schipperheijn, Amsterdam. 

Raynaud, D. (2021). Des glaciers de l’Antarctique à l’Accord de Paris. La Manière de Voir, 179, pp. 24-26, Octobre-Novembre 2021, Le Monde Diplomatique, Paris. 

Reichholf, J.H. (2006). Der Tanz um das goldene Kalb; der Ökokolonialismus Europas. Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, Berlin. 

Rosa, H. (2005). Beschleunigung; die Veränderung der Zeitstrukturen in der Moderne. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main. 

Schmitt, S. (2019). Was wir Wissen. Der Klimawandel ist längst eine globale Eskalation. Die Zeit, Hamburg, No. 4, 17 January, 2019, p.6.

Schuurman, E. (1998/2003), trans. by John Vriend. Faith and hope in technology. Clements Publishing, Toronto.

Schuurman, E. (2005). The technological world picture and an ethics of responsibility. Dordt College Press, Sioux Centre, Iowa. 

Shah, S. (2005). Crude; the story of oil. Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest NSW.

Tol, A. and Bril, K.A. (1992). Vollenhoven als wijsgeer. Inleidingen en Teksten. Buijten en Schipperheijn, Amsterdam.

Virilio, P. (2010, 2012 (Julie Rose, trans)). The great accelerator. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Watson, P. (2019). Fallout; conspiracy, cover-up, and the deceitful case for the atom bomb. Simon and Schuster, London.

Zeit für Klima, in Die Zeit 18 November 2021, No. 47, Wirtschaft, advertisement on conference held 26-28 October 2021, Die Zeit, Hamburg.  

[1] I thank Dr Lynne Bowyer, Rev. Jim Pietsch and Prof. Egbert Schuurman for their comments on an earlier draft. 

You may also like

In God We Trust? Coming to terms with the shift to the so-called “anthropocene”.

In God We Trust? Coming to terms with the shift to the so-called “anthropocene”.

How does one even begin to make sense of this given the shift from the Holocene to the “Anthropocene”?
Climate Warming in the Light of an Ethic of Responsibility

Climate Warming in the Light of an Ethic of Responsibility

Petrus has written a paper for the Catholic Lutheran Dialogue, outlining the reality of climate warming, biblical and theological responses, and concluding with a checklist expressing human responsibility.