08/27/2013 06:31 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2013

The Next Great Flood

Three feet high and rising: that's how far ocean levels will exceed current levels by the end of the century, according to the recently-published report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Several hundred scientists collaborated on the widely anticipated report, which has been published every five years since 1988. This version reiterates the unequivocal evidence of global warming, but upps the likelihood that human activity is the principal cause. The scientists are now 95 percent certain that humans are the culprit; five years ago, their certainty was a mere 90 percent.

Some commentators beg to differ. "In my humble opinion, folks," Rush Limbaugh recently told his audience, "If you believe in God, then intellectually you cannot believe in man-made global warming." As traditionally understood, the all-knowing and all-powerful God ultimately decides everything. The Earth will get warmer only if God wants it warmer.

Variations on this view have been around for a long time. The book of Genesis starts off: "In the beginning, God..." Genesis goes on to describe in some detail what God purportedly did in the beginning. The underlying message: God created life as we know it, with a definitive plan in mind; time and history are its unfolding.

In the hands of 16th-century reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin (founders of what became the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, respectively), the divine plan got personal. According to their doctrine of predestination, God knew before the creation of the world not only how each of our lives would unfold, but whether we'd spend eternity in heaven or not. The only remaining issue is whether we cooperate with the divine plan or resist it. Regardless, the end will be the same.

Writ large, the doctrine of predestination makes a mockery of human freedom, though theologians have twisted themselves into knots for centuries trying to reconcile the idea of a supernatural God's foreknowledge with human freedom, without success. If God is an all-powerful creator and controller who knows how the story will end before it began, then human freedom is the delusion we hold to console ourselves as we shuffle toward our predestined end, warm or otherwise.

For my part, I can't bring myself to believe we're following a script that was marked "final" before the curtain rose on human history. If so, why would we bother to fasten our seat belts or look both ways before we cross the street? And why would we insist that our children do the same, if whatever's destined to happen will happen, regardless of our intent or action?

I can't believe that a loving God would sign off on a script that included scenes like the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the savagery of Darfur, not to mention the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria. Human history, which showcases civilization at its best and barbarism at its worst, tells the story of human intention and action. Men and women have real freedom, either to do good or to do evil.

Or to do nothing, which often can be another way to allow evil to triumph. The belief in the traditional all-powerful and all-knowing God ultimately lets humans off the hook. Believers can close their eyes to the evidence and stand idly by. But the horrors of human history offer compelling evidence that this view is wrong. Actual freedom comes with strings attached, which tie us to being responsible for the consequences of how we use our freedom.

When it comes to global warming, the evidence is in: we've caused the globe to get warmer. It's time for us to take responsibility and try our best to reverse the trend. Blaming God for the coming deluge isn't the answer.

Besides, even the book of Genesis contains precedent for doing what we can to mitigate the damage. Noah of old, when told of the coming flood, supposedly built a very large boat for himself, his family, and two of each of the animals. According to the story, he did what he could to save himself and future generations. So should we.