An Appeal To Those Concerned But Not Yet Alarmed By Climate Change

An Appeal To Those Concerned But Not Yet Alarmed By Climate Change August 15, 2013

(This is cross-posted at

According to a recent study done at Yale University only 13% of Americans are alarmed about anthropogenic, or human-caused, global warming (AGW), while on the other end of the spectrum 10% are adamantly dismissive and another 15% are at least doubtful about it. Interestingly, the majority of Americans are either concerned (26%) or cautiously concerned (29%) about the theory. If the political culture of my home state is any indication, the deniers in Utah and in mainstream Mormon political culture have the loudest voices and the biggest stages in which to air their views, and I believe this is squeezing out the majority in this state and in our community of faith who, perhaps with more moral clarity and better information, would choose to act to avert the worst consequences of climate change.

Now I must confess: I clearly belong in the most worried category. Some might call me an “alarmist” which, of course, is not a compliment. But I think the word “alarmist” is supposed to describe someone who overreacts to or distorts information for the sake of raising fears. You know the old story about Chicken Little and the sky falling. But you also know the humorous but profound bumper sticker that says, “Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” In other words, alarmism is only alarmism when it is based on false information or premises. Otherwise, it is what we would call moral urgency.

I fully recognize, of course, that deniers relish their minority position; it is, in their minds, a badge of honor. A stubborn minority position can be virtuous, of course, but this is only true if the mainstream is wrong. Otherwise, it is simply moral turpitude. Indeed, if a minority opinion is wrong and yet it is unyielding; if it has access to power but refuses to examine evidence honestly, especially if said evidence requires shifting relations of power in society; if citizens and leaders who today have unprecedented access to information still refuse to listen to responsible sources or to move society in the direction it needs to go in, then this is a moral failure.

I suppose like most people, I believe I am highly rational, even when I am not. But in my most rational moments, I recognize that political ideology gets in the way of my capacity to interpret data. So we must accept the fact that political ideology colors our world a certain way or it predisposes us to believe or disbelieve certain theories, but this is not an excuse to bypass the responsibility to assess information as honestly as we can. I am not using good moral judgment, in other words, if my opinions on matters automatically fall back on my political leanings, or rely on hearsay, or trust pundits over my own assessment of a situation. So years ago I set about trying to separate fact from fiction and after years of reading both sides of the climate change debate, I find so little evidence for deniers to stand on, I can’t help feeling embarrassed for them. I used to think that some time in the distant future, they will finally see their error and feel some shame about it. But the future is now, the evidence is too overwhelming, and if they can’t see their error at this point, it is obvious to me that they never will. So I am not really interested in engaging deniers or trying to change their minds. Short of a moratorium on anti-climate change rants especially by high profile people in power, I at least hope that the majority of people who have concerns will finally stop listening to their denials.

I admit that were I a political conservative, climate change would be a tougher pill to swallow because 1) Al Gore was the chief spokesman for some time and 2) it seems to suit a liberal view of government more easily than a conservative one. In fact, not surprisingly, most studies show a divide along partisan lines. Moreover, there is enough indication to believe that religious faith, of many kinds in America today, tends to mean less concern about climate change. So two more reasons pop up for skepticism: 3) if the earth were getting warmer, with disastrous consequences, why don’t the scriptures or religious leaders warn of this great evil? or 4) since scriptures do warn of great calamities in the last days, the thinking might be that maybe climate change is real but there is no point in trying to stop what has been prophesied.

Now climate change is really starting to sound like no big deal, especially if you are a conservative and you are religious. The thinking might be that climate change is either false because 1) we must be wary of liberals who want to find reasons to increase the size of government and 2) because it is produced by individuals reputed to be highly secularized or atheistic in their views and so it is possible (if one is persuaded that a person’s view of religious ideas is deterministic of all other views) the data are skewed to favor the AGW thesis. Or the thinking might run along these lines:  it is real but no big deal because the fate of the earth is in God’s hands, not ours. But the climate has nothing to do with political party, religion, or any other belief system. The climate is either changing dangerously or it isn’t and this change is either caused by our carbon emissions or it isn’t. So it would seem that any reasonable person would not toss out an opinion on the matter without making an honest effort to understand these issues empirically. And an honest effort does not consist of merely following your general suspicions and surfing superficially on the internet to find websites, think tanks, and other sources of skepticism regarding climate change that will provide you anecdotes to confirm you in your doubts. Or listening to only one source of news. Or listening to talk radio. This is because there is steady drumbeat of doubt peddled by a host of organizations who make a living on misinformation about climate change. (You might want to read more about this peddling in Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s important book Merchants of Doubt.)

Now, it is fair to ask: aren’t those who keep up the steady drumbeat of alarm also benefiting and making a living perpetuating this theory that the world is melting? Don’t people make themselves rich off of the theory of AGW? These questions are also not without merit. And one can spend five minutes on the internet and find websites to confirm one’s liberal bias toward 1) bigger government, 2) atheistic science 3) secular anti-religious rhetoric that suggests the urgent need to act on our own instead of trusting in divine purpose.

But I have overstated the equivalence here. The fact is, while there are all kinds of websites out there, many of the major scientific societies in the world provide credible and accessible information that is not tainted by politics. It doesn’t take long to read. It isn’t hard to understand. It is a shame that so many Americans read so little about science or narrow their sources of information to so few. The spin coming from deniers is the same everywhere you go and that’s because denial isn’t coming from very many sources. Indeed, there are no credible scientific organizations anywhere in the world that are arguing that climate change is not happening or that it is not human caused. In fact, there are no scientific bodies that purport evidence of any kind on behalf of denialism. None. Zip. Let’s be clear about this: doubts, spin jobs, and anecdotes about unreliability are not scientific evidence. And honest questions that still need to be answered about the science do not constitute evidence that climate change is not real. We have every major scientific organization in the nation and in the world upholding the theory that human-caused carbon emissions are shifting the climate in potentially disastrous ways. It is not, in other words, just the International Panel on Climate Change, which consists of hundreds of the world’s leading experts, but the American Medical Association, the National Academies of Science, the Botanical Society of America, American Geophysical Union, the Pentagon (yes, the Pentagon!), etc., etc. And a whopping 97% of all climatologists accept this theory. 97%. Don’t be fooled by the old argument that “hundreds” of scientists disbelieve AGW. There are thousands upon thousands of people with Phds in the sciences across the world and yes there are some skeptics—some of whom have turned out to not exist, mind you— but they are not, on the whole, climate scientists with the proper credentials and they are nowhere near a significant percentage.

And why such an overwhelming consensus? Well, for one, the evidence is coming in from all over the world and from all over the sciences. We have extraordinary corroboration across a plethora of scientific disciplines including Oceanography, Biology, Climatology, Geology, Chemistry, Botany, Zoology, Archaeology, Entomology, etc., etc. We can’t explain flora and fauna migrations, rapid declines in biodiversity, acidification of the ocean, warming surface temperatures in the ocean, declining ice mass, changes in the atmosphere, all with just a few teams of scientists scheming to corroborate their stories. Besides, scientists make a living and science advances precisely on the basis of disproving alternative theories. Scientists have examined each and every alternative theory to try to explain the climatic changes we are seeing, including sun spots, water vapor, and natural cycles, and they have come up with precisely no evidence to suggest a better explanation than AGW. Deniers want us to believe that anecdotes and doubts spread by individuals in an occasional Op-Ed or by think tanks or websites are enough to cause us to question the fundamentals of climate science, even though those fundamentals have been around now for well over a century. We must recognize the staggering amount of faith they are asking from us to give credence to such doubts. The sheer amount of conspiratorial collaboration across disciplines and across the world that would be necessary to achieve the kind of consensus we have now, all of it supposedly bypassing the need for any real, hard evidence, simply stretches credulity. Theories about conspiring governments and scientists generating the theory of AGW are, well, science fiction.

I am not naïve. I don’t believe in the moral purity of scientists. I don’t believe government can do no wrong. I don’t believe think tanks are full of liars paid directly by the Koch brothers. But surely claims that government can do no right, that scientists are corrupt to the bone, and that think tanks are categorically more reliable than the rest of scientific research combined are just as silly. Do scientists sometimes go along with a narrative because they are too afraid to break ranks? Of course. But does consensus—just in and of itself—suggest evidence of such fear overriding logic, data gathering, and sound scientific experimentation? If it did, why are we not challenging other theories such as the idea of continental drift, the age or shape of the earth, or the idea that smoking leads to cancer?

Well, we do in fact continue to see doubters on these questions. They just don’t go away, but they lose credibility eventually. What is so surprising is that denialism foments doubt about conspiring scientists but none about conspiring corporations. Denialism wants us to see the corrupting influence of money in science but not in government, in business, or in international relations. It wants us to distrust climate change because it is government-funded research but it doesn’t question successful government research done in the name of fighting cancer, AIDS, and a whole host of other medical fields or the government-sponsored research that has gone into our technological advances, that put a man on the moon, that enabled us to develop a fossil fueled society in the first place. Nor will deniers explain why government is so motivated to promote a theory that undermines the very structure of our energy economy.

The truth is, we did see a challenge to the theory that smoking leads to cancer, and, not surprisingly, it used the same strategies climate skeptics use today and, it turns out, it involved some of the same people (again read Merchants of Doubt). No one could disprove the theory that smoking causes cancer but they could run interference on public opinion by raising doubts about the reliability of the sources of the scientific data. And they could raise doubts about how likely a serious campaign against smoking could make a difference. There is no credible evidence that disproves the theory of human-caused climate change. There is plenty of uncertainty remaining in the science, of course, and there is occasional reason to doubt the integrity of certain scientists. But you can’t defeat a broadly corroborated theory with anecdotes nor do you disprove a theory by raising doubts about, say, Al Gore’s integrity, or about liberal desires to want climate change to be true. Climate change deniers use the methods of the brilliant court lawyer who stands up against a mountain of evidence that his client is guilty. Remember OJ Simpson? You don’t have to prove anything. You only have to sow doubt and make people afraid that they might be wrong. And you need people to gather around poles of identity. “Climate change is for nature-loving liberal secularists who don’t have their priorities straight. Don’t be one of those!”

So here’s some thoughts for those of you who remain on the fence. If you prefer small government, fine. There are small government and free market solutions out there and many thinkers believe that the fear that redressing climate change is too expensive is simply wrong-headed. The fact that Al Gore is making hand over fist investing in clean energy isn’t evidence that AGW is false; it is evidence that clean energy is the future for the global market. Just ask the Chinese. Or the Danish. Or the Germans. If you are waiting for religion to speak up, it has. You can scarcely name a major religious leader in the world who hasn’t expressed concern about climate change. This list includes Pope Francis, Patriarch Bartholomew, and the Dalai Lama. Muslim, Jewish, Evangelical, and other Christian leaders have expressed their concerns, organized themselves, and are fighting against the effects of climate change. Of course, some religious spokespeople have expressed their doubts about AGW, but mostly only in America. And there are those such as LDS leaders who have yet to say anything about it, but you certainly cannot find evidence in LDS belief that we should not be taking good care of the earth, that we should distrust science, or that we should assume all is well in Zion, that as long as we do our home teaching, let the world burn. I have already elaborated on this point many times. (If it is of interest, check out links here and here and here.) I don’t recall the LDS leadership decrying genocide in Darfur. Does that mean that what happened there wasn’t a moral outrage? (It should be noted too that the tensions broke out there in part as a result of a rapidly changing climate and extreme drought.) We Mormons would all do well to remember what characterizes a slothful and unwise servant: waiting around for someone else to tell us what to care about.

Isn’t the world in God’s hands? Well, yes, but didn’t he place it in our charge? Weren’t we asked to “take good care of it,” to be stewards answerable to our Creator for how we treated the elements? He doesn’t stop us from polluting our own bodies to the point of self-destruction. Why would our relationship with the earth be any different? Why have we allowed ourselves to accept the morally bankrupt idea that since the world is going to die anyway, we don’t need to bother taking care of it? I have heard deniers claim that they still believe in good stewardship, but this rings hollow, for, as any doctor knows, you can’t take good care of a patient without proper knowledge of what she needs. Only a reckless steward ignores or cherry picks empirical evidence. What kind of moral perversion is this we have fallen into to look at the earth’s remarkable and miraculous capacity to regulate the climate and to provide the conditions of life for all living things—the very conditions that have enabled God’s plan for all of us on this planet— and imagine that we can shrug our shoulders, fail to understand what makes it work in the first place, and then watch with impunity as we bring this capacity to ruin?

If the theory just doesn’t sit well with you, then try this: what fights climate change is also what fights poverty. The poor are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. They have the fewest resources to be able to respond effectively to a warming climate. This is because they are more directly dependent on the ecosystems where they live, they live disproportionately closer to sea level, and they do not have the technological recourse we do to adapt quickly. And what is primarily causing global warming is overconsumption. Material greed is the single greatest threat to the earth since it leads us to use up land and water disproportionately and to emit more carbon per capita, and we Americans are the worst offenders. Surely we can agree that any philosophy that advocates consumption at will and that sponsors indifference to the fate of the poor is immoral. Moreover, getting us off of fossil fuels gets us off of our addiction to petrodictators—the Hugo Chavezes and the Sadam Husseins of the world, whom we have created across the globe from our outsize demand for fossil fuels. And don’t buy the shallow argument that drilling for oil in the US will be enough to achieve this goal either. That’s the rhetoric of partisan politics.

What I am suggesting is really quite simple: what will help the climate is already clearly outlined in gospel principles. If we live modestly and consume only what is necessary and we share generously with the poor; if we eat meat sparingly, eat locally in season, if we cease from our labors and excessive recreation on Sundays, we are doing right by the climate. If we raise voices of concern for policies, practices, and political leaders that will move us toward solar, geothermal, wind, and other alternative energies, we are in a position to use resources God gave us in abundance. If we use our remarkable gifts of innovation, scientific understanding, and moral drive to make a cleaner and more sustainable world for our grandchildren, if our hearts are truly turned to them, then we are living right. If we do all we can just to improve air quality, especially on behalf of children and the elderly, by using public transportation, walking, and advocating for policies and supporting institutions and politicians that get us away from fossil fuels, then we are also fighting climate change. If we are good stewards of our time and resources and read widely, carefully, and thoughtfully about the earth, we are in a position to make good moral judgments. If we live with compassion on the earth and for all living things, especially the most vulnerable, if we shun those who would pervert our relationship to the Creation in the interest of self-aggrandizement and material power, are we not living a Christian life? You don’t have to be a Democrat and you don’t have to like Al Gore. You just need to live your religion with more intensity and broader purpose.

So while we wait until the picture is any more clear (are we waiting for the last 3% of climatologists to change their mind?!) or until the economy gets betters or until other issues we care more about get taken care of, we do nothing to move the needle. The only reason that climate activists feel that they must get more desperate every day in their efforts to get us off of fossil fuels is because of this sleeping giant of some 55% of Americans who feel a vague and undefined concern but who remain inactive.

I want to reach these people. I want them to hear the stories of the millions of people in the developing world whose lives and livelihoods weigh in the balance with a warming climate. They are the ones we end up helping in our humanitarian efforts. They are the ones whose families and communities are eroded because of increased difficulty in gaining access to the resources they need or increased difficulty in resisting the impact of a changing climate. If you have family values, you should care about climate refugees. You and I, we can adjust our AC, we can change our clothes, but plants and animals and ecosystems around us cannot adjust in time to survive the rapid rate of change we are seeing and neither can the world’s poor who are already poorer for our inaction.

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