Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The madness at the heart of the climate change debate: missing the point.


There are over 20,000,000 internet articles supporting the science of climate change. There are over 25,000,000 internet sites denying the science of climate change (2009 figures). In the United States, white Evangelical Protestants are the least likely to accept the science of climate change. White Evangelical Protestants also make up a significant proportion of the Republican Party’s demographic. I should hardly be surprised by what I read on some American sites, but I am. Constantly.

Religious groups should surely use their influence to motivate believers on green issues to combat climate change. The theology of Stewardship seems to have got lost along the way here and in that context we need to live our lives differently. Climate change seems to be a symptom of a deeper problem of society’s increased distance from the environment in all its fragility. The Buddhists have a term, silathaam, which roughly translated means the balance or harmony between the natural world and human activity and surely we all recognise that such harmony and balance has long been lost. Faiths take a long time to change but once they do they have a huge impact on the attitudes and behaviours of their followers. We are all waiting for a more overt lead from our faith communities.

Let’s hope the Religious Right gets on board with this. It seems to me that accepting the science of climate change and running the risk of getting it wrong is a better option than denying it and running the risk of getting that wrong. Instead, what we seem to get is a reliance on some really tendentious web-sites and fringe scientists. But then I would say that because according to the climate change deniers the whole climate change thing is trumped up and unscientific. When Kofi Annan says that 300,000 people a year die as a direct result of global warming it is a "bare-faced lie". The green agenda is an “insane agenda” when compared to the needs of (American) industry and competitiveness - and crime fighting.

It is truly depressing. A scientist writes a study that puts one side of the climate change debate in a compelling way. That re-enforces the viewpoint of those who are already in that camp and disturbs those in the other camp. Maybe a few folk change positions.

A month or so later another scientist writes a study that puts the other side of the climate change debate equally compellingly. That re-enforces the viewpoint of those who are already in that camp and disturbs those in the other camp. Maybe a few folk change positions.

Google shows just how well matched in number and content the articles from newspapers and journals are even if we discard the ramblings and rantings of the uninformed.

Of course, what we generally aren’t able to do is discern the funding bodies and therefore the political bias of the research papers and findings or know to what extent what appears to be a compelling paper is being economical with the truth, inflating the significance of its findings or being downright disingenuous. What we do not generally know, because we aren’t scientists is how credible, academic and well researched any of the statements are but we often seize on them nevertheless. What we also don’t know is the credentials of those who write. I know a blogger who regularly flaunts lists of “eminent” scientists who are arguing against the science of climate change. I ought to be impressed I assume: about as impressed as I ought to be by the flaunting of lists of “eminent” Christian writers (I won’t call them theologians) who are regularly paraded before me in an attempt to assert the credibility of some religious point or other that I have at some stage had the temerity to argue against.

Most of us aren’t scientists: what are we to do?

The Guardian writer, George Monbiot, comments: HERE“Most prominent climate change deniers who aren’t employed solely by the fossil fuel industry have a similar profile: men whose professional careers are about to end or have already ended. Attacking climate change looks like a guaranteed formula for achieving the public recognition they have either lost or never posessed. Such people will keep emerging so long as the media are credulous enough to take them seriously.”

Now I have to say this resonates with me. The media has a responsibility to be … well, responsible and it isn’t very good at it. In the U.S it especially isn’t very good at it, particularly when organisations such as Fox News shed all pretence at objectivity and feed a compliant audience with an editorial stance that is supposed to pass as news fact but is, in effect, akin to propaganda.

Monbiot goes on to argue: “Creationists and climate change deniers have this in common: they don’t answer their critics. They make what they say are difinitive refutations of the science. When these refutations are shown to be nonsense, they do not seek to defend them. They simply switch to another line of attack. They never retract, never apologise, never explain, just raise the volume, keep moving and hope that people won’t notice the trail of broken claims in their wake.” (Come down off the fence George and tell us what you really think.) He relates the situation where he had been challenged by the Australian geologist Prof. Ian Plimer to a public debate as a result of his criticisms of Plimer’s book. He had discribed the book, “Heaven and Earth”, which rubbishes climate change and which has become akin to the climate change denier’s Bible, as containing “page after page of schoolboy errors and pseudoscientific gobble-degook.” As the professor of astrophysics Michael Ashley wrote: “It is not merely atmospheric scientists that would have to be wrong for Plimer to be right. It would require a rewriting of of biology, geology, physics, oceanography, astronomy and statistics.”

Monbiot agreed to take part in the debate on condition that Plimer would respond in clear specifics to a list of 11 questions Monbiot would submit. There have been no answers, so there has been no debate.

Given that it takes no time at all to make a scientific sounding statement and given that the statement will be around the world in no time and will attract the status of an authoritative statement by virtue of it being so widely disseminated to a largely unscientific audience, it is small wonder that bad science is hard to refute. That takes time and by the time it has been refuted the damage is done.

Then Jonathan Freedland, also writing in the Guardian, joined the fray:
HERE “Now that early confidence (in Obama) is fading. Those same diplomats and negotiators (who had heaved a sigh of relief on his election) have seen the president struggle to make what, to outsiders, look like pretty reasonable changes to US healthcare. They have seen a summer campaign demonise him as an amalgam of Stalin, Hitler and Big Brother, bent on sending America’s frail grannies to their deaths in the name of a new socialism. If that’s the response he gets when he gets when he suggests Americans should be covered even when they change jobs or get sick, imagine the monstering coming his way if he tells his compatriots they have to start cutting back on the 19 tonnes of CO2 each one of them emits each year (more than twice the amount belched out by the average Brit.)” Freedland quotes one unnamed European diplomat as dispairing at the “Republican headbangers who can not resist a chance to damage Obama, believe global warming is based on junk science and regard action on climate change as ungodly because it will delay the second coming.”

My contention is that, given the above, we are approaching this from the wrong direction. Most of us are not wearing our environmental heads but our political heads. In general how many Democrats in the U.S. support Gore and how many Republicans dismiss him?

From this side of the Atlantic the answer is stark and obvious but I wonder if some Americans can’t see the truth of this wood for the trees. How much of what we believe about environmental degradation is informed by our political allegences? We traditionally vote for one party and that party tells us such and such about global warming so that is what we believe about global warming.

That really isn’t good enough. The issue demands more engagement and as Christians we have an additional perspective to promote.

As we are given responsibility to be good stewards of the planet – one of the earliest instunctions recorded in the Bible, surely – is it good enough to play politics with this issue?

The planet is warming or it is going through a natural cycle. EITHER WAY we have a responsibility to do something about our impact on the planet. This is our only home and it is fragile and finely balanced. Are we being good stewards if we argue that we need to do nothing and can selfishly carry on in the ways which we know have caused damage and degredation?

Am I being a good steward of the planet if I argue that a government measure which will significantly improve air quality is going to hit me in the pocket as a tax payer? Am I being a good steward of the planet if I complain that big government is being too interventionist while accepting that smaller local initiatives will be less effective? Am I being a good steward of the planet if I argue that alleged job losses are a good enough reason not to act to improve the quality of life for people in developing countries who are counting the cost of the mess that the developed world has made? Am I being a good steward of the planet if I deny that what we do has little or no impact on this planet?

Is there global warming? I think so and others don’t. But I think we should act as if there is. As I have said here before it is a little like Pascal’s wager on whether or not God exists: you might as well bet that he does because if you are wrong you have lost nothing and if you are right you have gained all. To me that is the point with global warming and that is the point many of us are missing.