Stuck in the Middle on Climate

It’s exhausting to be in the middle of highly polarized debates. Part of me wants to be a bridge-builder, a reconciler, a voice of reason. Another part wants to be “prophetic” and to sit in judgment of both extremes. Yet another part tells me I need to be a better listener, which is hard with all the shouting going on.

That’s where I find myself in the climate debate. Far off on one side I see a few secular, elitist—even extreme—environmentalists who have a not-so-latent misanthropy for the world’s poor. This is the worldview that sees population as the fundamental environmental problem. It doesn’t bother them that poorly-designed climate policy might impose onerous burdens on the world’s poor. As an evangelical Christian, I don’t want any part of that.

On the other side are those who simply deny the reality of global warming. They seem to me like the ultimate postmodernists, apparently believing that all climate science is political and agenda-driven. Ideological blinders prevent them from distinguishing credible science and conspiracy theories. Sadly, their ranks include some of the most prominent names on the religious right. In a new twist, these ideologues are using the possibility of adverse effects of climate policy on the poor to scare compassionate people away from climate action, but in so doing they totally dismiss the credible dangers to the world’s poor from global warming itself.

Using the poor as a political tool is a sin of the left and the right. (Just as using short-term extreme weather events to argue either for or against global warming is a cynical ploy afflicting both camps.)

Those on the left sometimes seem to claim unanimity among climate scientists as to the culpability of people for global warming. Those on the right seem to imply there is major controversy about whether people are to blame. Neither view is correct. The consensus among scientists is that greenhouse gas pollution is “very likely” responsible for most of the warming experienced since 1950. That’s a careful observation shared by government agencies, learned societies, professional organizations, and many, but not all, individual scientists. Its credibility comes from its humility. Scientists don’t claim to know beyond a shadow of a doubt, but they’re pretty sure we created most of this mess.

Environmentalists sometimes imply that global warming is completely anthropogenic, while anti-environmentalists claim it’s completely natural. Again, as you might expect, the truth is somewhere in the middle. The best current scientific estimate is that greenhouse gases and aerosol pollution are responsible for about three-quarters of climate variability in the last half-century. Natural driving forces, including solar variability and volcanic eruptions, seem to account for about a quarter.

I work with people trying to carve out that middle ground of reasonableness-—one that takes the scientific consensus seriously and that believes our moral responsibility means protecting the poor from the ill effects of both climate change and climate change policy. we believe we still have much to learn about climate change but are thankful for the credible information science has uncovered.

Many in the environmental community are impatient with people like me for our insistence that climate legislation must protect the poor from the adverse effects of climate policy, because they feel it slows down the political drive to action. They want to focus exclusively on mitigating emissions of greenhouse gases, while we think that helping poor people and developing nations adapt to climate change is also important, given that significant climate change is already in the pipeline.

On the other side, those who deny global warming science revile our position on adaptation assistance, calling it a closet attempt at wealth redistribution. They focus on the costs of climate action while blithely ignoring the costs of climate inaction. They produce a tiny cadre of living, breathing climate scientists skeptical of the consensus view and regularly cherry-pick the “latest literature” on the role of cosmic rays or cloud formation, without admitting that the regular efforts to synthesize the science do take those issues into account.

Being balanced is very difficult in a highly-polarized debate. We are all learning about climate change, and we’d best not hitch our intellectual carts to any static impression of the science, which is changing year by year. Right now the science seems to grow stronger with each passing year, and the threat seems to grow more urgent. It might not always be so-—we may find that climate change is worse than we now believe, or (we pray) more benign. I invite those seeking a reasonable balance (and even those who aren’t!) to listen to and learn from each other-—and above all to love each other-—as our understanding grows.

Christians are called to be truth tellers, honest listeners, advocates of responsible stewardship, and seekers of the common good. When the world sees half-truths and distortions coming from the mouths of evangelicals on important issues like climate change, they see us as reckless and uncaring. we can be a credible moral voice, champions of justice, prudence, equity, and reasoned debate, but only if we have a reputation for respecting truthful dialogue.

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  1. Pingback: Climate economics challenges left and right « Rusty Pritchard

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