Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #081. First published in the St. Cloud Times online and in print Apr. 22, 2014                                                 

Imagine people at the beginning of the 22nd century — or even earlier — coping with drought, submerged cities, battles over access to fresh water, and countless other environmental catastrophes.

They will be asking about us, their grandparents and great-grandparents, what Sen. Howard Baker famously wondered during the Watergate hearings: Who knew what, and when did they know it?

The answer is clear: They all knew it on March 31, 2014.

That was the day the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its report, "Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability." A 49-page summary of the report (which itself is in 32 volumes totaling 2,610 pages) was unanimously endorsed by the more than 100 governments involved.

The conclusion is stark. Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution for Science, lead author of the report: "We're now in an era where climate change isn't some kind of future hypothetical." Another author, Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University: "We're all sitting ducks."

In January, before the report was issued, climate scientist James Hansen put it this way: "Imagine a giant asteroid on a direct collision course with Earth. That is the equivalent of what we face now."

My point is not to rehearse the findings or restate the dire warnings. My concern is why it seems likely that when knowing it, we won't do nearly enough to forestall our descendants' puzzlement, anger, even their justified wrath.

The Pew Research Center, noting that "the American public routinely ranks dealing with global warming low on its list of priorities for the president and Congress," found in its January survey that global warming "ranked second to last among 20 issues tested."

My hope that we'll do what needs to be done is up against three powerful countervailing forces.

First is a widespread mistrust of science. This is sometimes expressed as "scientists claim to know too much" — the arrogance accusation; sometimes as "they're just proposing theories" — the uncertainty accusation. And these accusations coalesce into the supposition that the scientists are simply mouthing some political ideology.

Science doesn't work that way. Scientists are skeptical by instinct and training. They require evidence. They're subject to human foibles like the rest of us, of course, but as a community, they are always ready to correct one another.

When the consensus of such questioners is as overwhelming as it is on climate change — its causes and its consequences — it is the height of anti-intellectual arrogance to dismiss their findings as "just theory" or "ideologically motivated."

The second countervailing force is religious resistance. Linked in some cases to the anti-science prejudice — the Pew Research Center recently found one-third of Americans do not believe in evolution — religious resistance nonetheless has its own peculiar character.

Whether grounded in a belief that God will intervene to save us (God will divert the asteroid) or in a conviction that these dire predictions are a welcome prelude to the final battle between God and Satan (here comes the asteroid, hooray!), this attitude claims a scriptural warrant that I, as a Christian, find personally offensive and theologically weak. The doctrine of creation loads us humans with responsibility, not just status.

The third countervailing force is economic faith. Many trust that the market will sort out everything. We can't undo the damage that is already done and will be around for decades, even centuries, but additionally we are told that the drastic steps needed to slow the rate of climate change are too expensive.

A market that is driven by the quarterly report is totally out of phase with decisions that have long-term consequences. Auto companies won't even take responsibility for design flaws that cost lives.

Political leaders (including candidates) at all levels; religious people; business officers and shareholders — indeed, everybody — must face head-on the challenge presented by the Climate Change report.

A proper way to mark this 45th Earth Day.