Climate Change: Are You a Believer?

Climate Change: Are You a Believer?

Meera Subramanian: Climate Change – Are You a Believer?

In graduate school I studied under religion writer Jeff Sharlet. It was through him that I learned how every story is a story of faith. The debate around climate change?is it happening, how bad is it, if it is happening what?s causing it, what should we do about it??really comes down to a question of belief.

This summer, Andrew Hoffman had a piece in the Christian Science Monitor that addressed this fundamental notion of worldviews and cultural beliefs underlying the divide between climate skeptics and believers. He wrote, ?For skeptics, climate change is inextricably tied to a belief that climate science and policy are a covert way for liberal environmentalists and the government to diminish citizens? personal freedom.? For the skeptics, the science is merely a guise for a liberal anti-capitalist agenda.

But does the public agree? A Reuters/lpsos poll taken in September showed that the percentage of Americans who believe the Earth has been warming rose to 83 percent from 75 percent last year. (In the same time frame, the level of CO2 at one data site in Hawaii rose by 2.2 ppm.) The study shows that the divide between skeptics and non-skeptics does fall heavily on party lines, with approximately 72 percent of Republicans believing global warming is happening compared to 92 percent of Democrats. Interestingly, the Reuters poll analysis speculated that the strong stance of skeptical Republican candidates is actually pushing more people to reconsider how they feel about the issue, and to discover that they don?t agree with the dubious candidates.

Hoffman?s opinion piece continued: ?A second prominent theme is a strong faith in the free market, an overriding fear that climate legislation will hinder economic progress, and a suspicion that green jobs and renewable energy are ploys to engineer the market.? There?s that word faith again. And the other holy word: economy.

But I pause on the phrase, ?engineer the market.? Isn?t that what the market is all about? Trends, predictions, getting ahead of the curve so you can make the biggest buck? Back in Oregon, as we fought to protect the last 10 percent of old-growth forests that still stood, representatives from the largest timber company in the region told me they?d already retooled the vast majority of their mills for small-diameter timber, knowing the big stuff would soon be gone. (They were also moving most of their operations to places like Malaysia and Siberia, where trees were big and activists seemed small.) They still wanted those last big trees, but they were preparing for a future devoid of massive timbers, just as vineyard owners are thinking about what grapes to plant as their current varieties suffer from even incremental increases in heat. It?s pragmatic. Practical. Conservative, as in cautious. Climate change is real for people who are on the land, watching changes happen to the resources they depend upon.

So one would think that betting on the green economy would be a brilliant move for a capitalist these days. But responses to climate change are mired in political questioning of scientific data, instead of the information itself. Thomas Friedman writes that the green economy of alternative energy, like retooling the mills for small trees, won?t develop until there are concrete, long-term, stable incentives such as a gas tax or a price for carbon emissions. Unfortunately, that is still a long ways off.

Hoffman is spot on about the need to reframe the debate. Part of his message is not to talk science. For the most part, people don?t get science, including believers on the left. We are at the mercy of scientific authority that could, if it was very clever, be conspiring against us. In order for most of us to understand the complicated nuances that are at play in our atmosphere, we need to receive the information from someone who has the rare combination of scientific understanding and an ability to convey the facts and their implications to the general public. It?s difficult to find such a person, especially on an issue that has become political and polarized.

But talking around the science could be just as effective. Hoffman writes:

When U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Churefers to advances in renewable-energy technology inChina as America?s ?Sputnik moment,? he is framing climate change as a threat to economic competitiveness. When Pope Benedict links the threat of climate change with threats to life and dignity, he is painting it as an issue of religious morality.When the Military Advisory Board, a group of retired military officers, refers to climate change as a ?threat multiplier,? it is using a national-security frame.And when the Pew Center refers to climate change as an issue of risk management, it is promoting climate insurance just as homeowners buy fire insurance. This is the way to engage the debate?not hammering skeptics with more data and expressing dismay that they don?t get it.

But the science has played a role in recent conversion stories, which, as in all good circles of faith, are often the source of the greatest transformative power. Noted physicist and climate change skeptic Richard Muller spent two years studying the work of climate scientists. A quarter of his funding came from the Charles Koch Foundation, whose founder is a major funder of skeptic groups and the Tea Party. His conclusion, as reported by Seth Borenstein: the earth is warming. Not that Muller goes so far as to say it is anthropogenic in origin, but still.

So why is there still such a schism between the increasingly non-skeptical general public and the pulpit pronouncements of those who wish to lead our country, such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, who insist that even if climate change is happening it is certainly not due to the activities of humans? Could it be all the little things adding up? Or Bachmann?s adamant diatribe about how natural CO2 is?

Maybe it is a deep-seated abhorrence of censorship. Mother Jones revealed a story about officials in Governor Perry?s administration deleting key parts of a scientific report about a rise in the sea level in Galveston Bay, and the subsequent revolt of the scientists who wrote and then pulled their names from the report.

Maybe it is one too many storms last winter, this summer.

Maybe it?s that things have gotten politically and economically bad enough that people are leaving their couches and setting up camps on the street, pre-occupied no longer.

Or maybe there is a desire for simple honesty. I, for one, would almost be pleased to hear a so-called skeptic let go of the ?maintaining-our-way-of-life? line and acknowledge that humans are indeed transforming the planet, but that they just don?t really care.

As our editorial collective at Killing the Buddha, a literary magazine that Jeff Sharlet co-founded and I currently help edit, likes to say, every story is about faith lost and found, often both. Climate change is no different.