In your last communication, you offered three main reasons for your reflexive skepticism about climate change. As each of these reasons, in my experience, reflects deep-seated suspicions and doubts among many American Christians on this issue, I wanted to take some time to address each of them at some length, before touching on a fourth point that I think is much misunderstood and should be given serious weight.
Objection 1: The Science is All Political
You said that much of what passes for science on this issue is politics, or at any rate heavily politicized. I think several things can be said in response to this.
First is, “well sure, of course.” If by “politics” we mean something like, “the deliberation by a society about justice and the common good,” well then one could hardly expect a phenomenon like climate change not to be a political issue right off the bat. After all, if some parties (and indeed some nations) are in fact profiting off of the production and use of fossil fuels while their actions are having destructive effects on other human beings (including disproportionately the most powerless, namely, those yet unborn and the poor and those in third-world countries), then that is surely a matter of concern for justice and for the common good. Of course, if you don’t think that is happening after all—if there’s nothing there science-wise—then, by the same token, there’s nothing there politics-wise. But in that case, to say it shouldn’t be politicized is to beg the question. If the problem is real—if the science is right—then it is a political problem, and we should expect the political issues to get entangled with the science pretty quickly.
The second is that this can readily take the form of a lazy cop-out: “Oh, the whole discussion about this is so tied up with politics, that how could we ever expect to discover the truth of the matter?” In reality, it’s not really that difficult. Partly because the science involved is more straightforward than generally presented (see below at (4)). Partly because you can get past a lot of the political noise when you stop listening to politicians and journalists talk about it and stick to scientists and science bloggers—when you do that you generally find things framed in pretty no-nonsense, “here’s the data and here’s the margin of error and here’s the uncertainties” terms. That might’ve been difficult in the past but it’s darn easy now what with everything that’s super-accessible on the internet. That doesn’t get past all of it of course because there’s always the conspiracy-minded concern that even the apparently sober no-nonsense scientists are just manipulated by political incentives (which is to say, what the government wants to fund). In that case, I think you fall back on the standard prudential rules of thumb that we adopt in other areas of life.
Ask yourself the following four questions:
- (i) Do the relevant authorities tell me there’s a danger here?
- (ii) How certain am I that they’re right?
- (iii) If they’re wrong, and I listen to them anyway, what’s the worst that can happen?
- (iv) If they’re right, and I don’t listen to them, what’s the worst that can happen?
In this series of questions, if the answer to (i) is “Yes” and the answer to (iv) is much worse than the answer for (iii), then even if the answer to (ii) is “Not very” the prudent thing to do is still clearly to defer to the relevant authorities. That seems clearly the case here. If anthropogenic climate change is real on anything like the scale that most scientists are saying, the consequences of inaction are dire. If it turns out not to be real, the consequences of taking precautionary action anyway are, to be honest, actually not very bad at all. I mean, oil is obviously a limited resource at some point, so even if we reduced our consumption sooner than strictly necessary, it still wouldn’t be that bad a move.
The third is that, on the other hand, the “the science is all politics” line is actually way too oversimplified. Neither the “science” nor the “politics” are monolithic. There are after all very strong political forces in favor of laissez-faire free market ideas, both for ideological reasons and for financial interest reasons. And these tend to drive a certain form of science, again, both because of scientists who have an ideological commitment to laissez-faire (which is a substantial number here in the US) and because there is substantial corporate funding for climate change skepticism. Consider also the general assumption among conservatives that because (a) governments want to increase their power and (b) if climate change is a problem, they get to increase their power, then, ergo (c) governments have an interest in exaggerating climate change. If anything, most of what I’ve observed the past decade seems to run against the conclusion (c). Not because premises (a) or (b) are wrong as far as it goes, but because one has to add that even more than growing their power, governments are concerned to try and retain the power they currently have, and fearful of losing it, and one of the surest ways to lose power in a democracy is to demand short-term sacrifices for long-term rewards. So it is that when one actually looks at the median stance of most Western scientists vs. the median stance of most Western governments, the former are actually considerably more worked up than the latter, contrary to the “government funding is dragging scientists along” hypothesis. This really came home to me when I read the book Merchants of Doubt (definitely worth reading on this whole political angle, even if it is one-sided) and realized that in the original 1995 IPCC report on climate change, it was in fact the governments who demanded that the language be softened and insisted that the scientists downplay the danger. That has still been the trend more often than not. I’ve also tended to fine, when I read climate and weather blogs online, that the skeptics are far more overtly political and partisan than the climate worries.
Objection 2: Climate Activists are Religious Zealots
You say (or, this is the gist of what you say), “There’s a religious tinge to climate change discussions, which makes me reflexively skeptical. As a Christian, I’m on my guard when people seem to be showing devotion to another god.” Three things to say in response to this, again.
First, if you mean simply, as some Christian conservatives here in the US seem to, that most environmentalists and scientists are pagans, then I would say this is both a misleading perception and, even to the extent it is true, something of a uniquely American state of affairs. Sure, to the extent that faithful Christians are a minority in the sciences (as in most areas of cultural leadership), that means that most scientists, including most climate-change-concerned scientists, will not be faithful Christians. But it does not logically follow that of the faithful Christians who are scientists, a majority are climate change skeptics. I do not think this is the case even in America. Certainly it is not abroad, where Christians are if anything more likely to be concerned about climate issues than their secular counterparts.
Second, if you mean (and I think this is a lot of your point) that an almost religious zealotry seems to motivate many environmentalists, both in the scientific community and outside it, then this is certainly true. I once heard a lecture in Edinburgh from this absolute kook who was purporting to give a sociologist of religion’s objective take on “deep green” environmentalism as religion, but who, it turned out as the lecture went on, was clearly a hearty devotee of the religion himself. Still, these folks are a minority. Most scientists are just concerned about getting to the facts, and if they think about the bigger picture, trying to do what’s right for society. And it’s important not to confuse moral earnestness for religiosity. I can appropriately get very worked up about the injustice of sex trafficking without thereby worshipping human dignity as a god. Just so, if someone is really convinced that climate change is a disastrous injustice that will lead to preventable death on a large scale, well then, they should be worked up about it, shouldn’t they? Sure, if you aren’t convinced, then it all seems a bit blown out of proportion, and one is tempted to lob the charge of religiosity, but then that is just begging the question.
Third, it’s worth pointing out that the shoe is also on the other foot. That is to say, for every ounce of misplaced tree-hugging idolatry on the environmentalist Left, there is at least a counterbalancing ounce of misplaced materialist/consumerist/individualist idolatry on the laissez-faire Right. One can’t decry the one and ignore the other.
Objection 3: It’s All About Making Big Government Bigger
You say that your biggest concern about the politics is how climate change is being used to drive “vast government intrusion into the economy.” But this is again to beg the question, and assume in advance it isn’t a real problem. Suppose for the sake of argument that it is really happening. If so, then we have two main options: (a) proactive government action, and (b) reactive government action. (It is, of course, hypothetically possible, I suppose, that the private sector could of its own accord take comprehensive and unanimous preventative and remedial action, but it is clear that that isn’t happening, and it isn’t going to happen, because it would in fact need to be pretty well unanimous given the nature of the market forces involved.)
Of those two options, Option B will involve much vaster government expansion and intrusion. Coping with major natural disasters is one of the key areas where governments are pretty much needed, and where, when they are needed, they have to march in and take charge of the situation pretty completely to preserve lives and restore order. If we went with Option B and waited until Miami and New Orleans and New York were going underwater, or food prices were spiraling out of control due to agricultural disruption, or the national security situation was deteriorating rapidly due to a cascade of failed states in Africa and the Middle East due to famine and starvation (and this is just to consider things from the United States’s perspective) then I guarantee you that a vast expansion of central government along New Deal lines, if not some kind of totalitarian takeover, would be the result.
What about Option A? Well, one could argue—indeed, heck, I will argue—that the kind of proactive government action called for here is no “intrusion into the economy,” but one of the standard and basic services that the government is ordinarily called upon to perform for the economy, to maintain its stability and freedom: namely, controlling externalities. If warming of the atmosphere, acidification of the oceans, and alteration of the climate and land-based ecosystems, is actually part of the cost of doing business with fossil fuels, then it is a vast cost that is not being incorporated into market prices, but is being passed off by both producers and consumers onto third parties—mostly third parties yet unborn. This is an injustice and a market failure, precisely the sort of injustice and market failure that government exists to correct, and without which correction there is no genuinely free market but only exploitation.
If we commit ourselves then to Option A in principle—Ok, there’s a problem here, and it’s a market failure, and we should respond to it proactively, when smaller interventions may have larger effects, than wait and respond reactively with much larger interventions—then there’s still a whole range of different policy alternatives on the table. Some options are essentially negative, trying to correct the externality by penalizing fossil fuel producers, whereas some options are essentially positive, trying to correct it by stimulating the growth of alternative technologies. And within this realm, I’d certainly love to see the policies that can be achieved with minimal bureaucracy, maximal efficiency, and which best encourage innovation. This is what the good folks at E&EI are working toward.
What I do not think is an option is the “let’s just adapt and innovate our way out of the problem as it becomes more serious—let the market cope with the consequences of the problem that the market created.” This ends up reducing to a de facto Darwinian survival of the fittest that is inimical to a Christian ethic. For market-provided coping mechanisms will of course be expensive on the front end, and available only to those who can pay. The market will certainly provide options for rich people with beachfront villas (turn them into floating houses?), but not necessarily for poor people in harborside slums.
How the Science Actually Works
Ok, final point. It’s worth recognizing that the basic science of this is really much simpler than usually presented. It’s often presented as if:
(a) warming has been observed
(b) scientists fished around for a hypothesis to explain the observations
(c) they settled on fossil fuels as the main cause (a politically convenient scapegoat, many will say)
(d) the jury is still out on whether the hypothesis will be vindicated by data.
If this were the case, then it can easily be met with “post hoc ergo proper hoc” objections, speculations about other possible causes of warming (various “natural variation” explanations), etc. Indeed, if this were the case, it would take a very long time and a lot of data before the hypothesis could be considered more or less vindicated.
But in fact the science runs like this:
(a) we know (and have long known) that greenhouse gasses keep our planet warm, and CO2 is chief among them, and that human activity was steadily and rapidly increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.
(b) scientists therefore hypothesized that they would, in the absence of counteracting natural variation, observe warming along certain roughly-estimated lines, with the estimate being fine-tuned as understanding of complex feedback loops improved
(c) the predictions thus made have been largely borne out by data, thus helping confirm the hypothesis.
In other words, scientists weren’t searching around for an explanation of the warming they observed; the warming is in fact precisely what climate science predicted before climate change was a thing or a political discussion. Thus the only questions are really (1) how fast will it happen? (2) Will negative feedback loops retard it or positive feedback loops accelerate it? (3) Will we be fortunate enough to have a counteracting natural variation cycle just as the warming is getting bad? (4) Assuming we’re not so fortunate, which areas will have the worst impacts and what will those impacts be?
Whatever your views on the details of the debate, I think you’ll agree with me that we who worship the God who created this marvelous planet with its intricate, delicately-balanced ecosystems, and who put us here to protect it, should take these issues more seriously than anyone. You may remain a skeptic, but I exhort you to be a thoughtful skeptic, not a lazy or complacent one, for the stakes are much too high for that. Above all, don’t let yourself be a skeptic just because that is more comfortable, less likely to challenge your cherished habits and opinions. Truth is rarely comfortable.
 See for instance R.J. Brulle, “Institutionalizing delay: foundation funding and the creation of U.S. climate change counter-movement organizations,” Climatic Change (2014) 122: 681-94 for a recent peer-reviewed study on this, or, for a more comprehensive narrative, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt (now also an excellent documentary—see http://www.merchantsofdoubt.org).