Climate Change: Are You a Believer? - Dissent Magazine
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.