Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Let's try understanding, not denigrating, those who cite religion as a reason to doubt climate change

In a recent post on Climate Progress, the prolific Joe Romm highlighted a video of famed climate change skeptic and US Senator James Inhofe explaining that "God's still up there".

Thank God the Senator from Oklahoma is here to promise us that that the Almighty will override at a planetary level the laws of physics He created and simply stop human-emissions of heat-trapping gases from ravaging his Creation. Now if we can only get Inhofe to tell God to stop all cancers and traffic accidents, too.

The post goes on to say that "this fundamentalist, anti-scientific tripe, far from disqualifying Inhofe, puts him in very good company with other leading conservative politicians". This includes a representative (John Shimkus, R-IL) who challenges the possibility of sea level rise because of God's covenant with Noah, that the Earth will not flood again.

Like Romm, I'm obviously no fan of Senator Inhofe's attacks on climate science not his efforts to obstruct climate policy. For all we know, Inhofe's comments are a calculated ploy to bring in religious viewers. Regardless, Romm's religious line of attack, all too common in scientific and activist discourse, is self-defeating and unproductive. It is also a lost opportunity to discuss the role religion plays in the average person's understanding of climate change.

First, from a purely practical perspective, denigrating Conservative climate skeptics as religious wingnuts is certain to alienate many other religious Christians who may actually be more open to accepting the scientific evidence for the effect of human activity on the climate. Matt Nisbet has argued this point, with respect to climate and other issues, many times on his blog Framing Science.

Second, the comments of Inhofe and the other Christian conservatives quoted in the post provide a window for us scientists and communicator into why so many people in the US and other parts of the world often have difficulty accepting, at a gut level, that human activity is changing the climate. As I've argued in Climatic Change and on the web, the notion that humans can change the climate goes against thousands of years of belief that the weather and climate is controlled by the gods, or the Judeo-Christian God. However much one might dislike and distrust Inhofe, his comments provide an opportunity for education and discussion of the public perception of climate change, an opportunity that is lost when the fangs come out.

To use just one example, Rep Shimkus' assertion that sea level rise won't happen because God promised Noah never to flood the Earth again is not some fringe claim by one crazy, fundamentalist congressman. Ask an elder in almost any Pacific Island nation about sea level rise and you'll get the same answer. And why not? The Bible and the flood narrative are a core part of their belief system - as it is for millions of people in North America. You're unlikely to alter your audience's belief in God's covenant not to flood the earth again with a 45 minute lecture or a 400 word blog post that is dismissive of the audience's belief system.

Community leaders in the Pacific figured this out and took action. The churches gathered together to develop literature and sermons that reconcile their people's strong religious beliefs with the seemingly heretical notion that the climate is changing and the seas are rising because of human activity. Their ideas are crystallized in the 2004 Otin-taii declaration, named after the Kiribati hotel where it was signed. The approach has been effective.

If you really want to effect change, you need to understand how different people, who have had different experiences, interpret the world. You need to work together to find common ground, as the churches have done in the Pacific. Attacking is easier than understanding. It also does more harm than good.


Anonymous said...

A story from a long time ago.

A television broadcast announced a big storm. John didn't bother. The radio then broadcast an evacuation alert. John didn't bother. When the sheriff passed by, John said "The Lord is my saviour". When the wind started blowing and rain poured down, John still refused to be evacuated. When the flood raised, he went up on the roof, but still he refused to board a zodiac, and finally he died in the flood.
So he went to see his Creator, and cried: why didn't You save me? I waited for you all day long".
And God replied: "How dare you speak to me! I sent you a TV broadcast, I sent you a radio broadcast, I sent you a sheriff, an helicopter and a boat, but you were deaf and dumb".

Robert Grumbine said...


As you put it, attacking is easier than understanding. Or, my vein, labelling rather than thinking. Similar idea.

In the case of fundamentalist religion as it plays out in the US and Canada, there's a very large strain of foolishness in antagonizing people. Seldom a good idea in the first place. But on climate, unlike evolution, there is a wide rift between different fundamentalist groups. On evolution, there's a very large fraction of fundamentalists who are opposed to the science being taught, and for generally similar reasons.

But on climate, there is a rift within fundamentalism between stewardship religions, and dominionist religions. There are also non-fundamentalist stewards. In stewardship, there is plenty for a science-interested person to speak to. You have to understand what you're a steward of. If your sins of omission or commission could wreck what you are to be stewarding, that is a rather serious offense.

In related vein, I'll note that anonymous' story was told to me, among other times, by a fundamentalist neighbor of mine.