By Steven D. Martin
The theft and publication of thousands of e-mail messages from scientists in the Climatic Research Unit at England’s University of East Anglia will undoubtedly affect the outcome of the U.N. climate talks — taking place in Denmark as I write this — as the controversy over the messages has measurably swayed public opinion about global warming.
Perhaps the most important effect of the East Anglia e-mail scandal is that it has left us wondering whom to believe. In essence, it is a crisis of faith.
Environmental issues, not too long ago, were matters of science and not politics. After all, it was President Richard Nixon who pushed through the Clean Air Act of 1970. One of the chief opponents of this legislation was the auto industry, which fought the removal of lead from gasoline and the regulation of auto emissions. In hindsight it seems laughable that anyone would have suggested that these rules, which contributed to the reversal of the buildup of smog in American cities, would be a bad idea. Few suggested that voluntary measures would suffice; the corporate will of the American people, enacted in law, would be the only thing capable of correcting the problem. The environmental legislation of the 1970s was a matter of science and of experience (pollution was tangible and visible), not politics.
Today, however, climate change is one of the most politicized issues out there. Beliefs about climate change tend to closely follow party lines. Has science become a tool of political machines? Oil-industry-funded studies attempt to debunk scientific consensus on global warming, while incredulous climatologists try to discredit their critics. And when science succumbs to political ideologies, it’s the ideology that frames the argument instead of the facts — which, historically, we have trusted scientists to sort out.
Recently, in a discussion with my parents, my father said that he, like my brother, didn’t “believe in global warming.” What struck me as most odd about this statement is its semantic framing, in which the effect of carbon-dioxide emissions is an article of faith, not of science. How did we get to this place?
To be sure, the science on this issue is very complex. Computers cannot currently model something as multi-faceted as the Earth’s atmosphere with a great degree of accuracy, and probably never will be able to do so. Scientists (read: people who spend their whole lives studying this material) disagree on the amount of sea-level rise associated with global warming, the effect of fresh water from Greenland glaciers upon steering currents in the Atlantic, and so on.
Disagreement exists, yes: but even Sarah Palin (who has probably not spent her whole life studying this material) has admitted that the climate is changing. Is that change man-made? Is it a cause for alarm? Won’t the changes that we currently experience in the Earth’s climate automatically correct themselves?
The question, it seems, is this: Whom can we trust? Whom do we believe?
For Christians, one command stands above all: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of neighbor demands a set of behaviors that transcend the accuracy of the predictions.
For Christians obligated to love God and neighbor, the ends are not separated from the means. In other words, whether one believes the science about climate change is wrong or not, driving a gas guzzler is not a loving act. One cannot ignore China’s reliance on coal-fired power plants based on the belief that global warming is, or is not, caused by human beings. Disproportionate use of resources, and the averting of one’s eyes to air quality (to name just two environmental issues) are both sins of commission and of omission. Sins because fellow human beings suffer as a result; sins because the powerful are dehumanized by power just as much as the powerless are. And never forget the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel regarding love of neighbor: “The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.”
Perhaps a clear Christian ethical approach to this issue might also be heard in Paul’s admonition to the Corinthian church: “‘Everything is permissible for me’ — but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible for me’ — but I will not be mastered by anything.” Sure, our economy still provides us great luxuries. But is it truly Christian to indulge, especially when our indulgence does not show love to our neighbors? Shattered faith in ambitious scientists aside, doesn’t basic Christian sobriety demand that we live in ways that reduce our impact upon this world — that show love to God and to neighbor?
For Christians, our ethics ought to be determined by love, in spite of stolen e-mails and other scandals that cast doubt, for some, on science.