Climate change: a Christian response in theology and action. Part 2: Why is there denial and inaction?

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For theological insights to support action in response to climate change, we need to understand the causes of public and private denial of climate change and the failure to act. We now survey these causes in four broad categories: Economy and finance, Misperception and discomfort, Ideology and politics, and Religion.

Economy and finance

A United Nations Climate Conference in Paris in late 2015 [1] will seek a new binding global agreement on climate to overcome the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen conference and supplant the inadequate Kyoto protocol. [2] Preparatory talks have not been promising. Australian researcher Luke Kemp is concerned lest the prospective climate agreement will be "universal and useless." Tensions exist, Kemp says, between participation, ambition and compliance. Complete global participation may require weak laws and weak targets—"a lowest-common-denominator outcome." [3]

Theologian Michael Northcott emphasises nations as key agents in climate change. He narrates their origins in the divine ordering of history and argues that they have legal and moral responsibilities towards just and fair distribution of the fruits of the earth. [4]

Governments cannot tackle climate change singly, however—they need everyone to act together, as all will benefit from climate stability whether or not they contribute to it. Yet, if each waits for the others to act, none will. The rational response by a self-interested nation is inaction, even though the consequences of universal inaction would be severe. This is a complex version of the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ [5] and Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’. [6]

Investigation by McKenzie Funk has identified many ways in which climate change will be profitable to big business. [7] Some businesses, however, see that global warming could harm their profitability, including through changed availability of water, increased energy costs, and reduced demand. [8] Oreskes and Conway present evidence that the ‘far right’ in America is intent on destroying environmentalism in a quest to ensure the perpetuation of the free market and keeping the world ‘safe from socialism’. [9] Australia’s coal industry is an example of business that is vulnerable ethically, [10] yet—as a producer of wealth—seemingly invulnerable politically.

Misperception and discomfort

The ‘consensus gap’ is the difference between public perception of the degree of agreement between climate scientists compared with the scientists’ actual consensus. A 2013 poll found that a third of Americans believed that scientists disagreed on whether global warming was happening. Yet the IPPC’s reports suggest virtually no disagreement. [11] In a recent Australian and American study, respondents on average believed that just 55 per cent of the scientists involved agreed on climate change [12] —whereas the actual level of agreement exceeds 97 per cent. This confirmed earlier studies [13] and is significant because people are more likely to support action if they believe experts to be in agreement.

Scientific illiteracy also creates difficulty in responding to climate change. There is evidence, for example, that many people wrongly presume that climate change can be reversed quickly. [14]

The apparent reasons for climate change denial are not always consistent or rational. Maintenance of a state of denial can be more psychologically valued than intellectual consistency. [15] Conspiracy theories flourish where trust is lacking—especially of governments. Worldviews are "inflamed" by climate change because mitigation efforts may restrict freedoms; fear of the solutions arouses opposition to the science that informs them. [16] Dan Kahan’s "cultural cognition of risk" hypothesis explains why Americans trust science but disagree about its implications for them. There is a tendency to ‘groupthink’ as it can be socially costly to diverge from the consensus of one’s peers, even when it is in error. [17] A British study found that even when there is acceptance of the causes and trend of climate change, there is uncertainty and scepticism about its potential impacts. [18]

‘Secular eschatology’ has a bearing on public attitudes. Jonathan Schell (1943-2014) wrote in 1982 [19] of the horrendous reality of a nuclear holocaust. He later applied similar analysis to climate change. "Both crises," he said, "reveal a kind of bankruptcy at the crucial hour of many of the things we place our faith in." Schell believed that people are not in denial—only that "they lack faith in the system to change anything." [20]

Mike Hulme argues that disagreement and failure to act on climate change is inevitable because, "the idea of climate exists as much in the human mind and in the matrices of cultural practices as it exists as an independent objective physical category." [21] We create difficulty by "disconnecting climate from its cultural forms [and] framing climate as overtly physical and global." [22]

Ideology and politics

Progressives and conservatives both misinterpret evidence when it conflicts with their ideological convictions. "People weren’t reasoning to get the right answer," Ezra Klein found. "They were reasoning to get the answer that they wanted to be right." [23] Paul Krugman responds that in the real world, however, conservatives overwhelmingly deny certain facts in a way that progressives do not. [24] Ben Adler explains that conservatives who want there to be no government regulation are thereby motivated to be close-minded on climate change, against the weight of the evidence. [25]

Not surprisingly, that Australian research confirms that political party affiliation has a powerful influence and that ideology is the most important predictor of Australian politicians’ climate change beliefs. [26] Despite cautions at least from the 1980s onwards, [27] it was not until the 2007-13 terms of the Rudd and Gillard governments that national action on climate change was attempted—only to be reversed by the present Australian government, essentially on ideological grounds.

Public communication on climate change is particularly difficult in Australia, where coverage of the IPPC’s reports and recommendations has been minimal—particularly in the large proportion of Australia’s newspapers owned by News Corporation. [28]

Political scientists Gernot Wagner and Richard Zeckhauser observe that "it may well take dramatic loss to jolt the collective conscience toward serious action" and that only leadership of the highest calibre will "redirect currently misguided market forces toward a positive outcome." [29]

Religion

Randolph Haluza-DeLay identifies [30] several categories of impediment to religious engagement with climate change. Paradigmatic barriers are theological beliefs or worldviews that disable environmental concern. (These are similar to the ideological category discussed above.) Barriers of applicability concern the appropriate degree of attention to give to environmental concerns, if any. Lack of social critique—recognition of the societal and cultural factors that affect the human-earth relationship—sometimes coupled with over-emphasis on competing moralistic concerns, can also inhibit action. There may also be a simple lack of conviction, a lack of motivation to act.

Ancient beliefs separate the earth as human domain from the heavens as the divine domain. In Scripture the weather is used to discipline or reward believers and non-believers alike. Simon Donner argues that "doubt about human influence on the climate may be grounded in a more general feeling, a remnant of thousands of years of belief in earth-sky separation, that unspecified forces grander than humans control the climate." [31] In practice and everyday speech we do not purport to control the weather—we accept it. "Skeptics of climate change," Donner says, "have effectively exploited this spiritual uncertainty about human influence on climate by stressing the natural variability in the climate system." [32]

Many evangelical and conservative Christians believe that climate change is an urgent Christian issue and use scripture to promote good stewardship of the Earth and its resources. Particularly in the United States, nonetheless, evangelical criticism has emerged of any mingling of Christianity and environmentalism. The Cornwall Alliance, for example, opposes action on climate change and describes the environmental movement as a "false religion" that Christians must avoid. "We believe Earth and its ecosystems—created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence—are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory," it says. [33]

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said in 2012—to both applause and ridicule—that we "were put on this Earth as creatures of God to have dominion over the Earth, to use it wisely and steward it wisely, but for our benefit not for the Earth’s benefit—"[34] Such a view privileges a particular interpretation of Scripture over other interpretations and the authority of science—’Science has many things, but we have God’. This attitude perversely encourages others to see religion as an irrational and unhelpful influence in public life.

David Barker and David Bearce introduce the theoretical concept of ‘relative sociotropic time horizons’, to show that believers in ‘Christian end-times theology’ are less likely to support action on climate change; people with shorter ‘shadows of the future’ tend to resist policies that trade short-term costs for hypothetical long-term benefits. [35] Religious language on climate change reflects tension between feared calamity and hope. [36]

One analysis is that the ‘religious right’ in the United States denies climate change because it comes from the same ‘unbiblical’ science that supports evolution. [37] Sociologists John Evans and Justin Feng found that although conservative Christians may accept that climate change is happening, they are often unwilling for science to influence policy—most likely due to other issues such as evolution and abortion. [38]

  1. This will be the 21st yearly session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC and the 11th session of the Meeting of the Parties to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
  2. The Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period ended in 2012 and it is now is in a second commitment period that ends in 2020. See: http://unfccc.int/focus/climate_finance/items/7001.php.
  3. Luke Kemp, "Universal and Useless? The 2015 Global Climate Agreement," The Conversation (website) 22 May 2013. https://theconversation.com/universal-and-useless-the-2015-global-climate-agreement-14292.
  4. Michael Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).
  5. In the ‘prisoners’ dilemna’, two prisoners accused of the same crime are unable to communicate. Their gaolers ask them each to denounce the another. If neither agrees, both will receive a one-ear sentence. If one agrees but the other does not, the turncoat goes free while the convicted prisoner gets ten years. If each denounces the other, they both get five years. In such a situation, a rational self-interested prisoner would betray the other. Yet that gives each a five-year sentence, whereas silence by both would have given each just one year. See: "Playing Games with the Planet: a Version of the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ May Suggest Ways to Break Through the Kyoto Impasse," Economist, 27 September 2007, http://www.economist.com/ node/9867020.
  6. In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) explained the tendency to overexploit shared resources—such as the carbon-absorption capacity of the atmosphere—by imagining a town commons that farmers share to graze their cattle. Even when the grazing is at optimum sustainable level, a rational farmer will introduce another cow to the commons, for this returns the full extra benefit of that animal while the cost (undernourishment of the herd) is shared. Hardin called this "The tragedy of the commons" to denote its inevitability (Garrett Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science 162, no. 3859 (1968): 1243-1248). Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012), however, was awarded the 2009 Nobel prize in economics for her work showing that, although Hardin was right about the risk imbalance between individual benefit and shared costs, proper management can prevent overexploitation (Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).)
  7. McKenzie Funk, Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming (Penguin, 2014).
  8. Coral Davenport, "Industry Awakens to Threat of Climate Change," New York Times (23 January 2014) http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/24/science/earth/threat-to-bottom-line-spurs-action-on-climate.html.
  9. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury Press, 2010).
  10. David Ritter, "Without a Functioning Moral Compass, the Coal Industry Has Become Mired in a Sea of Ridicule of its Own Making," The Guardian, 15 April 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/ 2014/apr/15/australiansforcoal-is-the-latest-sign-of-an-industry-in-values-freefall.
  11. Climate Signals, Growing Louder [Editorial]," New York Times, 31 March 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/01/opinion/climate-signals-growing-louder.html.
  12. John Cook, "Palmer United Party Needs to Go Back to School on Carbon Facts," The Conversation (website) 28 April 2014, https://theconversation.com/palmer-united-party-needs-to-go-back-to-school-on-carbon-facts-25756. The results are shortly to be published formally.
  13. In October 2012, 67 per cent of Americans agreed that the earth is warming, but only 45 per cent said scientists agree on whether it is anthropogenic. (Pew Research Center, More Say There is Solid Evidence of Global Warming (Washington: Pew Research Center, 2012) http://www.people-press.org/files/legacy-pdf/10-15-12%20Global%20Warming%20Release.pdf.) In 2004 Naomi Oreskes published the results of a survey of 928 abstracts of articles on climate change in refereed science journals between 1993 and 2003; 75 per cent of the articles supported the view that there was an observed warming of the atmosphere due to greenhouse gases of human origin; 25% of the articles gave no opinion. None disagreed with the consensus position. (Naomi Oreskes, "The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change," Science 306, no. 5702 (3 December 2004): 1686.) A subsequent analysis by John Cook and others of peer-reviewed scientific literature from 1991 to 2011 found that of abstracts expressing a position on climate change, 97.1 per cent endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming; the papers rejecting the consensus were "a vanishingly small proportion of the published research." (John Cook, Dana Nuccitelli, Sarah A Green, Mark Richardson, Bärbel Winkler, Rob Painting, Robert Way, Peter Jacobs, and Andrew Skuce, "Quantifying the Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming in the Scientific Literature," Environmental Research Letters 8, no. 2 (2013) 024024 77pp., http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/2/024024/.) Similar results have been found in other studies. (Peter T. Doran and Maggie Kendal Zimmerman, "Examining the Consensus on Climate Change," EOS 90, no. 3 (20 January 2009): 22-23; William R. L. Anderegg, James W. Prall, Jacob Harold, and Stephen H. Schneider, "Expert credibility in climate change," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (published online before print, 21 June 2010) http://www.pnas.org/content/early/ 2010/06/04/1003187107.)
  14. John D. Sterman and Linda Booth Sweeney, "Understanding Public Complacency About Climate Change: Adults’ Mental Models of Climate Change Violate Conservation of Matter," Climatic Change 80 (2007): 213–23.
  15. John Cook, "The Quantum Theory of Climate Denial," Huffington Post, 29 April 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ john-cook/the-quantum-theory-of-climate-denial_b_5229539.html.
  16. Stephan Lewandowsky, "From Conspiracy Theories to Climate Denial: A Cognitive Psychologist Explains," The Conversation (website) 17 April 2014. http://theconversation.com/from-conspiracy-theories-to-climate-denial-a-cognitive-psychologist-explains-25731.
  17. Judith Shulkevitz, "This Is How You Should Talk to a Climate-Change Denier: The Complicated Science of Discussing Risk," New Republic, 22 October 2013, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/115022/how-talk-climate-change-deniers.
  18. Wouter Poortinga, Alexa Spence, Lorraine Whitmarsh, Stuart Capstick, and Nick F. Pidgeon, "Uncertain Climate: An Investigation Into Public Scepticism About Anthropogenic Climate Change," Global Environmental Change 21, no. 3 (2011): 1015-24.
  19. Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth (New York: Knopf, 1982).
  20. Quoted by Dominic Preziosi, "Climate Change & ‘The Afterlife’," dotCommonweal (website) 8 April 2014, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/climate-change-afterlife.
  21. Mike Hulme, Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction, and Opportunity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 28.
  22. Hulme, Why We Disagree, 28.
  23. Ezra Klein, "How Politics Makes us Stupid," Vox (website), 6 April 2014, http://www.vox.com/2014/4/6/5556462/brain-dead-how-politics-makes-us-stupid.
  24. Paul Krugman, "Asymmetric Stupidity," New York Times, 7 April 2014, http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/07/asymmetric-stupidity/.
  25. Ben Adler, "Why There is No Liberal Equivalent to Climate Change Denial," Grist, 8 May 2014, http://grist.org/politics/ why-there-is-no-liberal-equivalent-to-climate-change-denial.
  26. Kelly S. Fielding, Brian W. Head, Warren Laffan, Mark Western & Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, "Australian Politicians’ Beliefs About Climate Change: Political Partisanship and Political Ideology," Environmental Politics 21, no. 5 (2012): 712-733.
  27. Barry Jones, Australia’s Minister for Science from 1983 to 1990, described himself in a 2011 speech as "the oldest surviving inhabitant of the climate change controversy. … my argument was dismissed then as alarmist and premature. In politics, timing can be everything … I was in a category of one on the issue of climate change." (Barry Jones, "In Climate Change, Everything Old is New Again," The Conversation (website) 28 June 2011, http://theconversation.com/barry-jones-in-climate-change-everything-old-is-new-again-1914.) Jones was instrumental in the establishment of the Commission for the Future, which conducted conferences on the ‘greenhouse effect’ and produced reports and recommendations in the 1980s and 1990s.
  28. Mark Beeson, "The End is Nigh—Don’t Read All About It," The Conversation (website) 2 April 2014, http://theconversation.com/the-end-is-nigh-dont-read-all-about-it-25146.
  29. Gernot Wagner and Richard J. Zeckhauser, "Climate Policy: Hard Problem, Soft Thinking," Climatic Change 110 (2012): 507–521.
  30. Randolph B. Haluza-DeLay, "Churches Engaging the Environment: an Autoethnography of Obstacles and Opportunities," Human Ecology Review 15 (2008): 71-81.
  31. Simon D. Donner, "Domain of the Gods: an Editorial Essay," Climate Change 85 (2007): 234.
  32. Donner, "Domain of the Gods," 235.
  33. Cornwallis Alliance, An Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming, http://www.cornwallalliance.org/articles /read/an-evangelical-declaration-on-global-warming/. In another example, out-of-date but still-circulated papers by the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance say that although global climate change is not "out of the question", "faith is required" to "extrapolate our current level of climate understanding to predictions of future warming." (Roy W. Spencer, Paul K. Driessen, and E. Calvin Beisner, An Examination of the Scientific, Ethical and Theological Implications of Climate Change Policy (Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, 2005)). See: www.interfaithstewardship.org.
  34. Rick Santorum, [Remarks on Energy Policy to the 2012 Colorado Election Energy Summit, 6 February 2012] reported by Troy Hooper, "Santorum and Gingrich Dismiss Climate Change, Vow to Dismantle the EPA," The Colorado Independent, 6 February 2012, http://www.coloradoindependent.com/111924/santorum-and-gingrich-dismiss-climate-change-vow-to-dismantle-the-epa.
  35. David C. Barker and David H. Bearce, "End-Times Theology, the Shadow of the Future, and Public Resistance to Addressing Global Climate Change," Political Research Quarterly 66 no. 2 (2013): 267-279.
  36. Erin K. Wilson, "Religion and Climate Change: The Politics of Hope and Fear," Local–Global 10, (2012): 20
  37. Katherine Stewart, "America’s Theologians of Climate Science Denial," The Guardian, 4 November 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/nov/04/america-theologians-climate-science-denial.
  38. John H. Evans and Justin Feng, "Conservative Protestantism and Scepticism of Scientists Studying Climate Change," Climatic Change 121, no. 4 (2013): 595-608.