Though it may be difficult to imagine in many circles (especially in my circle of academia), those of us who are worried about climate change have not done a good job of convincing our fellow citizens that it is a very serious problem.
Most people in my real and virtual orbits thought President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate treaty was not only a mistake, but utterly brain-dead and even evil. No reasonable or good person could have made such a decision.
But the statistics tell a different story. Though it is a record high over the last three decades, only 42 percent of Americans “worry a great deal” about global warming.
If you get to know people who are in the other 58 percent, most have fairly complex views. Some believe climate change is happening but that it is only partially human-caused. Some believe that the proposed remedies for climate change are worse than what the effects of such warming would be. Indeed, not a few people believe that warming is actually a benefit for the world overall—pointing out, among other things, that cold kills 20 times more people than does heat.
Unfortunately, our public debate over climate change has become so polarized that those of us who are working to address global climate change rarely engage the actual views of our opponents. Instead, we derisively refer to them as “deniers” and even “traitors to our species.”
Many also slap them with the “anti-science” label.
In reality, however, most skeptics I know are more than willing to mix it up with regard to the science, particularly when it comes to questioning the accuracy of models used to make predictions.
But why don’t these skeptics simply accept the consensus on this issue? Surely their armchair science is simply the result of faux research funded by greedy oil companies who want to keep the status quo, right?
Skeptics reply that the major oil companies actually supported the Paris climate agreement and that most of what is going on with the consensus in climate science is politically-motivated and a function of where the money in academic research comes from. They claim we have seen this in the past, most-recently when it came to the mistaken scientific consensus on fat, sugar and health.
The skepticism is strongest among small government conservatives who question the motives of people who are activists for government regulation of business, anti-capitalism, and in favor of redistribution of wealth via global governance. Don’t such people favor what the Paris agreement represents independent of whether climate change is a serious problem?
Adding fuel to this skeptical fire is the fact that those who very publicly affirm the serious problem of climate change are often not living lives consistent with those beliefs. Al Gore’s mansion uses 10 to 20 times more energy than the average home in his area. President Obama would regularly take gas-guzzling vacations to Hawaii. Leo DiCaprio has made climate change a focus of his advocacy, but what to make of this from someone who gets around via private jet?
Some skeptics also argue that the proposed changes of the Paris agreement aren’t even close to enough to stem the tide climate change advocates say is happening.
What do skeptics conclude? The furor over climate change is really just big government liberals cynically using climate change as a way of advancing a political agenda they have for other reasons. If activists really believed in climate change, so the argument goes, they would be proposing solutions and living lives consistent with their stated beliefs. Because they are not, it is reasonable to believe there must be something else going on.
Frankly, though I’m something approaching a climate activist (basically I agree with Pope Francis in Laudato Si’), I can understand why skeptics have the view they do. I’m continually frustrated by people who say that climate change is a catastrophic problem but not living as if what they are saying is true.
Unlike these skeptics, however, I don’t think it is because they are disingenuous. A more likely culprit is human sinfulness. Many people who genuinely believe in the Church’s teachings on sex, duties to the poor, forgiveness, and other matters, nevertheless fall short of living out those teachings. It doesn’t follow from Y’s failure to live out value X that Y must not believe in value X.
Pope Francis’s call for a “culture of encounter” looms large here. Those of us who are worried about climate change should do a better job of genuinely encountering those who think differently. In engaging them we should listen first and answer their arguments seriously. Name-calling and label-slapping is not only antithetical to genuine encounter, it undermines our ability to be heard.
Most importantly, the skeptics we encounter should come away with the very clear sense that we are trying to live as if what we believe about climate change is true. Given that factory farms are likely the most significant contributor to climate change, for instance, one important thing we should do is give up eating meat. Indeed, the list of ways we should change our lives in light of the climate change is quite substantial.
Trump’s decision to pull out of Paris, through wrongheaded and frustrating, may present an even more important opportunity to renew a commitment to live out our ecological values.
Charles C. Camosy is Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University.