Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Letter to Conservative Lutherans on Global Warming --

Dear Pastor Wilken and Mr. Parton,

This is a response to the April 20 “Issues Etc.” interview by Todd Wilken of Craig Parton on the topic of anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann’s NY Times op-ed titled “Faith vs. Facts”

I understand that “Issues Etc.” is intended for an audience which is in basic agreement with its conservative Lutheran standpoint. It’s not meant for the ears of liberal atheists like me. But I like to try to understand opposing viewpoints, so I do occasionally listen, if the topic sounds interesting. This one did, since I had read Luhrmann’s op-ed, and disagreed with much of it. I thought the central idea, that religious beliefs are not factual beliefs – that, in her words “religious belief and factual belief are ... different kinds of mental creatures” – was misguided, and I wanted to hear what you guys had to say.

You agreed with me. But at the same time, you demonstrated the problem that her analysis was trying to solve.

Her article began:

“MOST of us find it mind-boggling that some people seem willing to ignore the facts — on climate change, on vaccines, on health care — if the facts conflict with their sense of what someone like them believes. ‘But those are the facts,’ you want to say. ‘It seems weird to deny them.’”

Craig Parton DID deny the facts on climate change on your broadcast. It IS weird to deny them, but perhaps not that weird. After all, it’s clear, from what Mr. Parton had to say, that he is totally uninformed on the topic. People are often mistaken on topics they know little about. On the other hand, he confidently expressed, on the public air waves, strong beliefs on a subject of which he knows next to nothing. That is a bit weird, even allowing for the fact that he could expect the vast majority of his listeners to share his opinion because it is current conservative orthodoxy. But why is he so confident? How can he dismiss the warnings of the world’s scientists without a second thought? Or is he so oblivious that he is unaware that the world’s most respected scientific organizations have been issuing warning reports like this one by the U.S. National Academy of Science and the Royal Society: http://nas-sites.org/climate-change? Mr. Parton did bring in politics and religion in his attempt to explain why people disagree with him about climate change. So was Luhrmann on the right track? Was Craig, despite his protestations, utilizing some non-fact-based, religious or perhaps political way of thinking?

Here is a transcript I’ve made of the conversation:

 Starting at about 17:40 minutes into the podcast:

Todd: “One of the things that I found interesting in the op-ed piece, Craig, is that it kind of starts out by saying, “Well, this explains why Christians (I think the meta-narrative here is Christians, not all religious types) but this explains why religious types are so wrong on stuff like global warming. (They even throw in health care reform in there for some reason.) That’s why they’re resistant to the facts.” What are your thoughts there?

Craig: “Yeah. That to me is one of those red herrings where I don’t surface(?) but to say that reasonable minds can disagree on certain topics. And they don’t call it global warming. That’s changed. Now it’s climate change. Um, excuse me, I hate to be blunt about it, but what moron doesn’t believe in climate change? My climate changed today, it changed this morning, it changed yesterday. It’s been changing for a long time. But the debate now has shifted to, from global warming – which couldn’t be sustainable – to climate change. Um, I think it shows a real weakness, um in the analysis in the article to equate controversial political positions with the claims of Christianity as the center(?) that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. I think it shows, you know, you’ve got to have some ultimate, um, things that you hold to, whether you’re an anthropologist and an atheist, uh, or whoever you are. And if you don’t make ultimately justifiable assertions about your claims, you’ll believe... you’ll absolutize anything, including political stances. And so when you’re left with nothing to believe in but this world, you absolutize your politics in this world and make it your religion.” 19:37

Here is my response to the above:

I hate to be blunt about it too, but what moron doesn’t know the difference between weather and climate? If it snowed yesterday but warmed up today, that’s weather. But if it snowed so much last winter that snow stayed on the ground through the summer and into the next winter, and the same thing has been happening for thousands upon thousands of years, snow layering upon snow to create a glacier that has been there longer than humans have been there to witness it, then that is climate. And when the glacier melts away, its edge receding for miles from where it once loomed – as glaciers are doing all around the world – or when it disappears altogether (as most of the glaciers in Glacier National Park have done) then that is climate change. No one who has bothered to try to educate himself about this topic could make such an elementary error.

As for the terms “global warming” and “climate change”, both have long been in use. (See https://www.skepticalscience.com/climate-change-global-warming.htm.) People don’t use the term “climate change” because they have given up on global warming. Far from it!  After all, 2014 was the warmest year on record.  “Global warming” and “climate change” refer to different but related phenomena. An increase in greenhouse gases (chiefly from the burning of fossil fuels) warms the planet. (What is so hard to believe about that? Have you seen pictures of the earth at night from space, lit up with electricity? Seven billion of us are changing the face of the planet.) “Global warming” refers to this long-term trend of increasing temperature averaged over the whole surface of the globe, which is due to the fact that the planet is absorbing more energy from the sun than it is radiating back into space (the greenhouse effect).  Global warming CAUSES climate change, which encompasses many different kinds of change, from melting glaciers and sea ice and permafrost to rising sea levels to changes in the frequency and severity of storms and the distribution of precipitation. The jet stream can be affected, bringing severe cold to regions unaccustomed to such weather. Changes in ocean temperature and currents can affect fish stocks and the animals and humans that depend on them. Productive farming regions could turn to desert and vice versa. Highly populated regions, which have been dry for tens of thousands of years, could be lost to the sea. Water sources from mountain snow melt on which millions of people depend could dry up. These are just some examples of climate changes. Because our societies have grown up relying on fairly stable climate conditions, and because, if our production of greenhouse gases is not curtailed, the speed, severity and ultimate nature of induced climate changes cannot be known with certainty, it seems prudent to limit these changes. The current goal is to limit global warming to 2⁰C (3.6°F).

(Another effect, in addition to global warming, of the well-documented human-caused continuing increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is ocean acidification. CO2 dissolves in water (as in carbonated water) making it more acidic. This in turn makes it more difficult for sea creatures to build their skeletons and shells from calcium carbonate. Coral reefs, for instance, which support so much sea life, are stressed both by increasing ocean temperatures and by ocean acidification.)

The reality of global warming and the resulting climate change is based on decades of serious scientific research carried out by thousands of dedicated scientists and reported in established scientific journals according to the strict standards of the science community. Recognizing this is not a “political stance”, it is realism. What is global warming denial based on? Why do you two believe what you do? Why are you so dismissive of the scientific evidence? Has your denial of evolution perhaps so alienated you from the scientific community that you don’t take even physical science seriously? Why do you believe this is a matter of politics, and of “absolutizing” a political stance into a religion? Does that mean that you regard this question as a religious one, perhaps as a battle in a religious war? Is it against your religion to believe what scientists are telling you about climate change? You believe in man’s sinful nature; is it so hard to believe that man may be carelessly and ignorantly wrecking the dwelling that God created for him? Or is “this world” of so little importance to Christians like you that whether or not we harm the environment that sustains us is unworthy of concern?

I do not believe that belief in climate change is a religion. At least for me, care for the environment is not a matter of worshipping or sacralizing nature. But it is a moral question. In fact, I believe it is probably the most serious moral question of our time, fully as serious as the Holocaust. Because not only is our responsibility to future generations to pass on the birthright of a rich and thriving environment at stake. So are millions of lives and the well-being of many generations of our posterity. In Nazi Germany, Germans watched their Jewish neighbors disappear and didn’t ask questions. They ignored what was happening and hoped for the best. German Protestant and Catholic clergy, with very few exceptions, either did not oppose or actively supported the Third Reich. The full horror of what they had done, and what they hadn’t done, only became undeniable later. How will we be remembered if we do nothing to stop global warming and, as a result, calamities ensue? How will conservative Lutherans be remembered?

Best regards,

Gerald D. Lame

San Diego, CA.

P.S. There is a new documentary movie out about the fine art of denialism called “Merchants of Doubt”. It is based on the book of the same name by the historian of science Naomi Oreskes. It might help. Of course there are many books on global warming, the science, the history of the science, the politics, the economics, etc. For an in-person approach to facts on the ground and the scientists investigating them, I found Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe very readable. (I don’t recommend her more recent book, The Sixth Extinction, even though it won a Pulitzer Prize. It piles other challenges on top of global warming, and is just too daunting, I found, plus it’s a much thicker book.) – G. L.

P.P.S.  By the way, you two seemed to assume that T.M. Luhrmann was ignorant of Christianity, and Craig was pleased but surprised that what she had to say about faith and facts seemed to ring true when applied to the attitudes of many evangelicals. You may be interested to learn that Luhrmann is the author of the 2012 book When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, in which she used her anthropologists’ tools to try to fathom the practices of a community of American evangelicals.

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