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President's Corner

Strange bedfellows and holy alliances


As most readers of the UCAR Quarterly are aware, climate change is real and is already affecting millions of people's lives, especially in the Arctic and other sensitive regions. Temperatures (see graphic) and sea level are rising and ice is melting throughout most of the world. According to NASA's James Hansen, we have reached a global mean temperature higher than at any time during the present interglacial period, which has lasted 12,000 years.1

Although the details of the future are uncertain, we are heading over the next several generations into a climate that has never before been experienced by civilization. Changes in temperature, precipitation, sea level, and weather extremes will affect many aspects of human life. The impacts may be even greater on ecosystems. In his new book, The Creation, eminent biologist E.O. Wilson warns that as many as half of the approximately 2 million species of animals and plants on Earth could become extinct.2 James Lovelock, another famed scientist and the founder of Gaia theory, is equally concerned. In The Revenge of Gaia, he warns of climate dislocations and feedbacks that could transform the globe and threaten millions of lives.

E.O. Wilson James Lovelock
E.O. Wilson and James Lovelock, two eminent scientists concerned about climate change.

The debate on climate change—what it means to us, and how to slow it down and adapt to the changes that are already occurring—is often seen as polarized, entangled with other political and religious issues. To oversimplify, Democrats, exemplified by Al Gore and the film An Inconvenient Truth, are viewed as "liberal extremists," while Republicans are viewed as "conservative naysayers." On the religious side, scientists and fundamentalists are far apart on many issues—such as how and when Earth and life on it came to be, or the morality of stem-cell research—and this carries over to climate change. It seems as if Americans are increasingly divided into polarized camps, each holding a portfolio of controversial beliefs and hard political positions that make compromise and progress on any single issue difficult.

However, in the last several years and especially the last few months, many leaders have begun to reach across this artificial divide and reduce the polarization on climate change. Republicans such as Representative Sherwood Boehlert and Senator John McCain are talking about the importance of understanding and taking action on climate change. In a recent speech at New York University, Al Gore said that the religious community has added to scientific progress and philosophy "perspectives of faith and values, spiritual motivation and moral passion, without which all our plans, no matter how reasonable, simply will not prevail." Gore also interprets the Bible as promoting good stewardship of Earth: "Noah was commanded to preserve biodiversity." E.O. Wilson, raised as a Southern Baptist and now a secular humanist and a prominent evolutionist, is appealing to people of all faiths to honor the world's creator and preserve a healthy planet for our children and all life.

Just as politicians and scientists from the secular world are starting to acknowledge that climate-change action can be compatible with religious tradition, some U.S. evangelicals are breaking away from their peers and speaking out on climate change. Commentator Bill Moyers explored religious perspectives on global warming and other environmental topics in a recent PBS special, "Is God Green?" In an interview with Newsweek, Moyers discussed the shift by noting that "even the most hardened ideologists are going to be affected by the reality of global warming."

For years groups such as the National Religious Partnership for the Environment and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life have urged people of faith to take climate change seriously. However, little had been heard from the vast U.S. movement of Christian evangelicals (perhaps 30 to 60 million strong) until earlier this year, when the newly formed Evangelical Climate Initiative issued a statement signed by more than 100 leaders, including the presidents of 39 evangelical colleges and several leaders of megachurches. The statement reads: ". . . we are convinced that evangelicals must engage this issue without any further lingering over the basic reality of the problem or humanity's responsibility to address it." A rival group quickly sprang up, the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, with a more classical skeptical position, claiming that "global warming is not a consensus issue."

Departures from average in surface temperature (degrees Celsius) for the period 2001-05 as compared to 1951-80. The globally averaged departure is 0.54°C. (Image courtesy NASA. For more details)

Debates such as these will undoubtedly continue across and within denominations. However, it is clear that many people of faith are more receptive to learning about climate change and acting on that knowledge than ever before. It behooves those of us from the scientific community, regardless of our own religious views, to reach across this divide and find new ways to share what we know about climate change—to "reach people where they are."

In a commentary for the 10 October issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Alan Leshner, executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, argues that scientists are at risk of losing the long battle to get the public to understand and appreciate science. As Leshner sees it, the old and largely failed approach of offering scientific knowledge to the public without taking its needs into account—presenting science as something people should consume for their own good, like vegetables—needs to be replaced by a true dialogue with the public, including religious groups and people of all political parties. This approach has been termed the public-engagement movement. Leshner cautions us to "never pit science against religion" and "never debate a known ideologue." Instead he urges scientists to go "glocal," by making global scientific issues like climate change meaningful at a local level. He suggests interacting with local news media and religious and community leaders.

The concept of people of all political stripes and religious beliefs (or nonbeliefs) finding common ground on climate change is not as far-fetched as it might seem. After all, climate change affects each of us, our families, and our descendants. The potential loss of half the remaining species on Earth, and the preservation of a healthy planet that supports human life, are matters that transcend other thorny issues. It is not necessary to resolve all these issues before making progress on some of them. And if the polarized parties and people can make progress on climate change, who knows—perhaps understanding and tolerance on other issues will follow.

Rick Anthes

Boehlert on climate change and Congress

Below are excerpts from a speech delivered on 20 September by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), the outgoing head of the House Science Committee, at the Climate Institute's Washington Summit on Climate Stabilization.

. . . right now, those of us who seek action are confronted by ideology, by fear, by a reluctance to lead, by apathy, by comfort with the status quo. All of that has to change, and I think it is beginning to change.

In the House, many, perhaps even most members, still question whether climate change is a genuine phenomenon. The scientific consensus has simply not pierced through the ideological barriers. And there are briefings almost weekly sponsored by groups that argue that climate change science is some kind of environmental conspiracy, and they bring seemingly credentialed people forward to make their claims. We've even had to confront the situation where members of Congress have tried to investigate scientists whose views made them uncomfortable.

So what's needed is for scientists and politicians and concerned business leaders to redouble our efforts to reach out to the public through as many different forums as possible. Complacent satisfaction with our own right beliefs won't carry the day.

That's going to take a lot of tough and honest discussion. But it can be done. If we break through the current apathy and cynicism, we can revive American politics, and our environment will be the beneficiary.

On the Web

Evangelical Climate Initiative
Alan Leshner commentary (AAAS news release, with link to full text)
Transcript of Sherwood Boehlert speech, 20 September


1 NASA press release 25 September 2006: NASA Study Finds World Warmth Edging Ancient Levels.
2 E.O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, W.W. Norton, 2006

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