When Language Smothers Conversation

June 17, 2010

Environment, Global Warming

by Charles Redfern

This is a slightly revised edition published on www.creedible.com, May 6, 2010.   

The coal mine’s canary is hacking, spitting, gasping, and turning blue – so yell at it.  Question its motives.  Tell it the fumes are imaginary.  Drop hints that it’s wheezing a heretical wheeze.

Cold reality prompts the canary’s cough.  Fact: The world’s glaciers are shrinking.  Fact: the polar ice caps are melting.  Fact, as Bill McKibban said in February: “All 15 of the warmest years on record have come in the two decades that have passed since 1989.”  Another fact: Peter Doran and Maggie Kendall Zimmerman discovered that 97% of all active climatologists are agreed: human activity spurs the Earth’s rising temperatures and glacial melting.  These facts resemble that poor canary, whose death signaled dangerous methane levels and the need for action.

This Is Easy

Surely evangelical Christians can explore this dilemma without fear — especially since the recent Gulf of Mexico tragedy illuminates our lack of immunity to catastrophe.  No historic creed is at stake and Scripture advocates creation care:  We’re the Lord’s designated stewards (Genesis 1:27-30).  We were called to “guard” God’s sanctuary (a more literal rendering of the wording in Genesis 2:15).  Our Earthly rule fits Walter Kaiser’s description: “The gift of ‘dominion’ over nature was not intended to be a license to use or abuse selfishly the created order in any way men and women saw fit. In no sense were humans to be bullies and laws to themselves; Adam and Eve were to be responsible to God and accountable for all the ways in which they did or did not cultivate the natural world about them.”  Kaiser is right: God’s leadership motif is “help” (Psalm 121:1-2), and service (Matthew 20:28). Psalm 19:1-4 testifies to God’s glory in creation and Romans 8:18-22 looks forward to its redemption.  Kudos to Francis of Assisi, who cherished the animals and plants.

And just to make sure everything’s on the up-and-up, we have our inside man: Sir John Houghton, a dedicated Christian, led the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, one of the important agencies warning of global warning’s consequences.

The evidence, the Bible, and historic Christianity motivated 280 leaders to sign the petition, “Climate Change, An Evangelical Call to Action.”  The names read like an evangelical VIP litany: Andy Crouch of Christianity Today; Jack Hayford of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel; Gordon P. Hugenberger of Parkstreet Church in Boston; Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church; Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College; Gordon MacDonald, editor-at-large for Leadership Magazine; David Neff, editor of Christianity Today; Tri Robinson, pastor of the Boise Vineyard; Berten Waggoner, National Director, Vineyard USA; and Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback.  To name a few.

A Wrench Is Thrown

But something is amiss.  In some circles, calling attention to the hacking canary betrays skewed orthodoxy and questionable patriotism.  I was once blasted as a “liberal” (perish the thought) because I agreed with these assertions:  “There is now a broad consensus in this country, and indeed in the world, that global warming is happening, that it is a serious problem, and that humans are causing it. The recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded there is a greater than 90 percent chance that greenhouse gases released by human activities like burning oil in cars and coal in power plants are causing most of the observed global warming. This report puts the final nail in denial’s coffin about the problem of global warming;” and, “we agree that climate change is real and threatens our economy and national security.”

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona wrote the first quote in 2007, along with Senator Joe Lieberman.  Republican Senator Lindsay Graham wrote the second in 2009 along with Democrat John Kerry.  The first President Bush and former Secretary of State James Baker pile on supplemental comments.  More come from the CEO’s of BP, DuPont, and Electric Power.  Behold the opportunity: We can shelve those annoying labels.  Let’s brew enough caffeine to spike our blood pressure, roll in the whiteboards, and do some outside-the-box brainstorming while pacing back and forth with our Alpha personalities on full display …

No.  I’m “liberal.”  I’ve failed a vague orthodoxy test, which means I’m worse than erroneous:  I’m suspect.  Forget evidence, the biblical mandate for stewarding creation, precedent, and recognized authorities.  According to a 2007 article for CNN, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Institute speculated that global warming is part of a leftist agenda threatening evangelical unity.  And Jerry Falwell proclaimed this from his pulpit on February 25 of that year: “I am today raising a flag of opposition to this alarmism about global warming and urging all believers to refuse to be duped by these ‘earthism’ worshippers.”

I long to ask: Who defines unity?  Is assessing evidence and asking questions inherently disruptive?   Is it wrong to seek solutions to a potentially grave problem – especially since there are virtually no doctrinal risks?  Apparently, yes.  I’m a pagan “earthism worshipper.”   I’m divisive and part of a leftist plot – never mind that Perkins was flourishing a rhetorical ploy with a one-two punch: levy a nebulous charge no one can disprove; then, as the opponent reels, accuse him of divisiveness.  Any challenge fulfills the charge.  Few can stay calm and ask: Who is calling whom names?  Who flings the accusations and mows down the straw men?  Who is really divisive?

These false orthodoxy tests make for time-wasting tangents and casualties, with alleged suspects forced to guard their every word.  They’re under watch.  Richard Cizik, the former policy advisor for the National Association of Evangelicals and a major mover on evangelical climate change initiatives, didn’t say quite the right thing on homosexuality on a radio show.  That was it.  He was done.  His later clarification was too late, and he had to resign from the NAE.

The name calling is working: Surveys show mounting public cynicism even as the science piles in.  Deniers of climate change grab any real or imagined flaw and declare conspiracy: Al Gore made money from his books and green technology – therefore, all the warnings are wrong; this winter’s record snow supposedly reveals the fallacy of dire predictions – never mind that the blizzards follow the pattern forecasted by the worried scientists.  Many nod with Sarah Palin when she declares climate science “snake oil” and growl with US Rep. James Sensenbrenner in his claim that the recent Climate-gate “scandal” proved “scientific fascism.”

Hello to the double standard: Pointing to Palin’s sudden wealth would be “divisive;” allusions to Sensenbrenner’s net worth of $11.6 million would be a cheap shot – and do not mention his oil stock investments, which add up to the fourth highest among the 435 members of the US House of Representatives.  Never second-guess the motives of the climate change deniers: The Atlas Economic Research Foundation and The International Policy Network accept huge donations from ExxonMobile, but don’t say that.  You’re a leftist.  You’re “divisive.”

And, when all else fails, go mantra with the former vice president’s name: Al Gore … Al Gore! … AL GORE! He’s Darth Vader himself, the fascistic dictator, the snake oozing the oil.  Beat Al Gore and we’re rid of the dilemma.

A problem: In this instance, Al Gore is only a journalist.  For the sake of argument – and for that reason only – I’ll agree he’s the male version of the Wicked Witch of the West (I’ve actually never met the man; he never calls).  Throw water on him.  Watch him dissolve into the Yellow Brick Road amid his top-of-the-lung shrieks: “I’m melting! … I’m melting! … I’m melting!” There.  He dissolved.  Everything’s settled … Except … Those glaciers!  Those polar ice caps!  Al Gore’s a puddle and yet they still shrink!

Eliminating Al Gore would be like shooting Dan Rather in the 1960’s to stop the Vietnam War.

Gotcha … Maybe Not

For a brief moment last winter, it looked like the climate change deniers were onto something.  Computer hackers stole more than 1,000 e-mails from a research unit at Great Britain’s University of East Anglia.  The e-mails, dating back some 13 years, held reams of information, “everything from the mundanities of climate-data collection to comments on international scientific politics to strongly worded criticisms by climate-change doubters,” to quote Bryan Walsh of Time.  There seemed to be references to oppressing opposition, withholding information, pressuring editorial boards of academic journals, and skewing research.  Besides, the e-mails weren’t nice.

The unit’s head, Phil Jones, took a leave of absence pending an investigation.

As it turns out, parliamentary and university investigations exonerated Jones.  Perhaps he could have been more forthcoming and more couth, but, in the words of the parliamentary committee: “In the context of sharing data and methodologies, we consider Professor Jones’s actions were in line with common practice in the climate science community.”  References to performing “tricks” in research were in-house slang for legitimate scientific procedures – and yes, Jones and his e-mail partners were a little rough.  In other words, boys will be boys – especially when they don’t anticipate the theft of their private e-mails.  What a scandal.

Another supposed smoking gun: there was a mistake in the most recent 3,000-page report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said evidence suggests that Himalayan glaciers will be melted by 2035.  That was wrong and based on a misquote.  But, as McKibben points out, glitches come in such massive reports, and there is no denying “that virtually every glacier is, in fact, busily melting.”

The IPC removed the comment but stood by the substance of the report.

Who Made Me An Expert?

I see my dear, climate change-denier friends reading my sometimes sarcastic remarks.  They’re frowning.  They’re turning beat red.  They finally declare: “You’re not a scientist!”

How true – and I would love to be proven wrong.  Scramble up some eggs and smear them on my face – but do it with firm evidence, not with conspiracy theory.  And remember, Perkins is no scientist either; nor was Falwell before he left us, bless him.  Their dark speculations about earth worship and leftist plots involve character assassination, not genuine argument.  Christopher Monckton, a British global warming denier, is no scientist either – although he’s been hailed by the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, and Rush Limbaugh – and he’s often quoted to counter-balance the climatologist majority.  Johann Hari adds this: “When challenged, Monckton has admitted to a weakness for ‘telling stories that aren’t actually true.’”  Monckton has a habit of disagreeing with the consensus on a variety of subjects – which can either signal an independent thinker or a contrarian.

I’d like to think I’m not naïve.  I know group-think and peer pressure haunts scientists just as much as anyone else; I know they fretted over the Earth’s “cooling” a few years back (oops); I know scientists in another field assured pale people like me it was fine to fry ourselves in the hot sun.  I know meteorologists are less convinced than the climatologists, but I also know that the weathermen are not the experts.  Asking a meteorologist about long-term climate change would be like demanding cancer remedies from my dentist.  The professional dentist would refer me to an oncologist – even though oncologists can be wrong.

And I can’t help but remember myself as a child: I saw my parents smoking (they quit in time, thank God).  I thought: “Don’t firemen die of smoke inhalation?”  I didn’t believe the tobacco company assurances even then.

Perhaps I’ve lost the wisdom of a child, but I still wonder: Is it a stretch to think that pumping CO2 into the atmosphere will have its influence?  Are not oil company advocates prey to peer pressure and group-think?  What about all those moments when the scientific community got things right?  And what about that unspoken 21st-century naiveté to which urban Americans seem prone: Nature and human beings exist in parallel universes and never the twain shall meet.  We’re immune.  Remember the fourteenth century, when nature and human activity wed in a ghoulish marriage:  Commerce flowed over new trade routes between East and West, bringing flea-bearing rats.  The fleas leaped onto humans and infected them with the Black Death.  Roughly half of all Europe died.

Given the possible outcomes, Christians must be permitted to think and act on the basis of truth, not fear.  I need no science degree to be reasonably alarmed when I see photographs comparing the Muir Glacier in August 1941 to that of August 2004.  The pictures themselves serve as stark testimony, whatever the motives of their photographers: http://geology.com/usgs/glacier-retreat/.

Those photographs force the question: Is the canary about to breathe its last?

For further reading:

Ball, Jim, ”Interview with Sir John Houghton on the Mall in Washington, DC, March 11, 2005,” http://creationcare.org/resources/climate/houghton_interview.php

Banks, Adelle M., “Dobson, Others Seek Ouster of NAE Vice President,” Religion News Service, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/marchweb-only/109-53.0.html, March 2, 2007

Blumenthal, Paul, “Oil Industry Influence: Personal Finances,” Sunlight Foundation: Transparency in Government, http://blog.sunlightfoundation.com/2008/08/08/oil-industry-influence-personal-finances, August 8, 2008.

“Climate Change, An Information Statement of the American Meteorological Society,”
(Adopted by AMS Council on 1 February 2007) Bull. Amer. Met. Soc., 88 http://ametsoc.org/POLICY/2007climatechange.html

CNN, “Global Warming Gap Among Evangelicals Widens,” March 14, 2007, http://www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/03/14/evangelical.rift/index.html

Cooperman, Alan, “Evangelical Body Stays Course on Warming,” The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2007/03/10/AR2007031001175.html, March 11, 2007.

Doran, Peter; Kendall Zimmerman, Maggie, “Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Eos, Volume 90, Number 3, January 2009, pages 21-22.

Evangelical Climate Initiative: http://christiansandclimate.org/

Goodstein, Laurie, “Evangelical Leaders Join Global Warming Initiative,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/08/national/08warm.html, February 8, 2006.

Hardaker, Paul, Statement on the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report, http://www.rmets.org/news/detail.php?ID=332

Note: The PDF version is no longer downloadable, but Hardaker’s statement is still there.

Henig, Jess, “Some ‘Climategate’ Conclusions,” Factcheck.orghttp://www.factcheck.org/2010/04/some-climategate-conclusions, April 15, 2010.

Hertsgaard, Mark, “Climategate Claptrap I,” The Nation, http://www.thenation.com, April 15, 2010

Hertsgaard, Mark, “Climagegate Claptrap II,” The Nation, http://www.thenation.com.

Houghton, Sir John, “Climate Change: A Christian Challenge and Opportunity,” Presentation to the National Association of Evangelicals, Washington DC, March 2005, http://creationcare.org/resources/climate/houghton.php

Kaiser, Walter; Davids, Peter; Bruce, FF; Brauch, Manfred T., Hard Sayings of the Bible, (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1996), see page 89.

Kerry, John; Graham, Lindsey, “Yes We Can (Pass Climate Change Legislation),” New York Times, October 10, 2009,       http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/11/opinion/11kerrygraham.html

McCain, John; Liebermann, Joe, “The Turning Point on Global Warming,” The Boston Globe, February 13, 2007,

McKibben, Bill, “The Attack on Climate-Change Science: Why It’s The O.J. Moment of the Twenty-first Century,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-mckibben/the-attack-on-climate-cha_b_476755.html, February 5, 2010

Revkin, Andrew, “Exxon and the Climate Fight,” The New York Times: Dot Earth, http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/08/exxon-and-the-climate-fight,  February 8, 2010.

Walsh, Bryan, “Has ‘Climategate’ Been Overblown?” Time Magazine, http://www.time.com, December 7, 2009.

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is an ordained clergyman specializing in healing and conflict transformation. He lives with his wife and son in Connecticut.

View all posts by Charles Redfern

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  1. It Box @ All Around the World News - June 23, 2010

    Quote Editor – 1 year license…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

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