Communicating Climate Change with Mind and Heart

This past Friday (9-5-2014) I attended Katharine Hayhoe’s lecture entitled “Communicating Climate Change with Mind and Heart.” The sponsor of the event was The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Here’s the YouTube video of the lecture. Anyone interested in an abbreviated version of Katharine’s talk can find her recent talk from the 2014 meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) or her keynote from the 2011 meeting of the ASA or her book A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. Katharine is an evangelical Christian who is a climate scientist. Many evangelicals are global warming/climate change skeptics and Katharine seeks to communicate to that skeptical audience that global warming/climate change is real and that the evangelical faith of these skeptics ought to motivate them to see the urgency of the problem and to take action to protect God’s second greatest gift, our planet, and to be concerned about the effects of climate change and its impact on our neighbors (especially in the underdeveloped majority world) whom we are commanded to love.

It was a great talk and I would recommend listening to Katharine and paying heed. As the Q&A time winded down a question came to mind. Unfortunately, I was not able to ask it. I will ask here though and doing so will afford me the chance to develop the question more fully–by the time I’m done it probably won’t feel like a question. Perhaps I can get Katharine to respond with a comment.

Hi Katharine. Great talk and thanks for all you do in communicating the message that faith and science are not incompatible. And thanks for all the tips on how to communicate climate change issues to skeptics.  As you anticipated in the press release this was not a hard-sell crowd. It was Boulder, CO after all–one of the more environmentalist-friendly places in the universe and just down the road from NCAR, the mothership of climate research. You might expect some pushback from this crowd on faith issues. I commend you for your unflinching affirmation of your Christian faith (ever so subtly lifting up Jesus Christ as God’s greatest gift) and calling on Christian values as a basis for action on climate change.

But as you have noted in your talks this is a “tribal” issue and almost everyone in the audience was from the same tribe. You’ve noted how most of us can’t be expert on climate change (or any issue for that matter) and that we get our opinions from the people we trust. So that’s one big issue here. The conservative Christian evangelical (most likely on the right end of the political spectrum) doesn’t trust anyone from the other tribe (and they consider left-leaning evangelicals to be in the other tribe). A few years ago I led a discussion among Christian faculty members at Colorado State University on this very question. This was a thoughtful group of academics but not all were scientists and on the whole they were politically conservative. I asked them if they thought their ideas about environmentalism were determined by the Bible or by their politics, i.e. that if Al Gore thought it was true that it must not be. They all immediately confessed that it was the latter.

As you noted, politically right-leaning evangelicals are going to get their opinion on climate change from people they trust–Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Focus on the Family, Cornwall Alliance and not from Al Gore or Barack Obama or Greenpeace. Sadly, those in the politically right-leaning evangelical tribe who become convinced of the reality and perils of climate change are often thought to have abandoned the tribe. Richard Cizik is a case in point.  Often there is a cluster of positions (abortion, environment, homosexuality, public assistance, national security, etc.) that seem to go together. Politically left-leaning evangelicals are perceived to have more in common with political liberals than evangelicals. (The perception runs the other way as well, I’m sure.) I admit to being at the right end of the political spectrum (even though I’m not a global warming skeptic and am an evolutionary creationist).

One of my dreams is that we right-leaning evangelicals who are scientists and who are convinced of climate change can convince some of these opinion makers on the right to see that climate change is not a right/left issue. The reality is that the opinion makers get their opinion from the people they trust. Why can’t they trust you, for example? Why do they have to trust climate scientists who have contrary views on climate change? Wouldn’t it be amazing if Glenn Beck interviewed you and changed his mind on climate change? So, here’s my question. Don’t you think that convincing these opinion-makers that they are wrong could be a fruitful project. What if we could tell Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck that we more or less agree with them on everything except their opinions on climate change? Might we get a hearing?

But this raises a challenge. At  your talk you showed the slide about the Founding Fathers and the issues of taxes and big government. This, I think, is the more fundamental issue and the reason that conservatives tend to be climate change skeptics. The answers of the tribe on the left seem to involve expanding government and increasing government regulation.  In the Slate article about you you promote free market solutions to decarbonizing our energy. I didn’t really hear you talk about this. I’d be curious to hear more. This is why I identify as a non-skeptical heretic. I’d be curious to hear if you put yourself in that camp too.

What are some of the market friendly solutions? Is some kind of carbon regulation necessary (whether cap-and-trade or carbon tax or Hanson’s tax and dividend)? Isn’t carbon regulation at its heart a left-leaning solution? Is there market incentive to moving to carbon free energy. Wind and sunshine are free and don’t get used up–it seems that there ought to be a market solution. Consumers pay less for energy. Companies that offer such services ought to be competitive. I’ve done back-of-the-envelop calculations that suggest that reducing captured CO2 to liquid fuels using carbon free energy (solar, wind, or nuclear) might be profitable given today’s oil prices. Why aren’t these solutions being pursued?

Well, you get the point. If CO2 is a pollutant, then cleaning it up becomes part of the price of producing it. But only if the government makes the oil and power companies (oops–more government regulations) clean it up.  Right? That’s how externalities are properly dealt with. Then the price gets passed on to the consumer. Of course, in the process other solutions (e.g. renewables) may gain some ground. Anyway, is there really a right-leaning solution? Should we press for cap-and-trade as a pseudo-market solution (which doesn’t seem to be working so well in the EU after all, but seemed to work for SOx)?

Some might argue that Christians shouldn’t necessarily be wedded to right-wing politics. I’m all for not letting faith get tangled up in politics, although I’m also a firm believer that faith has implications for all of life, including politics. Suffice it now to say that right-leaning evangelicals find support in a Christian worldview for their views of limited government and individual liberty.

Bottom line–I’m convinced that global warming is true and that human produced CO2 is the chief culprit. And I’m doing all the low carbon footprint things I’m supposed to be doing. What conservative solutions am I supposed to advocate to take care of this problem?

Shameless PlugEnergy: What the World Needs Now by Terry M. Gray & Anthony K. Rappé

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