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Climate Change, Part Three: The Virtue of Scepticism

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Byron Smith recently launched an online petition to call for the Sydney Anglican Diocese to divest fossil fuels from its roughly $120 million endowment. The petition includes the words: ‘This is important because profiting from activities that harm our neighbours … is a breach of the Lord’s command, dishonours the Creator and compromises our witness and mission.’ 

In part one, Smith argued that climate change is a theological issue, that Christians should take heed of the words of Jesus and apply them to the issue of climate change: “And so when I reflect on what Jesus said was the first and greatest command – to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength – I cannot reconcile this with what we are doing to his handiwork. In part two, he wrote about the church’s divestment from fossil fuel companies as a signal of political importance.

Here, in part three, he argues for the importance of personal change, beginning with the importance of scepticism.

<< Read Part 1 here. >>

<< Read Part 2 here. >> 

Scepticism is at the heart of science. It is a healthy dose of scepticism that helps us to avoid groupthink, where we simply adopt the position of those who are like us. But there is a point where remaining sceptical in the face of overwhelming evidence is no longer a virtue but merely stubbornness.

None of us particularly like to change our minds about something, especially when it involves changes to how we see ourselves and our activities. We know that habits and assumptions can be stubborn things. Yet as Christians, we want to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. We are therefore always open to the very real possibility that we might be wrong about this or that. My doctoral supervisor has a line that has stuck with me: “At the heart of all human freedoms is the freedom to repent”. In that line, let us consider climate change with an open mind.

If you found a lump in an odd place on your body and went to the doctor, who told you that you had cancer, you might seek a second opinion. If you sought a second, third, fourth and hundredth opinion and discovered that all but two or three of those doctors confirmed that you had a deadly cancerous growth requiring urgent treatment, would you listen to those who told you to ignore it and dismissed the dangers? Or would you decide that with serious consequences, it was prudent to accept the warnings of the vast majority and seek urgent treatment?

We always have to act with partial knowledge. We trust in God as we seek to do what is good and loving to the best of our knowledge. In this case, we can thank God for thousands of experts who have studied many facets of this issue and who have reached a broad and strong agreement over its central elements and basic shape while still debating details. There is very strong agreement that (a) the globe is warming, (b) human activities (especially the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas) are the primary driver of recent changes and (c) the likely consequences of our current trajectory are overwhelmingly negative for human life and other species. Over 97% of experts actively published in the field and about 98% of peer-reviewed papers published in the last few decades agree on these basic points. Every scientific institution of national or international standing to have declared a position on the matter accepts these three points and there are none that disagree. Every government in the world and nearly all large Christian denominations have officially endorsed these findings.

More important than the consensus of experts is the consensus of data. There is simply no other plausible explanation that can account for the huge amount of data we have. Many others were proposed, considered, debated and found wanting. I am yet to hear a sceptical argument that has not been considered by the relevant experts and found to be wanting in some critical respect. When I began my PhD, I was mildly sceptical about climate change and thought that the major problems (if they came at all) would not appear for many decades. The more I read, the more I have come to realise that this position, while not a bad summary of the tone of much of what is found in the mainstream media, is seriously out of touch with the mainstream scientific understanding.

Now it is entirely possible to find scientists who disagree, but few of them actually work and publish in the relevant literature. So while it is good to keep an open mind and read broadly, remaining agnostic about the threat of human caused climate change would be akin to suggesting that in biblical scholarship there is a genuine historical debate about whether Jesus married, moved to India and had six children. You can find scholars who say such things, and popular books on such topics, but their evidence doesn’t stack up and are generally ignored in the relevant expert literature.

So if you are skeptical, then I encourage you to spend some time reflecting on the sources of your understanding of climate science. Are you relying on blogs or newspaper articles? Are you relying on small pieces of the puzzle that don’t seem to fit to justify ignoring the big picture? Or are you looking at the results of publications that have been scrutinised and tested by relevant experts, debated, weighed and carefully examined by a great many credible people and institutions across multiple fields and widely accepted as the best explanation of all the data?

The key step is to place all our trust and hope in God as we keep our eyes open to what is happening in the world around us. That way, we can find the courage and creativity to respond in ways that are commensurate with the size of the challenges. Along with the various half-truths and wishful thinking that can short circuit a faithful response, another pitfall is to use small changes in one’s personal lifestyle as an excuse to put the matter aside.

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For instance, we sometimes say that people “recycle religiously”. Now I think recycling as much of our waste as possible is a no brainer. But fixating on this, or on always buying the “green” option can distract us from larger changes we might need to be considering.

If our actions are more about keeping unpleasant emotional experiences at bay, like fear, guilt, impotence, grief, then perhaps we need to be honest with ourselves before God and bring those undesired emotions into our discipleship, opening ourselves to the deeper changes in our hearts and lives that God loves to perform. The changes required are considerably larger than always separating paper from plastic.

In particular, I think an excellent place to start is to reflect on our culture of consumerism. One of the major causes of this crisis is overconsumption in the rich world. The typical Australian has a carbon footprint that is more than four times the global average and roughly twenty times what might be considered a responsible level. If everyone in the world tried to live like an Australian, we’d need roughly five Earths to supply our resources and absorb our wastes. Obviously, we only have one planet and so we’re taking far, far more than our fair share. Yet it is perfectly possible to live simpler lives, consuming less and sharing more. These would be good ideas for Christians amidst a consumerist culture even if we had five planets. The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. And consumerism is driven by a love of money and the toys it can buy.

As followers of Christ, another way is possible. It starts by giving thanks to God for what we already have, seeking and fostering contentment, rather than listening to the advertisements that make us restless and hungry for more stuff. There is a Christian group in the UK called the Breathe Network, whose motto is “less stuff, more life”. I love that because it says that our pursuit of more and more material wealth is not only disastrous for the planet, but deadly for the soul too.

Byron Smith is a PhD candidate in Theology at Edinburgh University, and a blogger at nothing-new-under-the-sun.blogspot.com.

Bible Society Australia’s online bookshop has several books on the topic of Christianity, the environment and climate change. To read more on the issue, take a look at those books here.

<< Read Part 1 here. >>

<< Read Part 2 here. >> 

Top image and middle image used under a CC license, from konradfoerstner and phopkins, respectively.

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