Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Of Wheat and Tares and CAGW Sceptics

(An article for the latest Green Christian magazine)

If we are to be truly Green Christians I think we need to have a full emphasis upon both parts of that description – that is, we need to ensure that our Greenery is critiqued by our Christianity just as much as our Christianity is critiqued by our Greenery. It's the former that I want to do in this article, because I am troubled by the extent to which a collapse in Christian values seems to be destroying the discussion in one area of Greenery, and how it is becoming destructive to our wider mission. I want to talk about the wheat and the tares and the CAGW sceptics.

This has been on my mind for quite some time for the simple reason that I have, rather against all my initial instincts – and, indeed, much of what I have previously taught and written – become a little bit of a CAGW sceptic myself. CAGW – I pronounce it 'ka-goo' as if it was a Welsh word – stands for Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming, and my scepticism is primarily about the first letter of the acronym. That is, I accept that the globe is indeed warming, and I accept that our emissions of carbon from burning fossil fuels are playing a significant part in that warming. My doubts, as they have grown, have centred on two elements – the first is the extent to which the pattern of warming is caused by those emissions; that is, how much is driven by our activity, how much by natural variability, how do those two elements interact and so on. More significantly, I am profoundly sceptical of the Catastrophic side – for mainly theological reasons, which I shall return to at the end of this article.

Now, I'm not wanting to get into the detailed science here – although I follow the detailed debates with great interest on-line – what I want to talk about is the tone that the discussion so often collapses into. Most especially I want to describe what I have come to call 'the climate screech', and I think the best way to describe that is with an analogy. Have you ever had a discussion with a convinced fundamentalist about who is going to go to Hell? Such discussions can often begin extremely pleasantly; some common ground is established, say, an acceptance of Jesus as Lord, an acceptance that there is something real that can be properly called 'Hell' and so on. Yet there comes a point in the conversation when you realise that this other person is, indeed, a convinced fundamentalist, and if you dare to suggest, for example, that it is possible that a Buddhist might be acceptable to Jesus, that a Buddhist might qualify as one of the 'for many' for whom Jesus also came – suddenly, the temperature of the discussion drops by several degrees and you realise that by this opinion you have been judged guilty of thought-crime and are now about to be denounced as a heretic. What I have discovered is that the same thing has begun to happen in discussions of climate change, and if any doubts are offered up against the 'consensus' then the pattern of behaviour exhibited is remarkably reminiscent of a fundamentalist – and it is this denunciation for heresy that I call 'the climate screech'. Instead of taking the form of quoting specific chapters and verses from the Bible (and therefore begging the question as to the nature of the Bible, and what is most properly considered the Living Word) it takes the form of quoting particular scientific 'facts', appealing to the 'consensus' of 'peer-reviewed science', and adopting a tone of righteous hectoring, as if a genuine intellectual doubt is a serious spiritual and moral failing. Instead of begging the question about the Bible, the climate screech begs the question of the nature of science and our relationship to it.

The trouble is that as soon as you have stepped into this sort of discussion, it is no longer a matter of a shared intellectual pursuit of the truth, and it moves on to something called 'the medicalisation of dissent'. That is, those who do not accept the consensus are no longer considered as fully rational human beings, but, rather, there is something wrong with them, poor dears, so let's just isolate them in their padded cells, so that society can proceed safely on its way with the dissentient voices silenced. Hence we have things like the recent Lewandowsky “research” that associates being sceptical of CAGW with doubting the moon landings – we don't have to take these questions seriously because the only people asking them are manifestly bonkers. It has become a matter of power, the one asking questions has shown themselves to be part of the 'enemy', and so such dissent and dangerous questions are to be shut down. This is how the language of heresy works; this is the dynamic of scapegoating all those who threaten the cohesion of the group; this is why innocent people end up getting crucified outside the city walls. You probably think I'm being a bit melodramatic about this – but this is how it has always begun.

This is why I want to critique this way of thinking from a Christian point of view. The holy simply do not 'screech'. They are so at home in the truth that they do not have to defend it; they simply point it out and let the truth itself do all the heavy lifting of persuasion. Put differently, the holy are never so certain of anything that they would use it as a means of power and exclusion. They certainly wouldn't allow their own ethics to be compromised in trying to 'defend' the truth – that would be a manifest self-contradiction and unthinkable. Which is one of the major reasons why I have started to look again at the CAGW consensus. There seems to be so much unethical behaviour involved – from the failure to follow an open procedure with regard to published research, to the debacle of the IPCC review process, all the way through to things like Peter Gleick's fraudulent deceptions and 'climategate' itself – that I can't help thinking that there is something really quite spiritually rotten here. That doesn't mean that climate change isn't real and isn't happening, what it does mean is that we – and by 'we' I include myself amongst all those who are persuaded that our present way of life is radically unsustainable and simply must change – that we have lost touch with the right way to proceed on this question.

Furthermore, I believe that because the wider movement has lost a sense of Godly perspective on this, and allowed it to become too important for us, we are actually losing the broader and more important argument about adapting our society to the Transition. How successful are the fire and brimstone preachers? They have become a caricature, and they are simply tuned out. In the same way, the excessive emphasis upon CAGW has eclipsed all the wider and more joyfully positive aspects of the Green way of life to which I believe that we are all called. Our wider society has heard the climate screech, has heard of all the dubious ethical practices of the practitioners, sees that the predictions of doom have not come to pass – and so these messengers are also tuned out.

The response to this is not to 'double-down' on the doom, and retreat into the illusionary comfort of moral and spiritual certainty and self-regard. As always, I would want to come back to Jesus, and see what he might have to say about such a situation. In the early church there was a persistent tendency to try and separate out the “good” Christians from the “bad” Christians, and this tendency was only finally named for the heresy that it is at the time of Augustine and his controversy with the Donatists. Yet Jesus talked about it from the very beginning, in his parable of the wheat and the tares. Jesus said that we must not try and separate them, because if we do, we will inevitably uproot some of the good along with the bad. It is for Jesus to sort them out at the end of the age. In the same way, we need to establish common cause politically with as many people as possible, and not get snagged on the temptations of doctrinal purity. We need spiritual humility, not dogmatic certainty.

Which brings me to that last point that I want to make, which is about the 'Catastrophic' part of CAGW. I have my grounds for doubt about the 'science' of this, most especially with regard to the IPCC forecasts which take no account of either the implications of the peaking of fossil fuel production, or the secondary effects upon the economy which such peaking will provoke – and which therefore, to my mind, render the IPCC forecasts literally meaningless. Yet my doubt about the catastrophism isn't primarily based upon the science but upon what I understand the nature of God to be. So I want to make an argument that would be meaningless to those whose understandings are determinedly secular, but which might make sense to those who place equal weight upon both the Green and the Christian.

If God loved us so much that he sent his only Son to die upon the cross and to save us from our sins – does it really make sense for him now to be a Deus Absconditus? To ask that question is to reference a particular theological tradition which sees the divine wrath as the inevitable corollary of our bad behaviour – and if we are not Green enough, then we shall experience the particularly Green doom of ecological catastrophe. There is a clear link between the catastrophism of CAGW and the eschatological prophecies of the hell-fire preacher, and it is not an accident that a society which sees itself as so determinedly secular and free of the fear of hell finds itself indulging in periodic paroxysms of fear about a secular equivalent. I reject both patterns of thought as unworthy of the God revealed in Jesus Christ, and I reject them for the same reasons in each case. So often there is an underlying theology hovering behind the supposedly secular – what we need to do is to disinter these inherited assumptions, and help us to ask the right questions about how we are to live today.

If we are to rest in the truth that sets us free then I believe that we need to properly integrate our Christian understandings with our Green attitudes, and allow each to correct the other. What this means is recognising that the Fallen nature of our existence applies as much to science and scientists as any other human realm, and always being willing to ask the impertinent and dissentient questions. It means making friends with CAGW sceptics wherever there is a possibility of common ground. More importantly, it means that our hopes, fears and expectations of the future cannot rest upon any scientific claim alone, but must also be informed by the faith and the hope which is in us. I retain hope for our human future, even when at the very same time, I also believe that our existing culture is collapsing around us and that we are facing our own generation's equivalent of forty years in the wilderness. The difference is that I believe that we will come back to God in the wilderness, and that he will not leave us as orphans: “For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29.11)

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