Getting a Hearing on Climate Change

Author Dr. Eric Mount
Author Dr. Eric Mount

Read Eric Mount’s Interview with Wendell Berry here.

In the September 2014 issue of The Atlantic, Charles Mann seeks a way beyond the impasse between crisis environmentalists and economists on the issue of climate change. His question is apparent in his title: “How To Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen.” And why don’t people listen? According to Mann, some people don’t listen – or don’t want to listen – to environmentalists because their message is often that apocalypse awaits us unless we radically transform our way of life by swearing off cheap energy from fossil fuels. That apparently cheap energy gave us three centuries of unprecedented prosperity in the West following the Industrial Revolution. People object to the eco-advocates’ doom-saying because those environmentalists present a new cost equation, urging us to embrace a radically self-denying lifestyle in order to head off long-term consequences that neither we nor even our grandchildren may reap in their most disastrous forms. As Mann observes, if people resist saving for their own retirements, how can we expect them to act to avert a distant catastrophe of unproved magnitude?

On the other side, environmentalists discount the projections of economists who argue that only minimal tweaks in energy use or innovative technological fixes will be needed to stave of ecological disaster. The cost-benefit analyses of these economists tend to inflate the benefits of expanding global industrial capitalism and underestimate the cost. Add in the deafness that accompanies partisan alignments on climate change and the accompanying legislative paralysis, and the impasse exacerbates.

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Some people don’t listen – or don’t want to listen – to environmentalists because their message is often that apocalypse awaits us unless we radically transform our way of life by swearing off cheap energy from fossil fuels.
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In this article, I review this economist versus eco-advocate debate as an introduction to the public conversation I had with Wendell Berry, an agrarian essayist, novelist, and poet, who is also known as a prophet of a “Great Economy” based on sustainability rather than growth, community rather than consumption. Using Mann’s article in The Atlantic, we will look at the economists and others who discount climate threats and predict technological “fixes:” Pascal Bruckner, William Nordhaus, and David Keith, to which I add Craig Venter.

Bruckner BookWe will also hear about those who Mann believes overstate the case for immediate change, including Bill McKibben, whose advocacy of fossil fuel divestment is noted elsewhere in this issue of Unbound. Mann also brings in Dale Jamieson’s economic critique of the economists who downplay climate change as he seeks to find a middle way between the two positions. While agreeing with Mann that an outright “apocalyptic” option for immediate change risks otherworldliness, this essay argues for an “eschatological imagination” that is based in very this-worldly transformation, and suggests more use of the “precautionary principle” to discourage further risk-taking with our environment.

One of the recent works Mann cites that attacks environmentalism – or as he calls it, “ecologism” – is The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse by French philosopher Pascal Bruckner. He accuses eco-advocates of wanting “to purify humankind through self-flagellating asceticism,” a strategy he identifies as both ethnocentric and counter-productive. It is ethnocentric because it fears loss of Western dominance of the developing world where rapid economic growth relies in large part on fossil fuels. It is counterproductive because it uses rising temperatures due to burgeoning carbon dioxide as a ‘bludgeon’ to force and scare people into action. Such ‘climate hysterics’, however, ultimately hurt the environmentalists’ cause because people “react to moral blackmail with suspicion, skepticism, and sighing apathy.”

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[The economists’] solution: Use market mechanisms to deal with the threat of warming due to carbon dioxide emissions…a carbon tax on emissions and perhaps a market in emissions permits (cap and trade, for instance). Mann finds this proposal naïve.
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Another source Mann cites, Yale economist William Nordhaus, offers a prescription for gaining adherents in addressing climate change in his book The Climate Casino. Nordhaus’ solution: Use market mechanisms to deal with the threat of warming due to carbon dioxide emissions. He advocates a carbon tax on emissions and perhaps a market in emissions permits (cap and trade, for instance). Mann finds this proposal naïve. Even its proponents, Mann points out, admit that its effectiveness would require full simultaneous participation by all of the richest and most populous nations (Brazil, China, France, India, Russia, and the U.S.A.). Mann gets in a zinger when he objects that for Nordhaus to call a carbon tax “a simple answer” is “like arguing that the simple answer to death is repealing the Second Law of Thermodynamics.”

nordhaus_jkt.inddIn Mann’s review of contributions to our debate, the environmentalist who takes the heaviest hits is Bill McKibben and his recent memoir, Oil and Honey. (McKibben’s inclusion is fortuitous for our purposes because of his similarities with Wendell Berry.) According to Mann, to stoke concern, McKibben resorts to “waving a skeleton at the reader.” From his perspective, “the planet began to come apart” in 2011-12; now, “climate ‘chaos’ is inducing an endless chain of disasters.” The only hope is to be found in simpler, more local, less resource-intensive living; and there are examples to be found of such a shift in scattered spiritually engaged communities.

The Oil part of the book is about McKibben’s 350.org (named for the safe level in parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide) — a mass movement combating climate change. The Honey part is about his buying 70 acres in Vermont to support an off-the-grid beekeeper who is among the vanguard of a proposed “nation of careful, small-scale farmers,” who can be our transforming remnant. As we will read in the following conversation, Wendell Berry shares McKibben’s distaste for big and distant solutions and his devotion to local, community-based, self-sustaining economies. And of course, the two share the scorn of those economists who regard their answer to climate change as hopelessly unrealistic and politically irrelevant.

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The economists assume that we as a society have settled for accepting the small though real chance of catastrophe, something the eco-advocates refuse to do.
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If the economist camp has targeted the doom-saying eco-advocates, Dale Jamieson (Reason in a Dark Time) has posed some telling challenges to some of the data endorsed by the economists. In presenting Jamieson’s argument, Mann describes the three main graphs through which, he argues, Americans encounter climate change. First are graphs, and these enjoy wide support, showing that atmospheric carbon dioxide has been steadily increasing. Second are graphs showing rising global temperatures, but these are subject to some question because temperatures vary from place to place due to numerous factors such as wind and altitude while carbon dioxide is spread equally in the air. Nevertheless, most agree that average temperature has gone up. A third set of graphs plot the future influence of rising temperatures on such things as agricultural production, sea levels, storm frequency, and disease. Traditional scientific experiments, however, can’t prove what has not yet occurred and cannot be precisely replicated. Various models are being tried, and their predictions vary, in Jamieson’s account, “from worrisome (mainly) to catastrophic (possibly).” For the average citizen, Jamieson calls this third set of graphs too abstract to be convincing. However, for those who are guided by the Precautionary Principle (which is not mentioned by Mann), any catastrophic possibility is enough to establish a presumption against initiation or continuation of offending practices.

Jamieson - Reason in a Dark TimeFor Jamieson, the economists’ discussions of climate change are almost as riddled with uncertainty as those of environmentalists and politicians. Their cost-benefit analysis invariably tends to inflate the cost of cutting fossil fuel use, and they regard the likelihood of only a modest rise in carbon dioxide as sufficiently strong to warrant continuation of business as usual without the need for extreme measures to avert catastrophe. (The 5% chance of domino-reaction devastation is discounted, and therefore the Precautionary Principle is not invoked.) The economists assume that we as a society have settled for accepting the small though real chance of catastrophe, something the eco-advocates refuse to do.

The other problem with some economists’ projections is that they push both the pay-off from carbon-dioxide reduction and the burden of cleaning up our emissions so far into the future that we need do only the bare minimum corrections today and let the projected richer future generations clean up our mess. As Mann concludes, “Unfortunately, this is an ethically problematic stance.” Wendell Berry takes it further: if we know ourselves to be members of communities that span generations, we will not mortgage our grandchildren’s future to feed our excess. As Berry elucidates in the accompanying conversation, we cannot sell our offspring an otherworldly religious panacea that makes what happens to our Earth now inconsequential.

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Wendell Berry takes it further: if we know ourselves to be members of communities that span generations, we will not mortgage our grandchildren’s future to feed our excess.
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Deferred attention to dire possibilities has other expressions, as sampled by Mann. In A Case for Climate Engineering, David Keith, Harvard professor of public policy and applied physics, describes a possible technological fix if politics fail. Geo-engineering, he argues, might be able to fight climate change with more climate change by mid-century. We may be able to spray the stratosphere with “tiny glittering droplets of sulfuric acid that bounce sunlight into space, reducing the earth’s temperature.” It would have to be repeated annually, but it would be relatively cheap — that is, unless you factor in some horrendous certain and possible consequences. These include “a toxic rain of pollution that could kill thousands every year” and the capacity of a single country or a single billionaire (from among the 1,645 in the world) to afford to geo-engineer the planet single-handedly and set off global conflicts. The last sentence of Mann’s essay leaves a sinister warning in this respect: “One of the virtues of Keith’s succinct, scary book is to convince the reader that unless we find a way to talk about climate change, planes full of sulfuric acid will soon be on the runway.” How is that for alarmism of apocalyptic magnitude?!

Keith - Case for Climate EngineeringAnother technological fix that has been broached, although not in Mann’s essay, is offered by synthetic biology, or synbio. In 2011 Craig Venter, the scientist and entrepreneur who spearheaded the mapping of the human genome, pledged to synthesize an algae that could use sunlight “to unlock the energy in carbon dioxide — thus replicating photosynthesis.” Carbon dioxide thereby would become a limitless source of energy instead of the scourge of global warming. If promises like this one can convince us that human ingenuity will always relieve us of the need to change our energy-consumptive ways, why lose sleep over climate change? How does the economists’ cost-benefit analysis handle this seemingly remote possibility? How about the Precautionary Principle? How many eggs are we willing to put in such a basket?

I have quoted the final words of the Charles Mann essay, but I have not unveiled the conclusion he reaches about a way forward in the face of the ideological impasse on climate change. He asks whether there is a course of action that makes sense even for people who think climate change poses less serious problems than eco-advocates allege. He builds his case this way: Three-fourths of carbon emissions come from burning fossil fuels, and three-quarters of those emissions come from coal and oil (including gasoline). Diverging studies still agree that coal is responsible for more carbon dioxide (about 25% more) than oil is, and coal consumption is growing faster than oil consumption. About three-fourths of oil usage is by individuals (heating homes and driving cars). Coal, by contrast, is largely (93%) used by electric-power plants (the rest mainly by industry to produce cement and steel).

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Mann asks whether there is a course of action that makes sense even for people who think climate change poses less serious problems than eco-advocates allege. His strategy is to go after what he sees as the easier target.
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Mann’s strategy is to go after what he sees as the easier target. Getting the American owners of 254 million oil-run vehicles to change their ways poses a mind-boggling challenge, but it is at least conceivable to retrofit 7,000 coal-run industrial facilities. Regulating 557 big power plants and 227 steel and cement factories seems doable by comparison with reigning in our car addiction. Indeed, it seems that President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency are taking this very approach — and of course being accused in my own state of Kentucky of waging a “War on Coal.”

McKibben - Oil and HoneyMann acknowledges whipping up on Yale economist Nordhaus (covered earlier), but he credits him with identifying a sharp reduction in coal use as the most cost-effective way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Mann adds that the benefits of such reduction don’t wait to set in generations ahead if at all. There is an immediate public health pay-off for such a policy — namely prevention of as many as 6,600 premature deaths and 150,000 children’s asthma attacks a year. Why wouldn’t such numbers make us listen to climate change protests — even if we do happen to live in a coal state? Mann affirms the need for a popular movement to make even this happen — even as McKibben does to effect more radical change.

Mann searches for common ground to address climate change even as he gives McKibben grief for his “apocalyptic rhetoric.” Wendell Berry would probably catch equal grief if he were included in Mann’s round-up of the latest suspects in the climate change impasse. What then can we say that Berry contributes in the accompanying conversation and elsewhere that can get a hearing from sufficient numbers to effect social change?

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Wendell Berry has been called ‘America’s prophet’ by publications as different as The Christian Century and The Wall Street Journal. Prophets have not given up on this world.
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Wendell Berry has been called ‘America’s prophet’ by publications as different as The Christian Century and The Wall Street Journal. Traditionally, the prophetic role is to open people’s eyes to the dire consequences in store if they do not change their ways. It is not to spell out the details of public policy alternatives to politicians or to argue cost-benefit percentages with economists. Prophets deal in worst-case scenarios, not rosy readings of the leading economic indicators. They are, however, different from those religious apocalyptic seers who believe that current corrupt and downward-spiraling conditions will only get worse until divine intervention ushers in a new world. For those with such a worldview, all the faithful can do is hang in there and wait for the apocalypse — the unveiling of a new heaven and a new earth. Prophets, by contrast, have not given up on this world. People could change. Disaster could be averted. This world is ours to care for or destroy.

Wendell Berry - Unsettling of AmericaWhat then can Berry teach even those who find his recall to small, farm-based local economies and his admitted identity as a Luddite all but unimaginable for themselves? They might learn to embrace his rendition of place-based community membership — a vision that is lost on economists who build their theories around a vision of abstract, individual persons that reduces them to their function as consumers. They can learn to embrace his vision of a Great Economy that includes everything, that dwarfs our little economies even in their global scope. Its ecosphere can properly be called the Kingdom of God, as Berry and Wes Jackson suggest, and it is a kingdom of this world. They can embrace his persistent efforts to win small victories in an economic arena enthralled with big answers – one based on the seven deadly sins, as he recites in the accompanying conversation.

Above all, they can embrace what might properly be called Berry’s “eschatological imagination,” although he would not choose that term. To be fair, he gives himself away in the following selected lines from his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”

Love the Lord. Love the world.

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

Practice resurrection.

I borrow this term “eschatological imagination,” from Andrea Bieler and Luise Schottroff’s book The Eucharist. Imagination, they say, is “readiness to see one thing as another.”

bread-and-wine-01In seeing the Eucharist as a resurrection meal, we should not allow it to be preempted by dualistic thinking — thinking that allows Christians to escape into otherworldliness and leave the status quo of a violent and ecologically threatened world untouched. Both our ordinary meals and the Eucharist are sacramental (one thing symbolizes another), but the “eschatological imagination” enables Eucharistic partakers to “anticipate the new covenant and the coming economy of God in the world.” “It gives them access to a world governed by the Messiah” that is deeply rooted in this world, not refuged in otherworldliness.

If Wendell Berry gives us access to the Great Economy, the Kingdom of God through “eschatological vision,” then he will have enabled us to see some continuity with this world and the coming Kingdom of God, something that outright apocalypticism misses. The prophetic vision, and yes, the eschatological imagination, exemplified by Berry hold out the hope that seemingly inevitable disaster could be averted if enough of us see the light and act on it.

Berry has received prestigious recognitions from President Obama and others. It remains to be seen whether his prophetic message will gain more of a hearing than most prophets have historically received. Take a look at the excerpts from our conversation at Louisville’s Crescent Hill Baptist Church that follow. Judge for yourself – can America’s prophet get a hearing?

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AUTHOR BIO: Eric Mount is Nelson and Mary McDowell Rodes Professor Emeritus of Religion at Centre College, where he taught for thirty-six years and served at various times as vice president and dean of students, chaplain, and director of the college’s program in Strasbourg, France. He was educated at Rhodes College, Union Presbyterian Seminary, Yale Divinity School, and Duke University (Ph.D.) Among his books are Professional Ethics in Context: Institutions, Images, and Empathy and Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. A teaching elder member (retired) of Transylvania Presbytery, he is a member of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.

Read Eric Mount’s Interview with Wendell Berry.

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