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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Asking the Right Question
distributed 2/2/07 - ©2007

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Gloria Sawtell, of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her generous support helps make this publication possible. Thanks, Mom!

The question that you ask determines the answer you get. Well, duh.

When it comes to humanity's use of fossil fuels, the international community of scientists is asking the right question, and President Bush is asking the wrong one.

Today, in Paris, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) released their most recent assessment on the science of climate change. Their core question has to do with humanity's impacts on the global climate system, primarily through the burning of fossil fuels.

Ten days ago, Mr. Bush's State of the Union address included a section on energy, the environment, and -- pretty much in passing -- climate change. His core question for that part of the speech dealt with maintaining an abundant supply of energy.

Those are very, very different questions, and they give dramatically different answers. The fact that both sets of answers have a few words in common should not lead us to believe that there in anything in common about the concerns.

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A year ago, the big story about the State of the Union speech was the phrase about "addicted to oil." My Notes a few days later said that the way Mr. Bush wanted to deal with that addiction would get him booted out of any 12-step program. He really saw the problem, not as being addicted, but about the supply and price of oil.

This year, he didn't use the "addiction" word, and his sense of the problem was unchanged. "Extending hope and opportunity depends on a stable supply of energy that keeps America's economy running and" -- far less significantly in the proposals -- "America's environment clean."

The quest for dependable and affordable energy leads Mr. Bush to look to technology for ways to diversify energy sources. Some of those new technologies are environmentally friendly, including solar and wind power, and perhaps expanded use of ethanol. But the administration's priority is on maintaining supply, not on being clean. So there is an emphasis on developing and using "alternative" fuels, which adds nuclear power and lots of coal-based energy to the more benign "renewable" energy components. And, in the misguided notion that we can drill our way to energy independence, the administration's proposals call once again for oil production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Now, ANWR didn't get mentioned in the four paragraphs of the energy section of the State of the Union speech. It is found, though, in the supporting documents on the White House website. Tellingly, the title of this new policy initiative is Twenty In Ten: Strengthening America's Energy Security. The plan to reduce gasoline use by 20% in ten years is a national security measure that recognizes the coming shortages in gas. This initiative isn't about reducing the energy used for transportation, it is only about changing the sort of fuel we use in our cars. And it is only about cars -- not about other transportation, or any other energy uses.

It is appropriate for the government of any nation to be concerned about a secure and reliable energy supply. This is not a bad question to be asking. In the face of "peak oil" projections that tell us that global production of petroleum will soon decline, even as international demand is rising, it would be irresponsible if national leaders were not looking into their future energy sources.

But when energy security is the driving question, and when it is assumed that "hope and opportunity" depend on the use of increasing amounts of energy, then other questions of great importance are pushed out of the way. The implication of the US policy initiative is that we will get the energy we need, somehow. If we can do so with a reduced environmental impact, that's nice, but being green is definitely a secondary concern. That's why "the serious challenge of global climate change" are the last seven words of this section of the State of the Union address, instead of the very first words.

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The fourth assessment report from the IPCC is dealing with very different questions. The section released today is basically asking, "are we messing up the planet?" and "how confident are we about that conclusion?"

The short answers are frightening. Yes, humanity is causing major damage to the climate, with long-term and unavoidable consequences. There is a 90% certainty that the observed effects have human causes. Among the scientists, and among the governmental delegations that affirmed the report, there's no real debate about whether this warming is a natural fluctuation. Humans are cooking the planet.

The IPCC assessment is a scientific survey, not a moral evaluation or a proposal for public policy. The ethical implications are pretty clear, though. Dramatically higher temperatures, rising seas and stronger storms are catastrophic changes in the state of the planet. We're seeing those effects right now, and they will get much, much worse.

When "the serious challenge of global climate change" is the starting point, then the amount of energy being used, and the sources from which it is generated, become matters of primary concern. Keeping national economies healthy is still important, but not ultimately so. The health of the planet is the over-riding issue.

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This year, it appears, the legislative branch of the US government is starting to get serious about addressing global warming. Several pieces of legislation are being floated in the House and Senate. Some make very small steps toward changing the US impact, and others -- especially the Sanders-Boxer bill -- would bring about significant changes.

In the public debate about those bills, we need to look carefully for the central questions that are being addressed. If we are going to be faithful in our ethics, we must pay attention to the whole of God's creation and to future generations. Our primary question must be about how to dramatically reduce our climate impact.

The question that you ask determines the answer you get. So let's make damn sure we're dealing with the right question. Just because policies talk about ethanol and solar power does not mean that they are going to help us reduce our greenhouse emissions. Our starting question -- and our driving concern -- must be about global health, not about energy supplies.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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