Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Acting on Evidence and Morals
distributed 3/10/17 - ©2017

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Becky Beilschmidt of Fulton, Missouri in memory of the Rev. Dr. Annabel Clark, who died a week ago today. (Revs. Annabel and Bob Clark were both enthusiastic and long-time friends of Eco-Justice Ministries.) Becky's generous support helps make this publication possible.

At the Women's Marches seven weeks ago, there were lots of funny signs (many of which cannot be quoted in this pretty-decent newsletter). Among several that made me laugh out loud, one had wording that was a take-off on a popular chant:

What do we want? Evidence based science.
When do we want it? After peer review.

The young man holding that sign beat the headlines. He was a couple of days in advance of the soon-to-break word that Mr. Trump had "alternative facts" about the size of inauguration crowds. Unfortunately, there are many, many other examples of the new administration's tenuous grasp on reality. (For example, despite tweets and official statements, evidence shows declining immigration from Mexico, declining crime rates, a less-than-spectacular electoral vote, and no evidence whatsoever of wire taps on Trump Tower.)

It would all be very funny, if it were not so painfully serious.

This week, the alternate reality universe came out full-force on the issue at the top of my priority list, and an issue of passionate concern to most of the readers of these Notes.

Yesterday morning, the new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, appeared on a news program. The host asked him, "Do you believe that it's been proven that CO2 is the primary control knob on climate?"

Pruitt's short answer was "no." He went on to say that measuring human activity is "something very challenging to do, and there's tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact. "

Robinson Meyer wrote for the Atlantic yesterday, "Pruitt's claim runs so counter to the findings of the international scientific community, to the conclusions of the U.S. government, and even to the marketing materials of the oil-and-gas industry that it is difficult to label it anything but a falsehood." The evidence based science has been done, and it has been peer reviewed. There is not tremendous disagreement.

Meyer goes on to probe the importance of Pruitt's counter-factual claims. He predicts that "there will be a great public fight over Pruitt's comments, and partisans across the country will be asked to take sides." That debate, though, will not change many minds. Myers knows that many Americans will assume that both sides in the debate mean well, that there is some debate about climate change, and they will look for an in-between position. "These Americans will be intelligent, good-faith, savvy consumers of media -- yet they will have been successfully misled."

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There is a very important set of research from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication which speaks of "Global Warming's Six Americas". It rejects the dichotomous split between "believers" and "deniers", and identifies six distinctive segments of climate change responses.

At one extreme, 18% of the US population (including me) is "alarmed". At the other extreme, just 9% are "dismissive" -- a position substantially over-represented in the new administration.

In between those extremes are four other groups: "concerned" (a whopping 34%), "cautious" (23%), "disengaged" (only 5%), and "doubtful" (11%). None of those four groups are actively engaged in addressing climate change, either on personal or political levels. As long as politicians, industry advocates and the tell-both-sides-of-the-story media can keep alive the lie that there is a lot of debate about the reality or severity of climate change, that 73% of the population will stay on the margins.

I'm personally convinced that many of those who are labeled as dismissive or deniers are fully aware of the reputable science, and know of the catastrophic impacts that are taking hold. (See my open letter to climate denier Sen. Inhofe.) For reasons of economics or ideology, though, they have chosen to refute the clear and peer reviewed evidence. They will keep insisting that there is debate about the science, and pushing policies that take us deeper into climate crisis.

One of the recent Yale studies looks specifically at faith communities in the US. Rather than looking at the science of climate change, this research looks at receptivity to a moral framing. They found that:

a moral framing of global warming could resonate with many people currently unconcerned about the issue. For example, most Americans believe that caring for the poor, the environment and future generations is important, but fewer understand that reducing global warming will help all three. Most Americans believe that humans should be stewards, rather than rulers of nature, and levels of environmental concern are relatively high.

The Yale researchers conclude, "The communication of a moral perspective on global warming by religious leaders such as Pope Francis may therefore reach segments of the U.S. public that have yet to engage with the issue." Indeed, they point to "The Francis Effect" and a remarkable bump in climate opinions after the encyclical was released in 2015.

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For those of us in faith communities, I have several suggestions for climate action.

  1. Try not to get caught in the trap of arguing about the science of climate change. Follow the lead of the Declaration of Independence, and boldly assert, "we hold these truths to be self-evident." Pick up the approach of the marvelous song from Belgium, and simply insist, "We're on a planet that has a problem. We need to solve it, get involved, and do it now -- now -- now! We need to build a better future, and we need to start right now."

  2. Draw on the resources of your faith tradition to frame the crisis in religious and moral terms. Themes of compassion, climate justice and responsible stewardship are engaging and empowering. Our colleagues at Interfaith Power and Light have an extensive listing of faith statements on climate change. Whether in classes, newsletters, or sermons and prayers, find a way for your congregation to take a stand on the side of climate action.

  3. In this new season of on-the-street activism, take part in a pair of upcoming occasions for climate witness. If church policies allow it, bring a banner or wear T-shirts that clearly identify you as a church group. That public identity as a faith community is powerful in shaping opinions. (Contrary to stereotypes, we're not all deniers in the church!!)

    On Saturday, April 22 -- Earth Day -- the March for Science will take place in Washington DC and many other satellite locations around the world. Join to support the swarms of scientists who will "walk out of the lab and into the streets" to preserve good research, science education, and responsible polities.

    On Saturday, April 29, the People's Climate Movement is organizing a powerful mobilization in Washington and other locations. In the style and power of the huge 2015 event in New York City, we'll show the unity of diverse movements -- environmental, economic, racial, religious -- for climate justice.

We're in the midst of a strong new wave that uses "alternative facts", distortions, and false "debates" to silence responsible voices and derail necessary policies on climate change and other issues. It is essential, as people of faith, that we stand up for accurate descriptions of what is happening to God's creation. It is essential to work for global justice.

Join me in speech and action that is clear and bold about the moral cause of justice.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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