Board of Silly Walks: Part 7


Climate change is quickly become one of those areas of discussion loaded with its share of shibboleths. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the term itself can be an exercise in equivocation at best, an excursion in begging the question in the middle, and a rhetorical cudgel at worst.

Which, of course, makes it excellent fodder for the interwebs, especially in respect to the sewers of the world wide web, the infamous combox.

Given this state of discourse, it is often refreshing to read rational approaches to this subject which do not engage in equivocation, reification, begging the question, et al. A rare find indeed, but it is out there.

Unfortunately, one place where it potentially will not be found is the UMC Book of Resolutions. One proposed emendation concerns “Climate Change and the Church,” as proposed by the General Board of Church and Society, which in these pages I affectionately refer to as the Board of Silly Walks, for, like the famous Monty Python sketch of like designation, it seems to exist for the express purpose of perpetuating silliness, albeit without producing something as useful as a silly walk.

This latest foray into silliness is a proposed revision to the Book of Resolutions, to be submitted at the forthcoming General Conference 2016. Unfortunately, the proposal is so full of the aforementioned fallacies that much of the actually fair theological content is lost behind the rhetorical sleight of hand.

(Original in quotes)

Rationale: Shaped by voices from across the global church, this new resolution names the spiritual and ethical concerns posed by climate change and encourages locally appropriate personal, institutional and civic actions by the church and its members.
Add new resolution to the Book of Resolutions, delete #1031. Resolution on Global Warming after approval of this new resolution:

Initially it should be noted that “Climate Change and the Church” is intended to effectively replace “Resolution on Global Warming,” should it be adopted. One might also note that the terminology of “Global Warming” is far more precise than “Climate Change,” which could conceivably encompass a rather broad scope of climate related phenomenon. More on this later.

The natural world is a loving gift from God, the creator and sustainer, who has entrusted it in all its fullness to the care of all people for God’s glory and to the good of all life on earth now and in generations to come.

This may seem to be quibbling, and I won’t presume to know the intended meaning behind this statement, but to speak of mankind’s stewardship of the earth as relating to it “in all its fullness” seems a fairly overwrought statement. After all, earth and all its fullness, as the Scriptures state, belongs to God. But even if we grant that humankind has stewardship over the earth, it is hard to conceive of how that could meaningfully extend to the “fullness” thereof. There are processes and systems that are well beyond our ability to understand, let alone control, which would seem to preclude being entrusted with the fullness of the “natural world.”

Again, this may seem like quibbling, but this sort of theological premise in its overreach may entail further confusion vis-a-vis mankind’s relation to the natural world.

That being said, it is certainly a sound theological principle that mankind is intended to care for the earth, etc.

The image of God in us (Genesis1:27) is reflected in our abilities, responsibilities and integrity, and with the power of the Holy Spirit we are called as God’s co-workers in dialogue and covenant to live and serve for the good of creation.

There is nothing particularly objectionable here, although the language towards the end is somewhat fuzzy, in that the “co-workers in dialogue and covenant” does not seem to have a specific referent; after all, are we in dialogue with God about the care of the earth? If so, what would that entail? Does that leave open the possibility that certain practical outworkings of care for creation (or lack thereof) are divinely revealed through this dialogue? Or is this dialogue between the “co-workers?” And if it is truly dialogue, what does that entail for the practicalities of the topic in question, as what will follow practically eliminates the possibility of dialogue altogether?

This will be an important question to keep in mind.

We confess that we have turned our backs on our responsibilities in neglect, selfishness and pride. And yet Christ’s redeeming and restoring work through his death and resurrection embraces all of creation.

There is little to quibble with in this statement, as there is truth to all of these statements, and it is axiomatic to Christian theology that mankind has done all these things. However, the lack of specificity is the most troubling aspect of the statement here. One would hardly argue that mankind has responsibility for the care of the earth and has often turned its back on that responsibility. But for confession to be confession, it has to be specific; generalizing neglect, selfishness and pride may have their place, but without delineating the intention, culpability, etc., of these acts, one does not actually get the sense of what precisely has gone wrong, which makes these types of statements on climate change vis-a-vis the church nebulous and prone to question-begging and equivocation.

Even in the face of destruction and disaster, we believe that God’s vision for the world is of peace and wholeness and that God offers to us a future filled with hope (Jeremiah 29:11). This vision has a present and a future in the promise of a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1-8).

Again, there is truth to this statement, but also some very fuzzy language that elides some very important distinctions. For example, destruction and disaster are not univocal terms, but can mean drastically different things in respect to their referents. As an example, hurricanes cause destruction and are disasters (we in fact call them “natural disasters”), yet in and of itself there is no moral content to the destruction or the disaster in question. As such, it is not clear how in this case something like a hurricane could reasonably be linked to mankind’s pride, et al. On the other hand, destruction and disaster can be willfully caused, either through an active means or through passive neglect.

The difficulty is that there is no clear distinction made between the equivocal meanings of destruction and disaster, which leaves open the potential of eliding the distinction between what is unrelated to human pride and selfishness and what isn’t.

As we will shortly see, this may be the whole point.

One manifestation of our neglect, selfishness and pride is our sinful disregard for creation that has given rise to the injustice of climate change.

There is a lot of begging the question in this statement, but it is important to unpack in order to see how this type of reasoning can for some be so persuasive while being so fallacious.

To begin, the notion of “sinful disregard for creation” is directly linked to “climate change.” A prominent difficulty here is that the sin in question is manifested by means of a nebulous notion of “climate change” which needs to be cashed out more fully.

Now, a major error in thinking that occurs here is that of reification; that is, concretizing an abstraction. But “climate” is a statistical abstraction which attempts to aggregate diverse data. For example, “climate change” might be used as short-hand for “changes or increases in temperatures,” but what is changing is the data (that is, the temperatures), not the abstraction which is represented by the statistical aggregate.

As such, to use climate change as shorthand for a change in temperatures (or whatever measurement is employed) over a given time may be a fine thing to do, but reifying it soon leads into fuzzy reasoning, as it will give a false impression of the data and how it is related. It can lead one to think (even if one knows better) that there is some concrete entity of the “climate” which is perspicuous to measurement and can be causally linked to a particular cause or activity. However, in this situation one actually ends up dispensing with reality, since “climate” is an aggregate of data, and often only after adjusting the data in various ways according to different algoithms to come up with a statistical representation which is no longer directly about the data itself which- it should be noted- may itself be potentially problematic in regards to its accuracy.

Thus, when understood properly, “climate change” is trivially true; after all, nearly any measurement of any physical phenomenon on earth over time is subject to change, and often evinces a great deal of change. And it is also trivially true that humans (as well as any other thing on earth) exert some influence over earth’s systems and processes, as they are part of those processes. After all, if one drives from Tucson to Phoenix the “urban heat island” effect is immediately evident as a way in which humanity affects the “climate.”

However, there is still much that is not clear in this sort of language. If “climate change” is not being used in the trivial sense but in the reified sense, then the advocate for this position would seemingly have to subscribe to the idea that the “climate” has some sort of natural point of equilibrium, and has only changed in respect to humanity’s influence over it. This, of course, would require that we have sufficient knowledge of earth’s processes and systems to ascertain that point. But even if this position is modified to allow for “natural variations” (even extreme ones), one would need to have sufficient set of data to ascertain the distinction between natural variability and human effect, as well as to sort out if one is influenced by the other. (For example, many of the “warm” points in human history have been followed by human flourishing, perhaps indicating that a warmer environment is more conducive to some processes or others.)

If, as we are told, the earth is billions of years old, that means that our present measurements of earth’s systems comprise an almost infintesimal amount of earth’s “climate” history. And while there are ways to extrapolate data from the past (with varying degrees of confidence), there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty regarding “climate change,” except in that the “climate” does change as a matter of course.

A major problem with this proposal is that it is attempting to locate “sinful disregard” in a field in which there is so much uncertainty, which makes this kind of theologizing particularly egregious.

This statement also raises the spectre of “injustice” and applies it to the same situation, which is particularly egregious. Justice, after all, is giving to one that which one is due, and since “climate change” is a dubious concept in the sense this statement uses it (for many of the reasons aforementioned), there is no solid reasoning here for how something which may not be within (either completely or partially) humanity’s purview is a matter of “justice.” And since so much uncertainty exists, it would be extraordinarily difficult to locate the “injustice” in any real or meaningful sense without resorting to these types of empty generalizations.

That is not to say, of course, that there is never any aspect of justice related to humanity’s relation to the natural world; the actions that we take in concrete instances certainly have an effect on the natural world, either for good or for ill. But it is simply a categorical error to move from the concrete to the abstract, and it can turn “justice” into something other than it is.

Human induced climate change is caused by the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, for which the strong economies of this world carry the vast responsibility. Those economies that have benefited from fossil-fuel development rightly bear the responsibility to rapidly reduce emissions and support less wealthy economies in their journey toward sustainable and climate resilient development.

While one doesn’t necessarily expect a statement such as this one to deal substantially with the uncertainty involved in assessing how much of “climate change” is human induced, one might reasonably hope for a certain amount of nuance or at a least couching of one’s language in less begging-the-question type of assertions such as this one. Given that global temperature (assuming such a thing can actually be measured and assuming such a measurement is a meaningful indication of climate change and assuming that one can parse the difference between what is human induced and what is not) has essentially flat-lined for the past 18 years, contradicting the predictions of climate models predicated on the mechanic specified here, this is a dubious assertion at best, especially if it is going to be couched in language such as “sin” and “injustice,” things for which one might hope for a great deal of certainty when such judgments are rendered.

Further, the shibboleths of “sustainability” and “climate resilience” are trotted out as just that; token phrases that indicate little except a certain adherence to a preconception.

After all, what precisely is “sustainability?” And how would one determine what precisely is sustainable? For example, one might argue that fossil fuel energy is unsustainable, and surely on some level or another that is true; perhaps even with some immediacy in the span of a couple centuries or less. But what is determinate for describing fossil fuels as unsustainable is that we have historical experience with many facets of fossil fuel as an energy source, somewhat of an idea of what sort of reserves or deposits might exist, and the cost to benefit ratio of it as an energy source.

Alternative energy sources, on the other hand, often do not have as long of a track record in regards to many of these areas of concern, and thus whether or not such sources are “sustainable” or not is not something on which a determination can readily be made, aside from extrapolation and speculation. That is not to say they may not prove to be sustainable and/or superior forms of energy, but time will prove to be a test of this, rather than bare assertion.

The same, of course, could be said for the terminology of “climate resilience.”

Unless we change our ways, the average global temperature by the end of the 21st century is on course to increase by 4 degrees Celsius resulting in sea level rise, shrinking glaciers, extreme weather, droughts and flooding.

Except, of course, that this “course” is the extrapolation of a computer model predicated on certain assumptions, and those models have consistently speculated more warming than has actually occurred in reality (or has not occurred, since the past 18 years have flatlined as far as temperature change).

The implicit assumption that increases in CO2 necessarily entail “bad things” should also be noted. We actually have no way of determining (aside from watching them occur) whether increased CO2 is beneficial or not for the “climate.” And since climate models have not been able to accurately predict the flat-lining of temperatures, one might reasonably have less certainty in the outcomes they portend.

There is also another glaring error here in that an increase of 4 degrees celsius is causally linked to the various things listed (sea level change, etc.). The difficulty in this reasoning is that these sorts of things have- as much as we can tell- always been part and parcel of the climate on earth. Sea levels have risen and fallen, glaciers have shrunken and expanded, extreme weather has occurred as well as droughts and flooding. By eliding this distinction, “climate change” effectively becomes a catch all term for anything “negative” as it relates to weather, “climate,” etc.

It should of course be noted that in and of themselves these sorts of changes have no positive or negative connotation, much less a moral one. It is only humanity which can rationally apprehend climate and append value to certain events that gives any particular weather or environmental phenomenon this sort of identification. After all, presumably the earth and its climate has undergone substantial changes over its entire history, of which man’s participation and affect is relatively insignificant. Unless one asserts a static “climate” until the industrial era, it becomes exceptionally difficult to parse the difference between mankind’s affect on climate and what it is as a matter of course as affected by other things. And if one concedes natural variability, the distinction becomes even harder to identify with certainty.

The problem with using “climate change” as a catch all for any type of weather event (especially the “bad” events) is that it ultimately devolves into a circular argument: climate change results in extreme weather; we just experienced extreme weather; ergo, the extreme weather was caused by climate change.

There may eventually be ways of delineating what role mankind plays in any particular weather event, but since we have not yet been able to accurately predict them (or “climate change,” for that matter), this demonstrates that we do not fully understand the systems and processes involved and thus cannot reasonably assign culpability for any particular weather event, let alone the climate as a whole.

The United Nations’ World Food Program estimates that climate change will place 20 percent more people at risk of hunger by 2050.

The crucial point here is that speculation about y is not evidence for x.

Leaders in some developed nations continue to debate, from places of comfort and privilege, the “reality” of a changing climate in order to perpetuate their polluting ways.

There is an interesting rhetorical sleight of hand here, which might be missed if not reading with a critical eye. It was mentioned just a few sentences ago that human induced climate change is caused by emitting CO2. And here the charge is made about certain peoples’ “polluting ways.” However, CO2 is actually not a pollutant (despite the EPA employing a similar sleight of hand), but is rather essential for life on Earth. Now, it can certainly be argued that too much CO2 might constitute pollution, which is true, but the same argument could be made for just about any substance.

However, another error in thinking pops up in that “climate change” is employed univocally in some instances but then equivocally in others. To wit, “climate change” is being conceived of in this statement only in terms of “human induced climate change.” The rhetorical dishonesty here is that someone who is not on board with “human induced climate change” (or who even questions the relative effect of CO2 emissions as a driver of climate change while perhaps still agreeing that it is a driver) is then caricatured as someone who debates the “reality” of a changing climate, even if they agree that the “climate” is actually changing. In other words, “climate change” is used univocally to buttress the argument of CO2 emissions as the primary driver of climate change, but is then used equivocally (that is, “duh, the climate is always changing!”) to caricature those who disagree to some extent or another with the presupposition occasioned by the argument herein.

This is actually pretty standard fare for the internet in all its glory, but one might expect a higher standard from an agency which represents the UMC and its interests.

Finally, the rhetoric of “places of comfort and privilege” is simply a rhetorical cudgel, especially since the bogeyman of faceless leaders is given no specificity. Incidentally, given the amount of money (and power and privilege) which represents the side of the argument that this statement takes, such rhetorical moves might apply equally well, thus rendering this sort of rhetorical tactic rather shameless, perhaps another shibboleth without meaning, substance or substantiation.

As the church we witness firsthand the consequences of climate disruption in our communities and in the lives of those Christ calls us to be with in ministry.

There is another unspoken preconception here. To be sure, the church no doubt witnesses “climate disruption,” which- since it is undefined here- one might reasonably take to mean “ways in which the climate (that is, an aggregate of weather over time) disrupts the lives of human beings and their communities.” This is hardly a profound statement, since humans have been dealing with the climate for as long as they have roamed the earth. However, the implication is that we are witnessing the disruption of climate caused by our actions; namely, CO2 emissions, per the argument above.

The greatest difficulty with this argument- as noted in other places above- is that we have no solid way of parsing the distinction between what a “natural climate” and a “human affected” climate looks like. The first reason for this is that as part of this planet, humans do affect the climate to some degree or another. Thus, we have no substantial way of knowing what a climate without us might look like in this present time.

Secondly, we only have certain records about certain measurements (to varying degrees of quality) for a relatively small portion of human history, let alone earth’s history. As such, to determine to what extent X action affects Y event is something that would require far more data than we currently possess. For example, the current era of history in which we live could be on the upswing of a “climate” change, and to our limited measurements what might be very long upward trend could on a shorter timeline appear more marked than it actually is.

This is borne out by how badly climate models tend to perform relative to the measurements of what actually occurs. There is also the problem of knowing how relevant the things we measure are and how accurate they might be, especially compared to previous measurements. Given that models can only output according to the parameters input into them, the failure of the models to predict what actually occurs indicates that the models themselves do not proceed from correct inputs, which entails that our understanding of the factors involved is not complete. Thus, while CO2 could certainly be a driver of global warming (or whatever other phenomenon is being researched), if the model cannot accurately predict what occurs, the certainty of any specific input is (or should be) greatly lessened.

Recognizing our complicity and responsibility, we seek to chart a new path rooted in economic and ecological justice.

Given the incredible uncertainty that actually exists in regards to “climate change,” the loaded rhetoric of “complicity” is overwrought. To be sure, we as stewards of creation bear responsibility for it, but determining “complicity” would require knowledge that we do not currently have. It also raises the question as to what exactly “ecological justice” is supposed to entail given the amount of uncertainty in regards to this issue.

We understand climate justice not simply as an environmental or economic concern but rather as a deep ethical and spiritual concern that the Church must address so that abundant life is ensured for our children and future generations.

The same, of course, could be said for the term “climate justice,” which- as has been demonstrated- is predicated on presuppositions that incorporate logical fallacies.

One final note here: the issue of “abundant life” is raised concerning future generations, which is of course something that should be borne in mind in all areas of thought and concern. But what, precisely, is the content of this “abundant life?” It could very well be that particular definitions actually have as a requisite plentiful and affordable supplies of energy, which- at the present- is something which only fossil fuels can provide. Is there any room in this dialogue for looking at how responsible use of fossil fuels may lead to greater abundant life for greater numbers of people (since access to energy is highly correlated with reductions in poverty and the like), or must we a priori demonize these sort of discussions as potentially endorsing “polluting ways?”

As we continue to call for bold leadership and advocate for policies rooted in justice and sustainability, we understand that God is calling each of us to respond and that as a denomination we cannot hope to transform the world until we change our way of being in it.

Therefore, we call on United Methodists to:
Prayerfully explore lifestyle changes as individuals and faith communities that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support a cleaner, healthier future;

Lifestyle changes could very a well be a good thing to explore, but it is non sequitur that the sort of lifestyle changes which would (presumably) reduce greenhouse gas emissions would necessarily result in a cleaner and healthier future. After all, reducing greenhouse emissions could very well be accompanied by a concomitant lack of energy production via alternative energy source, the consequences of which could very well lead to a dirtier and unhealthier future. This is noticeable (from one perspective) in that very little of current energy production is by means of alternative energy, and much of that alternative production itself requires fossil fuel based backup systems to be viable. Additionally, a lack of affordable and available efficient energy is often accompanied by lessened health outcomes and dirtier environmental conditions.

Support communities impacted by climate change as well as those currently dependent on fossil fuel extraction and production as they transition to a new energy economy;

One would first have to determine which communities are actually being affected by “climate change” (which, in this statement’s presuppositions, is tantamount to “human induced climate change”).

In the end, the most distressing aspect of this proposed statement is how it conflates mankind’s obligation to care for creation with a specific interpretation of “climate change,” eliding the important difference in certainty between them. Equally appalling is the ambiguation of sin, justice and the like as a result of this conflation. What we are left with is a lot of poor reasoning predicated on some logical fallacies cloaked in a veneer of theologizing.

Sadly, this sort of conflation is often responsible for the near inability to have intelligent and civil dialogues about this subject (which is ironic, as another proposed statement is on civil discourse!). After all, it is entirely possible to affirm the goodness of creation and mankind’s role in caring for it (which is a theological proposition) without subscribing to the particular interpretations and extrapolations of data vis-a-vis the amount of “climate change” that has occurred, is likely to occur, and the amount that humankind contributes to this (which is a scientific question).

The problem in regards to civil discourse is that if a specific interpretation (e.g., “climate change” (en toto?) is caused by the human activity of fossil fuel use) is used as a perfunctory demonstration of a theological or moral state (ie.., such a state of nature entails sin, an injustice, etc.), then there is actually no room for dialogue or discourse, for how can one whose position is determined a priori to be one of sin and injustice have anything meaningful to say or add to the discussion?

Thus, incorporating such a statement as it stands without drastically altering the rationale therein and excising this unwarranted conflation will only serve to make the theological underpinnings of mankind’s stewardship of the earth beholden to specific interpretations of data concerning “climate change,” and in the process will further erode the possibility of meaningful dialogue and discourse on this topic, which would be unfortunate as it is one still fraught with so much uncertainty.

One Final Thought

I have noted ad nauseam that the term “climate change” functions in this statement as a sort of shibboleth for “human induced climate change.” It will be remembered that this statement also identifies climate change as a manifestation of neglect, pride, sinful disregard for creation, as well as something which can be identified with injustice. The theological underpinning for this is that mankind is meant to care for creation, to have stewardship over it, to be a co-worker “in dialogue and covenant” for the “good of creation.”

That mankind is meant to care for creation is a sound theological principle, but where statements like this ultimately go wrong is that they identify this theological principle with a particular understanding of humankind’s relationship to creation. Allow me to explain.

Climate change is understood by this statement to be a fundamentally bad thing; after all, it is a result of neglect and sin, something that indicates injustice. But why must we presuppose that “climate change” is necessarily a bad thing? Is there a theological rationale that mankind’s care for creation must entail maintaining some sort of equilibrium, whatever that may be?

In the creation accounts, man is called to care for creation, but is also given the task of working the ground. This has some substantial implications, one of which is that the natural world is not something complete in and of itself but is something that mankind has a responsibility to not only manage, but also potentially improve.

The “tilling of the ground” in the Genesis account has metaphorical meanings vis-a-vis man’s relationship to the natural world, but also some very literal applications, in that agriculture is one way in which humanity has vastly impacted the natural world for thousands of years. There are countless other ways humanity has (for good or for ill) affected the earth, from the cities we build to the dams we use to divert water to the domestication of cultivation of animals as well as myriad other things. Seen in this light, mankind’s natural relationship to the climate it finds itself in is precisely to attempt to change it.

Now, one could of course see in all the things humans do to exist in the natural world as a fundamentally bad thing, but this would be to a priori bifurcate humankind from the natural world, when in fact humans are part and parcel of the natural world, and thus the ways in which we affect the natural world are just as “natural” as anything else.

Understood in this sense, a priori decrying climate change as something indicative of sin, et al, is something that is theologically problematic. It forces an understanding of humanity’s relation to the natural world as one that is fundamentally antagonistic, and seems to leave little to no room for understanding this relationship as something potentially positive and beneficial. Obviously we can (and have) easily go wrong and abuse our stewardship of creation; the problem is that when this is reified into “climate change” it seems to preclude the possibility that humanity can have a positive impact on the earth that doesn’t involve just allowing the earth to do what it would do without us, whatever that might look like.

If we are meant to care for the earth and to “till the earth,” then we need to perceive our relationship to the natural world as one in which we can both debase and degrade it but also improve and beautify it. Both of these possibilities are necessary to hold in view as we perceive mankind’s relation to creation.


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Jason Watson

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