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Learning to Recite the Climate Change Message

At the end of a sub-zero week in a sub-zero month in Chicago it’s tempting to think that we can defer concerns about climate change at least until we thaw out. Of course, short term weather events like the Polar Vortex are not the same thing as long term climate trends and conditions. Unusually cold temps in Chicago no more disprove global warming than the excessive heat that nearly suspended the Australian Tennis Open proves it. That didn’t stop Fox News from using the Polar Vortex to call into question the reality of climate change, a fact that the media watchdog group Media Matters for America documented in its review of Fox coverage in early January. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. A study of news outlets in 2012 by Fairleigh Dickinson political scientist Dan Cassino showed that people who watched no news programming at all were better able to correctly answer questions about domestic issues than people who watch Fox News regularly!            

Converting climate change deniers is about as easy as persuading Creationists that human beings and dinosaurs never actually met. But that doesn’t mean those of us who understand the threat climate change portends for our planet shouldn’t find ways to communicate our message more effectively. One approach was recently offered by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in its yearly review of threats to the planet. As a basis for their annual determination of whether The Bulletin’s iconic Doomsday Clock should be moved closer to or further away from apocalyptic midnight, a group of scientists representing several scientific disciplines assesses the political, diplomatic, and technological developments of the past year.

In their January, 2014 report, (http://thebulletin.org/five-minutes-too-close) the Bulletins scientists offered these terse, unambiguous headlines about climate change based on the 2013 report of the U.N. sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

  • It’s documented
  • It’s us
  • It hasn’t stopped
  • Sea level is rising
  • Ice cover is shrinking
  • The ocean is more acidic
  • Carbon dioxide is up
  • Dramatic emission reductions are needed
  • Climate change will be here for centuries

The scientists were not bullish about our response to these harsh realities and, as a result, declined to move the Clock hands away from five minutes to midnight, citing a continued “business as usual” approach on the part of global policy makers not only on climate change, but also on nuclear weapons’ proliferation and the management of nuclear stockpiles, issues the Bulletin has followed since its founding in 1945. Evidence for this is found in almost daily headlines: In just the past few weeks The New York Times has reported that European nations are considering easing back on their tough emissions regulations because of their economic woes, that the air quality over Indian cities is worse than in China, that the growth of North American oil production is outpacing pipeline capacity, driving a rapid increase in dangerous rail transport, and that a public utility in Arizona is aggressively seeking to win approval of large surcharges on solar users, in part to help pay for grid maintenance but primarily, one suspects, to fend off competition from renewables to their fossil fuel based financial model. As Chicago theologian Joe Sittler once wrote, “We can walk with our eyes wide open straight into sheer destruction if there is a profit on the way.”

Back in the 1820’s evangelist Walter Scott famously reduced the proclamation of the Gospel to a “five finger exercise” – Faith, repentance, baptism, forgiveness, Holy Spirit. This simple mnemonic device proved highly effective in the transmission and retention of his message. Those of us who teach at seminaries recoil at such simplistic approaches to our complex theological systems, but for an evangelist like Scott, urgent simplicity was a virtue when trying to communicate truths he believed were keys to the destiny of the human race.

The Bulletin’s scientists don’t attribute the perils of climate change to divine judgment, though our tepid response to global warming may reflect more than a little old fashioned sin. But while they, too, resist oversimplifying the complex physical science of their deliberations, their list of headlines might just be the kind of two fisted mnemonic device we need to punch home the urgency of our message about climate change. So, hold up your hands: “It’s documented, it’s us, it hasn’t stopped . . . . “

John H. Thomas
January 30, 2014

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