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Experts Debate Moral, Religious Case for Climate Action

When members of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) meet each year at the organization's annual conference, reporters are updated on the latest advancements in climate science from leading climatologists and government scientists.

Extreme weather, disappearing Western snowpack, wildfires, sea level rise, withering crops and vanishing wildlife habitat are all typically on the docket for discussion.

Credit: J.D. Pooley/Getty Images

But with the science becoming overwhelmingly clear that human greenhouse gas emissions are fueling climate change, a discussion at last weekend's SEJ conference in Chattanooga, Tenn., veered toward the philosophy of action and personal responsibility to do something — anything at all — to reduce our impact on the climate.

In other words, if we can do something about climate change, do each of us have a personal responsibility to act? On what philosophical ground should we take individual action?

Or, what would Jesus do about CO2?

That’s a tough question for a lot of conservative Christians to answer, particularly those who are uncomfortable with some scientific theories as well as uncertainty about the future that climate science implies, said Dawn Coppock, a Christian environmentalist and co-founder of the Christian environmental group LEAF, said Saturday at SEJ.

A new study by researchers at the University College of London and Yale University shows that evangelicals are less likely than non-evangelicals to believe that climate change is real, is causing harm and is caused by humans. Even so, the study shows that evangelicals are concerned about climate change and support a variety of policy measures to address it. In addition to LEAF, the Evangelical Environmental Network and other groups try to make the case to evangelicals for moral action on climate climate change. 

It’s not that conservative churchgoers who don't believe in climate change are uncaring about their environment, Coppock said. They have serious doubts about science in general, requiring Christian environmentalists to be creative in inspiring people to action.

Many conservative Christians feel estranged and alienated by science, she said.

“At LEAF, we don’t talk about climate change, we talk about Earth stewardship,” Coppock said. “We’re also drinking the Jesus Kool-Aid. Scientific arguments are persuasive to a whole lot of learning styles. We already have those people in the tent. You’re not going to convert those people (in the churches) by pummeling them with more science. Spiritual and moral concern does not require you to believe there’s global warming.”

Credit: Society of Environmental Journalists.

According to Coppock, Christians in the South who doubt the reality of manmade climate change may be convinced action is necessary by showing them the environmental challenges posed by something very clear: mountaintop-removal coal mining and the dramatic effects it has on the landscape, or East Tennessee’s high asthma rates caused in part by coal-fired power plant emissions, she said.

“From a Christian frame, I would say love my neighbor, and I was commanded to care for creation,” she said.

LEAF has been successful in reaching out to congregations about how they can be less wasteful and more energy efficient, leading to greater support for greener cities in the Bible Belt. 

“When you’ve got green cities, which Knoxville and Chattanooga and Nashville are working hard to be, then sooner or later, the state legislature has to listen,” she said. “That to me is how we get a hold of this problem. We do what we can do and we look at the people that can do more and we support and encourage those efforts.”

University of Tennessee philosophy lecturer Alex Feldt, who also spoke at SEJ, said any moral argument for action on climate change is complex and problematic because of the “collective action problem.”

But if humans have the power to mitigate climate change, he said they have a moral obligation to do so because much human suffering is at stake. Climate change threatens food and water supplies for millions across the globe, something studies show could lead to a much more violent world.

“Because climate change is collective, they look at it and say it doesn’t matter what I do,” Feldt said. It is important to find “moral arguments that can break through that and say, no, you actually have a responsibility … You’re morally responsible because other people are being significantly harmed.”

According to Feldt, a useful moral argument for action is to appeal to fairness and justice, because climate change will violate the human rights of a lot of people who can never be compensated.

“Information (about climate change) is part of the moral argument: We have an obligation to share this information and do this,” he said. “That’s the way to inspire without feeling paralyzed. You don’t have to go crazy green, live off the grid. You just need to talk."

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« Climate in Context


By dan_in_illinois
on October 10th, 2013

“But with the science becoming overwhelmingly clear that human greenhouse gas emissions are fueling climate change, a discussion at last weekend’s SEJ conference in Chattanooga, Tenn., veered toward the philosophy of action and personal responsibility to do something — anything at all — to reduce our impact on the climate.”

Wait a minute.  These people (SEJ) claim to be journalists.  Their job is to report the facts.  Their job is not to do something - anything at all - to support their particular beliefs about the subject.

Then this - “Many conservative Christians feel estranged and alienated by science ....”  How many times are liberals going to repeat this as a way to shut down debate on this subject?

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By john Michael Carter
on July 12th, 2014

This commenter’s point centers around his belief that the facts on climate change, and the facts of climate change, and the facts of what people are doing or not doing about it, or how they are approaching it, are beliefs.  So when the reporter reports on these things, the commenter creates the fiction (and the “belief”) that the journalist, as he puts it, is “doing something to support their particular beliefs.” When they are doing no such thing. 

This is because to this commenter the scientific issue of climate change itself, is one of belief—and it reflects a problem with understanding on the issue itself, and in part perhaps exactly what this article also points toward. That is, the view that science may ultimately be one of belief, which is problematic; since science, though the pursuit of objective physical knowledge of the world around us can lead to many mistakes, is the very opposite.  And no matter what we call it, the pursuit of objective physical truth, as best as we can ascertain it,of the world around us, is not belief. It may be wrong, but is the pursuit of objective knowledge, by definition. 

Here’s an example: It covers the fact of increasing ocean warming.  And the measurements of it therein. If the reporter then reported on the responses to this, or what some groups or another were doing or not doing, or what approach they were taking, the reporter would be reporting. But since the reporting does not align with this commenter’‘s view that the pursuit of objective knowledge of the physical world around us, or at least on this issue, is in fact one of belief,  and not objective reality, however best, or poorly, ascertained (and thus something that is exactly the opposite of what science in fact is), science data (aside from the confusion over what is hard data, and what is scientific fact we are still trying to learn, yet still very different from “belief”),this commenter would comment, as he has here, that the reporter is reporting on his “beliefs,” because this commenter has turned the scientific issue of climate change itself, into one of belief.

There is no discussing something like this, because it is Kafkaesque in the sense that everything can then be turned on its head through semantics, and a circular “well, that is just your belief” response given, to anything. And all discussion loses meaning.

But it is a way for commenters to hold onto the meaning that they want to have. On things that are, ill defined or not, science - and thus, the pursuit, at least, of, the objective.  And sort of helps keep us in the dark ages when it comes to actually making reasoned and informed decisions about how to respond to any physical challenges, however confusing, delayed, and seemingly uncertain, because it keeps them from being seen as the objective, or the struggling pursuit toward it, but again, something of “belief.”

So in reporting on science, or the attempt to pursue that objective, it gets turned into pushing, a belief, and there is no way to them report on it unless the reporting align with what this commenter really wants this issue to be. And how he views it. Which is something other than science, and something more like, belief.  Which is fine, except then there is no such thing as science.  And that creates an even bigger problem in terms of the pursuit of knowledge, let alone response to, changes to, and affects in, our world.

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By John Thomas (Rockville, MD, 20877)
on October 14th, 2013

Where was the impassioned discussion on morality when Developed Countries banned and imposed DDT restrictions on developing countries? Beginning in 1972 until as recently as Clinton’s side agreement with Mexico which called for cessation of export and manufacture of DDT by 2007 as a requirement for its participation in NAFTA.  The anti-DDT junk science policy has resulted in the deaths of 100 Million plus inhabitants of the Sub Sahara, Asia, and South America, 80% children under the age of 5 and pregnant women

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By JK (IL)
on November 7th, 2013

“...withering crops…..”

What withering crops?  Both food production and crop production are at all time highs, rising every year, and projected to continue to rise well into the future:


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