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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Polluting climate-change science with politics and ideologies

This past Friday I was one of over one hundred “climate leaders” from across New England. We gathered for an all-day summit of (mostly) local, state, and federal government officials as well as a sampling of those in the non-profit and for-profit community. 

While much good came from the event’s conversations, networking, and coordination, a speech by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) reminded me that political grudges don't mix with science and sound policy. 

It also made clear how Catholics may not always be welcome in large groups of eco-advocates.

First, kudos to EPA’s New England region for organizing what was by any measure a huge success. And kudos also to Rhode Island’s eco-friendly Johnson and Wales University for hosting us at their green campus, which sits along the Providence River in the shadow of three massive wind turbines that power the adjacent Fields Point Wastewater Treatment Facility.

Semi-kudos go to Senator Whitehouse, who is arguably one of the most outspoken members of Congress when it comes to eco-issues. He understands better than most elected officials the nuances of climate change and he speaks passionately about its impact on you, me, and the planet. He speaks bluntly about our responsibility to mitigate its causes and to adapt to its effects.

Senator Whitehouse is also calling attention to the issue of ocean acidification—which is also a consequence of excessive amounts of carbon in our atmosphere. This latter issue is rarely discussed, even if it is a ticking time bomb that is already changing the chemistry of our oceans, which can put at risk much of humanity’s sources of food.

But as he is known to do, Senator Whitehouse spent much of his speech last Friday skewering his Republican colleagues, even if he did note that polling data shows that younger Republicans take climate change seriously.

US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)
Photo: Flicker/Center for American Progress Action Fund
Now given that most present worked in various levels of government, it seemed odd to be lectured by a politician about the ills of his opposing party. Frankly, it made me uncomfortable. I happen to know and like a few Republicans and even a few climate change deniers, even if we don’t agree. Given the type of gathering, might it not have been fair to have a Republican defend their party, or at least be available to correct anything said that may not be accurate?

Then there is this question: why were so many government officials—mostly the unelected variety like me—applauding so wildly for a speech that was so political? Sure, we were all delighted to hear a sitting United States senator champion this cause—a cause we all work with in the trenches. But if my read of the room was right, a great many of my colleagues enjoyed lampooning Republicans and climate-change deniers, which, to me, seems inappropriate.

And this gets me to my last concern—a moment of extreme discomfort for me.

During the question and answers, a participant asked if the strategy that led last week to the US Senate passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) could be a model for like-minded politicians to pass whatever bills needed passing to deal with climate change. (The women gave a delighted “woo-hoo” when she mentioned ENDA, a bill which the Church does not support because of its inability to protect religious liberty.) The senator agreed that there was a link between the success of ENDA and the eventual acceptance by Republicans of climate change needs.

This exchange did not make me feel welcome.

A small point? Perhaps. But a telling one. Even with the senator’s earlier mention of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ support for sound climate change policy, the question and answer about EDNA reminded me that Catholics are usually not aligned with the wider eco-community, which is why so many Catholics are suspicious of eco-issues and why so many eco-minded folk are suspicious of the Church. (That said, one state representative present at the summit, who was instrumental in passing same-sex marriage in Rhode Island, was, as always, exceedingly friendly to me and, it seems, happy that we have in ecology an issue that we can agree on.)

Because this was a work event, I had to tread lightly then, as I do here. But I would imagine I have the right to say this: climate change is a matter of science—which was Senator Whitehouse's main point. It should be approached, then, with reason and clarity, not with politics and ideology. When the senator stuck with science he was fantastic. When he spoke of political armies and polarizing social issues he was divisive.

My concern is that many engaged in climate change mitigation and response (in government and elsewhere) seem prone to encourage ever more division rather than seek relationships with those who have not yet accepted anthropogenic climate change. If the proper regulations and incentives are to be in place to deal with climate change then we’d better learn to stick with what we can agree on when we can and in matters where we don’t agree we better learn to do without political fist fights.

Given the very real danger that climate change and ocean acidification poses—as do many other ecological issues—cooperation, understanding, and relationships are vital for the times ahead. Thus, as always, Our Lord has something to teach those of us entrusted with building community, teaching the uniformed, and protecting the globe’s natural, life-sustaining environment:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5:38-48)



  1. Bill, you may be one of the last rational human beings on the planet. Besides just being a smart guy, I think we can thank the Lord and the Church for that. Also, based on my experience working mostly in the non-profit eco-community, I have no doubt that Catholics are not always welcome. Even in the *faith-based* eco-community, "orthodox" Catholics are not always welcome.

    Now if all these political types want to promote the science of climate change, then they should stick with the science of climate change. Partisan politics in this case will hurt us all.

  2. Hello - you mention " that Catholics are usually not aligned with the wider eco-community, which is why so many Catholics are suspicious of eco-issues and why so many eco-minded folk are suspicious of the Church."

    I think this distrust pivots on women's reproductive health i.e. availability of artificial contraception and abortion, a non-negotiable for us as Catholics

    The interconnection of science and policy and social issues is a messy web. While the science of climate change is credible, the legitimacy of the message, on both sides, is suspect because of hyperbole used by proponents and the polemics of politicians.

    Matt W.


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