Friday, June 23, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

So I finally saw An Inconvenient Truth. I liked it.

I can't say that I loved it. Like a lot of reviewers who came into it already accepting the scientific consensus on climate change, I didn't need a two hour explanation of what I already knew about the consequences of climate change. I've been following the issue for 15 years, I get that there's a problem.

What I wanted was "what's next." Not just excerpts from the classic 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth, but a serious discussion of our options and a clear vision of what can be practically done to change things.

I understand that Gore has explained that his goal is to focus on changing public perception. He talks about the tendency of people to jump from denying that a problem exists to saying that there's no way we can do anything about it, and he encourages people to pause in between those sentiments.

It makes a certain sense to focus only on the science. After all, one can agree with the scientific consensus but then reject any given policy proposal, and by sticking to the description of what's happening, he forces people to argue about what's going on and whether we can agree that that's OK. Since it fairly obviously isn't OK that sea levels could rise by 20 feet within decades, that the Midwest could see more drought and more tornadoes, and more intense hurricanes are not something to look forward to, there's a lot of a basis for agreeing that something ought to be done.

But what he does that's vital and that happens too rarely, is that he makes a strong moral case for taking action. He talks about how he personally came to recognize protecting his family and his world as vital moral interests, and he addresses the importance of taking personal responsibility for our own actions, whether it was his family's decision to stop farming tobacco, or our more modern need to move past carbon based energy generation.

The moral case was best presented by Bill McKibben in The End of Nature, though I've always been a fan of his intensely moral argument about Job in The Comforting Whirlwind : God, Job, and the Scale of Creation. McKibben asks about the moral consequences that follow from the realization that human actions have affected every inch of earth. Where once we could look at a beautiful sunset behind Grand Teton and seen the majesty of nature and the wisdom of a benevolent deity, we now have to wonder whether those clouds furling over the mountain are products of pollution, or whether they formed because of warmer oceans producing more humid air. With such profound influence over the world comes a responsibility to act as a steward.

That's a sentiment that the Catholic Church echoed in a 2001 statement by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops:

As people of faith, we are convinced that "the earth is the Lord's and all it holds" (Ps 24:1). Our Creator has given us the gift of creation: the air we breathe, the water that sustains life, the fruits of the land that nourish us, and the entire web of life without which human life cannot flourish. All of this God created and found "very good." We believe our response to global climate change should be a sign of our respect for God's creation.

The continuing debate about how the United States is responding to questions and challenges surrounding global climate change is a test and an opportunity for our nation and the entire Catholic community. As bishops, we are not scientists or public policymakers. We enter this debate not to embrace a particular treaty, nor to urge particular technical solutions, but to call for a different kind of national discussion. Much of the debate on global climate change seems polarized and partisan. Science is too often used as a weapon, not as a source of wisdom. Various interests use the airwaves and political process to minimize or exaggerate the challenges we face. The search for the common good and the voices of poor people and poor countries sometimes are neglected.

At its core, global climate change is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures. It is about the future of God's creation and the one human family. It is about protecting both "the human environment" and the natural environment. It is about our human stewardship of God's creation and our responsibility to those who come after us.
As citizens, most of us are not scientists nor policymakers, and for the moment, neither is Mr. Gore. As such his movie matches this call for a different kind of debate, not one focused on a particular treaty or a particular solution, but about what it means to be responsible stewards of this world we live in and enjoy.

Evangelical groups are coming around to the importance of what they call "creation care," calling it not just an environmental problem, but a spiritual one.

It ought to be enough to tell people that driving a hybrid will save them money. It ought to be enough to point out that compact fluorescents are cheaper than old bulbs because they last practically forever and use less electricity. But it isn't enough. And for too long, people have been more interested in making a purely economic case for changing our behavior. It hasn't been enough, and time has wasted.

When I was first getting interested in the environmental movement, there were three issues I and many others were focused on. Acid rain, the ozone hole and global warming were the big topics, and I wrote book reports for school, letters for public officials, and read everything I could find on these topics. Within a few years, an international treaty had ended the use of CFCs throughout the world, and the ozone hole is on the mend. A series of national laws and bilateral agreements between nations cut emissions of nitrates and sulfates from power plants to the extent that acid rain is no longer a problem, and dead lakes in the Adirondacks are beginning to recover.

These problems can be solved, and can be solved without anyone having to suffer as a result. The same thing can be done with climate change, and I encourage you to see Gore's movie, and then join the discussion about what to do next. I obviously have my favored solutions, and I'll be talking about them more in days to come.

An Inconvenient Truth is playing in Kansas City, and will come to Lawrence's Liberty Hall in late July.