This summer’s heat wave across the U.S. Southwest, Mexico, parts of Europe, and China would have been virtually impossible without “human-driven climate change,” according to a study published by researchers at World Weather Attribution. The study was released without having gone through peer review because of the urgency of the topic. Undoubtedly the climate is changing, but some of the media coverage of climate change – whether deniers, or doomsayers, or everyone in between – can tend toward agenda-focused intentions rather than reporting. The rhetoric and research around climate change can easily be silenced, over hyped, or tweaked to say what one wants to say.
During my July 26 spot on Mornings with Carmen, we discussed how to practice discernment when reading climate change news. I gave four things to keep in mind:
The larger the area you’re investigating, the more variables you’re dealing with. Once you start increasing the number of factors that can affect the conditions, your conclusions on cause-and-effect need to be held tentatively. Let’s take mid-twentieth century Los Angeles smog levels. Undoubtedly, L.A. smog levels influenced the surrounding regions (the Southwestern United States, the Pacific Ocean, etc.) because the environment is interconnected. But the farther out we draw our area of investigation, the harder it is to conclude what those effects are because there are too many contributing factors.
Much progress was made in L.A. smog levels by focusing on local factors, rather than global ones. Additionally, smog is a result of nitrous oxide, a pollutant produced from combustion engines, which narrows down the possible sources of pollution.
The claim “This would have never happened if…” is speculative. We don’t know what would have happened had “things” been different, whether those “things” were regulations or using renewable energy from the outset or something else. We can definitively say what has happened, but it’s much harder to say what wouldn’t have happened. Sometimes once you are past something, then you can look back and say, “this would not have happened if…” but that is difficult when you have a lot of variables.
One thing to do is look for specificity as opposed to generalities. For example, the hole in the ozone layer during the 1980s was found to be due to a specific type of chemical (CFCs) that reacted with ozone (O3) in a specific way. CFCs are not naturally produced so the source was easy to identify.
Look out for doom-and-gloom language. There is usually a difference between the worst-case scenario and the most likely scenario. There is a time and place for discussing the worst-case scenario; medicine and informed consent come to mind. But when we are reading the news, whether the topic is climate change or politics, we want to ask ourselves, “Is this the most likely scenario or is this the worst-case scenario?”
Similar to “doom-and-gloom” is the idea that this is the worst time ever. A recent Associated Press article about the heat wave said, “This month’s heat is likely the hottest Earth has been in about 120,000 years, easily the hottest of human civilization.” This is extreme language and extreme thinking (See Jonathan Haidt’s writing). Sometimes this language is used as an emotional appeal or to incite people to action. Often this language is used to get readers or viewers to click on something because, honestly, people like reading about horrible things more than moderately bad or somewhat good things.
You see doom-and-gloom language used in every topic in the news, not just climate science, and from every ideological perspective. One way to practice discernment when reading the news is to look out for arguments claiming that things are so dire we can justify using extreme solutions or even immoral behavior for the greater good. In other words, is the appeal trying to say that the ends justify the means?
To be clear, none of this is to deny that the climate is changing, and this not to deny that industrialization has had a negative impact on the environment or our responsibility to rectify it. But we need to be careful about speculating on past “what ifs” based on present-day analyses, and we need to be realistic about the limitations of computer model projections, particularly on a global scale.
A Healthy Response
Let’s consider three ways to respond to the news cycle, environmental threats, and climate change:
Second, keep in mind that our first job was to tend the garden and to be good stewards of nature. We want to do things that care for nature and care for people. More often than not, the things that are good for the environment are good for people. Clean water without chemical pollutants is good for everyone. Holding industries accountable for their waste and environmental impact is not a bad thing. When I was in graduate school, our chemical engineering instructor talked about how it’s better to repurpose chemical waste rather than just dump it. From a business standpoint, it saves a lot of money to repurpose every bit of waste you create. But it also protects the surrounding areas and wildlife, which is good for the people living nearby, some of whom might even work at the chemical plant.
Third, keep in mind that extreme environmentalist groups who believe humans are a blight or ravaging a delicate, vulnerable earth, are not practicing science, although these views may inform the kind of science they do. These are philosophical perspectives about human beings and the environment. Christianity (and other religions, for that matter) can offer a different perspective. Rather than a blight, humans can be a blessing. And the earth can be treated, not as a delicate victim, but as a fine work of craftsmanship worthy of care and respect.