Climate change scepticism and worldview dissonance

A conversation I had the other day has been on my mind ever since.

It was with an old friend who I don’t see that often, but whose intelligence I’ve always respected, and who I’ve always regarded as being moderate – especially for a reformed evangelical – and considered. He’s always been interested in hearing my outlandish opinions. The surprise was the revelation that he was a climate change sceptic, and a passionate one.

It went deeper than that, actually – my new understanding of his worldview is that he regards the ‘climate change industry’ and ‘alarmism’ are part of a leftist strategy – if not conspiracy. I was surprised to hear ‘the left’ used so pejoratively by him as he expounded on the left’s agenda of curtailing economic growth, redistributing income, and enforcing political correctness. This left you talk about as the enemy, I said at one point – I’m sort of a part of that. Not completely, but my  instincts tend to go that way.

I left burdened and exhausted by worldview dissonance. How was I meant to weigh up his objections to the climate change consensus? I’d encountered them before, reading The Australian every weekend, but my friend has more of a background in science than I do. I felt disturbed considering the world through his eyes and seeing so many things I value and strive for as worse than useless, as what was wrong with the world.

I remain convinced that climate change is a real and present danger, that a simpler lifestyle and society are the answer to many of our problems and that unchecked capitalism is a dangerous and cruel thing. Yet I am chastened, and I now fear, just as I thought that the environment had gone mainstream in churches, that there may be a powerful conservative backlash, not even coming from  fundamentalists but from evangelicals.

Worldview dissonance is an everyday occurrence for me, taking as I do the minority view on so many issues. Why not on this one? How do we ever make up our mind on anything? Should we trust our own judgements, when there are usually wiser and more intelligent people with a different opinion? Welcome to pluralism, hazard of a postmodern society where there is no consensus. Humility required. And put a face to every contrary opinion; there’s probably someone you love who holds it.

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14 thoughts on “Climate change scepticism and worldview dissonance

  1. Great post Nathan. Yes, world view dissonance! It troubles me regularly. I think the media is a big issue here. They often muzzle certain viewpoints and portray others as a eminently reasonable (and those who disagree are nutters). The price we pay for freedom of the press.

    If you want to find out more about Climate Change skepticism and the left painted as expressed by your friend try reading Melanie Phillips’ book “The World turned upside down” or anything by Thomas Sowell. Melanie Phillips is an agnostic Jew, but deploys arguments that many Christians could say “Amen” to (for example she takes Richard Dawkins to task powerfully).

    Blessings,

    Marty.

  2. Frankly, I’m not sure. I struggle to know what research to trust. Much of this relates to both the sociology and ethics of knowledge. We all can’t know everything. So how do we (ethically) learn about issues of importance in areas where we don’t have expertise?

    One of the points Phillips makes is that if one does “come out” as a climate change skeptic they are dismissed as being nutters by the media (ethics again). it doesn’t give me confidence that when the media reports on issues I do know something about they regularly get it completely wrong.

  3. Yet the media is more likely to get religion wrong than science, perhaps?
    I don’t think contrary voices should be completely silenced or demonised – otherwise I’d be shut up – but on climate change, if we accept the majority view, things are so urgent and important that we can’t allow the contrarians to prevent action. (Granted it looks so different from their pov, and that’s the dilemma.) In terms of an ethics of knowledge, maybe in science we should show more deference to the experts than in other fields. While remembering other factors shape even science.

  4. A certain former Labor leader who no-one takes seriously wrote a good article a friend has pointed me to:
    “One of the unexpected consequences of mass educational attainment in the 20th century has been a loss of respect for the notion of expertise. One would have thought, with the near universality of post-secondary qualifications and the benefits of the Information Age, enlightenment would be in the ascendency. In one of the disturbing paradoxes of our time, the opposite is true. On climate change and many other issues, we have become an expert-free society.”
    http://www.afr.com/p/lifestyle/review/climate_change_denial_not_just_for_sFAw16a7QU34KIj2tmN4eJ

  5. Although the descriptive words are different and more emotive I have always understood that Jesus Christ was in the business of “curtailing economic growth, redistributing income, and enforcing political correctness.” Your friend is in some very odd company who share his views! People who hold to the flat earth approach to science are still around; his views will not go down well on some very low lying Pacific islands who are treading water at the moment.

    Neil

  6. Hey Nathan, thanks for recommending the article. It’s good stuff indeed. Perhaps the media gets religion more wrong than science. My wife is a doctor, and all I can say is that she is very often flummoxed by the media. No one doubts that things are heating up climate-wise. This crux is why, and that’s what I find difficult to adjudicate. Mind you, as a Christian one is called to care for the creation whether there’s a problem or not! Blessings to you brother.

  7. @Neil – agree – Jesus was into some of these things too, although he framed them in a different story!
    @Marty – interestingly, even the fact of warming was in debate for my friend.

  8. Nathan
    Thank you for your post, and especially the lesson to “put a face to every contrary opinion” – true grace.
    I feel much the same as you do about climate change, although it is a long time since I was anywhere near any scientific study of it. (I have a geography degree but my career path has followed the human rather than the environmental side of the subject.) I feel the same, more strongly, about creationism, and from your blogs I know that you and I take the same view about theologies which support war.
    I think your friend is a climate change denier (by which I mean man-made climate change; as Marty says, the crux is why the earth is warming) rather than a sceptic. Science must by its nature be sceptical: theories become well established but are always provisional, always vulnerable to being revised, in small steps or occasionally by a new theory, as they are tested against observation. Climatology is a complex science and there is a fair amount of room for doubt, although as far as I can see the majority of scientific opinion, as well as prudence, supports a man-made climate change view. The real test is the extent to which the predictions of climate change models are fulfilled.
    Creationism (the 6-day, young earth version) is in a different category. It is in my view not even thoroughly bad science; it it anti-science. It is also thoroughly bad theology. Evolutionary science (though still provisional) is more firmly established than anthropic climate change, but I could also argue against creationism on purely Biblical grounds without bringing in a scientific argument at all. And I have friends who I deeply respect who passionately believe it.
    Militarism is not a scientific subject. It is a theological, ethical and political one. Pacifism is for most of us counter-intuitive but from a Christian perspective I am convinced it is right. (Unlike my Dad who was a conscientious objector in WW2 I have not been put to the test in this.)
    The common theme is worldview dissonance. Accepting that I might be wrong, but also holding on in the face of criticism to the possibility that I might be right, is not easy. Ultimately, on all of these topics, there must be a truth (however inaccesible) – opposite views may both contain elements of truth but cannot both be completely true. To quote Oscar Wilde, the truth is seldom plain and never simple. And yet it exists. Science, I believe, does search for truth, and sadly, I have often not found the same commitment to truth in churches. Is there a truth that can hold us together despite our differences? In ethical or theological matters, what how does a particular view reflect the nature of God? In scientific matters, are we open to understanding the creator God’s thoughts after him?

    1. Summers-lad, thanks for your thoughtful contribution – which I wholeheartedly agree with. You probably noticed my blog post from a few years ago about the similarities between climate change denial and creation science? They are such interesting and alarming test cases of knowledge and opinion. Interesting to bring militarism into that too – as you said, different sphere, but similar case of worldview dissonance. Being in the minority on that one, makes me think I need to listen carefully when I’m in the majority on a different issue. But how far do we take that is part of my dilemma.

      1. Thanks Nathan. I had seen that post and I’ve been exploring your archive recently. I’m about to leave a comment on it.

  9. Hi Nathan and summers-lad,
    “is there a truth that can hold us together despite our differences?”

    As a Progressive Christian, I submit that Jesus is that Truth. Surely Evangelicals also believe that Jesus is that Truth. He reflects the character and will of God. He shows us how he related to other human beings in his socio-economic, political and religious context in first century Palestine and he sets forth a model for us when we interpret the meaning and significance of Jesus for us in our socio-economic, political and religious context in the 21st century global village.

    We are to love God with our whole being and others (especially the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed, the downtrodden and broken victims) as we love ourselves. We cannot love God whom we have not seen unless we love others whom we have seen.

    Since we are bio-physical, psycho-social, politcal and economic-ecological beings we are to be concerned about the social, economic, political and environmental structures which impact on human welfare.

    If OUR ENVIRONMENT seriously DETERIORATES due to global warming, we may end up eventually with an uninhabitable planet for humans and therefore no worthwhile economy nor society in which humans will be able to love God in and through their neighbour.

    So whether a Christian is a global warming skeptic or a global warming alarmist, Jesus has told us to love the person in need and part of our doing this is caring for this planet that God has given us. The skeptic and I may just differ on the urgency of the problem.

    Shalom,
    John Arthur

    1. John
      I agree wholeheartedly. Does Jesus accept those of us with differing views on bio-physical-social-political-economic issues? Yes of course he does. Are we (each of us) willing to let him guide our views and our openness to others? I hope so.

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