Donald Trump was sworn in as President at noon on Friday, January 20th. Within an hour, all references to climate change had been removed from the White House website. He has stacked key positions with outspoken climate change deniers, and a couple days ago, one Republican Congressman went so far as to propose the termination of the EPA. Though these developments haven’t been discussed as a cause for concern amongst Trump’s conservative critics, they should be.

This claim might not seem strange from the standpoint of etymology (after all, ought not conservatives to be above all concerned about conservation?) but it might well baffle anyone who knows the American political scene of the last decade or two. Isn’t a silencing of the climate change doomsayers a signature conservative victory? After all, isn’t most of the supposed climate change “science” just thinly disguised politics? Specifically, isn’t climate change just a Trojan horse to expand government power over the market and more of our lives?

A great many Christian conservatives have become so accustomed to hearing these lines (themselves aggressively peddled by certain political interest groups) that they almost reflexively accept them. And indeed, for as long as Barack Obama was in the White House, it was easy to complacently dismiss climate change as “their agenda.” But after the three warmest years in history, and with a wholesale shake-up in Washington, apathetic dismissal is no longer an option. Thinking Christians must at least give serious thought and attention to the issue, whatever conclusion they come down to about the appropriate response.

Of course climate change is political.

Among Christian conservatives at least, nothing is so great a bar to sober evaluation of the climate issue than the fear that “it’s all political”—that the science is hopelessly biased in order to drive political priorities, and liberal priorities at that.

The first thing to say to the claim that “it’s all political” is, “well sure, of course.” If by “politics” we mean something like “the deliberation by a society about justice and the common good,” well then one could hardly expect a phenomenon like climate change not to be a political issue. After all, if some parties (and indeed some nations) are in fact profiting off of the production and use of fossil fuels while their actions are having destructive effects on other human beings (including disproportionately the most powerless, namely, those yet unborn and the poor and those in third-world countries), then that is surely a matter of concern for justice and for the common good.

Of course, if you don’t think that is happening after all—if there’s nothing there scientifically—then, by the same token, there’s nothing there politically. But in that case, to say it shouldn’t be politicized is to beg the question. If the problem is real—if the science is right—then it is a political problem, and we should expect the political issues to get entangled with the science pretty quickly.

The second thing to say, then, is that the politics do not run all one way. Those who don’t want to see regulation in response to climate change, whether to protect their own pocketbooks or on ideological grounds, have had every incentive to politicize the issue and have poured extensive funding into both research and public relations on the skeptic side.

Indeed, although there are certainly entrenched political interests that can profit from climate change alarmism, it is a common misconception to think that the average government (including the US government) has a strong incentive to play up the problem. The reasoning seems to run that because (a) governments want to increase their power and (b) if climate change is a problem, they get to increase their power, then, ergo (c) governments have an interest in exaggerating climate change.

But whereas premises (a) and (b) may be sound as far as they go, they forget that even more than growing their power, governments are concerned to try and retain the power they currently have, and are fearful of losing it. One of the surest ways to lose power in a democracy is to demand short-term sacrifices for long-term rewards, as any forceful response to climate change will do. So it is that if one actually looks at the history of scientific lobbying and government action on climate change over the past two decades, the scientists have generally been considerably more worked up and more vocal than the politicians, particularly in the West.

A third thing to say, however, is that while much of the chatter in popular media over the issue is nakedly politicized, and often exaggerated for partisan reasons, it is not all that hard in the age of the Internet to get beyond this to hard data sources and sober analysis of that data. Take some time to educate yourself with resources like the Category 6 Weather Blog or SkepticalScience.com before considering the political implications.

Should fear of big government drive conservatives to act against attempts to address climate change?

But what about the point that there’s no way to fix climate change without making big government even bigger, and therefore conservatives have good reason to be wary?

Well, to this I should first point out that while unhappiness with a treatment often makes us want to deny the diagnosis, this is hardly rational behavior. If you’re diagnosed with lung cancer and you don’t like the sound of the chemotherapy, you shouldn’t just plug your ears and pretend you don’t have cancer after all. All the more so if the lung cancer is because of your smoking habit, and you’re determined to keep up the habit. There may, perhaps, be sound reasons to question the diagnosis or doubt the doctor, but if so, they should be quite independent from your feelings about the treatments (as hard as such objectivity is, human nature being what it is). Just so in the present case: If conservatives worry that the necessary political response to climate change will be anathema to their principles, that question must be kept separate from the question of whether human-caused climate change is a reality. One must first do one’s best to arrive at a sober diagnosis of our condition before tackling the issue of treatment options. And here, there really is little dispute among the scientists.

But conservatives need not despair, for the response to anthropogenic climate change need not be anathema to conservative principles. To be sure, if we wait around and do nothing, and are faced with a massive, slow-motion natural disaster, then we’re likely to see some very totalitarian political solutions emerge after all.

But proactive government action, while painful, would fall well within the realm of things that, on conservative principles, are a core function of a just government. After all, free markets do not always work perfectly, and in particular, markets are notoriously bad at pricing in externalities (that is, costs of doing business that can be passed off on society as a whole, or future generations, rather than being borne by the producer). And in such situations, regulation to correct the pricing error and the injustice is one of the essential services that government must render to the market and to society. CO2 emissions are just such an externality, albeit on a massive scale, and thus there is no reason for conservatives to resist treating them as such, even if we may favor less intrusive and more market-friendly solutions than some liberals would propose.

What is not an option is the “let’s just adapt and innovate our way out of the problem as it becomes more serious—let the market cope with the consequences of the problem that the market created.” This ends up being no more than a de facto Darwinian survival of the fittest that is inimical to a Christian ethic. For market-provided coping mechanisms will of course be expensive on the front end, and available only to those who can pay. The market will certainly provide options for rich people with beachfront villas (turn them into floating houses?), but not necessarily for poor people in harborside slums.

Whatever conclusions we reach, apathy cannot be one of them. We who worship the God who created this marvelous planet with its intricate, delicately-balanced ecosystems, and who put us here to protect it, should take these issues more seriously than anyone. It is one thing to be a thoughtful skeptic, quite another to be a lazy or complacent one, for the stakes are much too high for that. As Trump seeks to stack the highest levels of government with appointees who seem determined to casually shrug and say “well who knows what’s causing the warming?” we have a duty to demand more—to demand truthfulness from our government officials, even if the truth turns out to be uncomfortable for us to hear.

See a fuller version of the arguments in this piece here.

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Posted by Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is President of the Davenant Institute and author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology.

  • Scott Tenerman

    I’m agnostic on anthropological climate change. Either the data has been falsified, or it has not. It is irrelevant, since no matter the answer, our government is unable to do anything about it. Like other specialists, scientists can discover the truth about a matter and demand, knowing little about politics or economics. If Washington is serious about inflicting needed short-term pain for longer-term benefits, let them fix the debt and spending problem first. It will result in reduced consumption and energy use, anyway, as we stop using tomorrow’s efforts to pay for today’s needs. The need for it can be proven by math, science’s oft-neglected yet superior cousin.

    This would be a far easier thing to tackle than climate change, especially since it omits the need for cooperation from other countries you’ve not mentioned in this essay, like India and China.

    • Nancy Elizabeth

      I am close to someone who works for the government in this area. He believes the climate is warming now, but in the past he witnessed things that indicated the books were being cooked. It’s not that Christians wouldn’t care if the “science” proved true. There has been so much duplicity that there is no trust. It’s also that climate change doesn’t always mean human caused change. Which also means humans may not be able to fix it.

  • Martin Barnard

    I, for one, deeply appreciated a careful, reasoned piece on a highly politicized topic. I believe having more open discussion on this topic can only be a good thing.

  • To leave aside the main point of this article, with which I agree (i.e. letting the dislike of an outcome influence acting upon our responsibilities), and focusing on the issue of the underlying science upon which our sense of responsibility will have to act, I’d like to say that climate science is one of many areas of research that is very murky by the nature and scope of the subject matter.

    For what it’s worth on this subject, I’d throw Michael Crichton’s 2003 Caltech Michelin Lecture into this.

    Aliens Cause Global Warming:
    An Historical-Experiential Case for Skepticism toward Science

    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/07/09/aliens-cause-global-warming-a-caltech-lecture-by-michael-crichton/

    Speaking as a career scientist myself, I’ve developed a pretty healthy skepticism toward the assured claims of science. I’d be wary to trust the word of a scientist any more than I’d trust any other human being. Sometimes because of their prejudice; sometimes just because of their limitations. And I’m very skeptical of established science. Evidently, I’m more skeptical than even Michael Crichton was, because I have my scientific doubts about things even he took for granted, e.g. uniformitarian geology, Darwin evolution, even the unquestioned and sacred HIV-AIDS hypothesis.

    My takeaway on the subject is that even if we can get past the politics that muddies the water of the science, I fear the subject matter is so complex that it’s truly impossible to perform genuine scientific inquires on global climate. It’s not as if we have multiple earths available and confined to controlled laboratory conditions upon which to conduct tests. Science requires more than making observations from uncontrolled data mining and decreeing causation by correlation. Such correlations can easily turn out to be precise measurements of the inherent bias of one’s methodology.

    I simply don’t believe that climate change is scientifically knowable one way or another. And belief is unfortunately a major issue here. This leaves us in quite a predicament. It may never be possible to actually know what is happening to the climate, or more importantly why, and what we can do about it. It’s very dangerous to do the responsible thing and act when it boarders on taking a stab in the dark. There’s no real assurance that you’re more likely to do more good than harm. Both political positions feel the weight of uncertainty aversion at work. People want to be sure they have an answer one way or the other. It’s deeply uncomfortable to have to say “I don’t know, and I don’t think I can know.” But given what I’ve seen of the science, I think it’s the most responsible thing for me to say, “I don’t know.”

  • Thanks for this. I suppose I fall into the same camp as Scott. Certainly the climate is changing (it always has and always will) and certainly human activity is affecting our climate globally. How much seems to be open to debate, but let’s assume it is having a big impact. Oh, but what to do? Here’s when my cynical side comes out. How does anyone expect government to solve the problem? Government’s can’t generate the collective will to address well defined problems, but we expect governments to do anything positive about climate change? But let’s assume they can do something about it, who in their right mind would trust what they’d want to do? For goodness sakes, they’re still trying to figure out if refined sugar is super bad, sorta bad, or maybe not so bad, as long as you don’t take a bath in it. Computer models can be wrong. And the unintended (or intended) consequences of mistakes could be worse than doing nothing. My own sense is that fixing the problem of human influence on climate will be a byproduct of embracing different, less climate hostile technologies.

  • hoosier_bob

    I agree with others here. Yes, the climate is changing, and we seem to be observing an increase in global average temperature. But that’s about all I’m willing to say, despite having a PhD in physics (although I’m no longer a practicing scientist). In that sense, I do not believe that the evidence clearly supports the thesis that anthropogenic factors play the key role in the changes we’re observing. And even if it is, it’s not clear to be that the US is the key contributor. And, even if it is, it’s unclear that that various liberal pet projects are necessarily the best solution. In my opinion, if anthropogenic climate change is real and the US is a principal contributor to it, then the answer is to build more nuclear power plants. After all, nuclear power is one of the most environmentally friendly technologies out there.

  • Physiocrat

    The catastrophic predictions about future warming are all based on climate models which when you get to the actual year predicted always turn out to massively over estimate world temperature.

  • Maybe we should consider how much of a role reality should play in the ideologies we pursue.