German theologian and philosopher Michael Welker describes in his book God the Spirit (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994) the biblical relationship between the prophet and majority opinion:
The prophet does not confuse truth with consensus. The prophet does not confuse God’s word with the word of those who happen to hold power at present, or with the opinion of the majority. This is because powerholders and the majority can fall victim to a lying spirit—and this means a power that actually seizes the majority of experts, the political leadership, and the public (88).
He previously outlined some of these lying spirits that have dominated recent decades. Welker writes,
“Water and air are inexhaustible natural resources”; “Dying forests are not connected industrial and automobile emissions”; “With permanent armament we are making peace more secure!”—those were some of the many astoundingly public opinions of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s that, as has become clear in the meantime, can be ascribed to a lying spirit (85).
But if we were to ask what is the increasingly dominant opinion of the experts, the political leadership, the media, and the public of the ’00s, what would the answer be?
I have little doubt that the answer is, “Human beings are causing global climate change.”
After last week, we even have a clear “consensus” opinion on human-induced climate change from the Supreme Court. But while Welker himself might be inclined to concur with this particular opinion rather than those of previous decades, his warning about the dangers of consensus are well-taken.
And those who have taken up the prophetic mantle of climate change, like Jim Wallis and Rev. Richard Cizik, would do well to heed Welker’s words.
What does it truly mean to be “prophetic” about the issue of climate change? Does it mean the partnering of the Evangelical Climate Initiative with the Union of Concerned Scientists?
Or might a “lying spirit” behind the “consensus” position on climate change? How are we to tell?
Scripture itself gives us a pretty good rule of thumb to discern the spirits. In Deuteronomy 18:14-22, we read the answer to the question, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?” Verse 22 contains God’s answer to the people’s question about discerning the true prophet: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”
So with this in mind we might have an avenue to respond to the sorts of predictions and claims about climate change popularized most notably by Al Gore. The advocates for government action to combat human-induced climate change ought to provide a specific set of predictions and criteria for the verifiability of their claims. Let them decide in which predictions they have the most confidence and which are the most easily provable. Give us a set of clear benchmarks for the next 1, 2, 5, or 10 years. Then perhaps we can begin to judge whether the prophets of climate change have “spoken presumptuously” or not.
But to demand such explicit and verifiable criteria is to expose what is perhaps the greatest weakness of the theory of human-induced climate change: its patent lack of testability. It is at once a theory that can account for any and all future climate contingencies, and is therefore really no theory at all. It is a theory of everything and of nothing.
In the most recent Interfaith Stewardship Alliance Newsletter (April 5, 2007), Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, adjunct scholar at the Acton Institute and spokesman for the ISA, links to a story that includes the following quote from an organizer of a mountain-climbing expedition intended to bring attention to the problem of global warming (which had to be canceled because of low temperatures): “They were experiencing temperatures that weren’t expected with global warming,” Atwood said. “But one of the things we see with global warming is unpredictability.”
Re-read that last paragraph and let its epistemological implications soak in. Now literally everything constitutes evidence for global warming. Something you predicted? It’s evidence for global warming. Something you didn’t predict? It’s evidence for global warming. Something you couldn’t possibly have predicted? It’s evidence for global warming. Can you spell tautology? American Heritage Dictionary gives as its second definition, specialized use in logic: “An empty or vacuous statement composed of simpler statements in a fashion that makes it logically true whether the simpler statements are factually true or false; for example, the statement Either it will rain tomorrow or it will not rain tomorrow.” Likewise tautological: “If what we predict happens, that’s evidence for global warming; if it doesn’t, that’s evidence for global warming.”
That of course is the beauty of the favored phrase “climate change,” because that term doesn’t necessarily imply warming or cooling. It could be either. And perhaps in some places neither, since we are so consistently reminded that these changes are really regional phenomena.
As so many of our scientifically-minded friends have been more than ready to remind us in the context of other debates, this raises the question: If it isn’t verifiable, is it really science?
And the theory of human-induced climate change isn’t science, what is it and what are the implications for the political debate about action to combat climate change? Welker gives us fair warning that the answer to the former question might well be, “A lying spirit.”