In a recent interview with Giant magazine (June/July 2006, “Citizen Gore,” p. 56-57, text available here) about his new movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” former Vice President Al Gore answered a few questions. When asked what he would say to President Bush about climate change if he could:
I’d say that this climate crisis is really a planetary emergency, and that he ought to take it out of politics altogether. The civil rights issue really took hold when Dr. King defined it as a moral and spiritual issue, and this crisis must be redefined as a moral and spiritual issue because it involves who we are as human beings. Do we care about our children and grandchildren? Are we content to just look the other way when 100 years of science overwhelmingly points to the destruction our current pattern is causing? Most people, when they finally open their eyes and look at the truth of this, say, “We’ve got to change.” To make it a political issue is wrong and the current White House is doing that.
Of course, Mr. Gore’s campaign to popularize his message about global warming has everything to do with turning this into a political issue. This goes a long way in explaining what Heather Wilhelm calls a “strange bedfellows” phenomenon. When Ms. Wilhelm asks NAE Vice President for Governmental Affairs Richard Cizik about whether “evangelicals concerned that they’re putting too much faith in government,” he responds, “You know, I don’t hear that very often. I don’t think that’s a huge concern among most people. I think they’re enthusiastic about the progress we’re making.” Those evangelicals who have been “converted” to the global warming cause are providing that veneer of moral authority, which helps make this into more than a “political issue.”
When asked why some people still won’t accept the scientific evidence, Gore replies:
A lot of people don’t want to accept the truth so that they won’t have to take on board its moral imperatives. You may already know this, but there is an interesting way that the Chinese write the word crisis. They use two characters side by side, but the first character standing by itself means danger, and the second character by itself means opportunity. When you put them together, they mean crisis. In English, crisis means a sense of alarm or danger, but it doesn’t automatically communicate a sense that in danger there is always a sense of opportunity. I try to make a point when I talk about global warming that there really is a lot of opportunity. There will be new jobs, new technology, new improvements in our lives, and more importantly, there will be an opportunity to have a shared moral purpose. We would be able to speak to our grandchildren and tell them we did something on their behalf that was tough but we found a way to accomplish it.
Victor H. Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, explodes the myth about the Chinese words for danger, opportunity, and crisis. But that may not be the only fiction that Mr. Gore is peddling in this interview.
Since Mr. Gore is engaging economic concerns to buttress his argument, let’s have a look. His basic economic argument is that political intervention into energy policy, specifically with regard to climate change, will have positive economic benefits, because of the opportunities provided by new research and technology. This is the same basic argument that Andy Crouch makes in a Christianity Today piece. It’s somewhat ironic that one of the major economic arguments against radically preemptive action against climate change is that of opportunity cost. This is a point made by Vernon L. Smith, a Nobel laureate and professor of economics and law at George Mason University. He speaks of a “rule of optimality,” and argues:
If we ignore this rule of optimality and begin abatement now for damages caused by emissions after 100 years, we leave our descendants with fewer resources – 100 years of return on the abatement costs not incurred – to devote to subsequent damage control. The critical oversight here is the failure to respect opportunity cost. Each generation must be responsible for the future effect of that generation’s emission damage. Earlier generations have the responsibility of leaving subsequent generations a capital stock that has not been diminished by incurring premature abatement costs.
The government could create “new” jobs by having people dig holes and fill them in again. The mere creation of jobs is an ambiguous phenomena. We have to ask whether these new jobs contribute something greater to the common good of society.
Mr. Gore and Rev. Cizik emphasize the moral and especially religious aspects of environmental stewardship, and in this they are right. And a basic element of Christian morality is a commitment to the truth. Rev. Cizik contends, “For those of us who oppose the hegemony of the naturalistic worldview, we should strongly consider spending less time debating one another over who is right about climate change and collaborate together to conquer the real enemy.” But who is right about climate change is of the utmost importance!
Gore is right (and Rev. Cizik is wrong) in recognizing that the truth about the reality, cause, and solution regarding global warming has a foundational significance for the shape of the debate. It’s not just about Christians versus naturalists. But Rev. Cizik is right in this sense: the truth about global warming should not obscure our commitment to the One who is Truth.