What’s Behind Stockwell’s Skepticism?

By now you’ve probably heard about Stockwell Day’s embarrassing column that got him negative media attention for mocking Al Gore and climate change. Aside from drawing attention to Stockwell’s poor spelling, grammar, and sense of narrative flow, this highlighted an inconvenient truth that the Conservative government has been trying their best to downplay: namely, they don’t believe the science of climate change.

What’s interesting about that is that scientific consensus on the issue of the climate crisis (that it’s real, being influenced by human action, and threatens life on Earth) is about as tight as scientific consensus can get. Those of you who have watched Al Gore’s film or read the book know that in recent years there have been absolutely no peer-reviewed studies in recognized scientific journals that question the science of climate change, while at the same time 53% of media stories have done so (demonstrating the effectiveness of the tobacco-turned-oil lobby).

We have to conclude, therefore, that the debate that Stockwell and the Conservative government insist on having has nothing to do with science. So, then, what’s this all about?

I’m currently reading Alanna Mitchell’s Dancing at the Dead Sea, and I think she has some answers. Alanna compares the science of climate change with Darwin’s theory of evolution, in that it fundamentally challenges what we thought we knew about the world and our place in it — the “legends” and myths that give us meaning.

As evidence, she presents this quotation from the Roman Catholic Dublin Review, printed shortly after (and in response to) the publishing of The Origin of Species.

The salvation of man is a far higher object than the progress of science: and we have no hesitation in maintaining that if in the judgement of the Church the promulgation of any scientific truth was more likely to hinder man’s salvation than to promote it, she would not only be justified in her efforts to suppress it, but it would be her bounden duty to do her utmost to suppress it.

Even if the science is right about evolution, the Church said, preserving the religious status quo was more important.

There may be a direct correlation with Stockwell’s thinking here. It’s well known that, unlike most Christians I know, he subscribes to the belief that the world was literally created in seven days. He may also believe, therefore, in the “immutability” of creation. Perhaps he’s concluded that climate change can’t be real, or, at least, that we can’t be responsible, because only God could alter creation in such a profound way.

Or maybe that’s a bit of a leap; I can’t be sure. What I do know, however, and what Alanna points out, is that if you replace “evolution” with “climate change,” and “the salvation of man” with “the strength of the economy,” you get the reaction of today’s conservatives to the climate crisis. Witness this March 28, 2001 statement by Ari Fleischer, then press secretary for President Bush:

The president has been unequivocal. He does not support the Kyoto treaty. It…is not in the United States’ economic best interest.

Now, see what Bush himself said the next day:

I will explain as clearly as I can, today and every other chance I get, that we will not do anything that harms our economy. Because first things first are the people who live in America. That’s my priority. I’m worried about the economy…And the idea of placing caps on CO2 does not make economic sense for America.

The parallel is striking. “Never mind the science or the threat,” they say, “the economic status quo is more important than all of that.” As if there could be an economy without life. As if there could be salvation without knowledge.

This makes a lot of sense. In many ways, as former United Church moderator Bill Phipps is fond of pointing out, the market economy is a new god. We worship economic indicators as if they’re profits (pun only slightly intended), never questioning if they’re actually making our lives better, or if maybe there’s another way.

Meeting the challenge of the climate crisis requires that we discard the myth that our economy can grow forever as it has for only the past millisecond of our species’ existence; the myth that we can continue to take what’s good from the Earth and return only what’s bad without consequence.

That’s a tall order, and should humble anyone who thinks that we can turn this ship around simply by changing a few light-bulbs and installing a few solar panels. Those things help, but a more fundamental shift must take place. Ironically, fundamentalists like Stockwell aren’t up for it.

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