GLOBAL WARMING MEETS NOAH'S FLOOD
MARCH 28, 2014
The topic of climate change is heating up, and not just in France where Parisians could not see the Eiffel Tower because of the smog. For years, American conversations on climate change have, like the seasons, cycled through hot and cold spells. Scientists issue warnings like zealous Hebrew prophets of doom. But it is not the Hebrew prophets who occupy center stage right now. It’s Noah’s Flood – over which a big question looms: how will the American cocktail of politics and religion respond?
On the night of March 10th, thirty Senators discussed climate change during a 15-hour all nighter on the Senate floor. Though they did not pull out the sleeping bags, they did gather to read The Lorax. Calling their demonstration Up4Climate, the Senators’ high profile stand trended on Twitter and gave the media another day of material. It was a political statement, but of the more seasonal variety.
Not everyone would stay Up4Climate, of course. In an article for Fox News, Lauren Ashburn called the Senate all-nighter a “gabfest” and removed any novelty from the event by calling it emulation of Ted Cruz’s all-night filibuster. The O’Reilly Factor hosted the dry comedic criticisms of Dennis Miller on “Miller Time: Global Warming All-Nighter.” And Rush Limbaugh vociferously attacked Up4Climate. He followed the money and then attributed the event to the same-old, sordid, ‘Big Government’ fantasies of the liberal left.
In many ways, this might seem like boring political theater, a lesser version of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and the political debates it spawned. And Americans are used to seeing politics cause friction in the democratic process, a friction that in its best moments, sparks the brilliance of debate. But it its worst, these debates burn down the government to a smoldering pile of intractable inactivity. In many ways, the Up4Climate demonstration can be viewed as another round toward democratic arson. It was legislatively impotent, bringing no actionable bill to the Senate floor. Maybe it was just another gabfest.
But Up4Climate came on the heels of significant executive activity on behalf of America’s climatic future, most prominently the President’s Climate Action Plan (June, 2013), and the bold climate agenda outlined in his State of the Union address (January, 2014). Globally, the UN climate science panel, the IPCC, will convene this week in Japan to issue a second report on the present measurable impacts of climate change.
Even more robust, and outside of the theater of politics altogether, the scientific voice just got serious about its message. On March 18th, the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), the largest general scientific society in the world, published its website and report “What we Know.” The document and website offer a clear professional diagnosis. “What we Know” is not a report of scientific research. It is scientific research delivering a message.
The report states three major points of scientific consensus: (1) Climate change is happening here and now; (2) We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts; (3) The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost. And there is much that we can do.
The message from science could not be clearer. But it will still fail to silence the most out-spoken climate-deniers. Rush Limbaugh, who is main fare for the religious right, turns typical religious bombast for science on its head. He calls the “manmade global warming hoax” a system of faith. In this rhetorical inversion of the science-faith divide, Limbaugh argues that ‘climate faith’ demands loyal adherents who change their behavior in step with the directives of the movement. Limbaugh argues that these climate pietists mistake theories for data: Faith is “supporting of the unknown or something that cannot be proved.” Global warming is a hoax, after all.
I find myself, as a scholar of comparative religion, secretly delighted by his insights into the religious fervency of hard-core climate activists. But Limbaugh makes two maverick mistakes, he invokes non-peer reviewed science and he devolves into blustery, off-putting rhetoric. Setting himself up as the guru of real scientific knowledge, Limbaugh furnishes the missing “data” that will counteract climate faith, arguing for global cooling instead of warming. From this weak position, he can only resort to argumentum ad hominem. Naked attacks, he labels his rhetorical nemesis “Mr. New Castrati” and chides that his “scrotum is gone.” Somehow, Limbaugh always manages to revert to sexual and hyper-masculine stereotypes. If anyone is playing for team ‘burn down the government,’ it’s Limbaugh.
But America is home to more broadly significant resistance to action on climate change, a political resistance with grave consequences for public life. For instance, earlier this month, reports surfaced that North Carolina state agency websites have been removing links on climate change for over a year. And climate denial is a thing. In fact, it is so much a thing that Obama recently chided CNN for presenting the climate issue as a real debate and giving too much air-time to climate change denial. More famously, Obama insisted, “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society,” in what instantly became a viral zinger.
There actually is a Flat Earth Society that originated in the 1950s with a new president named as recently as 2004. But the phenomenon goes further back than that. The Universal Zetetic Society, first organized in 1893, championed its brand of religious zeal against “the scientific blasphemy of globular theory.” It may seem absurd to imagine denial of the globularity of the earth on religious grounds at the turn of the 20th century, but our own national debates about climate science show eerie parallels.
The “scientific blasphemy” decried by the Flat Earth Society could as easily apply to the anti-science, Young-Earth Christianity we see in America today. Perhaps the most outspoken Young-Earth creationist is Ken Ham whose theme park in Kentucky, the Creation Museum, crafts a pilgrimage through the argument against modern scientific understandings of the natural world. His organization also weighs in on global warming. Ironically, although much of the science is questioned, Ham embraces the cataclysms of global warming, but only as a sign that we are living in the end times. His calls to action have nothing to do with saving the next generation of children from the wreckage that human “dominion” has caused. He sounds the trumpet of someone like Harold Camping, a notorious repeat-offender of end of the world predictions. Global warming is a call for the saving of souls. For Ham, the end will come “like a thief in the night,” at which point a new earth will be fashioned by the same Creator who made the first earth in seven-days. It is surely a comforting faith, but a devastating world-view in terms of public good.
The rejection of science is so often done as an expression of theological privilege and world-denial. It’s not as obvious in the Young-Earth creation position, but it’s basic to theological world views about climate change. For instance, Ken Ham is building a sister theme park in Kentucky called “Ark Encounter.” The ark, from the Genesis Flood story, is an emblem of Christian salvation built to sail believers away. However, in this case, the ark will mount up over the polluted tides of Appalachian coal run-off. Indeed, it cannot land in Kentucky; the mountaintops have been removed.
The world denial at the heart of Ham’s Ark Encounter is sadly, not alone. Noah’s Flood has been invoked in Congressional hearing, always to the detriment of the climate or environment. Congressman John Shimkus (R-Illinois) quoted Genesis 8:22 “never again will I destroy all living creatures as I have done,” in a congressional hearing on Energy and Environment in 2009. Then, speaking out against the human causes of global warming, Shimkus went on, “The Earth will end only when God declares it’s time to be over. Man will not destroy this Earth. This Earth will not be destroyed by a Flood.” In a more recent congressional hearing about the Keystone XL Pipeline and its impact on climate change, Congressman Joe Barton (R-Texas) stated: “I would point out that if you’re a believer in the Bible, one would have to say the Great Flood is an example of climate change, and that certainly wasn’t because mankind had overdeveloped hydrocarbon energy” (April, 2013). In both cases, congressmen invoke the Flood to challenge the reality and gravity of climate change.
If the modern flood comes, it will not come in the cosmic proportions of Genesis. It will come because of a slower, less dramatic rise in ocean levels. But the melting arctic only offers a slow visual message, barely more audible than a hush; not the kind of sound bite that spins in Washington. And yet, with every breaking iceberg, the sentence grows longer. Artists have been there, at the forefront of climate change awareness portraying this narrative. The Arctic Cycle dramatizes climate change in each of the eight polar countries: Canada, Norway, Alaska, Iceland, Greenland, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. “Eight plays, eight countries, one big problem,” a tagline that needs little explanation. And in the documentary genre, what began as an assignment for National Geographic became “Chasing Ice,” a visual testimony to the rapid and turbulent disappearance of “ancient mountains of ice.”
If the loss of ancient polar landscapes doesn’t grab heart-strings, Global Health experts have a different tragedy on their minds. Climate events impact local populations with heat-related illness or diminished water quality. Organizations like Physicians for Social Responsibility, who won the Nobel Peace prize in 1985, have named climate change a high profile threat to human life. “Climate Change is a Threat to Health” reads the most prominent link on the site’s drop down menu. And the organization does more than just provide a high profile link. Members have gotten serious about how to frame the national conversation on climate change. For example, Edward Maibach and Matthew Nisbet argue that the health community needs to shift the climate focus away from the environmental problem and onto the human health problems. Such reframing articulates the value of human life, which for Maichach and Nisbet, works since values need to be “more widely held, and… cut across ideology and partisanship.”
While these examples of messaging are clearly growing stronger and finding decibels of deeper conviction, the appeal to values returns us to the intersection of religion and climate change. How do religions frame their values? To start with an example, according to the “Climate Change Statements from World Religions” published by the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, most branches of Judaism take “strong positions on combating climate change.” The branches differ not in ethical conviction, but in their bases for holding those convictions. In other words, numerous ways of articulating values and framing the issue exist in the landscape of American Judaism. This observation is telling. Religion is not, like Maibach and Nisbet argue, an arena where ‘more widely held values’ win the day. In fact, it may be the exact opposite. Each denomination, branch, or movement will have its own distinct ways of articulating values. Religious messaging is more like mixing tracks of music and less like opium for the masses.
If it were about opium, it would be enough to appeal to religious values of concern for the poor and vulnerable. Indeed, as Maibach and Nisbet argue, global human health is a shared value that can cut across ideology and partisanship. But global human health happens to be the very value which divides two seemingly similar environmental organizations. Both evangelical Christian, the Cornwall Alliance and the Good Steward Campaign stand on opposite sides of the climate change debate.
In the Cornwall Alliance’s “Declaration on Global Warming,” they cite poverty as the primary argument against major shifts in policy, energy, or infrastructure. Their opening video carries a number of Scriptural verses, including the Genesis 1 line about humans being called to rule over and have dominion. This verse, long labeled the Protestant justification for active or complicit destruction of the earth (most famously by Lynn White Jr.), the Cornwall Alliance ignores climate destruction and warns against major changes to modern life – for the sake of the poor and vulnerable.
In subtle contrast, the Good Steward Campaign, with its heavy reliance on the authority of Scripture, issues actionable calls to “become a good steward” of the earth. With an emphasis on the Bible’s moral instruction on the environment, the site seeks to nourish personal transformative experiences in the Christian life of the believer. Of course, climate change is not the primary message. It is named as one environmental issue and one cause of human suffering that ought to invoke compassion for the poor. But climate change is one of the many moral spheres where Christians are called to witness their God’s creation and “advocate[e] passionately for its protection.”
If the value of concern for the poor lands these two religious environmental groups on opposite sides of the climate change ‘debate’ how can we talk about universally held values when it comes to religion?
But the Genesis Noah story proves to be a revealing window into American religious ideas about climate change. Not everyone who faithfully reads the biblical story comes to Ken Ham's climate denying conclusions. Cal DeWitt, a Christian environmental scientist at the University of Wisconsin, invoked Noah’s ark in an eminently world-affirming cause: endangered species protection. Back in the mid-90s, DeWitt started something called “Noah Congregations” among evangelical churches, using the basic affirmation of animal life found in the Genesis ark story. DeWitt viewed the Engendered Species Act as “Noah’s ark” for today.
And tonight, Noah’s Flood will get an extremely high profile stage in American life. Paramount releases Darren Aronofsky’s Noah which sets the well-known biblical Deluge into a world of climate change. In director Aronofsky’s vision, the sins that caused God to flood the world is human-caused environmental devastation.
In a recent interview, Aronofsky spoke about the ecological themes in his film. He highlighted two aspects of the Flood story: sin and stewardship. Sin is the rampant reality in the prediluvian world of Genesis. To highlight the role humans play in bring on the flood, Aronofsky references Genesis 6 which reads: “Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). The Flood, in Aronofsky’s version, looms on the horizon of contemporary human activity, activity responsible for the current climate crisis.
The other theme he picks out in Genesis is stewardship.
For me, there’s a big discussion about dominion and stewardship. There’s this contradiction [between the two], some would say, in the Bible, but it doesn’t have to be a contradiction. It can work together. The thing is, we have clearly taken dominion over the planet. We’ve fulfilled that. But have we been good stewards? Leviticus, also in the Bible, talks about how every seventh year we’re supposed to give the land a rest. When’s the last time our land has gotten a rest? We’re way overdue for that jubilee. And I think that’s what I want. That’s why I made the film. For that reason.
The strong ethical conviction in Aronofsky’s Noah mirrors that of the scientists at AAAS and Obama in his climate agenda. However, Noah is set to draw backlash from conservative religious groups. It’s from Hollywood, after all. Government, Science, and Hollywood, three favorite nemeses of conservative religion.
Nevertheless, reaction to Noah and the national dialog it prompts could presage shifts in how Americans view climate change. Will religion sink or save the planet? The Flood story and how it is interpreted by religious people may have a role to play.