The Political Theology of Climate Denial

A picture of two signs: "Grow Food Not Emissions" and "Grow a Better Future: Act on Climate Change".

Credit: CreativeCommons / Oxfam International.

Not knowing is bad. Not wishing to know is worse.” Nigerian Proverb

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. Albert Einstein

As a university professor of pre-service and in-service teachers and administrators, I often discuss with students the qualities that make a great educator. For me, one of the major qualities a great educator must possess is an inexhaustible passion for learning, while never resting on their past knowledge and understandings of the universe. In addition, great educators hold a high capacity for critical thinking. I notify students in our course syllabus and on the very first day of classes that they are expected to think critically, reflectively, and creatively on the concepts, topics, and issues presented, and in class discussions, readings, videos, and on written assignments.
I require students to justify and backup their thoughts and “opinions.” Personal opinions or theological viewpoints without verifiable justification are just that – opinions and theological viewpoints. I expect students to think “outside the box” of their past experiences and learning. In this regard, I introduce Dr. Stephen Brookfield’s three-part process involved in critical thinking.
First, I ask students to reflect on the assumptions that guide their decisions, actions, and choices. I ask students to ask themselves: “What do I think and why do I think of it the way I do?” Second, I tell students that they then need to check the accuracy of these assumptions by exploring as many different perspectives, viewpoints, and sources as possible: by talking with others, reading the literature on the topic under investigation, and doing their own original research. Then, in phase three, they can make informed decisions based on their investigations, since informed decisions come from evidence we can trust, can be explained to others, and have a good chance of achieving the effects we desire.
Essential qualities necessary for educators stand also as qualities essential for political leaders. The actions our leaders take often impact many people, and even entire national as well as the larger world community. Their actions, therefore, must have a basis in well-researched evidence, and not merely on opinion or theological viewpoints that can never be proven.
If educators do not possess a deep passion for learning and critical thinking, they must stay away from the classroom because they can negatively influence students under their influence. In like fashion, if politicians do not possess a deep passion for learning and critical thinking, they must not be elected to political office because they can negatively influence the lives of people under their influence.
I have discovered that former Pennsylvania Senator and recurring presidential hopeful, Rick Santorum, shows very little critical thinking or desire to learn in his current as well as in his past pronouncements on the issue of the human impact on world climate change.
As a devoted practicing Catholic, recently he publicly sparred with the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, who has been speaking out against what he acknowledges as the human role in climatic changes that are currently plaguing our planet. The Vatican is expected to release Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change on June 18. Said the Pope recently to reporters:
“I don’t know if it is all [humanity’s fault] but the majority is, for the most part, it is man (sic) who continuously slaps down nature. We have in a sense taken over nature.”
During an interview with Fox news, Santorum asserted that the Pope should stay out of the global climate debate, and that he is more qualified than the Pope to raise the issue. Also, on a Philadelphia radio station earlier, Santorum proclaimed that the Pope should “leave science to the scientists” and concentrate his energies on “theology and morality” rather than climate change.
Actually, Pope Francis holds a master’s degree in chemistry, while Santorum graduated with a degree in political science. On Fox news, Santorum defended his criticism of the Pope while asserting his own political imperative to raise the issue of global climate change.
“Politicians, whether we like it or not, people in government have to make decisions with regard to public policy that affect American workers,” Santorum said, and he continued by adding that while “the Pope can talk about whatever he wants to talk about,” Santorum does not think Francis should use his moral influence to combat environmental and climatic fluctuations. “I’m saying, what should the Pope use his moral authority for?” Santorum asked. “I think there are more pressing problems confronting the Earth than climate change.”
I would ask Mr. Santorum to state on the record why the destruction of polar ice caps and the disastrous raising of sea levels do not warrant a high moral priority? Why doesn’t the clear cutting of ancient forests warrant a high moral priority? Why doesn’t human pollution of our waterways, our air, our soil, and our ground water, especially in areas where poor people live in high concentrations warrant a high moral priority? Why doesn’t the human burning of fossil fuels, which 97.1% of environmental scientists assert stands as the leading cause of continually rising temperatures around the planet, warrant a high moral priority? Why don’t the following scientifically verified consequences of human-impacted global warming warrant high moral priorities?
• Increasing species extinctions
• Reduction of coral reefs, mangrove forests, and tropical rainforests
• Threats to small island states in the Pacific as sea levels rise
• Increasing drought threats in Africa
• More severe flooding in densely populated river deltas in Asia
• More severe weather in hurricane prone zones
Mr. Santorum’s assault on the facts related to the human impact on climate change and anyone who defends these facts has been continuous. As a candidate in the presidential primaries in 2012, Santorum questioned President Barack Obama’s “theology” in an Ohio campaign stop, February 19, 2012 by asserting that Obama believes in “some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology.”
When asked to explain his remarks on the CBS news program “Face the Nation” by moderator Bob Schieffer, Santorum responded that he was referring to “the radical environmentalists,” and by implication, placed Obama in this category. Santorum attacked the notion that “man is here to serve the Earth,” which he argued “is a phony ideal.” While Santorum conceded “that man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the Earth, to be a steward of the Earth,” he was emphatic that “we’re not here to serve the Earth. The Earth is not the objective. Man is the objective. I think a lot of radical environmentalists have it upside-down.”
In yet another ill-conceived and executed religious crusade, Santorum, with his publicly expressed literal biblical interpretation, conjures up such passages as Genesis 1:26, which states: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'” And Genesis 1:28: “God blessed [humans] and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.'”
Unfortunately, Santorum is certainly not alone among his Republican colleagues and electorate. A Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, in their 2008 study “A Deeper Partisan Divide over Global Warming,” found that while 58% of respondents who identified as Democrats and 50% of Independents believe that global warming is mostly caused by human activity, only 27% of Republicans believed this.
Among Democrats, those with higher educational levels, 75% with college degrees compared with 52% with less education, expressed the view that solid evidence has shown human activity largely as the cause of global warming. Opposed to the Democrats, however, educational levels of Republicans resulted in an inverse relationship in trusting the scientific evidence with only 19% of Republican college graduates compared with 31% with less education believing in the human connection to climate change.
How many more British Petroleum and Exxon Valdez oil spills, oil train disasters, burst and leaking pipes, fouling shale oil extractions, polluted and poisoned waterways and skies, dead lakes, clear cut forests, mine disasters, mutilated and scorched Earth, nuclear power plant accidents and meltdowns, toxic dumps and landfills, floods and droughts, trash littered landscapes, extinct animal and plant species, encroachments on land masses by increasingly raising oceans and seas, and how many more unprecedented global climatic fluctuations will it take for the anti-science Republican party and others to put the health of the planet and by extension the health of all Earth’s inhabitants on the front burner, if you will, of policy priorities over the unquenchable lust for political payoffs and profits by corporate executives?
Today, fully 56% of U.S. Congressional Republicans deny climate change, or deny human causation. Within the 114th Congress, at least 170 elected representatives have collected approximately $63.8 million from the fossil fuel industry.
For a party claiming to stand as “pro-family,” what kind of legacy and what kind or future are they really bequeathing to our youth? For a party that claims to promote political conservatism and “traditional values,” what is more traditional and value- ladden than conserving and thus sustaining the Earth’s resources responsibly and equitably for ourselves and for future generations?
We have long since answered the question over whether humanity is responsible for climate change, and now we need to figure out how to fix the damage we have wrought.
And for the remaining science deniers and those who have profited from a destruction of the Earth, I leave you with a poignant proverb from the Cree nation:

“Only after the last tree has been cut down,
only after the last river has been poisoned,
only after the last fish has been caught,
only then will you learn that you cannot eat money.”

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press); and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

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