If You Can’t Out-argue Your Opponent, You Can Always Attack a Straw Man Instead

In Uncategorized by E. Calvin Beisner0 Comments

A blogger with the pen name “Erasmus” at The Economist‘s “Religion and Public Policy” blog celebrates the activity of various religious supporters of the Paris Agreement and other things climatically correct in “Faith grows greener in the era of Donald Trump.” He starts off:

Americans working at the interface between religion and care for the global environment have a new spring in their step these days. The reason is a paradoxical one. Donald Trump’s decision to pull the country out of the Paris accord on climate change has galvanised green-minded congregations, and even those who have not hitherto been especially green, to think harder about what they can do for the planet. The effect is especially noticeable on America’s West Coast, a bastion both of environmentalism and of unconventional forms of religion.

He focuses then on Episcopal priestess Sally Bingham, “the point-person for the environment in the diocese of California” and “founder of Interfaith Power and Light[,] an association which groups congregations and faith communities in at least 38 American states.” Afterward he names some others.

“Erasmus” then offers the obligatory journalistic “balance” by nodding the head to, and misrepresenting, “America’s evangelical leadership” who disagree:

Such activities would be anathema to the hard core of white conservative evangelicals who were a significant part of Mr Trump’s electoral base. In one version or another, they broadly affirm the president’s argument that the Paris accords are unfair to America and will compromise its economic growth, boosting the country’s competitors. The picture is mixed: about a decade ago, a segment of America’s evangelical leadership became converts to the idea that global warming was an urgent problem. But Willis Jenkins, a religious-studies professor at the University of Virginia, has argued that the persistence of an eco-sceptical evangelical lobby may have emboldened the president to walk away from Paris.

Albert Mohler, a powerful figure in the evangelical world, has asserted that much environmental discourse runs counter to Christian thinking because it regards homo sapiens as a problem rather than as a species with a divine calling to exercise dominion over the earth. A particularly vitriolic form of anti-environmental religious thinking, a series of videos entitled “Resisting the green dragon”, warns that concern about the planet is a smokescreen for an effort to take over and control the lives of Americans.

And he concludes by citing Bingham in response, first paraphrasing, “Such people may still find terms like ‘climate action’ a turnoff, but they are open to persuasion that care for God’s creation is a religious duty,” then quoting her directly:

If you believe in loving your neighbour, you don’t pollute your neighbour’s air …. And there is almost nobody who thinks that as a religious duty, we are supposed to wreck Creation.

The implication, of course, is that “climate action” = “care for God’s creation”; carbon dioxide—the colorless, odorless gas essential to all life on earth and nontoxic except at levels far above anything that could possibly be reached by burning fossil fuels—is pollution; and failing to engage in “climate action” means wrecking creation. Each of those, of course, begs the question.

One way to get people not to consider someone’s views with an open mind is to cherry-pick what, to a given audience, would be the most objectionable reasons and present them as if they were the only ones. That’s what this article does in its references to Albert Mohler and the Resisting the Green Dragon video series. A fair treatment would have recognized that both Mohler and the lecturers in the video series offer other reasons as well.

In the video series, in particular, veteran climatologist David Legates offers an empirical scientific case for what some have since come to call the “lukewarmer” position: human contribution to global warming is almost certainly real, but it’s likely considerably smaller than the computer models on which the IPCC and others who warn of dangerous to catastrophic warming rely predict—a point supported if not proven (which hardly anything is in empirical science) by the fact that CMIP5 models on average predict 2 to 3 times the warming actually observed over the relevant period.

Another way to turn people away from listening to someone’s reasoning is simply to misrepresent it entirely, and that’s what Willis Jenkins does in the essay  “Trump, climate change, and white US Evangelicalism” that “Erasmus” linked. After explicitly saying that he’s going to ignore such people’s “offered rationales”—the reasons they themselves give for their positions–Jenkins offers the following hypotheses, all speculative, for why white American evangelicals are more skeptical than others about dangerous human-induced warming:

  • “beliefs about providence and eschatology,”
  • “a way of avoiding accountability for polluting the atmosphere,”
  • “allying themselves with spiritual contempt for earth,”
  • seeing the sky as “the symbolic province of deities,”
  • letting “white societies remain unaccountable for climate change,”
  • licensing “settler sovereignty over resources in the remaining indigenous territories,”
  • “petro-manichaeism (recoiling from the demonic earth, it takes spiritual satisfaction in energy ripped from dark material and transformed into light and air”); and
  • seeing themselves “as an embattled minority contending with conformist demands of a pluralist secular culture.”

Jenkins completely ignores the extensive scientific, engineering, and economic arguments they offer in a variety of papers, like climatologist David Legates and environmental economist G. Cornelis van Kooten’s paper A Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor 2014), books like climatologist Roy W. Spencer’s The Great Global Warming Blunder: How Mother Nature Fooled the World’s Top Climate Scientists), and other resources.

It is also helpful, if you want to prevent people’s considering a given point of view, to describe those who hold it as exclusively people without any relevant expertise. But the organization that produced the cited video series—the Cornwall Alliance—comprises over 65 scholars, including natural scientists (including Ph.D.’d meteorologists, climatologists, and other climate scientists) and economists (especially those specializing in environmental and developmental economics) as well as those qualified to address the ethical aspects of climate and energy policy (such as theologians, philosophers, and ethicists).

“Erasmus” and Jenkins might not find our scientific arguments convincing. They at least have a responsibility not to misrepresent them and us.

Dr. Beisner is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance; former Associate Professor of Historical Theology & Social Ethics, at Knox Theological Seminary, and of Interdisciplinary Studies, at Covenant College; and author of “Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate” and “Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future.”

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