Why is Climate Change a Political Issue?

I was invited to a delightful dinner last Saturday by a couple in Chicago: one a long-time friend, and his wife, who I only just met.  They are living proof that love is stronger than politics – he, a conservative Republican, and she, a Chicago Democrat.
Hearing that I was involved in issues of environmental justice, she asked me: “Why is climate change a political issue?”  In essence, facts being facts, why would political affiliation so strongly determine what you think of an established line of scientific research?
I wasn’t anxious to infuse politics into a pleasant evening among friends, so I deferred the matter for an hour or two.  But eventually, the topic came up, and I gave Liberal Wife (LW) my best answer.  At some point, Conservative Husband (CH) commented: “This is where John and I differ a bit.  There is a lot of disagreement about whether the climate really is changing.”
So now the argument was pretty much beyond avoiding.  Allowing for my imperfect memory, here’s how the exchange proceeded:

John:    “Actually, there is very little scientific debate about whether climate change is actually happening.”
CH:      “Yes there is.  I’ve read lots of arguments on both sides.”
John:    “I said, there’s little SCIENTIFIC debate.  Of course there are editorials and blogs.  But the scientific consensus is very strong.”
CH:      “I’ll send you plenty of articles I’ve read.”
John:    “Think of it this way.  Right here in Chicago, you’ve got excellent universities.  Not one of your universities – Northwestern, Illinois, DePaul, U. of Chicago – has an earth science professor who denies that climate change is happening, or that human activity contributes to it.” (In fairness, I guessed at this, because it’s so hard to find a research university professor who holds such a position.)
CH:      “Yes, but those are LIBERAL universities!”

Okay.  There we are: back to politics determining scientific views.  But I wondered:  What about the conservative universities in Illinois?  Did they really deny that the climate is changing?

By a stroke of good fortune, I had just bumped into a student from Wheaton College outside of Chicago, an evangelical Christian school, and nobody’s bastion of liberalism. I figured that Wheaton was probably the most conservative major college in Chicago, and a great place to look for another view of climate science.   My young friend gave me the name of Wheaton’s Environmental Science director, Prof. Fred Van Dyke, so I looked him up.

Wheaton College Prof. Van Dyke:
Alas!  Prof. Van Dyke not only confirms the findings of climate science, he has written a book titled “Redeeming Creation” (find it here) warning that “ominous signals of real climate change are coming in from many fronts.” And he has endorsed an urgent warning about climate change – called the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI) – issued by more than 300 prominent evangelical leaders.  The ECI asserts that climate change is an urgent problem and that the Christian faith mandates a strong response to global warming.
Prof. Van Dyke calls the ECI “a very appropriate move in terms of a biblical basis and, in fact, long overdue.”  (Read more here.)
So where are the climatologists that Conservative Husband is talking about?  Well, the Univ. of Illinois did a survey of 3,146 earth scientists in 2009, and found an overwhelming majority affirm that the globe is warming and that human activities contribute to it.  In fact, 97% of climatologists – those who study this question most carefully – agree on these points. (Read about it here.)  I suspect they’re not all liberals, so the political influence must not extend to the scientists. 
Well then, who are the scientific climate doubters?  Well, it turns out that there is a small corner of science where climate skepticism is strong: Only about half of the petroleum geologists agree that climate change is affected by human activities.  Petroleum geologists!  People who work for oil companies. Isn’t that interesting?
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

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