Steven Cohen to Earth-Keepers: Don’t Get Hysterical!

One of the world’s most intelligent and accomplished policy researchers has just urged us all not to get hysterical about climate change. I’m not so sure.

Steven Cohen is the Executive Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, which deals with some of the world’s most intractable problems – climate change and environmental degradation, poverty, disease and the sustainable use of resources. In that capacity, he has doubtless done immeasurable good, and we give thanks for his contribution to a better world.

But I admit to scratching my head in bewilderment at his column in yesterday’s Huffington Post, liberally quoted in today’s New York Times. It’s a short piece, and I encourage everyone to read it. There’s a lot to like here, of course. For example, he lends his well-deserved authority to those confronting the assault of oil-funded climate denial:

“I know that both the global academic community and the science media find it frustrating that the facts of climate change are still subject to question. The ongoing attacks on proven science are beyond absurd.”

And he also points to the complexity of non-linear impacts of climate disruption as it interacts with social, economic and cultural factors. In effect, no one can predict with certainty what wars, famines, and human displacement will occur from changing climate in the century ahead: climate change tends to aggravate the ills we already face, rather than creating them from nothing.

But two disturbing themes jump out at me, as they might well at many people of faith. First, Cohen largely ignores the profound issues of injustice related to climate pollution, as adaption technologies will certainly favor the polluting rich, beyond the reach of the vulnerable poor. And second, Cohen’s narrative suggests that Earth itself has little intrinsic value as belonging to its Creator; its principal value rests on its ability to sustain our species, or some technologically-advanced remnant of it.

And somehow, earth-keepers of all faiths are not supposed to get too riled up about the carbon binge that threatens God’s Earth and the innocent victims of our excess consumption. Here’s a representative snippet:

“I think the questioning of science by the American right wing and the political assaults funded by their rich benefactors are proving to be a distraction to those interested in moving the planet to a path of sustainable economic growth. It is turning analysts into advocates and advocates into hysterics. The IPCC report focused a great deal of attention on solutions, but the media accounts of the report focused on the possibility of food shortages. Here we go again: Chicken Little’s sky is falling in.”

We Need Food: Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, the strongest storm on record

We Need Food: Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, the strongest storm on record, killed more than 6,000.

So, settle down. Be reasonable. Don’t get hysterical.

Unless, of course, you’re one of 18 million Bangladeshis who will be forced to flee inundation from rising sea levels within 35 years. Or one of the millions of East African subsistence farmers whose growing seasons are already wholly disrupted by permanent drought conditions brought on by climate change. Or any of the world’s millions of island dwellers facing the loss of freshwater resources, coupled with the prospect of seeing their homelands slip below the waves. Or the billions who rely on marine ecosystems for their livelihood, facing the impact of ocean acidification and destruction of reef habitats.

We’ve got to stop somewhere, but the list could go on and on. To them, Cohen has this to say: “Maybe we can’t stop the sea waters from rising, but we can place our utility rooms on the second floor instead of the basement.”

Hmm. The next massive storm in Cohen’s ultra-rich Manhattan won’t do nearly as much harm if we spend millions to move our utilities up a little higher. That’s a hopeful sign, no doubt. But what about the global South? What about Bangladesh? Technology will surely offer some protections from climate change, but does anyone think that it will protect the poor the way it may help the rich?

There are fundamental issues of justice raised by the IPCC’s report, including a finding that rich countries need to transfer $100 billion to the poor every year to help them adapt to the climate conditions our consumption has created. Really? Does anyone think the U.S. and others like it are going to come up with those sums every year in the name of justice for poor nations? Just imagine the invective in Congress if the idea was ever seriously floated.

But Cohen’s don’t-get-hysterical narrative doesn’t merely ignore injustice to the poor. It also gives short shrift to injustice toward all other things God has created. “Currently,” writes Cohen, “we do not have the technology to supplant nature. For that reason, and possibly others, the IPCC’s projections do not consider the possibility that natural systems could be replaced by artificial ones.”

Hmm, again. If you read Cohen’s piece for yourself, you’ll see that this isn’t all black and white. He wonders whether we’d really want to supplant nature with technology if we could, and recalls the pitiful holographic garden in the Star Trek series – all that was left of a despoiled Earth.

But in all this, he can’t help himself from seeing humanity as the arbiter of Earth’s survival: “Because we do not have the technology to survive without functioning ecosystems, we need to manage the planet and its resources in order to survive.”

Against this, the biblical account makes clear that “the Earth is the Lord’s, together with all its fullness.” We sing that “this is my Father’s world,” not my own. The Bible tells us that we are merely “sojourners and tenants” with Him, exercising our created purpose of “tending and keeping” His good Creation – or refusing to, at our dire peril.

Lest you think that we’re arguing here about obscure theology, I think this is a seriously practical matter. On the one hand, you have a feeble narrative that will mobilize just about nobody. It’s rallying cry – Protect the Earth, because we haven’t yet found a way to do without it! – is nearly laughable.

But what if the billions of humans who worship the Creator of heaven and Earth could reimagine a world worthy of protection because it is the cherished possession of their Father? Because the brothers and sisters of their Savior are under dire threat from the destruction of their farm ecosystems and homes? Because the judge of all men will render justice upon those who foment and then ignore the hunger, thirst, and oppression that results from manmade climate disruption?

Dr. Cohen, forgive me if I’m getting too hysterical. You continue to do abundant good in your leadership of the Earth Institute. But in this case, your own faith tradition has much more to offer than you’ve given us today.

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