Governor, the Scientists and Theologians Want to Talk to You

Imagine a press conference in Washington.

  • Q: “Governor, do you advocate drinking toxic sludge?”
  • A: “I don’t know, I’m not a scientist.”
  • Q: “Well Governor, is jumping off the north rim of the Grand Canyon safe?  And is it a good idea to place my head in the jaws of a lion?”
  • A: “I told you, I’m not a scientist.”

Silly, right? No one talks like that. We take firm positions on all kinds of things in reliance on the expertise of others. And that’s why it’s been so strange to hear “I’m not a scientist” from politicians dodging questions about climate change.

Consider Florida Governor Rick Scott. On May 27th at a campaign stop in Miami, the Miami Herald reported this interchange:

  • Q: “Do you believe man-made climate change is significantly affecting the weather, the climate?”
  • A: “Well, I’m not a scientist. But let’s talk about what we’ve done…. But I’m not a scientist.”
  • Q: “In 2011 or 2010, you were much more doubtful about climate change. Now you’re sounding less doubtful about man-made climate change….”
  • A: “Well, I’m not a scientist. But I can tell you what we’ve accomplished….”
  • Q: “So do you believe in the man-made influence on climate change?”
  • A: “Nice seeing you guys.”
Florida Gov. Scott, not a scientist

Florida Gov. Scott, not a scientist

Or consider House Speaker John Boehner. On May 29th, he took the podium to criticize the EPA’s proposed power-plant carbon standards, which aim to reduce climate-warming emissions.

“Listen, I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change,” Boehner said. “But I am astute to understand that every proposal that has come out of this administration to deal with climate change involves hurting our economy and killing American jobs. That can’t be the prescription for dealing with changes to our climate.”

Boehner protests that he’s not qualified to debate climate science, but he’s pretty sure about the economics. For the record, he is neither a scientist nor an economist.

And then there’s a second Floridian, Senator Marco Rubio. “Denial is a loaded term,” he told ABC News on May 11th. “I’ve never denied that there is a climate change. The question is: Is man-made activity causing the changes in the climate?”

If you’re waiting for Rubio’s answer, I’m so sorry. Rubio isn’t a scientist. He’s not going to venture a position.

Of course, people who aren’t scientists usually have a way of getting to the bottom of scientific issues: For the most part, they listen to the actual scientists. In this case, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (among scores of other authorities) has found that 97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field of climatology support the scientific consensus on manmade climate change. Further, they report that the 2-3 percent who don’t agree possess comparatively low expertise and prominence in the field.

In fact, not being a scientist is almost always a reason to seek out and heed the advice of those who are. We can all appreciate skepticism about medicine, or physics, or biology. But none of us respects it from someone who is totally unlearned in the field being debated. “I’m skeptical, but I’m not a scientist?”  That doesn’t carry much weight in virtually any arena.

Except maybe politics, it would appear.

But there is a risk to this approach. What if actual scientists offer to sit down with you, and explain the facts in easily understood layman’s terms? You might just have to listen, right?

And that’s what’s just happened to Florida’s Governor Scott. Last week, ten prominent Florida climate scientists offered to give him a crash course in climate change science.

“We are scientists,” they said in a letter to the governor, contrasting themselves with Scott’s not-a-scientist narrative.

“Those of us signing this letter have spent hundreds of years combined studying this problem, not from any partisan political perspective, but as scientists — seekers of evidence and explanations. As a result, we feel uniquely qualified to assist you in understanding what’s already happening in the climate system so you may make the most effective decisions about what must be done to protect the state, including reducing emissions from fossil-fuel-burning power plants.”

Of course, this is Scott’s worst nightmare. “I’m not a scientist” somehow seems much more forgivable than “I understand the problem but don’t want to run afoul of my oil company donors.” Or even: “Okay, it’s a problem, but let’s let the kids deal with it.”

Flooding without rain: Miami Beach streets at high tide

Flooding without rain: Miami Beach streets at high tide

The scientists said that they could bring the governor up to speed in about a half an hour. “It’s not rocket science,” said their spokesman, Jeff Chandon of Florida State University. Chandon plans to walk the governor through millions of years of temperature data, which has risen whenever the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased, and fallen when it decreased. But those concentrations also never ranged outside of 180 to 280 parts per million (ppm). Today, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stands at 400 ppm, and is rising fast.

This is not good for the unknowing Scott, currently locked in a tight reelection race for the votes of Floridians, two-thirds of whom are convinced of the near-term peril to their state from the changing climate, according to a Yale University study. So he initially agreed to send a staffer to meet with the scientists. But when his rival, former Governor Charlie Crist agreed to sit down with the scientists in person, Scott relented, and the crash course is now on.

But another group of experts is also trying to meet with the governor, with less success so far. Reverend Mitchell Hescox, the head of the Evangelical Environmental Network, has asked for a meeting with Scott, a professing Christian, to discuss the moral and spiritual implications of climate change on the vulnerable people of Florida.

“Florida, your home, literally represents ground zero,” wrote Hescox in a letter to the governor last week. “Sea level rise, more extreme weather, saltwater contaminated wells, loss of farm land and increased air pollution all pose significant threats to the health and well-being of Floridians.”

Hescox, an outspoken conservative, assured the governor that this has nothing to do with politics. “It’s a moral challenge to all Americans. It is a call to follow our Risen Lord and act to prepare for the impacts, many of which are already happening, and to work to reduce our carbon pollution to help our children, now and in the future.”

So far, Hescox hasn’t gotten too far. He’s collected more than 57,000 signatures from Floridians urging Scott to develop a plan to address climate change. But the governor isn’t planning on meeting him. Lots of Hescox’s fellow Christians have begun to pray, and next Tuesday, Hescox is planning to knock on Scott’s door with his 57,000 signatures, his Bible, and his plea for justice for “the least of these,” who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Who knows? Maybe the scientists will help Scott understand things well enough to realize that his state faces a crisis. And maybe Hescox’s boldness will get him in the door, for a few prophetic words to a fellow believer.

For me, I’m joining those who are praying for both meetings. Florida is indeed ground zero. But it’s not too late for its leaders to take action to reduce the harm, especially for those leaders who believe that “the earth (including Florida) is the Lord’s, and all its fullness” Psalm 24:1.


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