It was the spring of 1973, on the day that this college freshman found his way to the rear of the lecture hall for a first session with the famous Georgetown professor, Jan Karski. GOV-105 – The Theory of Communism – was a reasonable choice for a Foreign Service student in the 1970s, with the Cold War still raging, and Vietnam looking like the next of many more “dominos” to fall.
It took only a couple of minutes for Professor Karski to win me over. Bolt upright in posture, head held high, devoutly Catholic, and speaking with the heaviest of accents – everyone knew that Karski had fought the Nazis with the Polish Underground. But I didn’t know half the story on that spring morning.
As Karski warmed to his topic, a sweeping gesture with his arm pulled back the crisp cuff of his white shirt sleeve, revealing disfiguring scars on his wrist. Soon enough, the same would happen with his other wrist, revealing matching horrors. Whatever could have happened to this man, I wondered, for both of his wrists to be slashed repeatedly? And how was he still alive?
Soon enough, I found a copy of his autobiography, and learned the awful truth. Blessed with a photographic memory, Karski served as a courier for the Underground, committing lengthy communiques to memory and delivering them verbally upon arrival. But he was captured three times by the Germans, and tortured beyond describing, in an effort to pry loose his precious secrets. Karski knew that there was only one way to destroy the files in his memory, and a razor blade hidden in his shoe would have to do the trick. But weakened by days and nights of torture, Karski’s blood-flow failed him, and guards discovered his attempted suicide before his life could fully ebb away.
An audacious hospital rescue by the Underground saved Karski, and sent him on his most important mission, slipping through the back channels of Nazi Europe on a mission to President Roosevelt, armed with the first eyewitness accounts of the Jewish Holocaust in the death camps. But to Karski’s dismay, few Americans in Washington believed his account.
Karski’s story was, quite simply, unbelievable. Roosevelt brushed him off. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who could not believe what he was hearing, would later say: “”I did not say this young man is lying. I said that I could not believe him. There is a difference.”
Karski’s story tells us something about ourselves as humans. There are dark secrets that our species is simply ill-equipped to deal with, often until it’s too late. This reality is all too familiar to climate scientists in our day. They speak of a world two degrees Celsius hotter than normal as an elusive goal that will require massive effort and some really good luck to boot. But four degrees?
That’s the course the world is on right now. And four degrees is shorthand for environmental, social and economic collapse. Absent determined worldwide efforts, four degrees is what we will reach in a mere sixty years, when my grandkids are my age.
The British climate researcher George Marshall has examined how climate scientists deal with the fact that they carry an almost unmentionably dark outlook for the world in their research. His words are worth repeating here:
“One scientist told me that he was so disturbed by the latest findings that he wrote to a few close friends – he named some of the world’s most senior scientists – and asked them: the future of humanity depends on this, is there any chance – please, any chance – that we could be wrong? They replied immediately, saying that they too constantly worried about this and (contrary to what the skeptics claim) were always open to the possibility of being wrong. However, whenever they went back over the evidence, they could not avoid the uncomfortable conclusion that they had indeed gotten this right.”
You’ve noticed, however, that with few exceptions, scientists seldom speak this way openly. Their findings indicate that business as usual means something impossibly dark for their children to bear, and for billions around the world. But they continue to speak in the bland language of science – confidence factors, uncertainties and arcane measurements. And like Felix Frankfurter generations earlier, wide segments of the public refuse to process even the simple data they serve us.
This reality was driven home with force the other day, when my church received an invitation to listen in on a webinar titled “The Gospel Truth About Climate Change.” The invitation asked a question that the Polish Underground would understand all too clearly:
“Are scientists, economists and politicians purposely creating a culture of ‘climate alarmism?’ Join us as E. Calvin Beisner challenges the myths of climate change and exposes its threat to humanity, liberty and prosperity. Every ambassador of Christ and missionary of the Good News will want to see this eye-opening message.”
[Sigh.] Oh “climate alarmism” again.
And no, every ambassador of Christ will not want to listen to the willful blindness that so often greets deeply disturbing discoveries. Professor Karski would recognize what’s going on in an instant. Even the most distinguished Supreme Court justice – like the President himself – could not bring himself to believe the dark accounts that Karski knew to be true.
How long will it be till love for our children – and for the God of creation – eventually overcomes our instinctive rejection of sobering global-scale news? Can it happen in time to avoid some of the darkest consequences of our fossil-fuel binge? If so, we’ll need to experience a conversion that runs against the very grain of an instinctive human reaction.
God give us the grace to act with open-eyed love, while we still can.