Tag Archives: George Marshall

Why We Doubt the Bad News About Climate Change

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.

Professor Jan Karski at Georgetown University

Polish Underground veteran Jan Karski at Georgetown University

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.

Justice Felix Frankfurter: "I did not say this young man is lying. I said I am unable to believe him."

Justice Felix Frankfurter: “I did not say this young man is lying. I said I am unable to believe him. There is a difference.”

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.

The Hezekiah Syndrome: Why We Don’t Worry About the Kids

In the time of the prophet Isaiah, Judah’s King Hezekiah watched with alarm as his Hebrew kin in the Northern Kingdom were carried off into cultural genocide in Assyria. He managed to hold out in Jerusalem, however, and became widely regarded as one of the few “good guys” among Hebrew kings. But when Isaiah pronounced God’s judgment on Hezekiah, the strangest thing happened.

You remember the story, right? Hezekiah welcomed into his treasure vaults some ambassadors sent from another rising power – Babylon. He must have felt like a big shot parading out of all the gold and jewels he had amassed. This prompted Isaiah to deliver a terrifying verdict: All of your precious wealth will be carried off to Babylon. Worse yet, your sons will be led into captivity in chains. There, they will be castrated to serve as eunuchs and slaves of the king of Babylon.

Like a man under a terminal diagnosis, Hezekiah wanted to know how long he had left. The prophet’s good news – I suppose – was that the axe would fall only on the next generation, after his death. The king’s reaction – to me, at least — was stunning: Well, okay then! “Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?” (2 Kings 20:19)

Picture4Parents everywhere swear that their overarching goal is to leave a better life for their children – or at least politicians love to tell us so. But the story of Hezekiah confronts us with an enormous challenge. Why doesn’t the Bible seem to condemn this betrayal of the kids? Why is it the scripture’s verdict that Hezekiah “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord?” And when was the last time we heard a sermon decrying Hezekiah as an intergenerational villain?

Creation care advocates see the “Hezekiah Syndrome” at work among us all the time. Sure, it’s starting to look very bad these days. Yes, global heat records are being broken year after year. And greenhouse gases are pouring into the atmosphere faster than ever. Sure, extreme weather is destroying crops and inundating coasts. And refugees are on the move en masse. The extinction of species is accelerating beyond anything seen by paleo-science in eons. And in just a few decades, the world’s oceans have become dangerously acidic, threatening much of the world’s food chain.

But whatever we see today, all the evidence tells us that this pales in comparison to what’s in store for those who will be living later in the century, and beyond. And this would lead us to expect that we would all spring into action, right? Since everyone’s got kids, grandkids or nieces, then surely they will take the climate challenge seriously. At least, they’ll read some actual research, from journals like Nature or Science, or from the National Academies or NASA.

But time after time, we’re disappointed. It would appear that we’re not all that concerned about what might be in store for the kids. If we’re looking to find motivation for responsible climate action, concern for the children simply is not very potent.

It’s not that we haven’t tried. One climate activist has asked us which question we’d rather hear in our old age: “What were you thinking? Didn’t you see the North Pole melting before your eyes?” or, more happily “How did you find the moral courage to solve the crisis?” But we’ve learned that appeals to intergenerational justice have curiously little power.

Now, British researcher George Marshall has given us some solid data about this phenomenon. Marshall cites studies by Haddock Research & Marketing in the US, Canada and the UK which demonstrates that people with children are actually less concerned about climate change than childless people. Really — less concerned. In Canada, “people with children were 60 percent more likely to say that climate change was not really happening than people without children,” says Marshall.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that the opposite would be true? Parents will naturally sympathize with those whose diapers they changed, or so you’d think. But the Hezekiah Syndrome prevails for reasons that behavioral scientists have explored at some length.

Climate change is sometimes called a “wicked problem” – one that defies some of our most basic human responses. It’s not solvable by any individual acting alone; it lacks an obvious villain to mobilize against; its effects are felt most acutely by those far removed from us, by space, time, race or culture; it lacks a happy ending in human time-scale; and its narrative is mired in “research-speak,” replete with arcane statistics and carefully-worded probabilities.

If a bully is hitting your daughter on the playground, you don’t have to debate what to do. You’ll risk life and limb to protect her. BUT …

  • if it’s “very likely” that the average temperature of her world will be 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer about 30 years from now;
  • if that proves to be a “threat multiplier” driving drought, flooding, hunger, political instability and resource conflicts in many places of her world, possibly her places;
  • if rising sea levels “probably” will force her to abandon Miami, New Orleans, or any of the beaches you enjoyed as a child;
  • if climate refugees will “likely” overrun many distant countries and fuel stronger calls to build border defenses in our own;
  • and if the solutions to these likelihoods seem expensive, uncertain and offensive to some of your friends …

… then maybe, the normal human response mechanisms will lead you to wonder whether all this stuff is just “alarmism.” You brought her into this world, didn’t you? Why would you subject her to all these risks?

“Wicked” problems are tricky that way. Instead of pulling out all stops to address them, maybe it’s understandable why so many parents hardly dare to think about solutions. After all, Marshall says, we can always immerse ourselves “in the daily routine of tears, laughter, and the hunt for the missing shoe, and put climate change into that category of tricky, challenging things we would prefer not to talk about.”

For parents – and indeed for all of us – climate change is a wicked problem. And the response to wicked problems bears all the marks of the Hezekiah Syndrome. Perhaps our reply to Isaiah is not that much different from Hezekiah’s. Oh well, who knows what God and his world will do several decades from now? At least I have peace in my time.

Can we bear to ask whether this might be what we’re saying?