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)
Parents 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?