Pros and cons of the term ‘climate change’

By Fr. Bud Grant

What’s in a word? Recently I participated in debating the thorny phrase “climate change.” For some, including many farmers, the term just raises hackles. Having become so politicized, it serves only to mark the speaker’s political ideology; it does not describe real environmental crises. This is not to say that folks who reject the ideology they see lurking behind the term are unaware of environmental changes. Indeed, few are closer to the ground than farmers and they know that, recently, conditions are different, less reliable and more extreme. But call it climate change and it is game on. Maybe, to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, we should “get past the watchful dragons” of climate skeptics by simply avoiding calling it climate change.

Thus, instead of sparking a useless argument, we can learn from farmers what is happening and what they are doing differently. They know that it is both in their financial interests and their principled moral responsibility to save the land for future generations. Indeed, these two motives are deeply related; the Greek root of “economics” is the biblical word for “stewardship.” We non-farmers can promote their sustainable practices and even accept higher commodity prices to help bear the yoke. Defending an incendiary term just bogs us down.

On another side of the fence is an equally compelling argument. Climate change deniers (estimated at about 30 percent of the population, higher among farmers) assert that climate is always changing, that it is natural, that it is out of our hands and that, like always, we just make smart adjustments to farming strategies. Most importantly, they insist that there can be no human solutions to whatever is now cropping up because we have nothing to do with its causes. Thus, by denying that term they actually assert that there is no (human) problem.

But climate change is real, it is advanced and it is (mostly) our fault. We should call a spade a spade and mount an aggressive response, a “War on Climate Change” analogous to the American and Allied response to the Axis threat in World War II. Moreover, by letting deniers bury this uncomfortable term we permit them to dictate the conversation. Imagine, for example, what would be left of other conversations if, say, we can’t refer to “bullying” or “harassment” or use any other term dismissed as “political correctness.” To accept deniers’ censorship is to reward willful ignorance, relativize truth and trivialize crises. Smoothing over difficult topics for the sake of civil discourse may be expedient, decorous, even, but it is moral retreat.

Using the term, on the other hand, forces us to admit that the problem is not normal and not natural, but human caused — and only by owning the problem can we fix it. We should, therefore, use the term climate change as often as possible, including from the pulpit (or, come to think of it, TOWARDS the pulpit).

I’ve been straddling this fence here. First, using the term won’t enable us to solve the problems. Notably, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) long ago stopped talking about “preserving” or “restoring” the environment and switched to “adapting to” and “mitigating” the consequences of climate change. These scientists confirm that it is anthropogenic but have concluded that it is too late to return to a pre-climate change world. A Maryland farmer whose family has farmed the ground since 1660 is dealing with salinization of his fields due to rising ocean levels (climate change warms water, which expands). His adaptation is to choose salt-tolerant crops. He mitigates by raising higher berms and yielding some fields to the salt marshes. Whatever he calls it won’t change his strategies. These dissatisfying choices are simply his best options. Yet, we should use the term climate change — not because it will help us solve problems but because it addresses the painfully awkward truth: we’re the problem … and that, we can solve.

(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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