Whom to Trust?

This story appears in the COP 21 Paris feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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The debate over climate change is strange, first and foremost, because there really should not be much of a debate at all. If the skeptics are to be believed, then there has been a worldwide conspiracy among scientists to frustrate the various empirical methodologies used to measure climate change and assess its sources, and those scientists are better at keeping their conspiracy quiet than any other known subset of human beings.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, a study that was peer-reviewed and, therefore, part of the conspiracy, indicates why Americans almost uniquely are inclined to skepticism about climate change: The people who make millions upon millions of dollars from fossil fuels have done their best to throw sand in the faces of the American people. As reported in this morning’s Washington Post:

The report, a systematic review of 20 years’ worth of data, highlights the connection between corporate funding and messages that raise doubts about the science of climate change and whether humans are responsible for the warming of the planet. The analysis suggests that corporations have used their wealth to amplify contrarian views and create an impression of greater scientific uncertainty than actually exists.

The study’s author, Justin Farrell, a sociologist at Yale University, told the Post, “The contrarian efforts have been so effective for the fact that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust.” 

Moderns are besieged with information. If you spend a part of your Saturdays, as I do, watching Notre Dame football, you know how many commercials you can see in three short hours, promising you a better way to clean your clothes, a nicer destination for your vacation, a new way to lose weight, and, of course, the ubiquitous ads for Viagra and other sexual enhancement drugs. As the campaign season gets going, we will see competing claims offered by the candidates. Whom to trust? It is not an academic questions in a consumer society.

Ads are not the only problem. Faux think tanks have stepped up to place a veneer of legitimacy on climate change denial. Groups like Heritage, which is even more an arm of the Tea Party caucus of the GOP, produce studies that back bad economics, bad science, and bad public policy. It’s what they do. More regrettable still is that some religious organizations have joined the climate change denial bandwagon. The Acton Institute led the charge against Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, which should not surprise when you realize that the organization has received millions of dollars from the extraction industries over the years. A Koch-funded economist at the Catholic University of America’s School of Business, Jay Richards, appeared on the CBS Evening News the day Laudato Si’ was released to question climate change. In addition to the question "whom to trust?" another relevant question is "cui bono?" My concern is not that every Catholic thinker be an ultramontanist. My concern is that climate change denial is kookie

Next week, world leaders gather in Paris for the next round of climate change negotiations. Yesterday, Cardinal Peter Turkson of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace sent a letter to all the world’s bishops “to encourage and sustain the follow-up [to Laudato Si’] underway both within the Church and in the wider world, from now until December.” He called the world’s bishops’ attention to next Sunday’s Global Climate March, expected to draw millions of people in various cities, and recommended participation as one way the faithful could express their “ecological citizenship.”

My colleague Brian Roewe recently reported on new polling data that indicated a third of all U.S. Catholics said they had been influenced in their opinions about climate change by the pope’s encyclical. Perhaps even more astounding, one in six non-Catholics also reported being influenced by Laudato Si’. Groups like the Catholic Climate Covenant have been doing heroic work getting the word out on what has become the most widely discussed encyclical in memory.

Whom to trust? The need to address climate change with effective changes in policy and lifestyle is obvious. But, the discussion over how to proceed will be complicated, with even those who acknowledge the problems sometimes differing on the means to achieve more environmentally friendly policies. Worse still, this threat to the global family comes at a time when many institutions -- government, business, the press, and the churches -- are no longer deemed trustworthy by many, many people. Then, along comes Pope Francis. I know he irks many conservative Catholics in the commentariat and in the episcopacy. But, if ever the world needed someone to trust, someone whose opinions have not been bought and paid for by the extraction industries or the weapons manufacturers or the Wall Street traders, now is that time. And the pope is that man. I trust him. Do you? And, if so, will you encourage a neighbor to trust him too? The climate change talks are critical, more critical than the fight against ISIS, and who has the moral stature to galvanize the consciences of the world to reject the bought-and-paid-for denialism of the skeptics? Pope Francis is not just the pope we want. He is the pope we need. Say a prayer for him today and another one for the world leaders gathering in Paris next week.  

N.B. When I first posted this, I followed the quote from the researcher at Yale who had said "who to trust" even though it should be "whom to trust."  But, upon reflection, and a couple of calls and emails, I have determined I should not be bound by the researcher's bad grammar, and have amended the piece throughout, except for the direct quote from the researcher.

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