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The Earth is Our Mother
To Ignore Climate Deniers
About the author: Nancy J. Duff is the Stephen Colwell Associate Prof. of Christian Ethics, Emerita at Princeton Theological Seminary. She taught Christian Ethics at Princeton Seminary for 25½ years before retiring in December 2020. She published a book on death and dying titled Making Faithful Decisions at the End of Life (Westminster John Knox, 2018) and recently co-edited a book of Paul Lehmann's essays with Ry O. Siggelkow and Brandon K. Watson, The Revolutionary Gospel: Paul Lehmann and the Direction of Theology Today (Lexington/Fortress, 2022). She has served on the Ethics Committee at Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center for over 25 years and is ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Ladybug, ladybug fly away home.
Your house is on fire,
And your children are gone.
The truth of this nursery rhyme now exists on a large scale. With global warming on full display this summer, it appears that our world is on fire. Human life, land and sea animals, and plants are dying in fires or because of excessively high temperatures. Also, with warmer seas, hurricanes are bigger, slower, and more destructive, and melting Arctic ice causes world-wide flooding. Warmer temperatures in the Arctic contribute to a change in the Jet Stream (where warm and cold air meet), which can cause massive winter storms, such as the one in Texas that caused hundreds of deaths in 2021.
Karl Barth insists that when God created, God said “Yes” to creation—not “No,” and not “Yes and No,” but “Yes.” We are called to live our lives in a manner consistent with that “Yes.”1 Barth also maintains that God created this good earth for our benefit. This does not mean for our exploitation.2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer contends that dominion can only mean that we are “free for” the earth, that is, we are responsible for its wellbeing.3 Having been created from dirt, he says, we are part of the earth; the earth is our mother.4 Today, our mother the earth is in trouble.
For decades scientists have known that the climate change problem is a fossil fuel problem. The fossil fuel industry itself has known about the dangers of global warming and the culpability of fossil fuels (gas, oil, and coal) for almost 50 years. Starting in the 1970s, Exxon’s own scientists projected the extent to which burning fossil fuels would warm the earth, and these projections were incredibly accurate. But even as their scientists made these predictions, Exxon began an ad campaign that cast doubt on the science of climate change. The fossil fuel industry has also contributed significantly to politicians who deny global warming. In 2021, all 139 climate change deniers in Congress accepted more than $61 million (an average of $442,293 each) in contributions from oil, gas, and coal companies. Of course, being supported by the fossil fuel industry makes it imperative to deny the science that demonstrates the clear connection between those industries and our warming planet.
According to writer, David Lipsky, in an NPR interview, the “job” of climate change deniers is to stand firm and respond to whatever evidence is brought forward by defiantly and sometimes sarcastically saying, “not proven.” Hence, while record breaking temperatures were recorded in the US this summer, causing some deaths, Fox News host Jesse Watters flippantly remarked, “It's been a hot July. Some call it ‘global warming,’ some call it ‘summer.’ But what's the best way to beat the heat? Ice cream.” And Matthew Walsh of the Daily Wire claimed: “Well it’s summertime and that means it's hot outside if you hadn’t noticed. That’s generally how it works. . . . It’s summertime and it gets hot.” Walsh then mocked the media for stoking panic in claiming that the severe heat is “a sign of our impending planetary doom.” While some climate deniers reject global warming altogether, others acknowledge its reality but claim it has natural causes. False arguments are made that alternatives to fossil fuels are unrealistic and expensive, when in fact solar and wind can generate jobs and make energy more affordable for poor communities as Rebecca Collyer explains on behalf of ReNew2030. The stark fact is that global warming does signal impending doom if we don’t move away from the use of fossil fuels.
Lipsky’s description of the “job” of climate deniers is consistent with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s description of people who are guilty of “willed stupidity.” Bonhoeffer isn’t referring to people with few intellectual skills; the most intelligent person can choose stupidity by ignoring irrefutable facts. For them, he says, “reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict [their] prejudgment simply need not be believed . . . and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental.”5 Bonhoeffer rightly claims that one cannot reason with such people. They simply become belligerent when presented with facts that challenge them. So it is with climate change deniers. No one can change their minds, and arguing with them gives the false impression that there is a legitimate debate over whether climate change is real and whether fossil fuels are the worst offenders. Our attention needs to be focused not on whether burning fossil fuels causes global warming, but on which solutions are the best ones.
Thankfully, climate change deniers are not silencing voices of protest against the fossil fuel industry. On September 17, tens of thousands of protesters marched in Midtown Manhattan, demanding that world leaders, who were gathering for the United Nations General Assembly, address the need to move away from fossil fuels. Also, climate change deniers haven’t prevented the US from moving rapidly toward renewable energy such as solar and wind. Nevertheless, oil, gas, and coal companies are continuing to expand and are backing away from promises to invest in renewable energy, and the climate is changing more rapidly than the move to renewable energy is currently able to counter.
In the October 19 issue of The New Yorker, Barry Blitt published a cartoon of an artist painting a peaceful pastoral scene complete with a tree, a few scattered homes, and birds and clouds in the sky, while ignoring the raging fire that is actually on the horizon. The title of the cartoon is, “In Denial.” If we are going to exercise our responsibility for our mother the earth, we cannot ignore the fact that burning fossil fuels causes life-threatening global warming. We have it within our power to stop global warming by ignoring the arguments of climate change deniers and focusing our attention on effective solutions.
Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Creation, Church Dogmatics III.1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1958), 330–31.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 3 (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1997), 66–7.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “On Stupidity,” in “An Account at the Turn of the Year 1942–43,” Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 8, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 43.