The Common Good

Dichotomies and Dilemmas in the Global Warming Debate

Tonight at 9 p.m. EST, many of us will tune in to Heat, a PBS investigative documentary on climate change and what big business is doing to address it. Frontline producer Martin Smith will guide us through another PBS Vote 2008 special that trekked over four continents, through 12 countries, and involved more than 60 interviews.

While the economy has gridlocked the media and our nation's attention in these last weeks leading up to the presidential election, we're losing our focus on some of the country's other failures, like the environment. Neither candidate -- whether it's McCain's free-market approach and Climate Stewardship Act with Joe Lieberman, or Obama's cap-and-trade program -- seems to have nailed down a solid plan of action for tackling global wa-I mean, climate change. This evening, Heat can help us to refocus.

Last week, Frontline hosted a preview screening and panel discussion at Washington, D.C.'s Newseum. Two panel members were Amy Jaffe, fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, and Tom Kuhn, president of Edison Electric Institute and George W.'s former roommate at Yale. Judging by Jaffe's outdoorsy dress, I assumed she might represent the left-wing platform. Unfairly (but arguably logically), I assumed Kuhn would be a proponent of backing big business toting the "it is what it is" slogan. However, after listening to them banter about problems and solutions, I realized it was not Jaffe but Kuhn who held the flag of optimism. I had to ask: "Ms. Jaffe, in dealing with the environment and the innovation of ideas and solutions, why do you find it more important to be realistic rather than optimistic?"

Jaffe's response was that a realistic attitude debunks "the myth that somehow [solving global warming] is not going to be painful." Her tone was grim and devoid of hope, while Kuhn spoke of creative ways out of our dependence on depleting resources.

To compare where Christians stand on environmental issues to where they should stand, I've borrowed a dilemma model from Blaise Pascal. Let's work from the assumption that global warming is real. If we take action to counteract it, then society reaps the benefits of our care. Water and air are cleaner, products are more efficient, and people are healthier (a positive outcome). If we do not take action, society loses in the long run because we have neglected to take action and realized it too late in the game (a negative outcome).

Now let's work from the assumption that global warming is not real. If we take action to counteract it, society still reaps the benefits of our care (a positive outcome). If we do not take action, nothing is lost because it is not real in the first place (a neutral outcome). In this model, it is easy to see that it is beneficial for us to act, whether under the presumption that global warming is real or under the presumption that it is not real, because acting always yields a positive outcome. Not acting yields either a negative or neutral outcome.

However, many Christians find themselves caught between two paradigms. They neither subscribe to Greenie Watch blog, which publishes quotes like:

'Global warming' has become the grand political narrative of the age, replacing Marxism as a dominant force for controlling liberty and human choices

and

For centuries there was a scientific consensus which said that fire was explained by the release of an invisible element called phlogiston. That theory is universally ridiculed today. Global warming is the new phlogiston.

Nor do they spend hours creating "Save the Polar Bears" posters or chaining themselves to the front gates of petrochemical plants. No, Christians are typically in the middle, where it's safe

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