Climate change is real. Human beings – our numbers, and our activities – drive much of this change. The climate change underway poses substantial risks.
To me, the evidence for these three statements is compelling.
It seems I’m in good company. According to 2011 poll results compiled by Anthony Leiserowitz and his colleagues, maybe 97% of scientists agree with these statements. Something approaching 2/3 of the American public agrees with the first, while maybe a third say they don’t know. And then the public percentages tail off from there with regard to the second and third questions.
Frustrated that I’m so vague about the details? I apologize. There’s much richer content in the Leiserowitz work and that of others. But the polling numbers are uncertain. They fluctuate with time, they vary with the way the questions are asked, and so on.
You and I might also wonder about the worldwide figures. And how to segment the populations. In the developed world, maybe the figures look comparable to the US data. Perhaps in Europe, fewer people need convincing. In the developing world, we’ve got over a billion people who are so desperately poor it would insult them to even waste their time by asking them. They have more urgent matters to see to. Finding water safe to drink. Keeping their children fed… For that matter, keeping their children alive. [We owe them more help.]
These simple statistics suffice as background for what we also know. In the larger public, there’s disagreement. And this fuels raging debate over climate change – and these three statements. The arguments and the vehemence of those quarrels must stem in part from simple disagreements over the facts of the matter…the unconvinced are simply not persuaded. Some of the debate concerns particular pieces of the broader argument (the relationship between climate change and embedded extremes of flood and drought, for example, or glacial melting, or the rise of vector-borne disease…). But at least some of the arguments come from those who are privately convinced, but who recognize that to concede these facts openly is to start down a slippery slope of a policy discussion and redistributive measures that ultimately may negatively impact their entrenched self-interest. For purposes of the debate, they choose to make the facts rather than the policy options, e.g., reduced carbon emissions, or adaptive measures, their battleground.
Consider another change in climate that some people say has been underway for much of human experience – a change in the social or spiritual climate. One measure? A decline in violence.
Two recent books have addressed this topic: The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. By Steven Pinker. Viking; 802 pages; $40. Published in Britain as “The Better Angels of our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes” by Allen Lane; £30 Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
A History of Violence: From the End of the Middle Ages to the Present. By Robert Muchembled. Polity; 388 pages; £60. To be published in America in January; $29.95 Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
Both have been summarized in a book review published in The Economist. [The web is chock-a-block full of sites where we can see and hear from Steven Pinker; the sources are a little less numerous for Mr. Muchembled.]
Pinker argues that the decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon. He says we can see it on a scale of millennia, or centuries, or even decades and years. He argues that the trends are similar both with respect to wars and with respect to violence on an individual level. [He finds Hitler, Stalin, and Mao exceptions to a larger trend.] It’s taking time, but we’re rising from former savagery and barbarism.
Pinker also lists some causes. The transition from nomadism to fixed-in-place civilizations. The emergence of nation-states, which wanted a monopoly on aggression and weaponry. UN peacekeeping. He argues that psychology factors in. Most of us learn that other behavioral strategies are more effective than violence for achieving our individual and corporate aims. [Muchembled’s explanation is rather more edgy; he attributes the decline in actual violence to a rise in virtual outlets (e.g., gaming) for violence among the world’s young. He argues this trend even dates back to popular novels, such as one from his own heritage, “The Three Musketeers.”]
Those who believe in God might ascribe an additional factor, maybe one they would see as the fundamental underlying cause. Sociologists and statisticians tell us that maybe 2 billion out of our 7 billion call themselves Christian. Compare with 1.5 billion Muslims. Maybe a little over 1 billion non-religious or atheist. Almost 1 billion Hindus. Chinese traditional religion nearly 400 million. Buddhists just a shade less. Indigenous, 300 million. African traditional, 100 million. Judaism, 14 million. And so on.
This is the season when many of those 2 billion Christians [I am one] mark what we might whimsically call an abrupt climate change, dating back a little more than 2000 years. [Many of the remaining 5 billion will join in the general festivities, if not subscribing fully to the underlying idea.] Christians celebrate the birth of the son of God into the world in human form. That and the events of the ensuing 30 or so years marked a transformation in God’s attitude toward His creation. Before He had been frustrated with us…for all our frowardness and brokenness – especially our lack of gratitude, and propensity to argue!
Since then, He’s unilaterally declared Himself to be reconciled – at peace with us. That historical pivot in our relationship has allowed and encouraged us to be more hopeful and more at peace with one another than we had been before, or might be otherwise.
Do you agree that the decline in violence is real? What do you think is the cause? And lastly, would you agree that this decline, whatever the cause, creates not substantial risks but extraordinary opportunities?
Let’s talk a little about that last bit. If indeed violence is decreasing, and if the world is growing more peaceful on the whole, then, whatever the root cause, you and I have reason to be hopeful. For that social or spiritual foundation surely increases our chances of working together to solve the challenge of climate change, doesn’t it?
We number seven billion of us, and we come from a range of experiences. My guess is that we are inclined to argue every bit as much about the merits of this second group of three statements as we do about the first group…likely even more so.
But perhaps at this season of the year, at this point in history, in the face of this challenge, we can find it in our hearts to model “peace on Earth, good will toward men and women.”
And work together toward our great common destiny.