As a young evangelical who, as part of my Christian discipleship and witness, is working to encourage our national leaders to act swiftly and responsibly on climate change, you can imagine I looked forward to today with at least a little bit of eager anticipation.
Read more of my thoughts for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action here.
A little under two years ago, my professor challenged me to find a way to decimate some of the ideas I had developed in a senior thesis.
A little over a year ago, I challenged myself to think bigger than a blog post. 1,000 words every couple of weeks was neat, but what if I strung those together? What could I come up with? Could I do 10,000 words? 20,000 words?
There is a genuine sense of accomplishment in just bringing “The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay” to fruition. The thing, for better or worse, is littered with running metaphors, but I have to use one more: it feels a bit like completing my first half-marathon. Who cares about the final time. I crossed the finish line, and that is great in and of itself.
But, of course, I would love it if people were to read this essay. If they were to discuss it, critique it, embrace it, share it. I believe the ideas in this essay matter, and I do not think I could have succeeded in finishing this essay if it was not for this belief, however naive this belief may ultimately turn out to be.
So, towards that end, I am offering the essay for free over the next couple of days. (Soon, it will have to be priced at $3.00, to appease the Amazon.com gods and additionally help pad my rather lean wallet). If you download it for free and read it and say, “hey, that’s great, wish I paid the poor kid something for this” I would love it if you went back online and gifted a copy to a friend.
If you feel led, “four star” or “five star” reviews also warm my heart. Heck, I’ll appreciate one or two star reviews if you read the full thing and take me seriously.
What’s this essay about, you ask? Well, according to my publisher (aka me):
When it comes to culture, ethnicity, lifestyle, ideas, or just people in general, American Christians in the 21st century have found themselves caught in an unprecedented flood of diversity. Rather than something to escape from or merely tolerate, this sudden rush of strange and new things should be seen as an exciting gold rush with which we can enrich both our individual lives and our lives together. To join in on this adventure, however, we need to equip ourselves with the proper tool — “the virtue of open-mindedness.”
Author Kaleb Daniel Nyquist gives an account of the virtue of open-mindedness that is both personal and theoretical, theological and practical. It is a journey that meanders through the forests of Oregon, the streets of Chicago, the sidewalks of India, a Sunday School classroom, a Planned Parenthood clinic, and many hair-pulling trips to the university library. Mashing together ideas from Aristotle, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and even Jesus of Nazareth, he puts together a model of the virtue of open-mindedness that just might help American Christians (and whoever else cares to listen in) navigate our strange, beautiful, broken and interconnected world.
You literally have nothing to lose. Apologies for the aggressive sales pitch, but you are going to waste more time thinking about downloading it (or not) than actually downloading it.
President Obama revealed his Climate Action Plan earlier today to a crowd of students and reporters at Georgetown University. For those of us in climate activist circles, this has been a much anticipated moment, a speech that if anything exceeded expectations, although it still fell short of putting our minds at ease as we consider what the planet in 2050 and 2030 and, heck, even sooner than that, will look like.
As the President made clear, climate change is a reality: “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.” Accordingly, his Climate Action Plan includes major investments to American infrastructure, agriculture and emergency response that will help us cope with a world where even +1°C has set off some major dominoes.
In addition to these “adaption” measures that fortify America’s infrastructure against a changing climate, the President also laid out “mitigation” measures that reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted nationwide. Of these mitigation efforts (which do include strategic clean energy investments), it looks like the most significant will be establishing carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants.
Under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency is required to protect the American public from pollution known to be hazardous to human health. Seeing that global warming, which presents a major threat to human health (for example, by making infectious disease increasingly difficult to contain by normal geographic boundaries), is caused by carbon dioxide, the argument is that the President has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from sources such as power plants.
There may be some resistance to the regulations. After all, for some, using the Clean Air Act to control a greenhouse gas (as opposed to, say, smog) may require a new way of thinking. But the logic is sound, and the Supreme Court actually ruled as such back in 2007.
That all said — the EPA regulations and other executive actions, while bold, are far from being a full and complete solution to nip global warming at the source.
We still are unsure of the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed project to transport the incredibly dirty tar sands oil of Canada, a danger so severe that it drew 40,000 activists to Washington D.C. this February to protest its construction. Many of us were encouraged to hear that the pipeline was even mentioned in the speech — that means the President hears us — and the logic he is using to make his decision is sound: “Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” Knowing how horrific the tar sands will be for the climate, the only way I can imagine the Keystone XL being acceptable is if Congress passes some sort of carbon tax immediately beforehand.
While the President did mention the value of natural gas as a transition fossil fuel, there was no mention of the fracking boom for natural gas here in the Midwest, a sinister 21st-century gold rush that is recklessly extracting valuable natural gas at a rate so increasingly fast, nearly a third of it is being wasted on the spot, making it nearly as bad for atmospheric carbon levels as the other fossil fuels it supposedly is replacing.
And, at a personal level, I noticed that there was no mention of the coal lines running through Pacific Northwest, the place I consider home. Even if with new regulatory guidelines, we get our domestic coal power plant emissions under control, we potentially could still be exporting this dirty fuel source to be burned in a different place, only to enter the same atmosphere.
While the promo video for the speech led me to expect that the President would tap into religious sentiments by talking about protecting God’s creation here in America, he actually went as far as to reference Genesis — you know, God saw all that he made, which included much more than just America, and saw that is was very good.
The President accordingly deserves praise for his tact tackling of the moral ambiguity of climate change in developing countries. It is worth quoting at length:
Though all America’s carbon pollution fell last year, global carbon pollution rose to a record high. That’s a problem. Developing countries are using more and more energy, and tens of millions of people entering a global middle class naturally want to buy cars and air-conditioners of their own, just like us. Can’t blame them for that. And when you have conversations with poor countries, they’ll say, well, you went through these stages of development — why can’t we?
But what we also have to recognize is these same countries are also more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than we are. They don’t just have as much to lose, they probably have more to lose.
Developing nations with some of the fastest-rising levels of carbon pollution are going to have to take action to meet this challenge alongside us. They’re watching what we do, but we’ve got to make sure that they’re stepping up to the plate as well. We compete for business with them, but we also share a planet. And we have to all shoulder the responsibility for keeping the planet habitable, or we’re going to suffer the consequences — together.
The President is responding by establishing free trade in clean energy tech, ending public financing of the unsafest coal plants overseas, and spearheading The U.S.-Africa Clean Energy Finance Initiative that will unlock nearly $1 billion in clean energy financing, along with a similar project in the Asia/Pacific region that will unlock nearly $6 billion!
Nevertheless, the challenge of global warming remains severe. It certainly lacks easy or convenient political answers. It is something that any President, even with the ridiculously incredible powers of the Executive Branch of government, is able to solve by himself or (perhaps someday) herself.
In the big picture, what President Obama’s plan chalks up to is a great gift to all of us — the gift of more time.
For us, it is more time to figure out what the reality of climate change means for how we go about practicing sustainability and resilience within our own personal lifestyles, our communities, our churches, our schools, and our workplaces. For those of us who are better off financially, we need to figure out how to best stand up for the poor not simply abroad but here in America — those whose fossil-fuel-generated electricity consumption makes up bigger proportion of their tight budget, and those who live in places like the Lower Ninth Ward (devastated by lives lost in Hurricane Katrina) as compared to those who live in places like the Jersey Shore (devastated by property damage caused by Hurricane Sandy).
President Obama’s plan also means more time for the Republican Party. In the sportsball that is politics, it looks to me that it is now the GOP’s turn to respond. The ball is in their court. They can throw it out of bounds (that is, continuing the practice of climate denialism), they can just drop it (display utter apathy for anything but the status quo), pass it back to the other team and let them score (follow Obama’s leadership), or score with a trick shot of their own (suggest a market-based approach to addressing climate change, instead of a heavily regulated bureaucratic solution).
(Confession: I was a bit reluctant to use this sports metaphor. Because, in reality, shouldn’t the Democrats and Republicans be playing for same team, the same common good?)
It may be hard for any single one of us to influence the President in any profound way. Any single letter you or I send or phone call you or I make is really just a drop in a way too big bucket. But we might have a shot at influencing the Republican Party, a party that is hurting for relevancy after 2012 and has to be growing open to good ideas. If we can’t change the minds of establishment GOPers like Senators Jim Inhofe or Mitch McConnell, we can at least support our GOP state congressmen and governors as they work to implement the EPA carbon regulations in their particular state contexts.
It is worth our effort because, ultimately, the problem is not that the President is not doing enough. Even if Obama could do more on climate, and as much as I care about climate, I am not a one-issue citizen, and do not want Obama to spend all of his political capital in one place. Rather, the problem is that the country is not moving forward together on this issue. Barack Obama has done his part. Now it is time for the rest of us to figure out, in our own spheres of influence, how to follow suit.
Disclaimer: The reason I talk like I know something about climate change is because I serve as the Campaigns Assistant and a Steering Committee member for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. That said, nothing here necessarily reflects any official position of Y.E.C.A. whatsoever. Just my own thoughts that I want to contribute to public discussion.
To read other reactions from young evangelicals regarding President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, head over the Y.E.C.A. website.
Somewhere along the way, in a polarized political system, “being passionate” and “having extreme views” have become more and more synonymous. Passionate moderatism sounds nearly as oxymoronic as compassionate conservatism did some years back as a Bush-era slogan. But conservatives can be compassionate, and I want to contend that moderates can be passionate.
My high school US History teacher, the beloved-and-moustached rabble-rouser that he was, repeatedly told our class: “Be conservative. Be liberal. Be whatever, but whatever the case don’t be a boring ol’ moderate.” When former President Bill Clinton came to visit Mac High in order to rally support for Hillary’s presidential candidacy, I remember a number of my politically-minded friends saying how stupid it was to not join either party. “Why would anyone sacrifice their primary vote?”
When I went to register to vote, however, I could not bring myself to join any party. Perhaps I was torn between my conservative evangelical subculture and my liberal Pacific Northwest context. Perhaps it did not help that I was reading Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People for 12th Grade English Literature. The third parties were even more extreme and even less effective, and I could not register as an Independent because Oregon actually has an Independent Party and so I was, and still am, designated as “Not affiliated with any political party.”
(Interesting tangent: my first jobs out of high school would be helping non-profits use a particular piece of content-publishing software that Independent Party chair Sal Peralta had implemented but could no longer maintain because he was now the Independent Party chair. It just so happened that I had to use that same software for my journalism class.)
I did not feel like I was transcending the fray. Instead, I simply could not find a political ideology, much less a party, that matched my sense of society-level right-and-wrong. When that new-fangled-Myspace-called-Facebook would later ask me for my Political Views, I typed in “Moderate,” and, upon further tongue-in-cheek reflection on my own indecisiveness, added “…sort of.”
The state of things
It was not that I did not care. It was just that I did not know. My undergrad electives and eventually my major were, in many ways, about figuring out these strange and confusing things for myself. Surprisingly to myself, instead of falling towards either side, I found myself going more firmly to the center. If I was indecisively moderate in 2008, I was decisively moderate in 2012.
For that to happen, of course, moderates need to start causing a bit more of a ruckus.
Standing up is hard enough. You do not wish to offend anyone. Furthermore, as a moderate, it can often feel like standing up takes place on a tightrope. But if that’s where the common ground is, let’s be fine with that, because if we fall off we’ll end up in the safety net of common sense.
A Moderate Manifesto
There is some substance, I think, to being a moderate that is greater than simply adding up the numbers and finding the average between two sides. For the past many years, I have being trying to work out what being moderate means for me. I publish these ideas, like almost anything else I publish, not because I know I am right but because if I keep these to myself I will never have to face the possibility of being wrong.
With that said:
Government exists because of the reality of public life.
I don’t buy the liberal vision that we can govern our way into utopia, but neither do I feel comfortable with the conservative claim that government is a necessary evil. My starting point, as far as legitimate government, is this: just as individuals have worries and aspirations, groups also have worries and aspirations. Politics is one (but not the only) way we can address the worries and aspirations as a society-sized group.
Opposed to big government or small government, government in the right amount.
Government cannot solve all problems, nor would we want it to. But there are some things it does really well. And (take healthcare for example) there are some things it does only slightly better or slightly worse than the private sector, and while we can have a decent conversation about these things we need not go crazy as if it were a life-or-death situation.
Cultural compatibility of government.
Because the legitimacy of government is based in the reality of public life, the government system should be culturally compatible with the society it represents (i.e. there may be greater distribution of wealth in Sweden than the United States, but the Swedes also value the concept of lagom). In other words: there is no god-given, time-proof, platonic ideal or rationally supreme form of government.
Let ideas be held in tension.
If we do cultural compatibility in a multicultural society, there are going to be problems. 49%, or even 4.9%, of the population can have a legitimate concern worth listening to. The ideal character of any place, instead of being domination by some, should be participation by all. As much as it possible, a moderate seeks to achieve this.
Delegate and trust.
We trust doctors with our bodies (despite the reality of malpractice), we should be able to trust politicians with our societies (despite the reality of corruption). That said, being an expert in one area does not make one an expert in all. If the scientists say global warming is happening, or economists say a debt ceiling is a bad idea, or a minority group says some oppressive force is asserting itself upon their people, politicians should shut up and listen.
Live up to our potential as a society.
This might sound a bit backwards to American ears, but as a nation, we shouldn’t strive to be the “best in the world” but the “best that we can be.” Competition is a good thing, but reckless comparison is destructive. We can focus on our own problems and potential and still celebrate the victories of others (with a healthy dose of good-hearted jealousy, of course).
Do not find purpose in a political ideology.
This is much a spiritual issue as a political one. Too many people, I fear, in the fragmentation of vacuous postmodern society, have traded their religions and other good convictions for the half-assed metanarratives that are contemporary political ideologies. As a moderate, I can tolerate (and perhaps even celebrate) the fact that you may be a Tea Partier or a Marxist or anything along those lines. But please, at the end of the day, be something more than that as well.
Graphs are some of the most obnoxious ways of proving a point. I mean, think about having a friendly debate with someone who has come up with “statistical proof” for their argument. Your buddy suddenly thinks they are, like, infallibly right and you’re like “omg-just-shut-up-already.”
In that spirit, I have two graphs I want you to look at.
It occurred to me the other day that these two graphs, the first being about the United States debt situation and the second being about the global climate crisis, have roughly the same shape. Although both of the above graphs are alarming enough, they also come in hockey stick versions that austerity hawks and enviros often point to for the sake of a rhetorical power play.
So it got me thinking, what else could these two issues have in common? What are some key differences? And so what?
First though, a quick lesson on what each of these graphs mean.
The United States Federal Debt Debacle
Debt, whether a credit card swipe or a government bond, is a strategy of borrowing from the future to take advantages of opportunities in the present. Sure, when done indiscriminately, it can shackle debtors to the past. It can also become a weapon of oppression when the lenders find ways to work the system. But there is nothing inherently bad about debt done responsibly.
Our political system, however, has recently been on the fritz about our federal government’s increasing debt, with campaigners often blaming their favorite public enemy for what has been a bipartisan flop. There is legitimate concern – larger debts are not just more expensive to pay off than smaller ones, but interest charges are also more burdensome the larger the debts.
That said, last-minute political brinksmanship, like we saw with the New Year’s Day decision on the fiscal cliff, is equally (if not more) dangerous than an unjustifiable increase in spending or unfortunate decrease in revenue. The moment a credit agency like Moody’s perceives risk in holding United States federal government debt, interest rates will rise for future debt, compounding the problem.
The Global Climate Crisis
Just like debt, carbon dioxide is not inherently a bad thing. It has its chemical role to play in the cycles of the natural world. If a little bit gets into the atmosphere, from, say, a forest fire or a volcanic eruption, that is not a horrible situation.
The problem is that a lot is getting into the atmosphere, due to the reckless human use of fossil fuels – geological stores of energy unceasingly being released. And above-normal levels of carbon dioxide (along with other greenhouse gases) trap above-normal levels of infrared heat into the planet, with the potential to cause serious imbalances in earth’s natural cycles. The scientific consensus appears to be pretty clear in this department.
As far as political solutions go, there are plenty of ideas but not a lot of willpower. Part of the problem is that the global climate crisis is, well, global. To come up with an agreement where every nation gives up something, and no nation gets a free ride into a better future, is, well, impossible, at least without a spark of idealism.
What do these graphs have in common?
Seeing as these are both upward trends, with no sign of slowing down, it looks as if the consequences are going to be billed to future generations. I use the word “future” loosely. I don’t mean the unborn to come, but those who have come after the decades of decisions that got us into these messes. “Future” could reasonably encompass a good chunk of everyone under the age of 60, and it most certainly includes my Millennial generation and the Gen Z kids I work with.
But! While the price we have to pay is going to be steep, the future generations need to acknowledge the fact that we will get to reap at least some rewards. While the most recent uptick in the federal debt is due less to increased spending and more to depressed revenues, we cannot take for granted the things federal spending has provided us – infrastructure, security, education and apparently now affordable health care.
On the climate change side of things, I think enviros have often struggled to articulate the advances that cheap, quick and accessible energy have given us. If historical fossil fuel use was ⅓ the current amount, for one small example, I doubt you would have the computer/smartphone/tablet you are now using to read these words. We can think of the era of fossil fuels as a stimulus package for the civilization project; now the trick is to keep the fruits of technological prowess while kicking the habit of unsustainably using a limited, polluting resource.
What are some key differences?
In the worst of all scenarios, the Feds could reasonably default on their loans and admit to bankruptcy. It would likely be the end of the American nation as we know it, but life would go on. But when we talk about climate change, using the worst of all scenarios that the scientific models have been able to come up with, we can’t be so sure that life would go on.
But let’s not talk about worst-case scenarios. Let’s talk about present political strategies for tackling this problem. In the case of our debt, we have a strict debt ceiling, a seemingly commonsense solution that instead of sparking productive dialogue now appears to be drawing us dangerously close to the even worse problem of defaulting. The opposite is true for climate: we do not put any legal stock whatsoever in “carbon ceilings” like 350ppm or +2°C.
Tackling our debt requires what Americans fear may be impossible: bipartisanship. But tackling the climate crisis requires what may be an even crazier sort of cooperation: international agreements. There simply is no global system of governance that can streamline this process.
I’m not suggesting we need to implement a world government-bureaucracy. That sort of concentration of power, in fact, seems too dangerous to be worthwhile. But the longer we let the climate crisis fester, the more likely we are going to resort to this sort of extreme measure, an unprecedented sacrifice of national sovereignty.
We don’t want that. We need to get creative. Now.
I’m not going to draw crass utilitarian lines in the sand and say which of these two problems is worse. You’re free to draw your own conclusions in that department, and, for that matter, let your conclusions reflect your original prejudices. It is an apples and oranges comparison; the important thing is acknowledging that they are both fruit. (Quite frankly, the fruit basket is becoming quite full with all the right stuff, with the bananas of gun obtainment reform and the tomatoes of immigration reform now making their appearance).
Correlation does not mean causation, and I believe that is true in the case of these dangerous upward trends. If there is a common cause, it is a cultural propensity to thoughtlessly consume with a view averted to the future. And if it is a cultural thing, no political silver bullet exists that can strike through the heart of both the debt debacle and the climate crisis.
But there is something that can be a partial win-win. A carbon tax, or a levy on emissions of carbon dioxide, is an idea with growing support across the political spectrum. It can help to turn both of these upward trends into mere plateaus.
First, a carbon tax is a just initiative society should just be doing anyways. It is the economic concept of externalities. We get fined for littering, we have to pay for our recycling (whether directly or indirectly), we should have to pay for our carbon emissions.
Second, a carbon tax also raises revenue. Yes, that will make some things more expensive. But, unlike an income tax, a carbon tax will not make productive activity less lucrative. Which is a darn good thing for making payments on our national debt.
Third, a carbon tax, by raising the price of fossil fuel use, gives the innovative free-market something to chew on when it comes to finding clean (and practical) energy solutions and promoting efficiency measures. This might even prove to be a long-term boost to the economy, again increasing revenues and decreasing the debt. The sooner a carbon tax is implemented, the greater the return from this “investment” will be.
Because there is one point I don’t need a graph to prove: we need to address these problems sooner or later. We have a need, as a society, to behave responsibly. And that shouldn’t be all too difficult.