Bloomberg's Beliefs

11/02/2012 12:16 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014
  • Christiana Z. Peppard Assistant Professor of Theology, Science and Ethics, Fordham University, New York

Belief is a big deal in the United States -- it has been since the founding of this country. There is no religious test for political office. Still, beliefs matter in presidential elections.

Yesterday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg published a statement of faith. Sure, Bloomberg endorsed Obama, but the real object in this election season is not a person -- it's a global reality, a scientific consensus, a developing pattern. It's called climate change, and Bloomberg believes in it. As he stated on Thursday, Nov. 1:

Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be -- given this week's devastation -- should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.

Hold up, people. A prominent, centrist, American politician in autumn 2012 is voluntarily invoking climate change -- without prodding on an MTV interview, without bowing to 21st century bridge fuels or grimacing at the pace of green technology's development. No, Bloomberg's beliefs took the express route to Hurricane Sandy.

Two major, destructive storms in 14 months? Rising sea levels? Warming temperatures? Bloomberg was not professing his personal faith as much as he was expressing scientific consensus in light of New York City's recent experience: the climate is changing. It may have caused Hurricane Sandy. We should act now. Let's get on with it.

Such an unambiguous, frank statement by the super-capitalist, iconoclastic mayor of America's largest, most religiously diverse and financially powerful city should have some ripple effect. I hope it looks like a geographic wave of acceptance that climate change is real, and that it's time to desist with the bilious punditry about "uncertainty" in climate science. Instead, let's plan for disaster, because there's a lot at stake.

To be sure, there is uncertainty in climate science, but not the debilitating kind invoked by climate change deniers.

Scientists are, in fact, the first to acknowledge that science works precisely by straining against the limits of our present knowledge and charting the contours of our ignorance. Uncertainty, properly understood, is how science advances. Errant theories are corrected over time and hypotheses reworked. Knowledge accumulates. Consensus builds. Facts emerge.

The scientific method and the building of scientific consensus are not clean and simple processes. But they're still worth trusting; indeed, we take most science on faith. For example, I don't know how cancer works in great detail, but like most Americans I believe that oncologists and researchers increasingly get it -- because we see the outcomes. We see science's predictive power, its ability to explain, its ability to fix. This tends to be enough: we don't (usually) keep up with the latest peer-reviewed scientific journals or conduct independent verification experiments.

I mean, for crying out loud, I don't go around measuring levels of atmospheric CO2 in my free time. But I trust scientific method and consensus. In this sense, you could say that I'm a believer. Turns out I'm not the only one.

Bloomberg, like many others, believes the climate is changing. He understands that there's uncertainty. Crucially, he understands that uncertainty is not the same thing as error. This is a maxim in financial speculation as well as scientific and even theological inquiry. From the Book of Job to the New Testament's "doubting" Thomas, belief and doubt go hand in hand. As it turns out, no less than Pope Benedict XVI also believes in climate change and thinks that we should act now to mitigate it -- not because he received special revelation about it, but because he believes in science's grasp on reality. Solar panels at the Vatican testify to this new article of faith.

Bloomberg is not the pope. Nor is he the president. But as far as beliefs go, his is real, defensible and prudent.

Belief in climate change should be the new test for political office. Conveniently, it's also Constitutional.