I have a new friend. His name is Victor Mughogho from Malawi. Victor heads up an organization that helps his fellow Malawians climb out of poverty. My organization brought Victor to D.C. recently to speak at our Global Day of Prayer for Creation Care about what climate change is doing to the poor in Malawi. A few days later I accompanied Victor on some visits with policymakers, including a senior White House official and several senior Senate staffers from both parties.
On the same day that Victor and I made these visits where he described how Malawi has been experiencing serious impacts from climate change for over 20 years, the New York Times published an article about clouds and climate deniers. I read the article after my time with Victor, and it really made me mad.
I was angry at the deniers for sure, but I was also frustrated with the NYTimes, feeling like they got played once again. (More on that in a moment.)
One of our meetings on the Hill lasted for nearly an hour, anfd I was grateful the staff spent so much time with us listening to Victor, a calm, mild-mannered, gentle soul who told us about the facts on the ground in one of the poorest countries in the world. For folks there, especially subsistence farmers of rain-fed agriculture, climate change is not some abstract theory. Nor is it a political football in the blood sport of U.S. politics. It's something they've been living with for decades and is only getting worse.
Victor Mughogho and a Senate staffer
When I started studying climate change in 1991, these folks were already living it -- though they didn't know they were. Even today most don't know. What they do know is that things have changed significantly, making their lives much harder and death nearer.
As I listened to Victor, I remarked to one of the old hands on climate change in the Senate, "Remember when we first read what the scientists said climate change would do? Well, Victor is living what they said would happen."
Victor told us how for their parents the rainy season was so predictable they knew to plant on Oct. 15 every year. They planted, and the rains fell. Predictable. Stable. Reliable. They grew so much food they had an overabundance. In their parents' lives they experienced one major drought.
Since 1970 droughts and floods and unpredictable rains have become the new normal, exactly what the scientists said climate change would do. And it has wreaked havoc for poor farmers.
Last year was the fourth consecutive year drought has plagued Malawi. And when the rains come, they are unpredictable. Victor told us that last year the farmers planted and the crops failed; planted again, failed again; planted a third time and they failed a third time. Hunger, malnutrition, the stunting of children are the results. Victor reminded us that such stunting harms a person's brain development, further jeopardizing their future and that of Malawi. (As I report in my book, one study in neighboring Zimbabwe found that a single drought led to stunting and to a loss of lifetime earnings of about 10 percent. Further, women who were stunted as children are at greater risk of having complications giving birth, delivering babies with a lower birth weight, and dying in childbirth or having their baby die.)
The farmers are trying to adapt by planting drought-tolerant crops like sorghum. But, Victor said, even sorghum needs some rain. So while their maize crops have produce nothing, their sorghum crop has produced nearly 90 percent less than what it should have, enough to feed a family for two months at most.
After our meetings on the Hill we went outside and I showed Victor where U.S. Presidents are inaugurated on the portico of the Capitol, whose famous dome is modeled after St. Paul's cathedral in London. I took photos of him with the Capitol dome in the background, the building where climate action is currently blocked and mocked. We then went to a nearby Metro subway stop and I guided him to his train, both professing our hope that I would some day visit him in Malawi.
It was after all of this that I read Justin Gillis' NYTimes article, "Clouds' Effect on Climate Change Is Last Bastion for Dissenters."
One might think from the title that I would be happy with the article. And I believe a fair-minded person who read it would conclude that the deniers are wrong.
But here's the rub. In describing the climate deniers fight over clouds, the article unwittingly perpetuates one of the deniers main messages, a key way they try to frame the fight -- and in so doing have us ignore victims like Victor and his fellow Malawians.
The article begins by saying the deniers "have seized on one last argument that cannot be so readily dismissed ... Their theory exploits the greatest remaining mystery in climate science, the difficulty that researchers have had in predicting how clouds will change." The article goes on to explain the possible ways clouds could respond. "The result is a big spread in forecasts of future temperature, one that scientists have not been able to narrow much in 30 years of effort."
Unfortunately, this is a very effective set-up of the message the deniers hope will stop or delay action on climate change. For if this so-called greatest remaining mystery cannot be so readily dismissed, then maybe we should wait until the "mystery" is solved? Too much doubt, so wait and see. Don't act yet, until we've eliminated the doubt. That has been the deniers main argument from the beginning, which is found loud and clear in this NYTimes piece.
But the article also includes a particular twist that the deniers have been pushing lately, which is why they are talking about clouds. The smart deniers recognize they can no longer convince the average person that there hasn't been some warming and that the climate is changing. Now their strategy is to talk about catastrophic warming, planet-altering warming -- as if all the suffering the world endures before such a catastrophe doesn't matter and should be ignored. As if the malnourished children in Malawi Victor told us about, and others around the world who are suffering today, and those who will suffer in the coming decades, should be denied.
Pretend their suffering doesn't exist. Poof. Problem solved! It's like a magic trick. Let me dazzle you with this great mystery about clouds and climate change while I make decades of suffering disappear.
The most infamous magician creating clouds of denial is Dr. Richard Lindzen from MIT, and he is featured prominently in the NYTimes article. It's true that Dr. Lindzen gets knocked about quite a bit in the piece. But when it comes to the question of taking real action, it is Lindzen's framing that controls what is presented.
Here is an illustrative excerpt from the article, including "the money quote" from Lindzen:
"If I'm right, we'll have saved money" by avoiding measures to limit emissions, Dr. Lindzen said in the interview. "If I'm wrong, we'll know it in 50 years and can do something."
But mainstream scientists counter that society's impulse to wait only heightens the risks.
The latter statement is supposed to be the counter to Dr. Lindzen, but it simply accepts his terms of the argument. What is the risk that is being heightened? Catastrophe.
And yet, for the poor, deadly consequences of climate change have been happening for quite some time. For the poor in Malawi the risks have been realized, meaning what were risks are now reality.
The truth is this: Each degree of temperature rise represents a tremendous amount of suffering. It's not a question of do nothing or spend a lot of money to avoid a catastrophe that may or may not materialize contingent upon the vicissitudes of clouds. That's what wizards of denial like Dr. Lindzen want you to fall for, and what the NYTimes helped to perpetuate in this piece.
Significant action now can avoid degrees of warming that will impact billions, irrespective of whether a planet-altering catastrophe arises or not. And such investments are quite affordable, costing the world less than what we currently spend on insurance, and providing a nice rate of return in the form of a clean energy revolution and health savings from cutting pollution that should significantly exceed the investment if history is our guide.
And that's why this article made me so mad.
Here is what I would like to say to the NYTimes: Get your head out of the clouds and see what's happening to people on the ground like Victor and his fellow Malawians. I mean this literally. Do a series of articles on the impacts climate change is having on the poor today. That's your penance for allowing yourselves to be played, for perpetuating the message of the deniers and their trick of trying to make the suffering of the poor simply disappear from our consciences. It's not right. And a correction is needed.
The Rev. Jim Ball, Ph.D., is author of Global Warming and the Risen LORD.