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Vincible Ignorance and the Climate Change “Debate” (Daniel P. Scheid)

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President-Elect Donald Trump has recently appointed Scott Pruitt, the current Oklahoma Attorney General, to be the Director of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt has publicly questioned climate change, saying “that debate is far from settled. Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind. That debate should be encouraged — in classrooms, public forums, and the halls of Congress.” In addition, Pruitt spearheaded a coalition of states to oppose President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, urging those who espouse the science of climate change to “press those beliefs through debate, not through governmental intimidation of those who disagree with them.” In this he is in line with President-Elect Trump, who once denounced climate change as a hoax and who decries the Clean Power Plan as a war on coal.

How might we understand President-Elect Trump, proposed Director Pruitt, and a Trump administration approach to climate change science? First, I here presume, like Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ (## 23-26), that climate change science as supported by virtually all scientists has found that the Earth is warming and that this will have devastating effects on the poor, biodiversity, forests, oceans, etc. Recognizing these facts does not by necessity lead to a particular set of ethical and policy conclusions. One could, for example, hold that animals and their welfare are less important than human welfare. Therefore, regardless of how much we might want to preserve the life of a particular species, if burning more fossil fuels like coal will generate jobs (and therefore contribute to human well-being), the impacts of climate change on nonhumans are irrelevant, no matter how attractive nature might be. One might even conclude that the cost to human health is worth the price of cheap energy. Similarly, following a position of American exceptionalism, one may accept the impacts of global climate change, on the grounds that America will have the technological capacity to adapt. While not consistent with Catholic ecological ethics, these positions would at least remain within the sphere of ethical debate, because they deal with a common set of facts. Climate change denial, on the other hand, is not just one among many possible ethical positions regarding the responsible relationship that human beings ought have to the land and “natural resources.” Instead, the incoming Trump Administration’s approach to climate change represents a direct rejection of scientific fact, following a long train of Republican politicians who question the bases and conclusions of climate change science, even though the empirical evidence continues to strengthen. Theirs is not a moral position but an epistemological claim about the nature of truth.

Second, I suggest we employ the category in classical Catholic moral theology of vincible ignorance. Morally relevant ignorance may be of two kinds: invincible and vincible. Invincible ignorance is ignorance that cannot be overcome, even when a person seeks to know what is true and to do what is right through the application of “moral diligence.” The diligence one ought to employ “must be commensurate with the importance of the affair in hand, and with the capacity of the agent, in a word such as a really sensible and prudent person would use under the circumstances.” Vatican II explains that “conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity.” This “error” is not a sin, and indeed, as James Keenan notes, the internal struggle to do what is good is praiseworthy: “A person who errs in good faith is a person who has struggled to find the right, searched heart and mind, and in firm good faith and free will acted with conviction, albeit in error. This person is good” (42). By contrast is vincible ignorance, and this can be broken into two kinds: indirect vincible ignorance, in which a person through carelessness simply chooses not to seek out the truth; and direct vincible ignorance, in which one is presented with the truth but refuses to believe it. This latter may also be termed “affected ignorance,” in which “ignorance is deliberately aimed at and fostered … because it is sought for by the agent so that he may not have to relinquish his purpose.” The Catechism teaches that vincible ignorance does not excuse or lessen one’s sinfulness: “Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.”

I would place Pruitt’s and Trump’s denial of climate change in the category of affected or feigned ignorance. The “importance of the affair at hand” – the permanent alteration of the planet and its lifesystems for countless generations – seems to demand a high level of moral diligence. Such diligence is not reflected in an obstinate rejection of scientific consensus, as Trump demonstrates, nor in Pruitt’s lackadaisical and absurd support for “further debate,” thereby permanently delaying any urgency for needed reforms. Moreover, both Trump’s and Pruitt’s relationship to the fossil fuel industry suggests that such ignorance may indeed be “deliberately aimed at.” Pruitt’s nomination was hailed by fossil fuel advocates, such as Laura Sheehan, a spokesperson for American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which advocates for the coal industry: “Attorney General Scott Pruitt has long been a defender of states’ rights and a vocal opponent of the current administration’s overreaching E.P.A. Mr. Pruitt will be a significant voice of reason when it comes to energy and environmental regulations.” His rejection of the Clean Power Plan may have connections to his support for state’s rights, but in practice his commitments also stem from his intimate relationships with the fossil fuel industry. At one point as Attorney General he allowed an Oklahoma gas and oil company to author one of his letters to the EPA.

I suggest that Pruitt’s nomination raises two further categories of vincible ignorance. First, climate change denial far exceeds Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump, or any other person in the administration. Rather, it is a systemic, orchestrated, purposeful attempt to spread ignorance and to cultivate a distrust of facts, in order that particular economic goals might not be curtailed. In this sense, vincible ignorance leaps out of the realm of the personal and into a widespread social sin. The industry of climate change denial propaganda has become a “structure of vice,” a massive form of direct vincible ignorance. Daniel Daly explains that structures of vice are “the social structures that in some way consistently function to prevent the human good, the common good, and human happiness, and the socially rooted moral habits willingly internalized by moral agents that consistently prescribe sinful human acts, and produce human unhappiness.” In this case climate change denial is a representation of our post-truth era, in which truth is determined by one’s faith, without reference to empirical facts. Upton Sinclair once quipped that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Yet Pruitt far exceeds merely not understanding climate change: he is part of an organized political movement that fosters and encourages non-understanding. Charles Krauthhammer claimed that concerns about Pruitt’s position on climate change demonstrated a kind of “religious test for office in the country, because as we just heard, climate change is a kind of a religion. But the fact is, we don’t care if the guy believes that the moon is made of green cheese. His job is to administer, that means to carry out the law as passed by Congress.” Thus empirical evidence becomes a kind of faith, and one that can be rejected due to religious freedom. We might adapt Sinclair and say: it is difficult to get someone to understand something when an entire socio-economic, political, and media sub-culture is intent on his not understanding it and convinces him that his salary depends on it.

There is a second kind of indirect vincible ignorance that arises in light of Pruitt’s rejection of scientific data, and in awareness of the untold damage it will do: when the nomination was made, I simply didn’t want to hear about it. I didn’t want to know his name, or what his previous positions were, because I don’t want to fathom how bad this will get. This is willed ignorance, a kind of vincible ignorance caused by despair. Of course, I know that sin and ignorance flourish when uncontested, and so I do not intend to foster this ignorance indefinitely. But for the moment, my vincible ignorance regarding the Trump administration’s intention to dismantle the EPA; and of the ways Pruitt plans to achieve this; and of the social responsibilities that flow for me from this assault on “our common home”: this willful ignorance cannot be overcome merely through “moral diligence” and seeking to know what is right. It can only be met by prayer, conversion, and hope in an eschatological future that envisions a renewed Earth, despite how our current politics might be laying it waste.

Daniel P. Scheid is Associate Professor of Theology at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA. His work focuses on interreligious ecological ethics and has appeared in Worldviews and the Annual Volume of the College Theology Society. His book, The Cosmic Common Good: Religious Grounds for Ecological Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2016) explores ecologically oriented principles of Catholic social thought in dialogue with other religious traditions.

One Comment

  1. Climate Change is an indisputable fact of nature. However, we have induced it beyond its natural dynamic course. It is as if we have come to force climate change for the worst. Is there a relationship between this inducement and human culture? It undoubtedly does in every way. What drives this careless human culture is interrelated to many aspects of human activity on this planet. One important one is our economic ethics.

    According to studies by climatologists, economists, and environmentalists we have caused damage to Earth more than any other period in the history our species. Just in the last century, our extraction of “natural resources” has exceeded any previous time. In spite of the diverse displinary appraoches to climate change and the science underpinning it, a lack of ethical economic model has been a major reason for our carelessness. Capitalism is much to blame for the current climate and environmental disaster. When you are deceived to believe that we should live by the “more for me by any means of the hook or crook”, you can’t expect much progress for a sustainable environment.

    Consumerism as a cultural norm at the public level is another major factor. In addition, corporations and the politicians who mutually perpetuate this ethos, are the major culprits of this disaster. If we really wish to escape this disaster before it’s fatally too late, then we ought excogitate a new ethic that is conducive to environmental sustainability. There are alternatives, but they are purposefully hidden from the general public by the state-owned media. Moreover, we can universalize ahat Upton Sinclair said that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

    When we are all indoctrinated to believe that consumerism is everything while we repeat the mantra that “the one with the most toys wins,” eventually we are going to have to deal with the accumulated waste and the effects of it. Greed, power politics, exhausting fossil fuels, and many other political and social ills need to be addressed properly in order to bring about a shift. There is no time left for “debate,” we [humans] need to take action.

    President Trump and his Administration need to study basic chemistry in order to understand the consequences of prioritizing corporate greed and dominance over the sustainability of the planet, which is the only dwelling place humans know of to day.

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