Though many Americans first became aware of climate science in the last few decades, it has a long history. By the 1850s, scientists investigating large-scale climate differences in past geological ages began to suspect that atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane might have an impact on global temperatures.
Their theories generated debate but not consensus. Nevertheless, interest in vacillating global temperatures (in ages past) grew. By the late 1950s, some scientists were not just thinking about the history of climate change but its future and they saw trouble ahead.
I feel like one of those 1950s climate scientists (minus the math proficiency). Like them, I am warning about climate change, although it is a different climate – the social climate – that concerns me. I too see trouble ahead.
In the earth sciences, climate change is measured by temperature fluctuations in earth’s oceans, on its surface, and in its lower troposphere. In the social climate, change is measured by fluctuations in respect and contempt levels. Currently, respect levels are falling and contempt levels are rising.
Social climate change threatens human flourishing. It puts human institutions like marriage and government at risk. Long-term consequences could include poverty, governmental instability, and the unraveling of the social fabric.
What signs are there of social climate change? One is the long-term decline in respect rituals. Every culture has respect rituals, which are exhibited in greetings, introductions, interactions between people of different ages, genders, or class, and during major life events like births and deaths. These rituals have always been open to modification by succeeding generation.
It appears that certain respect rituals are not so much being modified as dropped. For example, it was once normal to use honorifics when introducing people to each other: “John, this is Mrs. Smith. Mrs. Smith, this is Doctor Roberts.” In many cases today, the honorifics are not the only thing that’s been dropped; introductions themselves have been abandoned.
As a long-term pastor, I have witnessed significant changes in death rituals. Funerals and memorials services once provided a shared outlet for grief and an opportunity (as people used to say) to “pay our respects.” It is increasingly common today for families to dispense with the funeral service altogether, or to hold a gathering in its place at a restaurant or even a bowling alley.
Not only are respect levels falling, contempt levels are rising. Consider the outburst by the congressman who shouted, “You lie!” at President Obama while he was addressing a joint session of Congress. Such behavior could not have happened a generation earlier; it was unthinkable.
I was in a Barnes and Noble in suburban Chicago recently and was surprised (and dismayed) to see all the recently published books that have the f-word in their title. The use of vulgarity is rooted in, and gives expression to, contempt and is often a precursor of hostility. The rapidly rising level of vulgarity in speech is a clear sign of social climate change.
According to Professor Steven L. Grover of the University of Otago, respectful behavior is “the manifestation of believing another person has value.” If this is true, then the absence of respectful behaviors and the presence of disrespectful ones betoken a belief that another person does not have value.
We’ve seen this before. The twentieth century genocides in Turkey, Germany, Cambodia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina were all preceded by the proliferation of a belief that certain people do not have value. The spread of such a belief inescapably leads to dramatic changes in the social climate, changes that bode poorly for future generations.
In earth sciences, people have come together to take steps to slow or even halt the harmful changes happening to the climate. Changes in the social climate have received less attention, though they are potentially just as destructive. Even the few who have sounded the alarm seem unsure about what can be done.
Jesus, however, understood what can be done and has outlined steps for doing it. They are more demanding than anything suggested by the Kyoto Protocol or the Paris Agreement, which explains why they have been alternately ignored and contested. Yet they represent an achievable approach to securing a healthy social climate in which future generations can flourish.
First published by Gatehouse Media.