Science must guide environment policy

The Republican race for the presidential nomination is entertaining, if nothing else. And there is little else, certainly about responsible science, judging from one of the two current frontrunners, former Sen. Rick Santorum. “He’s a fake,” said Ron Paul, a third candidate who is trailing badly in the hunt, but apparently still has some verbal bullets.  Paul was highlighting the disconnect between Santorum’s record in Congress and his current platform.

Santorum’s disconnect extends to the science of the environment, which takes the pulse of the Earth — the health of our air, water, soil, and the ongoing life support systems of the planet. He labeled President Obama’s energy policy a “phony theology,” one not based on the Bible but on “radical environmentalism,” which Santorum claims “elevates the earth above man … the belief that man is here to serve the Earth.” Santorum’s rival theology, apparently based on the Bible, claims “We’re not here to serve the Earth. The Earth is not the objective. Man is the objective. … Man should be in charge of the Earth and should have dominion over it … husband its resources … and be good stewards of it.”

There are two fundamentals that Santorum does not or chooses not to understand. First, the nation elects and trusts the president to base our energy policy on the best available science, not belief or theology. It’s not encouraging that Santorum would do otherwise. Why? Because, science rests on evidence; theology rests on faith. Respect both, but let them serve their separate spheres. When the sphere is offshore drilling, fracking or climate change, the nation’s policies should be grounded in hard evidence.

Second, humans have not been good stewards of the Earth. Listen to Pope John Paul II: “Unfortunately … humanity has disappointed God’s expectations. Man, especially in our time, has without hesitation devastated wooded plains and valleys, polluted waters, has disfigured the Earth’s habitat, made the air unbreathable, disturbed the hydrogeological and atmospheric systems, turned luxuriant areas into deserts, and undertaken forms of unrestrained industrialization, degrading … Earth, our dwelling place. Man is no longer the Creator’s ‘steward,’ but an autonomous despot, who … must stop at the edge of the abyss.”

In 2008 Pope Benedict XVI announced seven new sins, one of which was “destruction of the environment.” He said, “Can we be indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, of pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes, and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions? … The stewardship over nature, entrusted by God to man, will not be guided by short-sightedness or selfish pursuits.”

Being the “Creator’s steward” demands that Santorum and his supporters respect humanity’s superior intellect that they believe and revere as God-given. It is this intellect that allowed us to sense the Earth’s environment, take dominion of its resources, cover its surface with wonders and destruction, and be wary of the consequences of what we have wrought. Being a steward demands that we respect the hard-won knowledge that this intellect produces, particularly when the facts are unpopular or uncomfortable or challenge the believer to enrich their theology. Calling decades of climate research by thousands of investigators “junk science,” as Santorum has, is not stewardship, but an insult to our common intellect and the faithful’s reverence for creation.

The Economist, hardly a “radical environmentalist” magazine, recognizes that we have entered a new geologic era, the Anthropocene, named for humanity, because we have become the most powerful agent of change on Earth, able to disrupt climates, oceans, and soils on a grand scale. Some think the Anthropocene started with the Industrial Revolution. Others date the Anthropocene to 10,000 years ago, when the domestication of crop plants began to spread dominion, increasingly tilling Earth’s natural ecosystems into human-managed agro-systems and built urban systems.

Stewarding the environment in the Anthropocene Era is a good test of presidential mettle. Some sideline the scientific issues, choosing short-term expediency to fit the four year-year election cycle. Others sideline the scientific facts, choosing to deny the environmental warning signs. Electioneering favors popular pandering over hard honesty, doctrinaire simplicity over complex discourse. In the long view, pandering simplicity will not safeguard the nation’s environmental good.