04 July 2009

Urban VIII and Exxon: from denying heliocentricity to denying climate change

Urban VIII was no dummy. Pope from 1623 to 1644, he was a patron of the arts, church reformer, composer of poetry and hymns, and holder of a doctorate in law from the University of Pisa. He was also the pope who arrested Galileo for promoting heliocentricity.

The pope was a friend and admirer of Galileo, yet he stood him before the Inquisition. Why would Urban, an intelligent, well-educated man, turn on his friend because of an idea? Some historians even suggest he accepted the idea of heliocentricity himself. The reason, we suspect, is because his first duty was not to ideas, not to knowledge, but to his institution. He saw heliocentricity as a threat to the Catholic Church, and if the truth had to be sacrificed to defend his institution, so be it.

Remnants of medievalism we might think today. After all, Urban was also the pope who excommunicated smokers because he believed the habit led to sneezing which resembled sexual ecstasy. But modern, enlightened, well-educated men of today are as capable as Urban as putting the interests of their institutions ahead of the truth. I offer as an example the heads of ExxonMobil, the world's largest oil company. ExxonMobil has for some time funded groups involved in undermining the science of climate change. It had promised to stop, but in 2008 was still supporting global warming deniers such as the National Center for Policy Analysis and the Heritage Foundation. The question is why men of this stature who are not only well-educated but who depend on science for their livelihood would betray science in this way, and the answer is almost certainly that, like Urban VIII, they put the interests of their institution ahead of the truth, even if they believe it themselves.

It is rather more serious now, however. Whether or not anyone believed the Earth circled the Sun was perhaps of importance only to the intelligentsia. But if climate change is not broadly recognized and dealt with, humanity is in grave danger. We simply can't afford Urban VIII's today. Modern technology threatens the planet in a way men of the 17th century couldn't imagine, and our leaders, in business as well as government, must rise to the challenge. Unfortunately, the leaders of one of the world's premier companies still linger morally in the Middle Ages.

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