Global Warming is a Life Issue

Many politically-involved Christians, such as Dobson, have made the argument that the environment shouldn’t be an important part of their agenda because it pales in comparison to other values issues such as abortion. In fact, I held this stance for quite some time in the past and considered myself a one-issue voter. When I was in college, I was fond of saying that I felt in politics I had two poor choices: kill babies, or trash the environment. Given those choices, I would trash the environment. That was really my view of the two parties as these were the two issues that seemed most important to me. However, I have come to think that this simplified view is simply wrong. I think that this type of view has promoted a culture of callousness within the Christian right toward many other important issues, such as the environment.

I do agree that many environmental ‘save the whales’-type issues fall well short of the importance of abortion. Dying humans are more important than dying whales. However, this is precisely where the environmental debate has changed over the last few years, and I think many Christians have been woefully late to realize this. Global warming is a human life issue. More and more, climate scientists have been coming to a consensus view (something it is very difficult to get scientists to do). The consensus is: 1) Observable global increases in temperature have been occurring at least over the last 50 years, 2) This warming has an anthropogenic cause, namely humans are dumping large quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the environment, 3) We are at a crucial point in time where we can possibly limit the effects of rapid climate change, 4) Climate change will result in increased weather extremes – causing wet regions to become wetter, dry regions to become drier, and extreme weather events (such as hurricanes or heat waves) to become more severe. Thus, it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny that our neglect of this environmental issue will result in a significant decrease in quality of life in many regions and a significant increase in mortality due to increased drought, famine, extreme weather events, and disease. Those who will be most affected by this are those who are already marginalized and have few resources available to adjust to these changes. For example, Africa is likely to be particularly hard-hit, as large regions are expected to have drought and a significant decrease in agricultural productivity. Some of these effects are already unavoidable, and significant changes are already predicted for as early as 2020.  Hundreds of millions of people will be affected in significant ways.

While the effects of global warming are difficult to quantify exactly, as they span a range of severity for different regions, and predictions still have some uncertainty, I have begun to think that this issue is on par with abortion (where 1 million babies are aborted each year in the US).  Climate change will not be as disastrous for most humans as abortion is for aborted babies, but for some it will be, and it affects a lot more humans than does abortion.  I don’t buy Dobson’s argument that promoting this environmental issue will detract from the pro-life issue.  On the contrary, in order to have a consistent ethic of promoting human life we must also act to reduce the effects of climate change as it is likely to result in many deaths of the young, old, and helpless.

The lack of support among Christians in the United States for reducing climate change has another negative effect.  The US is the largest producer of greenhouse gases, yet we are not the ones likely to feel the worst of the negative consequences.  It appears we are absorbed in our own self-interest – unwilling to inconvenience ourselves in order to help others.  This is certainly a poor witness, particularly since many in the world view us as the “Christian” nation, and connecting this self-interest to our Christianity is only a small leap. While this appearance may not be correct, its effects are real.

It is useful to think about why we have a tendency to ignore environmental issues.  I think for most Christians, it isn’t really our self-interest.  For some, it may be a loyalty to the Republican party platform, which promotes other values that we feel are important.  Remember that our loyalty should be to Christ.  For others, it may be a sense that God is in control, and he won’t let us create a major global disaster.  However, if we look through the story of the Bible we see that God constantly gives us choices, and constantly allows humans to make poor choices which can have dramatic consequences.  Think of Eden.  He refuses to save us from ourselves if we don’t let him.  Yet another factor is a  general suspicion of science among Christians.  I think this suspicion is not only misplaced but damaging (perhaps the subject of another post). Another possible reason might be a belief that Christ will be returning soon, and that therefore we shouldn’t worry about destroying the environment.  We’re going to get a new one.  This argument seems pretty tenuous as well.  Christ says that no one knows the day or the hour.  Should we knowingly degrade the lives of potential future generations?  Do we promote being poor stewards in other areas of our life?

I’ll leave you with one final thought – that of the parable of the good Samaritan.  I think that we should look at our political stance on climate change and ask ourselves, “Are we the good Samaritan, or are we the priest?”

-Matt, the elder brother

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19 Responses to Global Warming is a Life Issue

  1. John says:

    Matt,

    As you and I know, scientists can come to a consensus at one point in time over a matter and with NEW data declare that they were totally wrong (Pluto’s not a planet, for example). I agree with you that Christians, if they have a problem with a scientific finding, should disagree with that finding with good science themselves. The problem with global warming (at least with the theory that it is mainly caused by CO2 emitted by mankind) is that now when a scientist disagrees with the “mainstream” they are labeled as a nut. There are scientists with incredible credentials out there saying the opposite of what politicians are saying. Many are saying that global warming or cooling has more to do with the behavior of our sun. Global warming is VERY political right now. People like Al Gore have an agenda; they really do. He and others want to dramatically change our lifestyle.

    There is a lot of new evidence and patterns that contridict the global warming scare. For example, check out the link below. It’s a little old (January, 2008) and I believe since then North America has had the biggest snowfall in 60 years?
    http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2008/01/06/br_r_r_where_did_global_warming_go/

  2. Cheno says:

    It’s only the first part of an hour-long BBC documentary that i can no longer find (go figure) on YouTube, and it’s chopped up, but something that it points out, which you can search for and find, is the correlation data for CO2 and average temperature, where the correlation is negative. That is, average temperature “causes” a rise in CO2 levels. I use quotes because statistic correlation does not necessarily denote a causal relationship, especially when used with what is referred to as “proxy” data. The reason the trend can only be observed in the last 50 years is because that is when we began taking sufficiently accurate CO2 data.

    There are plenty of good reasons to be good stewards of the environment and earth’s natural resources. The best one i can think of is because God told us to. Another is because the world’s poor lives in the places which people refer to when they speak of “climate change danger zones” (read: Africa). Republican, Christian, or not, we should not be motivated by liars, statisticians, or even worse, professional liars telling us they are statisticians.

    I find the following quote by my old Engineering/Industrial Statistics Prof to be a good rule of thumb, and i have used it many times. “If someone wants to convince you of something, and they use a statistic, you should ask them what their alpha value is. If they don’t know what you’re talking about, they don’t know what they’re talking about, and you should assume they have just lied to you.”

    That being said, i love your blog.
    Matt Chenoweth

  3. Matt says:

    John,
    I agree that the issue is very politicized. However, you have to remember that it’s politicized on both sides. Also, in science you will almost always find dissenters to any view. I read the globe article, and will look a bit into the scientific articles that it refers to. Furthermore, the depiction of science in newspaper is very typically flawed, oversimplified, or blown out of proportion for the sake of sensationalism. This seems to be the rule instead of the exception. In this case, the article refers to very short-term temperature fluctuations which have little to do with the question at hand. There is a small contingent of scientists that think the recent increase in temperatures is the result of increased solar activity. It is worth looking at their science, but they are certainly in the minority of the community.
    Also, I don’t quite agree with your assessment of scientific consensus. It is rare for a well-understood physical theory to be declared wrong and superceded by something else. It is common for a well-established theory to receive modifications to account for regimes that were outside of the previous realm of data. Your example of Pluto is simply a case where when it was discovered there was no overarching theory of planet formation. It was a large body which orbited the sun on a (relatively) circular, and so it was called a planet. Recently the theory of planet formation has seen a lot of new development. Now that we understand a lot more about planet formation, it makes sense to reclassify Pluto.
    Finally, while there is still certainly some debate over the cause of warming, the fact that such an overwhelming majority of scientists believe that the mechanism is human-caused should be reason enough for us to form policy. I also think this is a case where the mechanisms are fairly well-understood (simple physics), and our current computer power allows us to simulate global changes in the atmosphere with reasonable accuracy. That said, I can’t claim to be an expert on the science myself and will try to find out more of the nitty-gritty. Perhaps some of this would be worthy of a future post or discussion.

  4. John says:

    Matt, I referred to Pluto because in the past few decades we have developed better and better land and space-based telescopes. You know this better than anyone. Scientists kept discovering Pluto-sized ‘planets’ in the Kuiper Belt and beyond such as Eris, Quaoar, Sedna. Orcus. That led them to modify the classification of planets.

    I think as new data comes out scientists will be able to ‘modify’ their theories on global warming. I disagree with you about this being the case where mechanisms are fairly well-understood. For example, I remember well that all of the top scientists (at NOAA) predicted that 2006 was going to be one of the most active hurricane seasons on reason. They used their regular methods of weather forcasting, but when 2006 was the calmest hurricane season since 1997, they had to eat humble pie. What gets us ‘skeptics’ upset is that hurricanes were supposed to increase because of global warming in frequency and intensity. If they can’t get their predictions right for 6-12 months in the future, how can they be certain for the next 20, 50 and 100 years? Check this out: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/tech/news/5693436.html

    Also, here’s a NPR story on a scientist who is confused about why the oceans are not warming according to the ‘models.’ I hope you agree that NPR is not necessarily a right-wing news organization. Here you go: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88520025

    In trying to educate myself I learned that the most powerful ‘greenhouse gas’ is water vapor. Obviously, water vapor is involved in cloud formation, which reflects sunlight and cools our planet.

    On a completely other matter, do you plan to watch Ben Stein’s movie “Expelled-No Intelligence Allowed?” It looks really good. http://expelledthemovie.com/

  5. James says:

    John,

    I’m no scientist, but what I understand about weather patterns is that it’s actually much easier for scientists to predict what long-term weather patterns are going to be like than short-term ones. Consider it like the stock-market. Analysts have a harder time predicting what will happen in a given day, much less, hour, minute, or second of trade. Weeks, months and years are much easier to predict. Global weather is a much larger system than the national economy, so the volatility seen in the stock market in hours, days and weeks may been seen in the global weather system in seasons and years.
    For me, one of the most compelling arguments for global warming is that scientists have been predicting it for a long time, such as as Swedish chemist who predicted in 1896 that “doubling the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere would increase the global average temperature by 5 to 6 degrees C” (180). This helps to de-politicize, for me, the arguments for global warming.

  6. James says:

    I also have to say that I have heard little about scientists against Global Warming and agree with Matt that it is probably worth investigating.

  7. lrbinfrisco says:

    One thing that I have come across in my research on Anthropogenic Global Warming is that the empirical evidence of a global consensus of scientists is sorely lacking. To have a consensus, at a minimum, at least 50% of scientists would need to agree. In my research, I have found that the overwhelming majority of major media outlets that I have personally observed support AGW. I have found that the governing bodies of most of the best known scientific organizations haves endorced the IPCC version of AGW. But all this evidence compined is far from empirical proof that >50% of scientist concur with the IPCC report on AGW in all aspects. Now maybe most scients do concur with the IPCC report on AGW in all aspects, but I just haven’t seen compelling proof that this is the case.

    I think that there is a wide spectrum of belief on AGW that is held by the worlds scientists. The IPCC’s version is only a small slice of that spectrum. IMO the reason for such widely disparate belief is the inexactness of the science. We simple don’t have the precision nor accuracy in our historical record of measurements of the global climate to support predictions on future climate without a margin of error that is large enough to invalidate the IPCC claims. For example, global average temperature is based on a convaluted formula of taking representative measurements, where a single lsurface and based temperature may represent 100,000+ square miles of land mass, and the represent significantly larger areas. Multiple layers of computer modles are necessary to provide values for this formula. Add in the fact that until recently, few values were automated and depended heavily on lack of human error. And the list goes on.

    The climate of the planet earth is easily as complex as the study of cancer, and yet we’re a significant way from curing or explaining the precise cause of cancer. The proposed solution to AGW is like administering an untested treatment to a person that a computer model shows may soon show visible sign’s of catastrophic illness, but as of yet has not displayed any visible catastrophic illness. Certainly the person may die without the treatment, but then again they may die because of the treatement. If the treatment was removing 90% of carbon based products from their diet and replacing it with a to be developed replacement, I don’t see anyway that I’d agree to this. On the other hand if the treatment was a reasonable healthy diet using highly tested and proven dieting methods, it might be anohter story.

    There is too much room for error in our empirical measurements and too much reliance on unproven computer models to divert any significant version of our economy towards fighing AGW. This is a case of some scientists pretending that they have an understanding of the climate that simply isn’t justified. We need better and more empirical measurements and empirical replacements of the computer models before we can reasonably place our economy at serious risk. I’m all for having faith and believing in God without having complete empirical evidence that He exists. But I have no faith nor believe in the infalibility of human scientists. If they can’t offer 99.99%+ complete empirical evidence, I’m unwilling to place a significant bet.

  8. Matt says:

    Wow. I came back to quite a flood of comments after my weekend backpacking/canyoneering trip. I can’t really respond to all of this in detail, but I will make a few comments. First, Cheno I think you and I posted our comments almost simultaneously. I’m glad you enjoy the blog (it’s good to know someone other than family is reading it). I pretty much agree with your comments, and your interpretation of God’s mandate to man in Genesis. The main reason I’m trying to make the argument stronger, is to demonstrate that I think that specifically the global warming issue is on par with other life issues because it significantly effects human lives (on which the Bible puts a pretty strong emphasis). I’ll have to take a look at the BBC documentary.

    Regarding John’s comments, I think James was pretty much on the mark. There is a lot of confusion on scales in this scientific debate (both spatial and temporal scales). Models are relatively good at predicting weather on very short temporal scales (days), but we all know these predictions are imperfect. Mid-range time scales (a year or so) may be even more difficult to predict because of inherent variability and chaos in the system. However, the sorts of models that one would use to track global warming are applicable to much longer time scales. Current computing power doesn’t allow us to simultaneously simulate short-scale and long-scale processes. Similarly it is difficult at best to simulate global and small (e.g. single storm) scale phenomenon in the same simulation. Over these long scales much of the variability averages out. Thus false predictions for a single year have little to do with predictions for long-range changes. Furthermore, the mechanism for trapping of heat via greenhouse gases is very well understood (and has been known for at least ~100 years). Some of the feedback mechanisms are not as well understood, namely clouds. You are correct that water is an important greenhouse gas. However, it’s effect is complex. In vapor form it traps heat, in cloud form it reflects solar radiation and also traps heat. For example, a cloudy night is often warmer than a starry night because the clouds don’t allow the heat to radiate back into space. While not all of these mechanisms are well-understood, the general picture is essentially in place.

    In addition to the flood of comments, I returned home to the latest issues of “Physics Today” and “Eos” (newsletter for the American Geophysical Union) both of which contained feature articles on global warming. First, the “Physics Today” article provides a good example of reliability of models for predicting 20-50 year range changes in climate. This article compares a number of computer models which include differing mechanisms and uses these models to try to match snowfall and temperature data for the Western US. They find that models that include anthropogenic greenhouse effects are able to reproduce the data, whereas models which do not cannot reproduce the data. They predict significant drying and loss of water resources across the West. I also read the “Science” paper that this article was based on in order to get a better idea of what they actually did. Since most of you probably don’t have access to “Science” (unless you’re at a university) I’ll copy a couple of relevant sections here:

    “The observed signal falls outside the range expected from natural variability with high confidence (P < 0.01). In separate analyses for PCM and MIROC, the likelihood that the model signal arises from natural internal variability is between 0.01 and 0.001 (20). The different downscaling methods have little impact on these results. We conclude that natural internal climate variability alone cannot explain either the observed or simulated changes in SWE/P, JFM Tmin, and CT in response to anthropogenic forcing.

    PCM simulations forced solely by the combined impacts of observed solar variability and volcanic activity (Sol/Vol, Fig. 4) show a signal with sign opposite to that observed. We conclude that solar and volcanic forcing also fail to explain the observed hydrological changes.”

    They conclude with this paragraph:

    “Our results are not good news for those living in the western United States. The scenario for how western hydrology will continue to change has already been published using one of the models used here [PCM (2)] as well as in other recent studies of western U.S. hydrology [e.g., (15)]. It foretells water shortages, lack of storage capability to meet seasonally changing river flow, transfers of water from agriculture to urban uses, and other critical impacts. Because PCM performs so well in replicating the complex signals of the last half of the 20th century, we have every reason to believe its projections and to act on them in the immediate future.”

    The Physics Today article can be found here (I believe this is freely available):
    http://ptonline.aip.org/journals/doc/PHTOAD-ft/vol_61/iss_4/16_1.shtml

    The original paper can be found here (abstract freely available, probably available online through any university library):
    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/319/5866/1080

    The Eos article talks about observed rapid warming in the Indian Ocean.

    Finally, a brief reply to lrbinfrisco. As an active member of the physics and earth science communities I can say that by all appearances there is an overwhelming majority of these scientists that agree with AGW. I do not personally know any scientists (of any kind actually) that do not. They are out there, and they are doing their job as scientists to be skeptical and look for alternative explanations. Also many of them may be clinging to their previous theories and models which were first developed before global warming was a consensus. This certainly happens in science. For example, Fred Hoyle (a Nobel laureate) long held to his Steady-State model of the universe always coming up with increasingly complex and bizarre explanations for the data long after the Big Bang became a consensus model. As a side note, we must remember that science, by the nature of its method, cannot prove a theory or model to be true, it can only disprove a theory. Thus models gradually become more and more accepted as they pass more tests. This process directly results in scientists trying to challenge the status quo. That’s one reason it’s so amazing to be able to get 2,500 climate scientists to sign off on the IPCC study. I think that the controversy is overplayed by the press and popular science outlets. Controversy makes for interesting news. I sense much less controversy within the scientific community (except over the details of the theory).

    Secondly, I disagree with your assessment of the necessity of data versus computer simulation (perhaps it is my bias since I work with simulations). I agree that the data is incredibly important, but I don’t think the solution to the problem is to collect data for longer. On the contrary, in order to understand long-range climate fluctuations we much use modeling. Models must be calibrated to real data, (e.g. as in the paper mentioned above) but we cannot simply wait to see what happens. We have to place some trust in our knowledge of the physics and computational ability. It is one of our most powerful tools. Furthermore, there is a plethora of paleoclimate data which is being compiled at a rapid rate. Even though our detailed measurement systems have only been in place for ~50 years there is a lot of general data about ocean levels, rainfall, erosion rates, etc. for at least many thousands of years in the past.

    Sorry for the very long comment. I think the interest here warrants a future better look at the science behind this issue. I can’t promise to have time in the near future, as I really should be finishing my PhD dissertation instead of researching global warming. However, I can promise to spend some time down the line looking at the science (from the primary sources rather than news outlets).

  9. Don says:

    Are Irbinfrisco and Mick the same person? Their pictures look an awful lot alike.

  10. Matt says:

    In fact, their pictures look a lot like yours too, maybe you’re all the same person!

    John, I forgot to say that I am interested in seeing Expelled. Maybe I’ll have to post about it after I’ve seen it.

  11. John says:

    Matt, it would take me forever to research all that’s out there on global warming. I suppose I see it from a legal mind viewpoint while you see if from a science/research viewpoint. When Al Gore says that people who don’t believe in global warming are the “same people who think the moon landing was staged . . . and still believe the Earth is flat” that’s very irritating. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSh1WuN_dnc. I will continue to shoot your way all of the articles I come across that I find interesting. I’m sure they won’t be published scientific papers, but I hope you will find them worthwhile reading.

  12. Matt says:

    Sure John. I agree that Gore’s treatment of global warming is way over-politicized. After all, he’s a politician with a definite agenda. I’ve enjoyed the articles you’ve sent so far, and typically the names or links allow me to trace down the scientific articles on which they are based.

  13. John says:

    Matt, check this out about “Expelled.” I’m looking forward to you (or James) doing a really awesome post about it.

    http://www.citizenlink.org/CLBriefs/A000007149.cfm

  14. John says:

    Matt, sorry for the multiple postings. . . I wanted you to know that I subscribe to a listserv of Arkansas school science teachers and they sent me a link to this site about “Expelled.” It’s kind of funny. They are all excited about the ‘damage to science’ this film is going to cause.

    http://www.expelledexposed.com/

  15. Matt says:

    Ironically, as you were writing these posts, I was buying a ticket online to go see the movie tomorrow afternoon. I’ll try to write a post on my take on the movie tomorrow (or shortly thereafter).

  16. John says:

    A recent global warming article (opinion):

    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,353844,00.html

  17. Matt says:

    John, thanks for the link. I looked at the Nature article and am somewhat baffled by the Fox story. The Nature “News and views” article that I presume he was referring to (and he strangely doesn’t link to even though it’s freely available) essentially explains that scientists have been developing more accurate climate models that appear to have more predictive power.

    http://www.nature.com/climate/2008/0805/full/453043a.html

    Somehow Milloy takes this as an opportunity to get up on a soapbox and spout politically on what appears to be a pet peeve. I think this is a good illustration of the fact that both sides of this debate are politicized. However, I did find another link in his article to an interesting Youtube video. This video appeared to have clips from both “An Inconvenient Truth” and what I suspect to be the BBC documentary that Cheno refers to above (and which I haven’t yet had a chance to watch). In the clips, Al Gore clearly makes a fallacious scientific argument (evidence of more politicization), and a number of climate scientists are shown making various statements about lack of evidence for anthropogenic warming. Ironically, I personally met one of these scientists (Nir Shaviv) during my stay at Hebrew University a couple of years ago. Nir is a respected astrophysicist and has apparently gotten interested in correlations between cosmic rays and climate. He also has an interesting webpage discussing climate change (http://www.sciencebits.com/CO2orSolar). This will certainly be something I’ll look at more carefully in my future promised posts on the science behind climate change.

  18. Strahler says:

    Strahler…

    […]Global Warming is a Life Issue « Consanguinity[…]…

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