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Stewards of God’s (Changing?) World

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May 7, 2010 Tags: Science as Christian Calling

Today's entry was written by Truitt Wiensz. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Stewards of God’s (Changing?) World

A couple of months ago, I wore shorts as I biked to my office through the icy streets – not so common in mid-January in the middle of the Canadian prairies. Much more common is the phrase ‘So much for global warming!’, especially in the middle of weeks-long cold snaps when daytime temperatures don’t rise above -25 degrees Celsius (-13 F) and the nights are below -40 C. Obviously, the frigid temperatures shouldn’t come as a surprise. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan is in a high-latitude continental climate. Most winters are lived within an Arctic air mass, and we forget that many places on the planet are, at the moment, experiencing balmy temperatures.

Interestingly, I find this sort of cynicism about climate change especially prevalent among Christians. Why is this? I am reminded of what N.T. Wright spoke about here of a common tendency to group controversial issues under a guiding political umbrella. I definitely see this among many of my Christian friends on highly politicized topics, and climate change is no exception.

Some History

There is strong evidence that we have seriously changed the composition of a few chemical species in our planet’s atmosphere. The formation of the ‘hole’ in the ozone layer over Antarctica from the use of CFC refrigerants is one dramatic illustration.

As evident as this human impact on the atmosphere is, it is encouraging that – as a result of the 1989 Montreal protocol that enacted the phasing out of CFCs – there have been definite slowdowns both in the growth of the ozone hole and in global ozone depletion. This has given hope for recovery in the next 30 years as the depleting chemicals are cycled out of the atmosphere.

Warming and Cooling

Now fast-forward some twenty years. Just as there is evidence that we have affected the global distribution of ozone through injecting CFCs, there is equally convincing evidence that we are putting an ever-increasing amount of CO2 into the atmosphere. There is no doubt that we have fossil-fuel hungry, CO2-emitting lifestyles. The now-famous ‘Keeling curve’ illustrates the dramatic rise in atmospheric CO2 that is directly attributable to our burning of coal and fossil fuels in the past 250 years. From studies of past climates, there is no doubt that we are living in a period where atmospheric CO2 concentrations are as high as they have ever been. There is also no doubt that CO2 absorbs and re-emits back to the Earth a fraction of the infrared radiation that the Earth continually emits to ‘cool’ itself, the so-called ‘greenhouse effect’.

There are opposing factors that can mask this warming, such as sulfates in the stratosphere that produce an opposite, ‘cooling’ effect in the wake of strong volcanoes such as El Chichon (1983) and Mount Pinatubo (1991). In these two cases, the particles injected into the atmosphere by these eruptions were largely cycled out of the atmosphere a decade after eruption. The baseline story remains unchanged, that increased atmospheric CO2 means increased warming.

So what’s the issue? Why isn’t it clear that this is a problem and that we need to do something about it?

Murky Waters

Part of what muddies the waters is the simple fact that earth’s climate is a complex system, to put it mildly. Without being able to run experiments on another planet, we rely on computer models. The massive atmosphere-ocean global climate models (GCMs) that are used to predict future climate can accurately capture long-term, global-scale phenomena such as El Nino reasonably well. The largest source of uncertainty in these models is the presence of many feedback cycles within the climate system. These intrinsic, unforced variabilities are seen in several elements of the climate system. To name a few, there are feedbacks in the light-absorbing characteristics of clouds and water vapor in the atmosphere, in the reflection of sunlight by ice cover, and from changes in land-surface sunlight reflectivity from changes in the land usage (i.e. forest becoming cropland).

Consider ice cover as an example. The area over the North Pole is covered by ocean, with a fraction of that area covered by ice. Ice reflects the majority of incident sunlight back to space, whereas water reflects back a much smaller fraction. Much of the remaining energy goes into warming up the water. Consider what happens when the amount of ice covering the northern seas slowly melts (as it is doing) from warmer air and/or ocean temperatures. Less ice to reflect sunlight back to space means more light strikes water, so the water slightly warms, so more ice melts, so there’s less ice to reflect sunlight back to space, … and so on. This is positive feedback: a change in the system leads to furthering that change.

Negative feedbacks also occur, where an affected component of the system will act to counteract the cause: negative feedbacks are a self-stabilizing process. My work focuses on studying high-altitude ice clouds. In the study of these clouds and their effects on climate, there are numerous interacting feedbacks, where even the nature (positive or negative) of the feedback itself is not clearly known. These are matters of intense current debate – the question of whether certain aspects of climate will stabilize or destabilize.

The highly political nature of the subject equally muddies the waters of climate change science. The complexity of the topic can rarely be sufficiently dealt with on a pedestrian level without great simplification. When it has become so politicized in the public mind, the facts are especially difficult to find – assuming that the facts are indeed sought. Neutrality is elusive. Our vested interests in this matter, in my mind, form a continuum. For most readers of these words, top-down implementation of mitigation strategies mean sacrifices and changes to our lifestyles. For those whose resources and dwellings could be threatened by a warming world, it’s not so much inconvenience as survival. It’s practically impossible not to have a vested interest. As one species – though not with equal contributions – we are having an unmistakable impact on factors that, to the best of our knowledge, regulate our planet’s climate. When will we know the full impact? Only time – twenty or fifty years’ worth – will tell.

Responding

What’s an appropriate response? Undoubtedly, top-down mitigation strategies are necessary, but are they enough? I believe that my daily choices and actions can have a definite effect on the world around me, and as a Christian, I believe that I will be held responsible. It’s clear to me that part of having been made in God’s image means that we act as responsible stewards of creation. What does that translate to in this context? One aspect is that we each live in the most responsible way with the available resources to ensure that others can also live to have the same opportunities. We are each responsible for the knowledge that we have. I believe there is a light we can show here as Christians. We have a call to simplicity of life that – though it is not the gospel – does resonate deeply with the words of Jesus, and that dovetails into these questions. How can we do a small part within our own sphere? By standing apart from the materialistic culture that convinces us that purchasing is the solution to every problem – from personal to mechanical to ecological.

I am the first to admit my need to re-organize my daily activities to minimize my ‘footprint’. As a typical North American, I use vastly more resources than the vast majority of people on earth. If everyone on earth lived the way I do, we would need 5-10 Earths to provide the necessary resources.

It seems that in any matter as complex as this, one’s clarity seems to be inversely related to the distance from it. But assuming that earth will take care of itself seems somewhat analogous to merging into traffic with eyes closed, believing that others will surely make way for me.


Truitt Wiensz is currently a PhD candidate in atmospheric physics at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, where he also teaches undergraduate physics on a part-time basis. His thesis work involves modeling the scattering of sunlight from ice crystals to infer the properties of cirrus clouds from satellite observations. He is also involved in teaching at his church.


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Chris Massey - #12840

May 7th 2010

Jeffrey,

Your various arguments remind me very much of the sort of “evidence” that young earth creationists trot out to “disprove” evolution.

In 2009 Eos published the results of a poll of climatologists. To the question, “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?” 97.4% of “those who listed climate science as their area of expertise and who also have published more than 50% of
their recent peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change” answered “Yes”.

That’s a remarkably high degree of consensus among those with the appropriate expertise. I agree with Katz - deference to the consensus view is entirely appropriate.


Jeffrey L Vaughn - #12845

May 7th 2010

Chris,

And with the scandal that has occurred since?


katz - #12853

May 7th 2010

Vaughn—

FYI, I composed my message before I saw your post.  It wasn’t a jab at you and/or your qualifications.


Chris Massey - #12879

May 8th 2010

Jeffrey,

I don’t want to get too sidetracked from the topic of this article, but if by “scandal” you’re referring to the hacked e-mails, the contents have been explained many times. The e-mails reflect the frustration of some climate scientists at seeing bad science getting published in peer-reviewed journals. But they do nothing to undercut the legitimacy of the science or the consensus.

There are some close analogies between the way ID theorists bemoan their access to peer-reviewed journals (eg. Expelled the movie) and the way climate denialists protest that they are being shut out. The reality is that both are getting a rough ride because they represent a fringe viewpoint usually lacking in scientific rigour.

I’ve found the following blog useful: http://www.realclimate.org/
It’s run by climate scientists.


twiensz - #12882

May 8th 2010

Jeffery Vaughn,

I’m currently on the road visiting family, so won’t have a chance to review the linked article for a day or two. 
You mention my bias on this issue, according to an apparent misunderstanding that CFCs are a key driver in ozone depletion.  If you can point me to a reputable article that states that ozone is not catalytically destroyed by photolysis-generated Cl radicals in the presence of PSCs when the sun begins coming back in the austral spring, I’ll definitely check it out. 
Hyperlinks were working for me earlier today ... let’s try it out:

BBC news


Jeffrey Vaughn - #12885

May 8th 2010

TWiensz,

The issue is not whether it is possible for CFCs to do what is claimed.  The issue is whether there is any evidence that it did.

The “ozone layer” was discovered as part of the efforts of the International Geophysical Year 1958.  The winter “hole” over Antarctica was observed that same year, long before CFCs were in common use.

Can you point us to a reputable article that demonstrates that CFCs were the actual cause of the “hole?”  Or that the “hole” has declined in size since the elimination of CFCs?

The only studies I’ve seen (which are now 20+ years old) that attempted to capture Cl in the Antarctic strastosphere found no CFCs nor any of the other byproducts of CFC photolysis.  Volcanos produce tremendous amounts of Cl and force much of it directly into the stratosphere.  It is only the presence of these byproducts or of CFCs that would suggest that actual damage could be done by CFCs.  Barring that, there is no evidence that CFCs are actually the culprit.

A theory on how something might happen is of no value without empirical evidence.  That the only damage to the ozone layer happens in the same place it happened in 1958, is suspicious.


twiensz - #12896

May 8th 2010

Jeffrey Vaughn,

The stratospheric ‘ozone layer’ was well-known long before IGY in 1958 - at that point, Dobson had been using his photometer for nearly 30 years to measure ozone. This article in Science discredits the apparent discovery of the hole in 1958 as a result of instrument error. 

I’m not sure how much use there is in continuing this particular dialogue in this thread.  I see you’re quite convinced of your views, which are, from what I’ve seen, quite standard detractor positions from the mainstream consensus on ozone science. 

I respect you in that you do not want to simply follow the mainstream opinion on this matter.  If you were or are able to convince me that there is significant merit in these positions from your own measurements and study, I will give them serious consideration.


astudent - #12907

May 8th 2010

In response to #12729, “To my mind it would have been much wiser for Biologos to stay out of this topic and concentrate on issues related to evolution and life. “
  It has been my belief for some time that these two issues, climate science and evolutionary science, are related in that many Christians respond to them in similar ways.  It that sense, Biologos should further explore the Christian response to climate science, as it will be helpful in understanding the Christian response to evolutionary science.


beaglelady - #12938

May 9th 2010

To Jeffrey L Vaughn:

Please see this page for information on creating HTML links.


beaglelady - #12939

May 9th 2010

There are some close analogies between the way ID theorists bemoan their access to peer-reviewed journals (eg. Expelled the movie) and the way climate denialists protest that they are being shut out. The reality is that both are getting a rough ride because they represent a fringe viewpoint usually lacking in scientific rigour.

Precisely!  And so they play the victim card.


merv - #12955

May 9th 2010

regarding 12907 from astudent:

The relationship between Christian response to evolutionary science and to climate change has a large irony in it too.  Evolutionary science takes the very title of this blog:  ...God’s (changing?) world; and removes the question mark from “changing”.  Christians who want to minimize the human role in climate change are all over that as it is an easy card to play; after all, “the world is changing anyway!”.  And scientists who want to sound the alarm have to switch gears from evolutionary thinking into a mode of preservation of some more or less pristine state that we are falling away from.  So the very Christians who raise the biggest ruckus about evolutionary philosophy may ironically be many of the same ones finding it convenient to use.

—Merv


merv - #12957

May 9th 2010

Lest my last post be interpreted to mean that I am anti-environmentalist, let me just follow it up with this:  Should it be shown tomorrow that we were entering some new ice age (little chance of that!) and scientists conclude that our recommended course of action be to frantically consume as many fossil fuels as possible, I would still scoff at the notion; don my bicycle helmet, and leave the car where it belongs (parked at home).  I am an environmentalist not because any science says I should be, but because it is the right thing for citizens of wealthy nations to do.  And I maintain that Christians who make a careful study of Scriptures will reach the same conclusion.

—Merv
p.s.  my advocacy of bicycling is tainted by hypocrisy in that too often it is the bike parked at home, and the car on the road.  I try to maintain enough sense to idealize the former and feel appropriate shame over the latter form of transport.  This helps motivate in positive ways.


Ronald - #13250

May 11th 2010

The UN says lies, they find themselves beyond good and evil, even over God, however is an organization that tries to manipulate governments on the pretext of maintaining peace. The UN only defends the capitalist interests, is an organization that preaches sustainability but does not keeps stand alone, preaches human rights but when convicted in courts around the world claims immunity to avoid paying workers’ rights. The UN is a dinosaur park in which input costs billions to the participating countries, bloated forgeth with the power ground that is transitory. The UN reports stinks! I don’t believe in anything that comes from the UN!


Martin LaBar - #14001

May 18th 2010

Unfortunately, one reason, probably the most important one, that many Christians doubt the reality of climate change is that they get their scientific and political information from Fox News.


Headless Unicorn Guy - #15652

May 30th 2010

Lest my last post be interpreted to mean that I am anti-environmentalist, let me just follow it up with this:  Should it be shown tomorrow that we were entering some new ice age (little chance of that!) and scientists conclude that our recommended course of action be to frantically consume as many fossil fuels as possible…—merv - #12957

“Entering some new ice age” as in the Global Cooling scare of the Seventies?

(“One Spring, the Winter’s Snow Will Not Melt.  That Is How IT WILL BEGIN!”—end line of a TV Special Documentary on Global Cooling from that era.  Very solemn and ominous, with reverb mixed into the voice-over.  Accompanying end credit visual was a globe slowly being covered completely with falling snow.)


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