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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dopderbeck - #12675

May 7th 2010

Great post.  I agree that the basic science overwhelmingly indicates that CO2 emissions affect climate.  I also agree that this is a serious problem, though I’m skeptical of extreme alarmism.  And, I think there are a bunch of really unfortunate sociological factors that can make some Christians hostile to climate science.

However—scientists should be careful about statements like this:  “Undoubtedly, top-down mitigation strategies are necessary,”.  This is really something people like me—lawyers, economists, policy makers—should weigh in on, no?  Personally, I favor a modest Pigouvian carbon tax, which I view as a mixed “top-down / bottom-up” strategy.  Pigouvian taxes are designed to tweak market forces and IMHO can work better in circumstances like this than hard caps.


Dunemeister - #12684

May 7th 2010

Politics and science can be divorced only theoretically. As a practical matter, they are intertwined. There’s no use arguing otherwise. Much better to own up to it and devise strategies to maintain as much integrity in science as possible in the face of the political agendas that determine what science does and what it might mean.


pds - #12686

May 7th 2010

“Much more common is the phrase ‘So much for global warming!’”

“Interestingly, I find this sort of cynicism about climate change especially prevalent among Christians.”

First of all, I think it is unfair to call this kind of a comment “cynicism.”  It could reflect healthy skepticism about alarmism combined with good humor.  Labeling people “cynics” is not helpful.

I don’t find Christians more cynical than the rest of the population.  Do you have data to support this?  Again, we need to distinguish between cynicism and healthy skepticism.  The Christians I know are willing to sacrifice for the environment.  They teach their children not to litter.  They love nature and want to protect it.  They want to be good citizens in every way, including caring for nature.

Environmentalism functions as a religion and an idol for many people.  I suspect that this is less likely among Christians, who hopefully put God first.

As to the personal response and lives of simplicity, I agree.  Were you addressing this towards Christians like Al Gore and his new mansion?  His bathroom is as big as my first apartment.


gingoro - #12729

May 7th 2010

I hope that the work Truitt is doing and other like him will eventually lead to the replacement of effects that are today accounted for in the models by parameterization .  Replacing effects represented by parameterization by differential equations that represent actual science is much to be preferred.  I agree with Truitt that we need to leave as small a footprint as possible and significantly reduce the amount of CO2 and other compounds that we release into the atmosphere.  On a continuing basis I attempt to reduce our energy consumption as much as possible.  For example I had converted almost all of our lighting to fluorescent ten years ago.  Now I have our first LED light which will never pay back its cost with savings on our electricity bill but IMO it is the right thing to do. 

I recognize that CO2 is a green house gas just like methane and water vapor are but I have considerable scientific concerns about the current majority scientific position.

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. 
Dave W


gingoro - #12745

May 7th 2010

At one time I thought that there was about a 60% percent chance that the global warming advocates were correct in their projections.  My university background is electrical engineering and applied math.  As well as some background in statistics I also had two undergrad courses in numerical methods and one grad course, as well I have spent my career in software from applications to operating systems to compilers and interpreters and picked up considerable software engineering skills in the process.  In addition I did spend a year or two doing statistical analysis and modeling of physical systems. 

Some concerns that bother me about the models are:
-do the model programmers have access to good phd level numerical analysts who can do things like error propagation analysis, know such facts as that floating point arithmetic is not associative, ie A + (B+C) is not necessarily equal to (A+B) + C for a whole range of values and a lot of other numerical issues.


gingoro - #12746

May 7th 2010

contd
-how are these models debugged?  I assume by matching historical weather decadal averages etc.  But given the parameterization it seems likely they can just adjust things to fit (curve fitting).  Such a procedure can easily hide fundamental bugs in the codes.  Curve fitting is fine for interpolation but projection which is essential becomes very problematical.  Do they run good regression tests after each modification to the program?  My compiler group ran hundreds of thousands of test cases each night in an attempt to ship bug free products but each release had some valid bugs which we turned into new test cases that were added to the test bucket.
-AFAIK Mandelbrot of fractal and chaotic system fame,  thought that climate calculations are chaotic like weather is.


gingoro - #12747

May 7th 2010

contd
-Freeman Dyson a world famous physicist in the USofA doubted the predictions from the models
-Are good Software Engineering practices like control and versioning of source code followed
-The slowness of modern computers makes executing validation runs into a very time consuming expensive process.  Running one itteration of a model took about nine months on my PC.  Assume that initial debugging occurs on a high end Power 7 workstation my estimate is that a single run would take between 1 and 3 days.  Having programmed in an environment where one got one test run a day I know that typically one does not actually do all the testing that one would like and should do.

Just to forestall a comment, I realize that Linpak which is a standard software package that is used heavily in climate models gets good validation applied to it.  Assume same for the Linpak versions that run in parallel on super computers


gingoro - #12749

May 7th 2010

contd
I also spend quite a bit of time looking at raw terrestrial weather data and as best I could see there were lots of problems like urban heat island effects, moving or shutting down stations.  Other bloggers with technical expertise exposed similar problems.  Too many of the climate scientists became advocates of global warming and joined forces with political figures who wanted to use the results to gain control of other peoples lives. 

Having said all that I still think we need to reduce our footprint on this earth especially considering that there are many billions of us.  I also have concerns that we may aggravate the natural warming and cooling cycles of the earth.  The globe trotting antics of AGW boosters like David Suziki or Al Gore tends to make one doubt all such environmentalists who as best I can tell are saying do as I say not as I do. 

If possible I will try to stay out of this discussion as it tends to produce extreme animosity between Christians.
Dave W


twiensz - #12765

May 7th 2010

dopderbeck:
Fair clarification on the nature of a carbon tax as a mixed top-down/bottom-up strategy. Absolutely the parties you mention must weigh in.

gingoro (12749) and pds (12686):
You mention the lifestyles of some key public voices of AGW. No doubt they’re not helping their cause if they do not follow through on what they know. 

gingoro 12745-6:
My focus in this post was stewardship on an individual level, and from what you say of yourself, this may be preaching to the converted.
Discussing the details of GCMs in this thread may be a bit distracting from the main thrust, but a few follow-ups to your thoughts:
-I do not develop GCMs. My own group develops software that deals with observations, not projections.  We use version control, and consideration of error analysis and propagation is an essential part of what we do. 
-Parameterization and curve-fitting in GCMs (i.e. for cloud microphysics) are the best available options.  Cloud-resolving models are improving, but it remains a challenge. If you want to discuss this further off-line, please let me know.
(cont)


twiensz - #12766

May 7th 2010

(cont)
You raise the problem of advocacy - this does seem to be something that’s raised flags for a number of people in this matter.
The danger I see, which is part of a larger problem (well illustrated here), is that - when the intricacies of the fine points of something this explosive is discussed - for a majority of people, this becomes reason to forget about the well-established parts.  Throw in the media, and it can become almost a PR battle.


Bilbo - #12796

May 7th 2010

As a baby-boomer, I grew up thinking that we needed clean air technology and energy conservation, not because of global warming, but just to protect the environment from pollution.  So even if AGW is 100% wrong, developing alternative, renewable energy still seems like a good idea.


Hornspiel - #12802

May 7th 2010

Ditto Bilbo

dopderbeck - #12675 Yes the scientists must identify the problem(s) and some possible solutions.
solutions.
Choosing and implementing solutions is another matter. (However I would listen carefully what scientists say.)


Jeffrey L Vaughn - #12809

May 7th 2010

Mr. Weinsz,

Could you please comment on this article?

http://www.oism.org/pproject/s33p36.htm

It looks to me to be loaded with empirically based reasons for far more than mere healthy skepticism.

Also, the Keeling curve covers a bit more than 40 years.  It can’t demonstrate a dramatic rise in CO2 levels over the last 250 years.

Blessings.


katz - #12813

May 7th 2010

I think the underlying problem here (as I mentioned on my ) is that, in this area, for some reason, the opinion of a layperson who’s done a little reading on the topic—or even, heaven forbid, a layperson who just went outside and noticed it was cold—is regarded as equally valid with the opinion of an expert on the topic.  When random people and people who know a great deal about a field disagree, the people who have actually studied it should win every time.

When it comes to policy choices, everyone should have a say because “What should we do?” is not a statement of fact and one person or group of people does not have an inherently more valid opinion about it than everyone else.  But when it comes to facts, you have to trust the experts.


katz - #12814

May 7th 2010

Hyperlinks…are apparently not enabled on this blog.  Alas.


beaglelady - #12825

May 7th 2010

Hyperlinks…are apparently not enabled on this blog.  Alas.

Yes they are enabled; your syntax is bad.


Jeffrey L Vaughn - #12832

May 7th 2010

Katz,

The paper I linked is well documented.

I have a PhD and have been working in atmospheric physics for 26 years.  Though not directly involved in the science of the global warming debate, I am also not a layperson.  Measuring atmospheric turbulence along an optical path is an indirect by extremely precise measure of temperature variations.

Weinsz demonstrated his bias on the issue.  The “hole in the ozone layer” was not caused by CFC’s, but by lack of sunlight and nitrates freezing out of the atmosphere, both exacerbated by the stage of the sunspot cycle.

Weinsz suggests doing the experiment on another planet.  Why not Mars?  How is AGW causing the Martian ice caps to shrink?  How has AGW caused the surface nitrogen ice temperatures to increase about 2 Kelvins on Pluto?  Temperatures have also been increasing on Triton and Jupiter.  This has been known for 3 years now.  We also know that total solar irradiance has increased over the years.  Yet total solar irradiance is considered constant.

There are a lot of reasons for a practicing atmospheric physicist to be highly skeptical.


Jeffrey L Vaughn - #12833

May 7th 2010

There are also a lot of reasons for a layperson to be skeptical.

The AGW people are claiming the average global temperature will be 1 K higher 100 years from now and it will have catastrophic effects.  Yet we can’t predict tomorrows temperature to within 1 K.

The average temperature was 2 or 3 K higher 1000 years ago, AGW had nothing to do with it, no one produces the damage it caused, and it is actually removed from the plots.  http://media.nowpublic.net/images//bb/9/bb9b81321b035789c3cec3ad6db6ced8.jpg  Greenland exported sheep to Iceland during those centuries.

People in power are using this as an excuse to get more power.  (Yeah, maybe that’s cynical rather than skeptical.  But maybe it’s also reality.)


Jeffrey L Vaughn - #12835

May 7th 2010

Beagle Lady,

I tried hyperlinks a few months ago and they didn’t work.  I’ll try one now and test it.

Environmental Effects of Increased Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

Where’s the Medieval Climate Optimum?


Jeffrey L Vaughn - #12837

May 7th 2010

Beagle Lady,

That didn’t work.  What was wrong with my syntax?

{a href=http://www.oism.org/pproject/s33p36.htm}Environmental Effects of Increased Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide{/a}

{a href=http://media.nowpublic.net/images//bb/9/bb9b81321b035789c3cec3ad6db6ced8.jpg}Where’s the Medieval Climate Optimum?{/a}

I replaced the >< with }{

Help?


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