On one of my final posts on my blog, TH in SoC, I promised to write a post on global warming. This subject is one which I am somewhat reluctant and ashamed to tackle. You see, when I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior many years ago, He never forced me to have a prefrontal lobotomy or give up the use of my critical thinking skills as part of the bargain. This meant that I was free as a Christian to notice the events, trends and phenomena in the world around me, and to draw reasonable conclusions from them.
However, I noticed many years later the hijacking of the Faith to serve the ends of earthly economic and political power elites. One major way they accomplished this hijacking was by distorting Biblical Christianity so that it was turned into a justification for the actions of the elites. Thus there were such things as “Christian patriotism” as manifested in both England and the United States; the idea that certain nations were “Christian nations” because of their laws or constitutions; the notion that it was the right or duty of these so-called “Christian nations” to conquer and exploit all other nations and peoples on earth; the idea that God's only chosen economic system is laissez-faire capitalism and that all other economic arrangements are from the Devil; and the idea that it was the duty of Christians everywhere to support the elites (governments and corporations) in their actions and their wars, since it was by this that the world was becoming “safe for democracy and prosperity,” and the elites were ridding the world of people who “hate our freedoms and our faith!”
Those who teach such things say that it is the duty of Christians to unquestioningly believe all of these things, and to unquestioningly reject all other points of view, regardless of the evidence. Any notion or idea or teaching or observation which indicts the practices of Western elites is also to be dutifully rejected as well. Thus there are many parts of the Bible which are de-emphasized or glossed over or explained away by teachers of this point of view, people who are well-known as leaders in the American Religious Right. But the Bible has many things to say about the actions of the members of the Western elite class, and much of what it says is not good news for them. (In fact, they may want to take out fire insurance against the day of judgment.)
There is also strong evidence of the harm caused by the practices of these elites – evidence which proves the rightness of the Biblical condemnation of these elites. And just as the spokesmen for these elites have sought to gloss over the Biblical condemnation of their practices, they have sought to gloss over the evidence of the harm caused by their practices. Some of them, such as James Dobson and Tony Perkins, have gone to the extreme of saying that it is our Christian duty not to believe that harm is being done by these elites. The events of my personal life over the last several years have caused my eyes to be opened to the games being played in our society by economic, political and religious elites, and therefore I can see quite clearly the fallacies of those who have hijacked my faith. But I have noticed over the last several months that there are people who call themselves evangelicals and Christians who are still unquestioningly accepting the teaching which I have described above.
One example is a high school kid on my street who asked me if I believe in global warming (it was during an unusually hot day in the Pacific Northwest). When I asked him what he thought about it, he said, “Well, I'm religious – and that's why I don't believe in global warming. My pastor told us that man can't destroy the earth – only God can...” While I was outwardly polite and patient in listening to this kid, inwardly I was very angry. Why? Because it is the unquestioning promotion and acceptance of teachings such as this in the face of overwhelmingly contradictory evidence that makes Christianity look like the faith of village idiots. This is not the Christianity of the Bible, nor is it the Faith of such intelligent men as Dr. Paul Brand, C.S. Lewis, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Therefore I write now to set the record straight on at least one subject – global warming, also known as climate change – even though it is a shame to have to do so. (By the way, I like the kid I was talking to. I think he's a good kid, and bright. He's just a bit misinformed.)
Theological Arguments against Global Warming (and a Biblical rebuttal)
First, let's tackle the theological arguments against global warming. This section will be relatively short, because the job will be easy. (For those of you readers who are not Christians, I say welcome to my blog. I appreciate your readership. You may find this part to be informative, but if not, feel free to skip ahead to the scientific case for global warming.)
Spokespersons for the Religious Right use theological arguments to try to debunk global warming. Their arguments usually run thus: “People who believe in global warming say that it will cause polar ice caps to melt and flood the earth. But that can't happen, because God promised in Genesis 8:22 that He will never destroy the world by a flood again.” Or, as my teen-aged acquaintance said and as agencies like the Institute for Creation Research say, “Man can't destroy the earth; only God can.” Or if one wants to go to extremes, there is the late Jerry Falwell's statement that global warming is “Satan's attempt to redirect the church's primary focus from evangelism to environmentalism,” and that “the Bible teaches that God will maintain the earth until Christ's second coming.” (Source: “Falwell to Arms: Christians Being Duped By Global Warming,” Treehugger, 27 February 2007, http://www.treehugger.com/files/2007/02/falwell_to_arms.php)
But the issue with anthropogenic global warming is that it is not about what God is doing to the earth. It's about what man is doing to the earth. Thus the first argument against global warming is a logical fallacy. It makes as much sense as saying that “God has promised in Psalm 121 to keep me from all evil. Therefore I can't be hurt if I play on the freeway!” The fact is that there is nowhere in the Bible that says that humankind cannot make a mess – even a mess of Biblical proportions. The Bible repeatedly states how the moral defilement of a people can pollute a land, and it also prohibits physical practices that can ruin a land. For instance, see what the Bible had to say about letting land lie fallow during sabbath years, and how Israelites were not to destroy all the trees of a land in which was a city being besieged by Israel. (It's in Deuteronomy.) Actually, the Old Testament has a fair amount to say about environmental stewardship.
The fact that humans can certainly make big messes is stated in Revelation 11:16-18, speaking of the Lord's final judgments at the end of this age. The passage reads, “The twenty-four elders, who sit on their thrones before God's throne, fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying: 'We give You thanks, Lord God, the Almighty, the One who is and who was, because You have taken Your great power and reigned. The nations were angry, and Your wrath came, as did the time for the dead to be judged, and to give Your bondservants the prophets their reward, as well as to the saints, and those who fear your name, to the small and the great; and to destroy those who destroy the earth.'” (Emphasis added.) Here we see the clear Biblical acknowledgment of the harm mankind can do to the earth, as well as the promise of God's judgment on those who deliberately do that harm.
When faced with such a rebuttal, the only thing the Religious Right can do is to somehow argue that modern industrial society – especially modern Western industrial society – is not destroying the earth. Their spokesmen claim that the anthropogenic nature of global warming is just a theory, and that no one can prove that industrially-produced CO2 emissions have anything to do with recent weather and climate shifts. I shall therefore talk about the scientific case for global warming. (By the way, regarding Jerry Falwell's statement, I can only say that he has made many such statements over the years. It's a funny coincidence how any position of conscience which threatens the richest members of our society must be “from Satan.” I wonder what Falwell thought of James 5:1-6, or what he thinks of it now.)
Global Warming – The Scientific Evidence (A very simple explanation)
The warming of objects – whether food, houses or planetary atmospheres – involves the transfer of energy. Heat energy is transmitted from one object to another by one of three processes: radiation, convection or conduction. When those objects are separated from one another by a large distance and both objects are in a vacuum, the only means of heat transfer is by radiation. Consider two such objects: the Sun and the earth.
The Sun is a yellow dwarf star (spectral class G2 V). The earth's surface receives most of its energy from the Sun in the form of visible light. Most of that energy is not absorbed by the atmosphere, since it is transparent to visible light, although clouds do reflect light back into space. (Other spectral components such as ultraviolet light are absorbed by ozone high in the stratosphere.) Once visible light strikes the earth's surface, it is absorbed to varying degrees by the earth's surface, causing the surface to heat and emit infrared radiation.
The major components of the earth's atmosphere are transparent to infrared radiation. But certain gases absorb infrared light. These are gases such as methane, water vapor and carbon dioxide. As these gases absorb infrared light, they become hot (increased molecular energy) and re-radiate that infrared light in all directions, in addition to transferring heat to the rest of the atmosphere by conduction and convection. This raises the temperature of the earth's surface and of the surrounding atmosphere. If there were no greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the average surface temperature of the earth would be -0.4 degrees F (or -18 degrees C).
The earth's temperature is maintained by a balance between the energy absorbed by the earth-atmosphere system and the infrared energy re-radiated by the atmosphere into outer space. As the atmosphere is heated by greenhouse gases, its upper layers are heated by convection, and it is these layers which radiate infrared light back into space. As the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increases, the zone of re-radiation moves higher in the atmosphere, because more heat is trapped and absorbed by the lower layers of the atmosphere. In addition, the earth's surface temperature increases, until an equilibrium state is once again reached where the heat gain from incoming solar radiation is balanced by the heat loss through re-radiation.
For the last 800,000 years, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have varied from 180 parts per million (ppm) to 270 ppm just prior to the Industrial Revolution. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, activities such as the burning of wood, coal and oil, the deforestation of land and the making of cement resulted in the liberation of large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Much of this CO2 was absorbed by the oceans, and much of it was turned into plant matter by photosynthesis, liberating oxygen in the process. However, as the Industrial Revolution quickened its pace and the burning of fossil fuels increased exponentially, the increase in atmospheric CO2 began to outpace the rate at which natural ecosystems could dispose of it. Thus atmospheric CO2 levels increased from about 313 ppm in 1960 to over 385 ppm today.
The effect of varying the amount of greenhouse gases in a planetary atmosphere can be modeled crudely by multivariable calculations involving multiple integrations and spherical coordinates. The math is relatively simple for those who know calculus, though it is somewhat involved. The effect of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions was first postulated by Svante August Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist, in 1896. Though his calculations were shown later to require refinement in order to match observed phenomena, his original conclusions were remarkably close to what is now being observed by climate scientists. The observed average temperature of the earth rose by 0.75 degrees C between 1860 and 1900, and temperatures in the lower atmosphere have increased by between 0.12 and 0.22 degrees C per decade since 1979, according to satellite temperature measurements. 1998 and 2005 were two of the warmest years on record, worldwide, according to NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. According to the NASA GISS, the 14 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1990.
Effects of Global Warming
This is a complex subject; however, the effects of global warming are real and are already being felt, from the increasing size and severity of wildfires in the forested regions of the United States and other countries, to the increasing length and severity of heat waves experienced in populated areas. Other effects include increases in severity and number of storms, shifts in migratory patterns of birds and other animals, loss of plant and animal habitats, shifts in crop growing seasons and growing conditions leading to loss of harvests (such as in Australia), and melting of glaciers.
One particularly dangerous effect is the beginning of the thawing of Arctic permafrost. This permafrost contains billions of tons of trapped methane, and methane is a greenhouse gas several times more powerful than carbon dioxide. If thawing were to release large amounts of methane into the atmosphere, the greenhouse effect would be greatly amplified, leading to very destructive and chaotic changes in global climate. Evidence exists that in 2008, large releases of methane from the Siberian tundra had begun to occur.
Is global warming then a sign of the coming end of the world? I don't know. Nobody knows. After all, the Good Book says of that question, “But no one knows of that day and hour, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.” – Matthew 24:36. It may be the end, or it may simply be the beginning of a really big mess that we will all have to live with for a very long time. (How many of you have ever read A Canticle for Leibowitz?) One thing I do know, however. Global warming is a sign that mankind is making a mess of this world. The perpetrators and perpetuators of this mess are the rich elites of the First World. Living responsibly and lightly upon the earth is required of those who would be good stewards of God's creation, yet this sort of life is an affront to the rich masters of our present system, because it endangers their bottom line.
These rich masters have done all they can to persuade most of us to continue our present lifestyle of dependence on the breaking system known as the “official” economy, and have even attempted to use religion to legitimize that dependence, by telling us that it is our God-given right and duty to live this way, and that “Christians must not believe in global warming!” Such propaganda may well serve to help people justify lifestyles of excessive and increasing consumption by persuading them that there are no earthly consequences to such a lifestyle. Yet believers in such propaganda may well find themselves one day being held accountable for helping to destroy the earth.
World English Bible, http://ebible.org/web/, a public domain translation, from which all Scriptures quoted herein have been taken, for which no royalties are owed, and which may be freely quoted in all settings, public and private.
PhysicalGeography.net, a Fundamentals eBook, http://www.physicalgeography.net/fundamentals/7h.html
“Scientists warn thawing Siberia may trigger global meltdown,” Wikinews, http://en.wikinews.org/wiki/Scientists_warn_thawing_Siberia_may_trigger_global_meltdown
“Effects of Global Warming,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effects_of_global_warming
“2007 Was Tied As Earth's Second Warmest Year,” Science Daily, 17 January 2008, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080116114150.htm
“NOAA: Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, Methane Rise Sharply in 2007,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 23 April 2008, http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2008/20080423_methane.html
For further information, read the publications of Dr. James E. Hansen, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and Dr. Pushker A. Kharecha, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Their contact information is on the NASA GISS website. Also, feel free to visit the website of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And for more simple, understandable explanations, there is always Dr. Jason Bradford of Global Public Media at http://postcarbon.org/about/fellows.