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Friday, October 10, 2008

The Bible and the Global Warming petition

I saw a brief excerpt from a political rally, featuring Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, on a TV news program a few days ago. When global warming was mentioned, at least some people in the crowd booed loudly. Palin apparently expected this reaction. I sometimes get e-mails or other indications from fellow Christians, questioning global warming, which usually means that they doubt that humans have, or can, influence climate. Sometimes, they even doubt that global temperatures are increasing.

Perhaps the most obvious questioning of the validity of human effects on climate is the Global Warming Petition Project, which claims that there:
". . . is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the forseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate." (All web sources in this document were consulted on October 9th, 2008. I expect that there will be additional signatures on the Global Warming Petition, and other changes in the information given below, as time passes.)

The Project says that 31,072 American scientists have signed the petition. Less than one-third of these have an earned doctorate, according to the petition's own web site. There doesn't seem to be a breakdown by academic field. There is a breakdown by state. There are 351 signers who are from South Carolina. I am from South Carolina, so I am especially interested in that state. The SC State Climatology Office has five persons on its staff. None of them have signed. The Natural Science Faculty of Bob Jones University, a conservative Christian institution which is in South Carolina, has sixteen faculty listed, apparently none with degrees in climate or weather studies. Of these, the chair (who has a doctorate in analytical chemistry) and other faculty have signed, including a microbiologist with a Ph. D., a field biologist with a Ph. D, and a person whose highest degree is a bachelor's in broadcast engineering from BJU*, making 25% of the listed faculty. Is petition-signing a religious right conspiracy of some sort? If so, it's not very effective. I checked Liberty University. That school has no weather-related department, but there are 22 faculty in the combined biology-chemistry unit. Of these, none have signed the petition. I also checked a Southern Baptist college from South Carolina. 2 of their 19 faculty had signed the petition. Both had a Ph. D. in chemistry.

Neither Clemson University (in South Carolina) or the University of South Carolina have a department of climate or weather studies, so far as I can determine, and I didn't check their faculties against the list. Nor does Georgia or the University of North Carolina. So I looked at Florida. 1502 persons from Florida signed the petition. Florida State University has a meteorology department, with 16 faculty. None of them have signed the petition.

There aren't many scientists with advanced degrees in meteorology, and not many academic departments in that subject, at all. Apparently few, if any, academics with credentials in climate and weather studies have signed the petition. Scientists with degrees in other types of science, including many without advanced degrees, and a few whose academic credentials in the sciences are suspect, probably make up the vast majority of signers.

From the Wikipedia article:
The text of the petition is often misrepresented: for example, until recently the petition's website stated that the petition's signatories "declare that global warming is a lie with no scientific basis whatsoever."[4] The two-paragraph petition used the terms catastrophic heating and disruption , not "global warming." The original article associated with the petition . . . defined "global warming" as "severe increases in Earth's atmospheric and surface temperatures, with disastrous environmental consequences".[5] This differs from both scientific usage and dictionary definitions, in which "global warming" is an increase in the global mean atmospheric temperature[6][7] without implying that the increase is "severe" or will have "disastrous environmental consequences." (emphasis and links in the original)

The McCain-Palin campaign page does not explicitly say that humans contribute to climate change, but it assumes it. The page has a plan for mitigating emission of greenhouse gases. The GOP platform says explicitly that climate change is caused by human activity ("The same human economic activity that has brought freedom and opportunity to billions has also increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.") Sarah Palin is on record as doubting, or denying, that humans are responsible, for climate change. This, of course, is not the first time that a national candidate has disagreed with a running mate, or with the party platform, on all sorts of issues.

Why is there such widespread doubt of the conclusions of scientific experts, who say that humans have and are contributing to climate change? I am not sure of all of the reasons. One reason, I suspect, is the involvement of Al Gore, who was the Democratic presidential candidate in 2000, in this field. (He won a Nobel Prize for his involvement.) A lot of Republicans, and others, don't much like Mr. Gore. (Many people do, of course!) Ideally, it doesn't matter who is responsible for bringing a message, but what should matter is whether the message is valid, but it doesn't always work that way.

Another reason, of course, is that we usually don't want to hear bad news, if that news means that we will have to change our habits and thinking. Doing something about global warming would also mean changes in many industries.

What does the Bible have to do with all this?
Well, in the first place, some Christians believe that Revelation 16:8-9 may refer to global warming. Maybe. It's difficult to know what just about any particular passage in Revelation means.

Second, some Christians invoke Genesis 8:22, part of God's promise to Noah, that day and night, and the seasons, would continue, as meaning that there can be no global warming. But that verse doesn't say that the seasons will always be identical. There is considerable evidence of an ice age, although perhaps that was before the time of Noah. There was apparently a Little Ice Age since the time of Christ. There have been times in the past, in various parts of the world, when the climate was significantly warmer than usual for that area, or colder, or drier, or wetter. The passage doesn't rule out times when it will get warmer than we are used to.

Third, and, I believe, most important, some Christians reject science in general, as anti-God. Although the charge is not without some foundation, it is an oversimplification, at best, and short-sighted and unbiblical.

Why an oversimplification? Because many important scientists, from, say, Copernicus through Francis Collins, head of the US human genome project, have been believers.

Why short-sighted? Because rejecting scientific findings unnecessarily alienates potential followers of Christ. "If they are so wrong about the science, why should they be right about salvation?"

Why unbiblical? Because God reveals Himself in more than one way, according the the Bible. Psalm 19:1-4 tells us that God is revealed through nature, which means that scientific findings can tell us something of God's nature and power. Romans 1 says: "20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse." (ESV, which version allows quotation for uses such as this, if properly cited.) Does that mean that scientists are always right? Of course not. There was a time, in the previous century, when the scientific consensus was that genes were made of protein, not DNA. That was wrong. Scientists have made other mistakes, and will continue to make some. But that doesn't mean that consensus science should be rejected out of hand. It's usually right, and its findings are part of God's revelation to us. Mistakes have been made, and will be made, in the interpretation of the Bible, too. That doesn't mean that we should ignore it. The Bible is always right, and our understanding of it usually is.

Am I absolutely certain that there is real global warming, and that humans are partly or entirely causing it? No. But the overwhelming consensus of scientists in the field, around the world, is that there is, and that we are acting such as to accelerate it. Christians, and others, should take the warnings about global warming seriously. We have responsibility, under God, for the world around us, and for the well-being of our own offspring.

*This statement, based on Bob Jones University's own web site, is not meant to disparage that institution, or this particular faculty member. I have no advanced degree in physics, but taught that subject at two accredited institutions of higher education, as justified by my experience in the field. This experience was accepted by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting agency,for both of these institutions. Probably this faculty member is a similar situation, and has significant experience not indicated by his degree. Or it is possible that BJU has included broadcast engineering in their science department. But I should not be taken as seriously as an expert on physics. Or at least not as seriously as a person with an advanced degree in the field would be. It wouldn't seem that a person with a bachelor's in broadcast engineering as his highest degree would have anything very authoritative to say about climate change, either.

Thanks for reading!


Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

Myself, I'm not sure how catastrophic this, among other particular catastrophes, may be. In the meantime I see no reason to be irresponsible. Really, why not do our best?

I'm curious, though - did you watch the vice presidential debates? Palin said plainly that she thought there was a dual cause, both the natural cycles of the planet and human factors. At that point, Biden jumped all over her for having said natural cycles had anything to do with it. If there was any doubt expressed by Palin in that exchange, it was merely doubt that humans are 100% responsible and the rest of nature combined is 0% responsible. She came out with unqualified support for responsible action on the climate during the debate also.

So I'm optimistic that whichever administration takes office next year (God willing), there will be people in both high offices who encourage responsible action on global warming.

Take care & God bless

Martin LaBar said...

It's possible that I misread Governor Palin, or that I am wrong about her beliefs on global warming.

I'm not wrong that some of her supporters (and others, although apparently not many Democrats) disagree with the Republican party platform on the subject, and doubt (often loudly and emphatically) that there's any global warming at all, or that, if there is, human activity has anything to do with it, in spite of the evidence.

Thanks for commenting.