Skip to content

Why I Am An Agnostic And Other Essays On Global Warming

In a recent post The Folly of Faith I mentioned that a connection exists between global warming denialism and religion. Here I would like to provide more justification for this claim.

Evidence exists that many who deny the dangers of global warming do so out of religious conviction. A Pew survey asked the following question: "Is there solid evidence the earth is warming?" Let me just give the percentages who said yes and agreed that it is the result of human activity:

Total U.S. population 47 %;
Unaffiliated with any church 58 %;
White mainline Protestants 48 %;
White, non-Hispanic Catholics 44 %;
Black Protestants 39 %;
White evangelical Protestants 34 %.

Also interesting was the result that 21 percent of all Americans, 18 percent of the unaffiliated, and 31 percent of white evangelicals said there was no global warming at all. While mainline Protestants and Catholics are close to the national average, they still are below that of the unaffiliated. Surely the fact that 58 percent of the unaffiliated support the scientific consensus while less than 50 percent of believers do is evidence for a correlation between religion and global warming denialism.

The role of religion in global warming denialism can be seen in the political battles over the teaching of evolution. In 2010 the Kentucky Legislature introduced a bill encouraging teachers to discuss "the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories," including "evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning." A similar bill was passed in Louisiana in 2008 and in 2009 the Texas Board of Education required that teachers present all sides of the evidence on evolution and global warming (Leslie Kaufman, "Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets," New York Times, March 3, 2010).

Demanding equal time for opposing views on evolution and global warming is like demanding equal time for phlogiston and flat-Earth theories.

Those for whom the Bible is the literal world of God take seriously the last book of the New Testament, Revelation, which describes the end of times. What's more, the Jesus of the Gospels predicted that the Son of Man would return in a generation to set up the Kingdom of God on Earth (Matt 16:28; Matt 24:34; Mark 9:1; Mark 13.30; Luke 9:27). Of course he didn't, but for two thousand years Christians have always thought the end was right around the corner. Why worry about global warming if the kingdom of God is at hand?

If you read this after 6 p.m. Saturday, May 21 you know that the latest prediction of Jesus' coming has failed.

John Shimkus, Republican of Illinois, is a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. He has argued that climate change is a myth because God told Noah he would never again destroy Earth by flood (Gen 8:21-22). He is seen on a video as saying, "The earth will end only when God declares it's time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood. . . . I do believe God's word is infallible, unchanging, perfect."

In 2009 Representative "Smokey Joe" Barton (Republican from Texas) told C-Span:

I would also point out that CO2, carbon dioxide, is not a pollutant in any normal definition of the term . . . I am creating it as I talk to you. It's in your Coca-Cola, your Dr. Pepper, your Perrier water. It is necessary for human life. It is odorless, colorless, tasteless, does not cause cancer, does not cause asthma.

A lot of the CO2 that is created in the United States is naturally created. You can't regulate God. Not even the Democratic majority in the US Congress can regulate God.

If you think greenhouse gases are bad, life couldn't exist without greenhouse gases. . . . So, there is a, there is a climate theory--and it's a theory, it's not a fact, it's never been proven--that increasing concentrations of CO2 in the upper atmosphere somehow interact to trap more heat than the atmosphere would otherwise.

Personally, I can't see how in a pumping back into the atmosphere in a century or two carbon that took millions of years to accumulate in Earth can be harmless.

Perhaps the most vocal denier of global warming is Republican Senator James Inhofe. In a speech on the Senate floor on July 28, 2003 he called catastrophic global warming "a hoax." He referred to "satellite data, confirmed by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) balloon data, confirms that no meaningful warming has occurred over the last century." This is false. The satellite data in fact corroborated the warming trend reported from surface measurements.

Inhofe is one of the most conservative members of the Senate and, characteristically, also promotes evangelical causes. He has used government funds to travel at last twenty times to Africa on missions that he himself has referred to publically as "Jesus things." There he has "played an active role in the faith-based aspect of our anti-AIDS campaign," according to a Ugandan diplomat.

The Cornwall Alliance for The Stewardship of Creation has issued what it calls "An Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming." Here's what it says"

WHAT WE BELIEVE

1. We believe Earth and its ecosystems--created by God's intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence --are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. Earth's climate system is no exception. Recent global warming is one of many natural cycles of warming and cooling in geologic history.
2. We believe abundant, affordable energy is indispensable to human flourishing, particularly to societies which are rising out of abject poverty and the high rates of disease and premature death that accompany it. With present technologies, fossil and nuclear fuels are indispensable if energy is to be abundant and affordable.
3. We believe mandatory reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, achievable mainly by greatly reduced use of fossil fuels, will greatly increase the price of energy and harm economies.
4. We believe such policies will harm the poor more than others because the poor spend a higher percentage of their income on energy and desperately need economic growth to rise out of poverty and overcome its miseries.

WHAT WE DENY

1. We deny that Earth and its ecosystems are the fragile and unstable products of chance, and particularly that Earth's climate system is vulnerable to dangerous alteration because of minuscule changes in atmospheric chemistry. Recent warming was neither abnormally large nor abnormally rapid. There is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming.
2. We deny that alternative, renewable fuels can, with present or near-term technology, replace fossil and nuclear fuels, either wholly or in significant part, to provide the abundant, affordable energy necessary to sustain prosperous economies or overcome poverty.
3. We deny that carbon dioxide--essential to all plant growth--is a pollutant. Reducing greenhouse gases cannot achieve significant reductions in future global temperatures, and the costs of the policies would far exceed the benefits.
4. We deny that such policies, which amount to a regressive tax, comply with the Biblical requirement of protecting the poor from harm and oppression.

However, it must be said that many believers, including some prominent evangelical Christians, see their "stewardship" of Earth, ordained by God, as requiring that they pay attention to the warnings of climate scientists. In 2006 some eighty-six evangelical leaders signed a statement saying, "Millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors." The list included Rick Warren, author of the blockbuster bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life. However, other leaders including Watergate felon Charles Colson, founder of the Prison Fellowship Ministries, and James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, objected to the move (Laurie Goodstein, "Evangelical Leaders Join Global Warming Initiative," New York Times, February 8, 2006).

The Rev. Jim Ball, senior director for climate programs at the Evangelical Environmental Network that accepts the science of global warming, as saying that many of global warming deniers feel that "scientists are attacking their faith and calling them idiots so they are likely to be skeptical" about global warming (as quoted by Goodstein).

Nevertheless, as we saw above, two-thirds of white evangelicals do not believe in anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

The Catholic Church is becoming increasingly green. In 2007 Pope Benedict told a Vatican conference on climate change to "respect creation" while "focusing on the needs of sustainable development" (John Vidal, and Tom Kington, "Protect God's Creation: Vatican Issues New Green Message for World's Catholics," The Guardian, April 27, 2007) Still, over 50 percent of white, non-Hispanic Catholics do not believe in AGW.

Corporate greed is the primary motivation for global warming denial. However, the antiscientific attitudes of the Christian right are being exploited to prevent the government of the United States from taking actions that might be essential for everyone's welfare, including the grandchildren of those industrialists, preachers, politicians, and scientists who now so vehemently oppose any action.

Michael Le Page, features editor

A British newspaper today published a list of "100 reasons why global warming is natural".

Here we take a quick look at the first 50 of their claims - and debunk each one.

1)There is "no real scientific proof" that the current warming is caused by the rise of greenhouse gases from man's activity.

Technically, proof exists only in mathematics, not in science. Whatever terminology you choose to use, however, there is overwhelming evidence that the current warming is caused by the rise in greenhouse gases due to human activities.

2)Man-made carbon dioxide emissions throughout human history constitute less than 0.00022 per cent of the total naturally emitted from the mantle of the Earth during geological history.

Misleading comparison. Since the industrial age began human emissions are far higher than volcanic emissions.

3)Warmer periods of the Earth's history came around 800 years before rises in CO2 levels.

In the past 3 million years changing levels of sunshine triggered and ended the ice ages. Carbon dioxide was a feedback that increased warming, rather than the initial cause. In the more distant past, several warming episodes were directly triggered by CO2.

4)After world war 2, there was a huge surge in recorded CO2 emissions but global temperatures fell for four decades after 1940.

In fact, temperatures fell during the 1940s and then remained roughly level until the late 1970s. The fall was partly due to high levels of pollutants such as sulphur dioxide counteracting the warming effect.

5) Throughout the Earth's history, temperatures have often been warmer than now and CO2 levels have often been higher - more than 10 times as high.

Which shows that higher CO2 means higher temperatures, taking into account the fact that the sun was cooler in the past. The crucial point is that civilisation is adapted to 20th century temperatures.

6)Significant changes in climate have continually occurred throughout geologic time.

Yes. And sea level has been up to 70 metres higher during warm periods. If that happens again, there'll be no more London or New York.

7) The 0.7 °C increase in the average global temperature over the past hundred years is entirely consistent with well-established, long-term, natural climate trends.

Wrong. The rapid warming since the late 1970s has occurred even though other factors that can warm the planet, such as the sun's intensity, have remained constant.
        

8)The IPCC theory is driven by just 60 scientists and favourable reviewers, not the 4000 usually cited.

Untrue, as even the briefest look at the scientific literature can establish.

9) Leaked e-mails from British climate scientists - in a scandal known as "climategate" - suggest that that has been manipulated to exaggerate global warming

Nothing in the emails undermines any of the key scientific conclusions. Independent groups have come to the same conclusions.

10)A large body of scientific research suggests that the sun is responsible for the greater share of climate change during the past hundred years.

The sun may have contributed to the warming in the first part of the 20th century but it has not caused the rapid warming since the late 1970s.

11)Politicians and activists claim rising sea levels are a direct cause of global warming, but sea levels have been increasing steadily since the last ice age 10,000 years ago.

Wrong. Sea level rose very rapidly as the North American ice sheet melted after the last ice age but levelled off and has been nearly stable for the past 2000 years or so. Now it is starting to rise rapidly again.

12)
Philip Stott, emeritus professor of biogeography at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London says climate change is too complicated to be caused by just one factor, whether CO2 or clouds.

He is right. All sorts of factors affect climate, even the lead in petrol. However, the recent warming is mostly due to rising greenhouse gases, and if we pump out more CO2 it will get even hotter.

13)Peter Lilley MP said last month that "fewer people in Britain than in any other country believe in the importance of global warming. That is despite the fact that our government and our political class - predominantly - are more committed to it than their counterparts in any other country in the world".

Irrelevant and incorrect on all counts.

14)In pursuit of the global warming rhetoric, wind farms will do very little to nothing to reduce CO2 emissions.

There are arguments over how much wind power can contribute, but there is no doubt they are already helping reduce emissions in many countries.

15) Professor Plimer, professor of geology and earth sciences at the University of Adelaide, stated that the idea of taking a single trace gas in the atmosphere, accusing it and finding it guilty of total responsibility for climate change, is an "absurdity".

See (1). And note that Plimer is a geologist, not a climatologist.

16)
A Harvard University astrophysicist and geophysicist, Willie Soon, said he is "embarrassed and puzzled" by the shallow science in papers that support the proposition that the Earth faces a climate crisis caused by global warming.

Many scientists think Soon should be embarrassed by some of the papers he has published.

17)The science of what determines the Earth's temperature is in fact far from settled or understood.

There are still lots of details to fill in but the big picture is increasingly clear. The uncertainties that do exist swing both ways: there could be more warming than predicted.

18)Despite activist concerns over CO2 levels, CO2 is a minor greenhouse gas, unlike water vapour, which is tied to climate concerns, and which we can't even pretend to control.

Water vapour is a feedback, not a cause of warming. The amount of water in the atmosphere depends on temperature; any excess rains out within days.

19) A petition by scientists trying to tell the world that the political and media portrayal of global warming is false was put forward in the Heidelberg Appeal in 1992. Today, more than 4000 signatories, including 72 Nobel prizewinners, from 106 countries have signed it.

That's not what the Heidelberg Appeal really said, and 1992 was a long time ago.

20)It is claimed the average global temperature increased at a dangerously fast rate in the 20th century but the recent rate of average global temperature rise has been between 1 and 2 °C per century - within natural rates.

Incorrect. Over the past 1000 years temperature has never changed nearly as fast.

21)Professor Zbigniew Jaworowski, chairman of the scientific council of the Central Laboratory for Radiological Protection in Warsaw, Poland, says the Earth's temperature has more to do with cloud cover and water vapour than CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.

See (18). And why believe someone whose work was rejected by the scientific community?

22) There is strong evidence from solar studies which suggests that the Earth's current temperature stasis will be followed by climatic cooling over the next few decades.

The Earth is still warming and even if the sun's intensity does fall, it will not outweigh the effect of rising greenhouse gases.

23) It is a myth that receding glaciers are proof of global warming as glaciers have been receding and growing cyclically for many centuries.

Incorrect. The current retreat is unprecendented.

24)It is a falsehood that the Earth's poles are warming because that is natural variation and while the western Arctic may be getting somewhat warmer we also see that the Eastern Arctic and Greenland are getting colder.

Illogical and incorrect. Warming is warming whatever causes it. And all parts of the Arctic are warmer compared with the average from 1951 to 1980. The extent of the warming is contributing to the rapidly shrinking in the extent of sea ice cover during summer.

25)The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change claims climate-driven "impacts on biodiversity are significant and of key relevance", but those claims are simply not supported by scientific research.

There is already clear evidence that the distributions of many species are changing as the planet warms (PDF). If it gets much warmer, some will have nowhere to go.

26)
The IPCC threat of climate change to the world's species does not make sense as wild species are at least 1 million years old, which means they have all been through hundreds of climate cycles.

Many species are less than 1 million years old. In any case, during the past 3 million years, the Earth has got a lot colder than it is now during ice ages but never much hotter.

27)
Research goes strongly against claims that CO2-induced global warming would cause catastrophic disintegration of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.

Depends on what timescale you are talking about. Scientists differ on how quickly they think the ice sheets will melt, but studies of warm periods leave no doubt that if the temperature gets much higher and stays higher, all the ice sheets will melt completely after several centuries or millennia, causing sea level to rise by 70 metres.

28)Despite activist concerns over CO2 levels, rising CO2 levels are our best hope of raising crop yields to feed an ever-growing population.

Higher CO2 levels do boost growth of some plants, but only if there's enough water throughout the growing season and the temperature is appropriate for particular plants. Overall, climate change is expected to reduce yields once the temperature rise exceeds 3 °C.

29) The biggest climate change ever experienced on Earth took place around 700 million years ago.

So what?

30) The slight increase in temperature which has been observed since 1900 is entirely consistent with well-established, long-term natural climate cycles.

Repetitive and incorrect. See (10).

31)
Despite activist concerns over CO2 levels, rising CO2 levels of some so-called "greenhouse gases" may be contributing to higher oxygen levels and global cooling, not warming.

Burning fossil fuels produces CO2 and consumes oxygen, and thus lowers oxygen levels, though the decrease is too tiny to matter.

32)Accurate satellite, balloon and mountain-top observations made over the past three decades have not shown any significant change in the long-term rate of increase in global temperatures.

The rate of increase is in line with predictions.

33) Today's CO2 concentration of around 385 ppm is very low compared with most of the Earth's history - we actually live in a carbon-deficient atmosphere.

And when CO2 levels were higher there were no ice sheets and sea levels were 70 metres higher. Plus, the sun was cooler in the past.

34)It is a myth that CO2 is the most common greenhouse gas because greenhouse gases form about 3 per cent of the atmosphere by volume, and CO2 constitutes about 0.037 per cent of the atmosphere.

You can only get close to the 3 per cent figure by counting water vapour, which as we have already said is a feedback not a cause.

35)
It is a myth that computer models verify that CO2 increases will cause significant global warming because computer models can be made to "verify" anything.

No, they can't, because climate models are based on the physical laws that apply in the real world. In any case, the crucial evidence that CO2 warms the planet comes from physics and chemistry, not from general climate models.

36)
There is no scientific or statistical evidence whatsoever that global warming will cause more storms and other weather extremes.

Incorrect. For instance, while there is much uncertainty in this area, there is growing evidence that hurricanes will get stronger, though there may not be more of them.

37) One statement deleted from a UN report in 1996 stated that "none of the studies cited above has shown clear evidence that we can attribute the observed climate changes to increases in greenhouse gases".

Meaningless taken out of context, without knowing what studies the statement was referring to.

38)The world "warmed" by 0.07 +/- 0.07 °C from 1999 to 2008, not the 0.20 °C expected by the IPCC.

Actually temperature rose 0.19 ºC, but global warming does not mean natural variation goes away. Periods of cooling are still to be expected.

39) The IPCC says "it is likely that future tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes) will become more intense" but there has been no increase in the intensity or frequency of tropical cyclones globally.

Incorrect. Some studies have found an increase.

40)Rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere can be shown not only to have a negligible effect on the Earth's many ecosystems, but in some cases to be a positive help to many organisms.

Incorrect and contradictory. Either the effect is negligible or helpful: it can't be both. In fact, rising CO2 will lead to big temperature increases, which will have a dramatic effect on Earth's ecosystems. Some species will benefit as their range expands, others will run out of suitable space. The speed of the change - far faster than natural climate change in the past - will make it very difficult for plants and animals to move fast enough.

41)Researchers who compare and contrast climate-change impact on civilisations found warm periods are beneficial to mankind and cold periods harmful.

Which researchers? Where were their findings published? In any case, over the past two millennia, warm periods have generally involved tiny changes compared with the changes we can expect over the next century.

42) The Met Office asserts we are in the hottest decade since records began but this is precisely what the world should expect if the climate is cyclical.

Er, why?

43) Rising CO2 levels increase plant growth and make plants more resistant to drought and pests.

Yet more repetition. See (28).

44)The historical increase in the air's CO2 content has improved human nutrition by raising crop yields during the past 150 years.

According to who? This statement is impossible to prove or disprove. What we can say is that the bulk of the increase in yields over this time are due to improved plant varieties and techniques, many of which are heavily reliant on the use of fossil fuels. If we don't start planning for the end of cheap oil, food prices could soar.

45)The increase of the air's CO2 content has probably helped lengthen human lifespans since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

How exactly, and according to who?

46)The IPCC alleges that "climate change currently contributes to the global burden of disease and premature deaths", but the evidence shows that higher temperatures and rising CO2 levels has helped global populations.

Incorrect. Excessive heat during summers is already killing more people than are being saved by milder winters.

47)In May of 2004, the Russian Academy of Sciences published a report concluding that the Kyoto protocol has no scientific grounding at all.

See here for the political background. Russia signed up to the Kyoto protocol later that year.

48)The "climategate" scandal pointed to a expensive public campaign of disinformation and the denigration of scientists who opposed the belief that CO2 emissions were causing climate change.

Or it points to a relatively cheap public education campaign and efforts by responsible scientists to ensure political decisions are based on sound science rather than on papers that have been shown to be flawed.
 
49) The head of Britain's climate change watchdog has predicted households will need to spend up to £15,000 on a full energy efficiency makeover if the government is to meet its ambitious targets for cutting carbon emissions.

Even if he has - no source is given - no one can be forced to spend money they don't have and such spending is an investment that will save householders thousands of pounds in the long term. If energy prices rise sharply as demand for oil and gas exceeds supply, we may all be wishing we had invested more in energy efficiency.

50) Wind power is unlikely to be the answer to our energy needs. The wind power industry argues that there are "no direct subsidies", but it involves a total subsidy of as much as £60 per MWh, which falls directly on electricity consumers. This burden will grow in line with attempts to achieve wind power targets, according to a recent OFGEM report.

Repetitive and incorrect. See (14). No, wind power is not the answer to our energy needs but it is one of the answers, and it would be very short-sighted not to invest in alternative energy sources as peak oil nears, even if there was no issue with global warming.

There are another 50 "reasons" listed but they are even less credible than the ones we've already dealt with...

Read more:New Scientist's full coverage on the latest Copenhagen and climate change news