Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Climate of Disagreement

Evolution continues as a lively “red meat” discussion topic both within and outside the church. The long running controversy over the extent of evolution of earth’s life forms, however, may be taking a back seat to the newest, modern scientific controversy. The National Center for Science Education and other secular education groups are arming themselves to fight for public school acceptance of global warming within the curriculum as part of the current national science core standards initiative.  Climate change, sometimes also perceived under the heading “global warming,” has recently displaced evolution as the controversy du jour. Advocates for anthropogenic global warming and activist anthropogenic solutions for it have been mobilizing their forces at various levels.

Under cover of the claim that the climate change issue has been scientifically settled by the consensus of the scientific community, there is powerful pressure being brought to bear on our population to accept the reality and the remedies. Such a conclusion is not merely a minor quarrel. The issue has wide ranging significance for our society in terms of our perceptions of and attitudes toward Planet Earth and the care of its delicate and beautiful systems. In this sense, these matters should be elevated in importance for people of all persuasions, particularly those communities who take pride in their Christian worldview.

There is considerable danger securing ourselves within a shelter of apathy. The more depth with which we study the issue, the more apparent is the cause for alarm. Among the high stakes is the public perception of science itself. The drumbeat from those who claim this powerful issue is settled rolls with high volume. They claim the scientific consensus driving the global warming issue is obvious and our collective action plan, therefore, is apparent. Deniers and skeptics are often cast as errant and agenda driven. Serious errors lurk behind these oft-repeated claims, including the errors and agendas of global warming enthusiasts.

Science does not work so cleanly. In particular, science does not work when the web of interrelated questions and possible models of reality are so complex and difficult. In the early days of the scientific revolution questions about the manifestations of gravity and formulas to describe it were accessible through the majesty and predictability of mathematics. There is an irony when we consider that physics is sometimes called a “simple science.” The understanding of physics depends on scientists’ ability to reduce everyday phenomena to “simple” mathematics. Many people may joke about their high school physics courses not being very “simple.”

In reality, as we study climate science it becomes obvious that we are not dealing with “simple science.” (The physical sciences are known as simple sciences; behavioral sciences such as psychology or sociology, meanwhile, are termed complex sciences.) Climate science may not fit neatly on such a spectrum. The factors affecting our climate are intricate almost beyond comprehension. Climate, climate change, and weather events are embedded within a system of unimaginable complexity.

What message do we receive about the certainty of climate conclusions from a substantial cadre of professional climatologists? Likewise, what message do we receive from the majority of our educators, a bevy of science journalists, and numerous politicians of every stripe? For starters, we quote a statement, one of hundreds of news releases flooding our culture at every turn: “In reality, the science of climate change is largely settled. The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, considered the world’s leading scientific body on the issue, has confirmed in several reports that man-made climate change is occurring and poses a threat to the health of the planet.” The public has now been informed, we are told, and the final verdict is in. We need only to accept the simple message: The global warming issue is settled. Man is causing dangerous warming. And we must act now.

As an undergraduate student I took two related electives. The subject matter fascinated me, even though I had not yet committed to a career in science education. The courses were titled Meteorology and Climatology. At the time global warming was not on the radar screen of public awareness. Only in the past two decades has a substantial segment of the climate science community committed itself to pronouncements of harmful anthropogenic global warming. That community has jumped aboard the bandwagon recommending heroic solutions for global climate problems. Such problems have not yet manifested themselves except as part of their data-selected climate models. Climate scientists and their publicists resist admitting to legitimate scientific disagreements among scientists on these issues. But contrary to their incessant public message, the issue is NOT settled.

Kevin Birdwell is a meteorologist and climate researcher at the University of Tennessee. In a recent submission to a Reasons to Believe publication, he observes, “The climate variations throughout Earth’s history have been both significantly warmer and colder than the climate of the present. These temperature changes may be reliant on a well-balanced system of land masses, oceans, human life, and more. By observing each of these factors in the past, what can scientists predict about temperature changes in the future?”

Birdwell expresses an insightful vision of the Biblical worldview of our
wonderful planet Earth, a system created by God. The Christian worldview accounts for the Father’s care for planet Earth, including fossil fuels providently supplied for our modern society long ages ago in earth history. Our post does not absolve modern man of responsible care for our planet including the monitoring of potentially significant harmful effects of human habitation. High on our priority for understanding our planetary climate system is Birdwell’s quotation of Proverbs 8:

I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overlap his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind. (Proverbs 8:27-31 NIV)