About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Evangelicals help with global warming... thank God?

Part of the Christian evangelical movement is now on board with the idea that there is such a thing as human-caused global warming, that it's bad, and that we ought to do something about it. A group called the Evangelical Climate Initiative has launched a web site to “spread the word” that scientific research on global warming is not in contradiction with the Bible, and that evangelicals should pressure their representatives and President Bush to take action. The ECI is the result of the activism of a group of scientists who describe themselves as “devout Christians,” which means that they have the ideological credentials to be taken seriously by the evangelical movement.

Of course, not all evangelicals are going along with this. Some are disturbed, for example, by what ecologist Calvin DeWitt (one of the promoters of ECI) calls science's “connection with evolution.” In fact, climate-contrarian Roy Spencer (a meteorologist at the University of Alabama-Huntsville) said that “manmade global warming is a theory and not a scientific observation.” Sounds familiar?

Critics notwithstanding, from a purely pragmatic perspective this is certainly a welcome development. Given the considerable political muscle of Christian fundamentalists in the United States, and the fact that this country is the single major contributor to global warming, scientists and the world's citizenry can only benefit from ECI and similar initiatives.

On the other hand, it is pretty sad that we live in a society where science is taken seriously only if it is Bible-approved. Religion is a powerful force in society, and simply cannot be ignored. But the very idea that religious leaders can dictate to politicians when to heed the advice of experts in a particular field is disturbing, and brings immediately to mind religious vetting of almost everything in theocratic societies like Iran. What's next? A major scientific theory been challenged in public schools because it goes against someone's idea of what God meant when he was talking about the origin of the world? Oh, right, that's already happened...


  1. My father, (engineer, inventor, farmer) who will be 93 this Sunday, has long said that these types of weather patterns are purely cyclical. So no matter WHO says it, or WHY they say it, why would the current trend in temp adjustments not just a part of the usual ebb and flow of normal weather patterns? Not many people can actually say that they have physically observed nearly 100 years of weather patterns.

    Also have a good friend (only *one* tho :) who has written for skeptic mags. He has likewise become very skeptical over the years of the GW thing.

    He is not religious / likly agnostic.

    And judging from where some of his work winds up, a reasonably good scientist too. Since I trust these two sources very much, (they have a record of trying to find out the truth on various matters, even at the risk of personal expense) I don't think the whole matter of Global warming is at all as conclusive as you seem to think it is.

    I WOULD AGREE that most persons certainly could reduce their consumption of various everyday extravagances no matter what their belief system happened to be, and no matter what the environmental impact turned out to be.

    It just makes sense.

    But if the US is such a prime polluter, why does (for instance) a place like Naples smell like rotting fish and burning tires long before one even lands on it shores? Maybe they've cleaned it up since someone I know arrived there last, but do happen to know that many other countries (india, africa, mexico) are afflicted similarly. So even if you are able to get the democratic "big brother" to shoulder the blame for things individual countries poorly managed for themselves, they will still get to live in the consequences of the way they think. So how have we helped anyone (morally ethically, what have you) by taking the hits for stuff like that?

    Does anyone honestly think that pride and greed doesn't exist equally as strong in third world, or less economically stable counties, as it does in the US?


  2. This whole climate change debate just bugs me. It's probably happening, maybe it's not.

    So what if it's not? We still have nuclear waste, deep fishing of our oceans, massive habitat destruction all over the world, lots of nice toxic chemicals spewing into the environment, etc. Fish is dangerous to eat now because it contains mercury from coal burning.

    This global warming "debate," like the intelligent design "controversy" is just a smokescreen to cover up all the other environmental atrocities going on right now.

    Not to say I'm not happy that a few evangelicals are starting to listen to reason....

  3. Future Geek,
    How is the I.D. controversy a smoke screen to cover up enviormental atrocities? Thats the first time I've heard that.

    We can't deny global surface temperature is rising. What can be debated is weather natural processses are at work or artificial processes. This should be the core of the debate only. If we find the root causes are artificial, then we work to change them. What I don't see is the hard data expalining the artificial causes of global surface temperature rises.It is usually just the liberals saying that we need to stop everything, and the conservatives saying that no matter what we do, it won't affect the enviorment at all.
    We know for a fact the planet has heated up and cooled down many a times. I am not saying that the process at work today is natural, but simple reasoning says that it not only is possible it would be the simplest explaination (since it has been observed in the past). Thats not to say that man can't cause this warming. There is also the possiblilty that both artificial and natural processes are working simultaniously. Perhaps man is accelerating a natural process at work.
    But please, no more debate without discussing the actual processes at work. If you believe it is artificial, then dont just say we need to stop polution. Say something like - we need to stop burning fossil fuels because such and such chemical is getting released and causing such and such to happen. If you don't understand the specific processes at work (which I don't) then perhaps you shouldn't form a hard opinion on the matter (which I haven't).
    I am definitly tired of hearing things like, man is the reason for hurricane Katrina's intensity. Not only do we have no idea of the exact process that starts a hurricane. We don't know much about global surface temperature control factors.
    I have actually heard the weather man say "we will brake a record tomorrow for the coldest day since 18--" then go on to explain that the cause was global warming

  4. Global climate is a complex system. It's a fact that humans are pumping out greenhouse gases at an obscene rate. It's a fact that these gases trap heat.

    Now, what's going to happen as a result? Well, who really knows? The thing is, there will be some sort of change - and that change will come along with mass extinctions, habitat destruction, unprecedented human overpopulation, etc. etc. Maybe it will get cooler instead of warmer. Still not a good thing. The weather changes are like a stressor on an already stressed environment.

    The environment is a big, supercomplex system - like your body. Imagine that you're smoking and drinking all the time - but when the doctor tells you to stop eating fatty food, you argue with him about it. The smoking and drinking can still kill you, whether you start eating better or not.

    Let's take habitat destruction as an example. Global warming probably had something to do with Katrina - b/c hurricanes are generally more intense when the ocean is warmer. But let's say that had nothing to do with it.

    Acres of swampland have been drained in the gulf coast. This swamp, once upon a time, helped serve as a buffer zone, draining the intensity of hurricanes as they moved further inland. With Katrina, we didn't have that anymore.

    Likewise, the Mississippi river used to deposit big sand bars into the Gulf - and this also served as a buffer zone against storms. In the name of smooth commerce, the shifting sand bars were replaced with concrete - changing the natural flooding patterns.

    So you see what I'm saying? Global warming is just one factor in the environmental problems we face - but its a big one.

    And by fixing the problems that cause global warming, like burning coal, we are helping the environment in other ways (no more mercury in our fish, and no more mountain top removal mining).

  5. Heh.

    Looks like I misread your question, Jim. So not only did I write an ambiguous sentence:

    This global warming "debate," like the intelligent design "controversy" is just a smokescreen to cover up all the other environmental atrocities going on right now.

    I also misread a reply to that ambiguous sentence. Sorry all for a lengthy post about nothing relevant.

  6. Here is what we know for a fact:

    -Average atmospheric and ocean temperatures are increasing

    -Green house gases increase atmospheric temperatures

    -Humans are producing green house gases

    -The Earth has a history of cyclical temperature swings.

    -There was a Medieval Warming period that occurred between 1000AD and 11270AD.

    -There was a Little Ice Age from 1550AD to 1850 AD that correlated with a period of low sunspot activity known as the Maunder Minimum.

    -Gulf coast hurricane activity in the last 1000 year epoch was much, much greater/worse than the current 1000 year epoch.

    SO - taking all those facts together, it is clear that we cannot be sure to what extent humans are influencing Global Warming and/or what the worst case effects would be. Perhaps what we are witnessing now is the natural continuation of the warm up period following the little ice age.

    According to an article in Scientific American last year by WF Ruddiman, there is significant data to show that over the last 1000 years or so human agricultural activity may have prevented a full ice age (agricultural activity). This would suggest that some human global warming may have had a positive net effect. (Someone once said civilization is the period between ice ages).

    On the other hand, what if our human induced global warming period is happening during what would normally be a relatively cool period? What happens if the Earth were to go into a real warm up period, then how much worse would human induced activity make things?

    The bottom line though is that we need to be asking the right questions and having an open, honest debate. What I see now smacks of religious ideology from both sides. Conservatives (as if this was a Biblical issue?) believe there is no such thing as Global Warming and refuse to entertain facts that show otherwise. Liberals believe that Global Warming is an absolute fact and that it is caused by humans and also refuse to entertain any evidence to the contrary.

    For the record, the majority of serious scientists do beleive that human activity is contributting to Global Warming. However, the real question is to what extent and what is the cost of stopping those human activities compared to the cost of allowing global warming to continue? Like the naturalistic fallacy, Global Warming is not bad unless it causes bad results. (Ask the people who suffered horribly during the Little Ice Age if they would not have preferred living in our warmer times)

    I get the feeling that if some study conclusively proved that burning fossil fuels does not alter the natural warming/cooling trends of the Earth, that some Liberals would still want to vilify fossil fuels and the evil Conservatives who use them, because it has become an ideology now -- who cares what the data might or might not say. Its the same with Conservatives who regardless of what the data says, has adopted a belief that Global Warming does not exist, because they just don't like Liberals.

    You know its sad, but at the end of the day a lot of these issues really comes down to the fact that the people on one side of the debate just don't like the people on the other side of the debate -- facts, evidence and reason be damned.

    Lastly, Massimo said the U.S. is "the single major contributor to global warming". I think this should read "the largest contributor" or "one of the major contributors". But the way it is written suggests that Europe is not also a major contributor or that Japan is not (on a per capita basis), etc.

  7. Not that I know much about this, but I have heard a couple of things discussed.

    One is that humans are indeed contributing to global warming, but this has been going on for some time now, because of agricultural practices, etc.

    Also I read somewhere that some core samples from Greenland show that CO2 level is higher now than at any time in the sequence.

  8. First, something off topic, but related to what happens when religion rules the land (as if we needed any reminder): Afghan man could face death penalty because of conversion to Christianity

    Now back to the topic. :-)
    On a pragmatic note, it's not a bad thing that Evangelicals (or whatever religion) are concerned about the environment. Since their interpretations change with the tides of society and culture and basically anything goes, it might even come a day when they are tolerant towards gay people and recognize they have rights and all that tree-hugging kind of thing, for example, who knows? On a phylosophic not, I agree with Massimo when he says it's sad when people, specially politicians, need aproval from some shaman to pay attention to some issue (scientific or otherwise).

    Global warming real or not, caused by human activity or not? I defer judgement to the specialists on climate (of which I am not one). And what I've been reading about it all is not exactly comforting.


  9. Future Geek,
    I was not aware that swamp land or the Mississippi's sand bars had the power to slow down hurricains?

    Well put!

  10. There is an interesting article on hurricanes and global warming at Chris Mooney's site .

  11. re: Jim Fisher said "I was not aware that swamp land or the Mississippi's sand bars had the power to slow down hurricains?"

    They reduce the impact of the tidal surge associated with hurricanes.

    Alan, I also thought your post was good. My own opinion is that reduction of greenhouse gases and other pollutants from burning fossil fuels is a good thing regardless of whether or not it has an impact on global warming.

    Eat well, stay fit, Die Anyway.

  12. Lilly,
    This is a good article as well as the links from it I found informative. We should also keep in mind (as one of the articles points out) The recorded history on global warming and hurricanes is extreemly limited. The thermometer was only invented in the 1700s, and who know when it was accurate and consistant. As well as hurricane intensity can only be accuratly tracked back to the 1970s.

  13. In 1974 we were al made to worry about the prospect of a new ice-age. International discussion groups were formed to plan for the possibility. At that time the idea that humans might be contributing to global warming was considered heretical. Now it is de rigeur to accept anthropogenic global warming. But where is the hard evidence. Humans activity produces less Co2 that volcanoes alone. Co2 is measured in PPBillion - what is it about the molecule that is supposed to casue the greenhouse effect? Where is the hard scientific theory? Ice core samples show not that temperature is caused by Co2 but that Co2 concentrations FOLLOW an increase in temperaure by 800 years.
    Where is the evidence?

  14. Massimo,
    Please tell us if anthropogenic global warming is a fact.

  15. Global warming is as close to a "fact" as a complex science like atmospheric physics can deliver facts. Moreover, it would be absurdly irresponsible not to act on it.

  16. Thank you! That's all I needed to hear. I know that's an appeal to authority but I have "faith" in you!


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