Sunday, February 12, 2012

Evangelicals and Global Warming (Part 1)

I visited my parent’s church today. It’s a very Pentecostal church, and while I haven’t been particularly Pentecostal for many years now, there are many things about the church that I admire. First among these is its well established and effective ministry with recovering alcoholics and drug users. It brings a smile to my face when I think about how many folks once sitting in jail cells are now sitting in pews and shouting hallelujah. I can imagine that first century Christians once nudged each other and said, “See her? She was possessed by seven demons before Jesus cast them out.” I’ll often hear similar comments in my parents’ church: as folks pass by, they’ll say something like, “See him? Before he got saved, he was sleeping under a van down by the river.” Or, “That guy over there? He was selling drugs out of a drive-through window.” If comments like these strike you as condescending, I’d venture to say that you probably don’t know Evangelicals very well.

The sermon this morning was solid, and gave me a lot to chew on. It took Romans 12:1-2 as its text, which says, “Do not conformed to this world, but instead be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” That seemed especially relevant in light of my renewed skepticism of the mainstream media’s portrayal of social and religious issues. As I mentioned in my last post, recent events have driven home to me the importance of a pretty strong filter when the media tries to cover social conservatives.

Still, I was taken aback when the pastor said (I’m paraphrasing from memory, but this is pretty close):

You’ve probably heard a lot about global warming. But that’s just another example of how the media doesn’t tell us the truth. Global warming is just one more big hoax that the media has tried to pull over on us.

My wife and I looked at each other, to make sure we’d actually heard what we thought. I was pretty surprised, both that this pastor (whom I like and respect) would believe this, but even more that he’d choose to bring it up in a sermon. It had nothing to do with the Gospel, and worse, he made it seem like it did. It sent the unmistakable message that if you want to be a good Christian, you ought to believe that global warming is a scam. And that’s a shame, for more reasons than I can begin to count.

Still, because I’ve recently expressed my extreme disappointment with liberals on the matter of religious liberty, it seemed an appropriate time to blog about how frustrated I am with conservative positions on the environment, particularly with respect to global warming. I know lots of folks conservatives who would agree with my parent’s pastor, that climate change is a hoax. And I’m really, really curious about why this is this so.

I’ll start by saying that it’s clearly not because they’ve made an independent and sufficient evaluation of the evidence, and have rejected it as inadequate.  The plain fact of the matter is that nobody I know personally (and this obviously includes me) is anything like qualified enough to offer an authoritative opinion on the science behind scientists’ claims regarding climate change. Yes, I suppose most of us have a cursory understanding of the physics of global warming: CO2 and methane act as “greenhouse gases”, trapping more warmth in the atmosphere, thus raising temperatures worldwide. Some of us may have observed the retreat of glaciers with our own eyes, most of us have read about the increased rate of polar ice melting, and probably a good number have read mainstream summaries of the science behind it (this piece by The Economist is probably the best). But the fact remains that the earth’s climate is composed of innumerable systems whose interactions are mind-bogglingly complex, and the measurements, the math, and the models that real climate scientists use to predict their behavior are only slightly less so. I could spend the next four or five years doing nothing but studying climate change, and I’d barely be qualified to comment on the quality of a few journal articles, and still less on any overarching conclusions that real scientists might reach after having critically digested thousands of them. I simply don’t know enough; and neither does anybody else that I know. There are roughly 7 billion humans on this planet, and maybe a thousand of them possess the knowledge and experience that I freely admit I lack. (This study, for instance, was able to identify 1,372 individuals actively publishing in the field of climate change.) In other words, folks qualified to comment authoritatively on climate science are not just one in a million: they’re quite literally one in seven million. The vast majority of folks who reject global warming, as well as the vast majority of folks who accept it, are doing it for other reasons entirely.

And here’s another red herring. Your typical climate change skeptic doesn’t reject the idea of global warming because the folks who are qualified to judge haven’t made up their minds. If you want to know how convincing the evidence is for climate change, don’t start with this Wikipedia article (on the physics), but with this one (on the consensus opinion among scientists). There’s a lot of data in there, but this gives you a feel for its conclusions:

The predominant scientific opinion on climate change is that the Earth's climate system is unequivocally warming and it is more than 90% certain that humans are causing it . . . No scientific body of national or international standing has maintained a dissenting opinion . . . 97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC (Anthropogenic Climate Change) outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In other words, there’s a consensus. I have some reasonable idea of what a consensus looks like, and trust me, that looks like one. And yet some 50% of Americans reject it. Why?

Well, I’ve got a theory about that, but it’ll have to wait until my next post.


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