Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Will Jesus Destroy the Planet? (with cars?)

The second chapter I read in John Loftus' new anthology, Christianity is Not Great, is called "Christianity and the Environment."  My eyes quickly gravitated there, I think, because it is mainly about Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), and that debate brings together so many fascinating subjects -- the weather, glaciers, volcanoes, history, trees, politics, life on other planets . . .

William Patterson's point is that Christianity is a danger to the environment.  ("Grave danger?"  "Is there any other kind?" -- Cruise vs. Nickolson)  His tone is more reasonable than that of Annie Gaylor, and he does not seem to engage in deliberate lies, as she seems to do as a matter of course.  But of course the charge here is a serious one -- we only have one planet, after all.

Biblical "dominion" theology, Patterson argues, leads to excessive population, animal extinction, and deforestation.  But the worst problem it creates is Global Warming.

Let's stop and take a reality check with these preliminary claims before we look at Patterson's main argument.

Do Christians over-breed, kills critters, and cut down trees? 

I just returned to Seattle from the major southern Chinese city of Changsha.  Changsha has about twice the population of Seattle.  But it is almost free of overt theological influence.  The people there have figured out how to make babies in bulk, even without being told audibly by God to "go and multiply."  The country is run by communists, still atheistic in their ideology, and in the propaganda they teach young people.  (I leaf through some of my students' other text books, and find anti-religious propaganda that would surely please Loftus and his fellow authors.)  And the kids buy it: I took a survey of Chinese college students a few years ago, and found that almost two thirds were atheists, at that point in their lives.

So there must be no problems with excessive population, animal extinction, or deforestation in Changsha, right?  And hardly a tree or animal left in Seattle, with the douglas fir and cedar all felled to built church spires, and roast sacrificial deer and bear to Yahweh?

Yeah, right.

God's toxic waste dump.
Flying into beautiful green Seattle last week, I got a great view of Mount Olympus, a mass rising in white to the west of the Olympic World Heritage / Biosphere site.  We can see three national parks from downtown Seattle on a clear day -- national parks are an American invention.  But even the city itself, 13th largest in the United States (metro) and one of the densest (city), is, I discovered when I first returned from a year or two in Asia, just one huge park.  The whole city is trees.  Raccoons, squirrels, even foxes, bald eagles, and river otters -- I've seen most of them right within the city limits.

Moving to Asia as a young man, on the other hand, where a mere 5% of the population is Christian (maybe a bit more, now), I learned that a river can still flow when it is deep black (Hindu India, Buddhist Taiwan, atheist China), and you can smell it a block away.  I learned what the expression "bare as a monkey's butt" means when applied to mountains.  I saw rare wild animals on sale on sheets of linen on street corners, and in cages.

Where in the world is overpopulation a real crisis, right now?  India.  Indonesia. Bangladesh.  The Philippines.  Vietnam.  Eastern China.  Japan?  Maybe, though the population is falling.

What percentage of that population -- more than 3 billion, all told -- is governed by Christians?

The Philippines, about 2-3% of the total.

In my little town, again, on the outskirts of Changsha, the government seems to have declared war on trees and beauty.  On three sides are on-going construction projects, with a 15-story wave of new apartments breaking just beyond the wall of our school grounds.  They are as monotonous as sin.  On another side, black smoke rises from drills pushing into the ground to build an indoor ski center.  On another, they are building a running track, covered so far in what appears to be grey concrete, without so much as a tree for shade between laps.  The one side free of construction, so far, is still beautiful, full of old lotus and rice farms, and you can walk for miles in clear air.  But some of the farmers build an extra story or two, so the government will compensate them extra when the bulldozers come.

Yeah, Patterson, that's the real environmental threat in the world today -- Christian theology.

Remember, Patterson's PhD is in International Studies -- shouldn't he take a global perspective?

OK, end reality check. let's go on now to Patterson's main argument.  Will the Bible will cause runaway global warming and doom us all? (Since we Christians think we are just visiting this planet, anyway, we might as well trash it?)

Burn, Planet, Burn?

Dr. Patterson owns a doctorate in "international studies."  (I have an MA in the subject.)  Since AGW is, as I mentioned above, a multi-disciplinary issue, this is probably an OK place to enter the discussion.  But it does make his focus on Christian theology, which continues, seem increasingly parochial, for those who share a genuinely global consciousness.  

Patterson argues that AGW is an "impending catastrophe," and that Christianity has "hindered a response" to it.  (286) This begs three questions:

(1) Is AGW really an "impending catastrophe?"

(2) Does Christianity really "impede a response" to it?

(3) Was the response that is allegedly being impeded the right one, in the first place?

Patterson addresses the first two questions, but entirely neglects the third.  But frankly, his answer to the first is so weak, that we need not bother much with the last two. 

(1) Is the sky, weighted down with excess CO2,  really about to fall?

Patterson mainly argues from authority.  He cites the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change), along with the US National Academy of Sciences, American Geophysical Association, and many other authoritative American scientific organizations.  He also claims (citing historian of science Naomi Oreskes) that of 928 articles from scientific journals published on "climate change" from 1993 to 2003, not one contradicted the fact that global warming is happening and is mostly caused by humans.  

Actually, the IPCC only admitted that warming "in the past 50 years" has mostly been driven by human activity.  But almost half of the warming of the past 100 years came before that date.  Since only a relatively tiny amount of CO2 was released before World War II, compared to that released in recent years, it seems highly unlikely that the warming before then was caused by human activity.  Therefore, even if 70% of the warming after 1970 or so has been due to our machines, probably less than half has been, over the past century.  And that's worth noting, since a lot of the effects Patterson notes -- such as melting glacial ice -- have been going on since about 1850.

But I largely agree with Patterson's first two points: Earth's atmosphere has warmed about 1 degree Celsius in 100 years, and probably 1/3rd to 1/2 of that is due to human activity.

Patterson then describes the alleged harms likely to result from global warming.  Here's where his argument heats up, so to speak:

"The global harms brought about by climate change include, but are not limited to: sea level rise, increased strength of extreme weather events such as hurricanes; droughts; increased spread of certain diseases such as malaria, cholera, and yellow fever in vulnerable parts of the world; famines . . . loss of biodiversity . . . (it is estimated that a quarter of all plants and animals currently living will either be extinct or in danger of extinction during the next half century due to climate change); increased risk of large forest fires; economic disruption and loss of productivity; and conflict brought about by the increased scarcity of resources, such as potable water." (289)

I remember in Taiwan, visiting an office where Christians were cutting news articles out of the paper about disasters.  Each of these, they believed, was proof that the world was doomed, and the End Times were near.  Some people seem irresistably drawn to doomsday scenarios.  You can't argue them out of out-sized fears: the hold to them like a dog to a bone.  Every new bit of data is fed into the monster.

That appears to be what's going on here.

Despite all the alarm, polar bears seem to be thriving in the Arctic.  Of course there are far more species of mosquitoes than polar bears, so the spread of mosquitoes north and south would seem to increase biodiversity, if it that is what we want.

What really threatens species?  Chinese medicine.  That's why there are few tigers left in the wild, that and all those new roads and chopped down forests.

What causes forest fires?  Over-zealous Smokey the Bear, federal forest programs that do not allow smaller natural fires in the undergrowth, allowing the undergrowth to build up until it becomes a tinderbox. And what increases the danger of those fires, is an influx of new homes in the pine and aspen forests.  (More on this below.) 

Are hurricanes any worse now, than in the "old days?"  Patterson cites one Admiral Locklear: "You have the real potential here in the not-too-distant future of nations displaced by rising sea level.  Certain weather patterns are more severe than they have been in the past."  But  As Dr. Christopher Landsea and others explain (great name for a meteorologist!), peak storms come in cycles.  There is no evidence that storms striking either the US mainland or East Asia have grown in intensity over the past decades.  (Though it seems they do vary in landfall, depending on complex factors, such as snow melt in Tibet.)  Landsea notes:

"All previous and current research in the area of hurricane variability has shown no reliable, 
long-term trend up in the frequency or intensity of tropical cyclones, either in the Atlantic or any other basin." 

How about droughts?

I once debated a passionate defender of AGW, a Christian, on this very issue for about a month.  He believed that 20% of the planet had ALREADY become extremely dry due to AGW.  (Based on research by a climatologist named Dr. Dai Aiguo.)  The problem was, as I looked around the world and cited study after study, my opponent couldn't tell me where the areas of radically increased drought (20% of the non-polar land area of the whole planet!) had occurred.  It hadn't happened in Siberia.  We couldn't find it in China.  North America was pretty normal (here you can watch areas of drought skip around the country over the past 14 years), it wasn't in Alaska.  South America had some largish region of drought, probably due in part to felling of timber.  The southern Sahel in northern Africa was greening in some places.  Australia was dry in places, but nothing too unusual.

As for glacial melt, one eminent Indian scientist lost his job because he made extravagant claims about loss of glacial ice in the Himalayas, that proved untrue. Let's learn from our mistakes. 

Some of Patterson's arguments is pretty vague and unfalsifiable.  But he offers one argument that is highly specific, and can be easily checked:

"Increased frequency and intensity of forest fires is another predicted outcome of global warming.  Speaking of the western part of North America, the IPCC foresaw in 2007 that "disturbances from pests, diseases and fire are projected to have increasing impacts on forests, with an extended period of high fire risk and large increases in area burned."  Unfortunately this proved prescient, as forest fires of unprecedented size and frequency have since occurred in Colorado, California, and other western states.  The Black Forest Fire near Colorado Springs, CO, burned 5,780 hectacres of land and destroyed 500 homes in June 2013.  This was the most destructive fire in Colorado history, the second most destructive was the Waldo Canyon Fire, which occurred only the year before."

This sounds convincing -- but unfortunately for Patterson, it only takes a few clicks of the mouse to show the fire had nothing, in fact, to do with Global Warming.

I went to the Weather Underground site for Denver, Colorado, about 100 miles north of Colorado Springs.  I checked the weather report for the 20 days previous to the Black Forest Fire, which occurred on June 11th, 2013.  Indeed, the high temperature on the 10th and 11th both made it into the upper 90s, almost 20 degrees warmer than the norm for those dates.  But overall, the 20 days previous to the outbreak of forest fire were only about 1.5 degrees warmer than usual -- a relatively mild warm spell.  By comparison, the entire month of May, 1985 (the second-earliest year with data on that site), averaged almost 4 degrees warmer than the norm.

True, Think warned in the winter of 2011-2012 that low snowfall in the Colorado mountains had created a danger of summer fires, blaming that on Global Warming.  But the reporter admitted that the previous year, Colorado had enjoyed a record snowfall of (at one site) 525 inches.  So if we get no snow, that's Global Warming.  If we get tons of snow, that' Global Warming, too.  Anything extreme and noticable, feeds our theory.  Anything normal is not noticed, so we don't notice it!  Anyone who has watched the weather over decades gets used to that sort of ebb-and-flow from year to year, which I remember from my youth in Alaska, as well.  Change is the very definition of weather. 

And then the next year, before the really big Black Forest Fire, Denver got 20 inches more snowfall than usual.

So it seems unlikely that AGW caused the Black Forest Fire.   But "it only takes a spark, to get a fire going."  It only takes an accumulation of kindling on a hot day, to turn it into a conflagration.  And then if over the past 30 years, your state's population has swelled, and people all move into the pine trees to get out of the mile-high sun (and some of them smoke) -- disasters are bound to grow by leaps and bounds in magnitude.

Patterson further writes of "nations displaced by rising sea level."  Unfortunately he neglects to name any, which makes his "argument" hard to refute.  When someone names such a country, or island, I sometimes check Google Earth, and reports by oceanographers, and find the island is generally still there, and not going anywhere.  (Since really, the sea has not risen much yet: I grew up almost on Puget Sound, watching it nearly every day.)  The biggest danger would probably be to Bangladesh, partly from deforestation in the Himalayas due to poverty (people cut trees for firewood).  The solution is to enrich the poor through economic development, then if we need to, build up dykes in Bangladesh.  (Rich Bengalis will do that more easily than poor Bengalis.)

So all in all, while I admit that global temperatures have gone up over the past 100 years, and a good chunk of that is probably due to carbon use, Patterson doesn't really get to first base with his argument -- showing that this is a dire threat.  His argument is mostly vague, and when specific, often highly dubious.

I have not mentioned Christian theology so far, and have not had to.  After making his first points, however, Patterson turns to the role of Christianity in causes the evil he claims to see.

Since Patterson does not make a good case for an "impending catastrophe," I don't see that I need to respond in detail to the following ten pages of argument that Christianity "impede a solution."  And anyway, Patterson doesn't say what that alleged solution is, or why it's the best one.  So I'll pick and choose what to answer, in response to rest of his paper.  But the focus will mostly be on this claim that Christian theology is the root problem. 

"God is to blame!"

"Only 33% of evangelical Christians see global warming as a major problem, thereby making them the least likely among fifty population groups studied to view the problem as serious.  Atheists and agnostics were the most concerned."  (292)

Well good!  It seems on this issue, at any rate, Christians are less susceptible to unwarranted hysteria.  Christians were also less likely to buy the leftist line about how cool socialism was, in the last century, which I believe helped "saved the planet" in a more genuine sense, while most atheists were enthusiastic for Marxism-Leninism.

"The earth is God's gift to humankind to use as it pleases to meet its own needs and to prosper . . . " (293)

This is a caricature of Christian theology.  Christians believe that, "The earth is the Lord's."

"Scientists agree that the negative repercussions of these changes will be far more severe than any positive side effects."

Patterson had not mentioned any "positive side effects" before this, and doesn't again, as best I recall.  Nor, as we have seen, is his description of "negative repercussions" very reliable.  

"Christians . . . believe that widespread negative impacts are impossible in principle because God's creation is perfect." (294)

This is another strange caricature of Christian thought.  Patterson cites the Cornwall Alliance to support this bizarre claim, but what they say is that creation is "robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting," not that it is "perfect."  It's a good idea to cite people accurately.  Patterson also cites three youngish scientists on what Christians think, calling them "scholars," rather than identifying them as environmental scientists, rather than theologians or any other authority on what Christians think.  Patterson also cites that famous theologian, Rush Limbaugh.

So when I say Patterson is more honest than Gaylor, it's a relative thing.  He ought to represent those he criticize, and the facts, far more carefully. 

Later in the chapter, Patterson also cites several Christian politicians, who in some cases do say some embarrassing things -- if he is citing them accurately.  "All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell."  Odd, that the Catholic astronomer Georges Lemaitre, who discovered the Big Bang, would have to go to hell to fetch that theory.  Odd, too, that so many atheists reacted with such terror to it, at first.

Finally, on page 297, Patterson, again an "international studies" scholar, not a scientist, complains about how one Roy Spencer "of the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance" misrepresents the proper scientific use of the word "theory:"

"Man-made global warming is a theory, and not a scientific observation."

Is Patterson talking about Dr. Roy Spencer, "Principal Research Scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and the U.S. Science Team leader for the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer (AMSR-E) on NASA's Aqua satellite" who "has served as Senior Scientist for Climate Studies at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center?"  That Roy Spencer?  

No, I don't suppose a senior NASA scientist and eminent professor would know how the word "theory" should be used by scientists, nearly so well as an International Studies major.  

But really, it is a little cheeky to refer to him merely as "of the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance," as if he were some Bible-toting hillbilly, or a backwoods pastor.  That's not quite leveling with your readers.  A proper citation gives the reader the most relevant credentials the person cited has. Tricksy citations such as this one do does not build confidence in a writer's objectivity.  

So is Christian theology going to destroy the planet?  I suppose it is possible -- cause and effect are often mysterious and outcomes in a "Butterfly Effect" world unpredictable -- but Patterson makes no credible case for such a danger.  (Though he does prove politicians sometimes say pandering and foolish things -- if that requires proving.)  The industrializing East and South is polluting, badly, and fouling air, water, and soil, as the industrializing West did before it.  Let us hope they clean up, after the party, as Taiwan is beginning to do.  Given that temperature rise is proportional to doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere, that means the effect will grow increasingly small per unit carbon released.  I think pollution itself is the more worrisome problem.  But if, in the future, the sea level does rise in a few low-lying areas (the forecast is a foot or so during this century), dykes in the most vulnerable places are probably a better solution, than trying to reverse the Industrial Revolution, and telling the billions of poor who now have some pocket change, to keep their bikes and not buy cars like us.  And no, I don't care if you use plastic bags -- at least in pagan China, where they are provided, I don't drop my groceries on the parking lot when it rains, as I have here in "Christian" America. 

And if AGW really is a serious problem, it remains to be seen whether the solutions offered really are ideal.  Even if one opposes them, one would have to explain why they are the best, to show that opposition is harmful.  Patterson does not even say quite what he thinks we should do, let alone demonstrate that his solution is the best.  Odd that skeptics should find such a vague critique, a persuasive indictment of Christianity.    

Next up: Peter Bogghossian on faith -- again?  Wasn't he bad enough last time?  But this time, he has a confession to make -- implicitly.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting write up. It reflects a lot of research. As someone undecided on how much humans are contributing to the global climate, any summarizations are useful. Thanks.