Climate: Neutralizing Christians with a Veneer of Controversy

“Don’t believe those climate change alarmists! Because three percent of climate scientists think they’re wrong!”

Hmm. That wouldn’t make a very effective PR campaign, now would it? That’s why you never hear those words from Fox News, the WSJ, or the radio talk shows. It’s always “a growing number of scientists” or “thousands of scientists and doctors….”

About a week ago, we ran an article written by two evangelical climate scientists urging Christians to confront the threat of manmade climate change as a core faith issue. Days earlier, Thomas Ackerman and Katharine Hayhoe had published their article in the online evangelical journal, Christian Post. They wrote:

“We know climate change is real, that most of it is human-caused, and that it is a threat to future generations that must be addressed by the global community. We are also evangelical Christians who believe that God created the world in which we live.”

I felt relieved: real, leading Christian climate scientists telling their faith community the widely-understood facts about climate change. Maybe this would clear up the confusion that so many American evangelicals feel about climate science – confusion that seems to prevent us from acting to protect the creation.

But my relief was short-lived. Just days later, the Christian Post followed up with a rebuttal article, written by two other climate scientists, denying much of what Ackerman and Hayhoe had just told us. Not only that, they challenged them to a formal college campus debate, something that politicians do; scientists usually just produce research refuting the errors of their colleagues.

But to laymen like us, the tit-for-tat left many wondering whom to believe. Some credible scientists tell us that we must act to reduce greenhouse gases driving climate change. But then some other credible-sounding scientists come along and tell us just the opposite. Not exactly what we need to motivate a call to arms, is it? Maybe we should just do nothing, till this “controversy” is resolved.

And that’s a pity, because that’s just what most of climate denial is all about. You create the sense that this issue isn’t yet resolved, and so laymen like us will remain frozen in our tracks – worried, but not willing to act, especially if it might involve sacrifice. It worked for the tobacco industry for decades. Now it’s working for fossil fuels. 

97_piechartThe Christian Post climate deniers claim to be part of “a growing number of climate scientists” who share the view that mainstream climate science is mainly alarmism. A growing number, we ask? So maybe we’re hearing an even debate? Maybe it’s fifty-fifty or something?

Well the numbers actually tell an important story, and we’d do well to pay attention. Scientists are a skeptical bunch, and they’re constantly trying to poke holes in yesterday’s orthodoxy. It’s about the only way to earn a PhD, let alone win fame and tenure. So inevitably, there will be disputes in any field. But in climate science, the cause of climate change is hardly a matter of dispute. We learned this first in 2004 when researcher Naomi Oreskes couldn’t find any peer-reviewed research articles that disputed the basic tenets of manmade climate change. Subsequently, James Powell found only 24 climate deniers among 14,000 climate research papers (call it one-quarter of one percent).

But this year, a more rigorous study has been completed. John Cook led a team of twelve researchers that examined nearly 14,000 peer-reviewed research papers published from 1991 to 2011, all of which listed the taglines “global warming” or “global climate change.” Since most researchers no longer consider “proving” manmade climate change to be a challenging field of study, they selected only those papers which expressed an explicit or implicit rejection or endorsement of the idea, which reduced the number to about 4,000. Using multiple reviewers for each paper, they then sorted them into the two opposing categories: endorsing or rejecting manmade climate change.  But, just to be certain, they then contacted each author, to be sure that they agreed with the team’s assessment.

The result? 97.1 percent of the research papers over 21 years endorsed the consensus position. Like the evangelical scientists wrote in these pages: “We know climate change is real, [and] most of it is human-caused….” That leaves 2.9 percent who take another view.

97.1% of climate researchers endorse manmade climate change: Cook 2013

97.1% of climate researchers endorse manmade climate change: Cook 2013

So listen carefully the next time you hear climate deniers claiming to be part of a vast new wave of scientific skepticism regarding global warming. Watch for the ambiguous “growing numbers” or “chorus of skeptics.” Watch for claims regarding “scientists” (which include petroleum engineers) and “doctors” (whose knowledge about climate is about the same as yours and mine).

And don’t ever look for them to mention that teensy little number: 3 percent. In a country where 21 percent of us believe the government is hiding evidence of extraterrestrial aliens, that little group of scientific climate deniers is almost incomprehensibly small.

Evangelical Christians, we’ve been sidelined for long enough by a slick campaign using a veneer of fringe science. Our mainstream Protestant brethren have seen through it. So have the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. And importantly, so have our evangelical brothers and sisters from virtually every other country. Now, it’s time for us to take a hard look at the facts, and take our place in protecting God’s creation, and its most vulnerable children, from unchecked fossil-fuel pollution.

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