Just last Friday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its 5th Assessment Report since 1990, and the related Summary for Policymakers. The report took six years to produce and is considered the most comprehensive review of the scientific evidence for man-made climate change available. 830 scientists from 85 countries contributed, reviewing 9,200 research studies on matters ranging from rising sea levels to ocean acidification, to the impact of volcanic activity, to name just a few.
Over the coming weeks, we’ll be reviewing the IPCC findings in some detail. But given the hundreds of pages involved, permit me to begin with a thumbnail sketch by Sir John Houghton, former Co-Chair of the IPCC, Oxford University professor, leading Christian author and thinker, and friend of the beloved pastor, John Stott. In a British website connecting the environment, science and Christianity, Houghton summarized the main findings of the report as follows:
1) That it is extremely likely (i.e. more than 95% probability) that human influence on climate caused most of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951- 2010.
2) That there is high confidence that this has led to warming of the ocean, melting of snow and ice, a rise in global mean sea level and to more climate extremes with increased intensity.
3) Further warming will result from continued emissions of greenhouse gases, causing changes in all parts of the climate system. Considerable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will be required if climate change is to be limited.
4) Under almost all possible scenarios a rise of 1.5C is predicted by the end of this century relative to 1850 to 1900 temperatures, but in some scenarios the rise is greater than this. Most scenarios predict further warming beyond 2100.
In the face of a very vocal blogosphere claiming that global warming has slowed to a crawl, and politicians calling for continued inaction while we “wait and see” what happens next, Houghton offers these words:
The increase of surface temperature or the extent of more climate extremes, even dramatic ones, does not seem very threatening to the public at large, especially when doubt is so frequently cast on the truth of the climate story as spelled out by the scientific community. So it is said “why not tackle it relatively slowly and ‘Wait and See’ what happens; if it gets a lot worse we can begin to do more.” But ‘Wait and See’ is very far away from an adequate response.
What is not generally realized is that we are already committed to climate change far in excess of what we are yet experiencing. That is because of the long time it takes the oceans to warm and the very large thermal capacity they contain. Even if all greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere were stopped tomorrow, the earth’s surface and the upper layers of the oceans would continue to warm for many decades into the future. Sea level would continue to rise at increased rates and climate extremes such as heat waves, floods and probably droughts too would become much more frequent.
We owe it to our children and our grandchildren to ensure that we reduce greenhouse gas emissions as fast as we possibly can so that as much damage as possible is avoided. Further, detailed studies by the International Energy Agency, the intergovernmental body concerned with energy futures, demonstrate clearly that cutting emissions is both affordable and will bring many co-benefits.
Sir John is no doubt a brilliant scientist, and a devoted Christian. But we’re not asking you to take his word as gospel. We’ll be looking – page by page – at the IPCC report over the coming weeks. But for now, remember that confidence number: 95 percent. That’s the probability that humans have caused – and are continuing to cause – most of global warming, based on research that has been done to date. And it’s not the opinion of one man or woman, but the consensus position of the entire world’s climate science community.
If you’re still counting on “controversy” as a basis for inaction, maybe it’s time to reconsider the wisdom of betting our children’s – and the world’s – future on a 20-to-1 long shot.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
Sir John Houghton is widely recognized as one of the world’s preeminent climatologists. He has become as well-known for his theories on the compatibility of science and religious faith as his scientific achievements.
A former professor of atmospheric physics at Oxford University, Houghton has argued that climate change kills more people than terrorism. He has held a number of important scientific and administrative posts, having served as Director General of the Britain’s Meteorological Office, as Chair of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, and as Co-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Scientific Assessment Committee.
As a committed evangelical Christian and the author of DOES GOD PLAY DICE?: A LOOK AT THE STORY OF THE UNIVERSE (1988) and THE SEARCH FOR GOD: CAN SCIENCE HELP? (1995), Houghton has often voiced the belief that science and religion, rather than being opposing forces, actually complement one another: “There is widespread suspicion of science, fostered by the feeling that science goes against the Bible,” Houghton has said. “This is very unfortunate; it takes a very small view of God, and a very inadequate view of science.”