Dear Skeptics: Please, We Recommend Reading …

Most Americans accept the foundational conclusion of climate science – that the earth is warming due to human activities. Last November, when the Public Religion Research Institute asked how to account for the severity of recent weather patterns, 62 percent of Americans named climate change as the cause. And Christians as a whole were solidly in agreement. Catholics agreed by the exact same majority – 62%. Black Protestants even more strongly, with 73%. White mainline Protestants, a very close 61%.

But then we come to white Evangelical Protestants, and here the picture changes a bit. Only 49% of them (or should I say, of us) agreed that climate change is the cause of the rotten weather. Somehow, white Evangelicals are a bit more skeptical than Christians of other races and traditions.Picture1

So it’s not surprising that here at Beloved Planet, we get our share of “skeptic” reactions from our fellow Evangelicals, since as many as half of us are still doubters. And if the responses we’ve seen are at all representative, then most of those doubters have gotten the idea that climate change is a matter of ongoing dispute among scientists. We were curious where this notion would come from, since we know of virtually no climate research that supports it.

Of course, there’s Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News (neither an Evangelical mouthpiece nor, of course, a science journal). And until recently, there was also Murdoch’s other big outlet, the Wall Street Journal. (Just last week, WSJ reversed its longstanding “skeptic” stance, admitting that the American Southwest is drying because “climate change affects rainfall.”)

So, Fox News only? Other than the fringe bloggers, we couldn’t think of any other climate denial proponents whom Evangelicals might listen to.

But sometimes, listening to cable news channels won’t get you very near to scientific reality. So we sat down at the library today, and opened a stack of science journals, to faithfully report what’s really being said by actual researchers. We had number of journals to choose from, but we settled on Scientific American, one of several respected science magazines easily accessible to laymen.

Our survey: unanimous endorsement of climate science

Unanimous endorsement of climate science

From the huge stack on the shelves, we chose the most recent seven months’ worth of issues, from August 2014 through February, 2015. In them, we found 17 articles directly or indirectly about climate change. Here’s the thing: Every single one of them reflected the belief of scientists that climate change is real, and the cause of very real problems. Of equal importance, not one suggested any doubts or controversy, or made reference to contrary opinions.

But don’t take our word for it. Read on for a glimpse of what’s actually being reported:

February 2015

  • A puzzle for the planet: “Lake Mead could dry up completely by 2021 if the climate changes as expected….” p. 63
  • The steady disappearance of polar ice: “… visibly diminishing in response to warmer temperatures.” p. 82

January 2015

  • Will we still enjoy pinot noir? “… trying to preserve taste as climate change alters flavors of grapes.” p. 60
  • Search for super-habitable planets: “Solving the problem of CO2-dependent greenhouse effects on more massive planets than Earth.” p. 30

December 2014

  • Extreme summers and winters could become the norm: “Humans have kicked the climate system hard, and physics demands that weather patterns change as a result.” p. 68
  • Conspiracy central: “Why so many Americans believe in conspiracies, from government-ordered school massacres to concocting climate science.” p. 94
  • Keeping up with the Times:  A boast that Al Gore, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has written on climate change for the journal. p. 96

November 2014

  • When evidence melts away: “Climate scientists race to sample melting cave ice before it’s too late….” p. 23
  • Solar wars: “The struggle between solar homeowners and utilities could re-shape how climate-friendly the grid will be.” p. 66
  • Sea levels “rising at an accelerated pace.” p. 84
  • How long can the human race survive “… in the face of apocalyptic threats like climate mayhem?” p. 84

October 2014

  • Cultivated coffee trees under serious threat from climate change: “Coffee rust is a crisis hanging over coffee in our era of global warming.” p. 68
  • An inconvenient ice: “Methane hydrates could make global warming worse. If warming oceans destabilize the hydrates so they release methane, the gas could hasten a climate catastrophe.” p. 82

September 2014

  • Climate shocks: “Swings between wet and dry landscapes pushed some of our ancestors toward modern traits, and killed others off.” p. 48

August 2014

  • Sickness in the Arctic: “As climate change heats the world’s highest latitudes faster than almost anywhere else, animals on land, as well as the sea, are getting sick….” p. 58
  • Climate apocalypse! “Global warming is, of course, real, and caused by human activity.” p. 79
  • Graphic science: “Animals across the tropics will bear the brunt of climate change.” p. 84

That’s one small sample, but at 17-for-17, it illustrates what we see in the scientific literature every day. You don’t find articles here trying any more to “prove” that climate change is real. Instead, vintners are working to salvage the taste of grapes, psychologists are working to understand the neurology of climate denial, glaciologists are racing against time to collect ice samples, sea-bed geologists are struggling to unlock the mysteries of climate-threatening methane hydrates, marine biologists are tracking new warm-water disease and pest vectors – each in scientific disciplines where the reality of climate change is now clearly understood.

Popular Science survey: one “skeptic” v. 9,136 research authors

You’ve heard, of course, that 97% of climate scientists agree on manmade climate change, and that’s true enough. But the reality is actually much more compelling: Popular Science magazine recently surveyed 2,258 peer-reviewed scientific articles about climate change, written by 9,136 authors, published between Nov. 12, 2012 and December 31, 2013. Of all those hundreds of papers and thousands of researchers, Popular Science reported that it found one article, authored by a single scientist, which attributed climate change to something other than human actions (published in a Russian journal).

That’s one climate skeptic out of 9,136 peer-reviewed authors.

By comparison, for us white Evangelical Protestant Christians, it seems to be one skeptic for every two of us.

There have been times in history when the best work in science was led by men and women of our faith. For the most part, that leadership was based on an understanding that all truth is God’s truth, and that there can be no conflict between the World God made and the Word God spoke. The Psalmist tells us that “the heavens are telling the glory of God.” And St. Paul teaches that God’s qualities can be clearly understood from studying his creation.

And so, I beg my brothers and sisters: please don’t permit one of the world’s most powerful news magnates to interpret the sciences and the creation for you. There are scientific journals in abundance, and they speak for themselves with crystalline clarity.

For the love of God and his world, please read.

Suggested “readable” science magazines:

  1. National Geographic
  2. Popular Science
  3. Scientific American
  4. Smithsonian
  5. Discover
  6. American Scientist

5 thoughts on “Dear Skeptics: Please, We Recommend Reading …

  1. andrew

    John, that is an excellent post, including an impressive list of Scientific American articles. In response, I had a few thoughts about why many white Evangelicals are more skeptical than the majority of Americans:
    First & foremost, Evangelicals—and, to a lesser extent, Catholics—are susceptible to the “encyclopedic assumption” that approaches the Bible expecting the Bible to answer whatever questions that seem important to us. If we want to know something about the age of the earth, or genetic mutations, we assume the Bible has something to say about these matters, even though the Bible writers—inspired as they were by God—didn’t consider those matters important & probably didn’t even think about them. This assumption leads to some strange, twisted interpretations of Scripture, such as the thought that, because “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen 8:22), humans can never jeopardize the earth’s ability to sustain us. These interpretations ignore the basic principle that, to understand ANY historical book, including the books of the Bible, we must first understand the author’s intentions, the audience’s likely understandings of the writings, and the matters that would have been important to both.
    Secondly, Evangelicals—especially Calvinists—largely believe in the sovereignty of God, sometimes even to the point of denying humans’ free will. Despite the Apostle Paul’s support of humans’ responsibility (Romans 9:16-22), some of us seem to believe that whatever happens to the earth was bound to happen, with or without man’s help. This attitude leads to the admonition from some Christians, that I have seen in many internet blogs, that pretending we can “control the climate” is the epitome of pride & a denial of God’s control.
    Third, a relatively minor factor (according to my experience) is the belief that this world is “all gonna burn” anyway, since “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare” (2 Pet 3:10). Here, the basic idea is that caring for the earth represents undue fascination with, or even worship of, “created things” (Rom 1:25, 1 John 2:15-16).
    I’m not qualified to speak to all these interpretations, but several web pages are available that show how these Scriptures–& others—cannot be taken as a license to do whatever we want to the planet. One good source, for starters, is http://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Topical.show/RTD/cgg/ID/2163/Dominion-over-Animals.htm.
    On a more positive note: In Nov 2014, Erik Lindberg (“Six myths about climate change that liberals rarely question” at Resilience.org) mused that liberals & conservatives each hold onto some grand illusions with respect to climate change. Liberals often think that, if we take some small steps on a personal level, such as installing a few solar panels, riding our bicycles once in awhile, or eating meat less, we can do enough to stem global warming, and even if those efforts don’t succeed, at least we can say we tried. Conservatives, on the other hand—and, we know, many white Evangelicals are Conservative—recognize that, if global warming is real, these efforts are just the beginning, & massive efforts, on many levels (personal, political, economic), would be needed. Furthermore—and more to my point—to Evangelicals, these efforts would be required morally, insofar as we follow the Lord, Who cares so much about the poor, “the least of these My brethren,” who will suffer most the effects of global warming. Therefore, according to Lindberg, Conservatives conclude that humans can’t be changing the climate because we would then have an ethical imperative to do something (something difficult, by the way) about it.
    In short, if I’m connecting the dots correctly, liberals are free to admit global warming is real, because to them it doesn’t really require (much) personal sacrifice, whereas part of the reason for white Evangelicals’ climate science denialism is that we’re more attuned to that moral imperative. If my big house or luxury car are damaging the planet, I might need to give up both of them; therefore, they can’t be damaging the planet.
    One disclaimer: I am confident that ignorance of science is not what makes more deniers of white Evangelicals. Kahan et al., in their “The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks,” concluded from their research that people can know quite a bit of science & still deny the reality and/or impacts of global warming: “…public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare.”
    Finally, in response to some of your other points, I wanted to add that
    1. I don’t see WSJ presenting any unified or official stance. Not all contributors agree on these matters. A single article doesn’t signal a shift of opinions on an institutional level.
    2. Climate change could be BOTH a sign of the end times & a result of human activities. These are not mutually exclusive.
    3. Some Evangelicals mistrust science, due to their belief that evolution (championed by scientists) is anti-Christian or anti-Bible.

    Reply
    1. John Elwood Post author

      Andrew, an excellent set of comments, and a useful contribution to the discussion. Of your many good points, this one sticks with me: “If my big house or luxury car are damaging the planet, I might need to give up both of them; therefore, they can’t be damaging the planet.” As to whether there is a science gap or not, I suspect that a bit of nuance is called for: “Yes, I may be afraid of the personal lifestyle impact of climate science conclusions, and I may be intimidated by conclusions which are ridiculed by opinion leaders in my circles; and therefore, I will not look at the real evidence that might undermine the beliefs that keep me feeling comfortable.” In the face of such a mindset, one might justifiably attempt to speak to the heart attitudes that drive them. Or, possibly, one might simply make it more and more difficult to ignore the facts. Or both. Thanks again.

      Reply
      1. andrew

        “Heart attitudes.” That worthy topic, at its center, I think, is the question of who or what we worship, serve, think about & find our satisfaction in. That person or thing, in the end, is our idol, our god.

        We Christians can be–and must be–satisfied with the Lord Himself (e.g., Ps 27: 4 – “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.). That satisfaction leads many, when Christ saves them, to leave behind their addictions (to cigarettes, alcohol, over-eating, illicit drugs,…), grumpiness, disregard for others, & so on. Shouldn’t we also lose our fascination with & undue consumption of fossil fuels & other natural resources, if the latter harm others created in His image? While the Lord’s servant needs his/her daily bread, s/he doesn’t want to be too rich or too poor, as both riches or poverty entails dangers for ourselves & others (Proverbs 30:8-9).

        John Piper’s concept of “Christian hedonism” (http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/god-is-most-glorified-in-us-when-we-are-most-satisfied-in-him), though not addressing the environment specifically, nonetheless provides another way of looking at this “Psalm 27:4 dynamic:”
        “God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.”
        If we entangle ourselves rather in a materialistic hedonism, we chase an illusion that the comforts & luxuries of this world can bring us happiness. However, when we throw ourselves & our cares on Him, His extravagant, indulgent love & provision for me lessen our thirst for the things of this world (obviously, to the extent we do make Him our “all in all”). And He is glorified.

        We Christians should, then, be the least likely of all people to seek satisfaction in the things of this world, beyond our “daily bread,” especially if doing so harms others by using up or harming natural resources. That “heart attitude” of finding our rest in Him would, hopefully, make us the most respectful of all towards the limits of the earth, & the most protective of its ability to sustain “the least of these.”

        If that’s true, then “Christ is the Answer” is more than just a glib cliche…rather, it is true with respect to using the environment responsibly, as much as with respect to eternal life.

        Reply
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