There’s been a renewed burst of climate change contrarianism going around the interwebs, fuelled by the factoid that arctic sea ice has increased dramatically this year (never mind that it’s only risen relative to last year, by far the worst year on record). The actual factual claims here have been amply debunked by others, but it’s led to a couple interesting discussions over the last week, including one with a friend who posed to me some of the arguments one commonly meets in American Reformed denialist circles. My response grew long enough that I thought it worth sharing as a blog post.
His arguments were four:
1) God said he would never destroy the world with a flood, so I don’t believe he would let an apocalyptic global warming scenario happen.
2) I’m a postmillennialist, and therefore believe the world is getting gradually better, so I don’t believe God would let an apocalyptic global warming scenario happen.
3) Isn’t it presumptuous for mankind to think ourselves capable of messing the world up so badly, when God has made it so well?
4) Isn’t a warmer world actually one more conducive to life? So what’s all the fuss about?
Let’s begin by looking at your first syllogism. Obviously, there are several unstated stages in this argument. Let’s trace them:
1) God said he would never destroy the world with a flood again >
2) Therefore, we may extrapolate from this that he will never destroy the world through any weather-related disaster again >
3) Because of this, we can presume likewise that he will never permit human-kind to destroy the world through any weather-related disaster >
4) Some AGW alarmists seem to talk as if they think the world is coming to an end >
5) Therefore, they must be wrong, because God wouldn’t let us destroy the world to that extent.
Now, while there is a lack of strict logical entailment between (1) and (2), and between (2) and (3), I’m not going to quibble over (2) and (3) raises a distinct question that I want to return to at the end. The big problem comes from the role that (4) plays in the argument. Obviously, even the very most extreme AGW alarmist doesn’t think the world, or all life on the planet, is going to come to an end (I should qualify: there are probably some fringe people who buy a “runaway warming” scenario that would make Earth eventually uninhabitable, but they are at this point only a small fringe). Rather, they think that warming may overthrow many ecosystems in such a way as to extinct many animal species, and that, through processes of desertification, recurrent flooding, and sea level rise, some areas of the globe will become uninhabitable to humans. This is a far, far more muted claim, sufficiently muted that it really doesn’t fit into your syllogism at all. There is nothing in God’s promise in the flood that suggests that human beings can’t screw up the world in a big way.
From the standpoint of a postmillennialist eschatology, you have a slightly stronger case. Your argument there would seem to go something like this:
(1) God has promised that the world is going to become better and better as his kingdom advances >
(2) Therefore, we should expect no massive reverses in the progress of human civilization and dominion over the earth >
(3) AGW alarmists posit that we will witness substantial reversals to the progress of human civilization (breakdown of infrastructure, cessation of productive agriculture in many areas, greater material want) >
(4) Therefore, they must be wrong, because God has promised an uphill climb.
There are several flaws to this line of reasoning. For one, (1) is ambiguous—in what respects has God promised that the world is going to become better? Most importantly, spiritually; not necessarily materially. We also hear in Scripture that “the earth will wear out like a garment,” so there are both reasons to expect progress, and to expect certain kinds of decline. For another, (2) is a big leap. Everything we know from history suggests that, at best, the progress of God’s kingdom is “two steps forward, one step back.” All the more so with the more mundane aspects of human life. I imagine that if a monk had prophesied in 1340 that a disease would wipe out 1/3 of the population of the earth, several theologians would’ve rebuked him, saying God would not allow such a thing. Likewise, if someone had suggested early in the 20th century that 1 out of 40 human beings would be killed in a single worldwide war (1939-45). Just because we expect that, in the grand scope of history, God is blessing human endeavors with success and greater prosperity, does not mean that we might not take some very substantial steps back (many of them self-inflicted) along the way.
To your third argument—”Isn’t it presumptuous of man to think he could screw things up so badly?” I would ask, “What in Scripture would suggest that reasoning?” While the Bible has a low estimate of human capacities to make things right (particularly right with God), it has a very high estimate of human capacities to screw things up. Indeed, in Genesis 1, mankind is given dominion over all creation—we are the stewards of the world, overseeing it in place of God. Why is it strange to imagine that we could be very bad stewards, and spoil a lot of it?
But in any case, we aren’t left with an a priori question. Fact is, we have a long track record of spoiling creation. Many of the world’s great deserts are man-made, and that was all long before we had the capacity to fill the world’s ecosystems with synthetic chemicals or alter the composition of the atmosphere. Note that there is nothing “presumptuous” about supposing that we have the capacity to fill the world’s ecosystems with synthetic chemicals or alter the composition of the atmosphere; it is a demonstrable fact that we can do so and have done so. The only question is what we think the effects of this will be. The effects of the former are more immediate, and have already proved dramatic. For instance, the buildup of methylmercury in fish worldwide, with deadly results for many predators, has been well-documented—and that mercury didn’t get there through natural causes. The effects of the latter are slower and more difficult to observe, but we have already seen examples of our remarkable human capacity to alter the atmosphere through acid rain and the ozone layer depletion. In both cases, human causes were thoroughly demonstrated, and prompt action to change our emissions practices helped resolve the problem. With regard to the effect of CO2 emissions, admittedly the effects are more complex, more long-term, and more difficult to observe, but when the overwhelming majority of the worlds climate scientists agree on the magnitude of the problem and the human causation, I think it’s time for us to sit up and pay attention.
So, to the question, “Isn’t it presumptuous for us to think we could screw things up so badly?” I would answer, “Not if it’s already clear that we can and have.”
Your fourth question is, “Why is warming necessarily a bad thing? Given the historical record, it seems like life flourishes more in warm periods than cold periods.” That may be true, but the big worry of scientists is not so much over the degree of warming, although there is concern that we could move into uncharted territory there, but the pace of warming. Nature is excellent at adapting to changes—provided they are slow and incremental, as most natural fluctuations are. While a few-tenths of a degree a decade may not seem all that fast, it’s extremely fast by climatological standards. The result is dramatic changes in weather patterns that render areas of the world uninhabitable faster than plants, animals, or even humans can adapt. It seems clear that the projected levels of warming (indeed, already some of the observed levels of warming) will result in large-scale extinctions, as well as putting substantial strains on human food production and infrastructure. Even if this did in fact mean a more pleasant, life-friendly planet five hundred years from now (which I think is questionable), it wouldn’t be a happy road getting there.
A final point needs to be made, returning to a hidden assumption in your first and second arguments. You seem to assume a strange model of divine and human causality: namely, that because we trust God to protect us from disaster, or to make the world better, we don’t need to worry about what we do. Imagine if you applied this formula in other areas of life. “I prayed for safe travel, I know that God’s looking out for me, therefore I won’t wear a seatbelt or obey travel laws.” “I believe in perseverance of the saints, and so I know that God is going to preserve my soul unto everlasting life, so I don’t need to worry about going to church or fighting sin.” “I’m a postmillennialist, and believe Christ will will advance his kingdom through history, so I don’t need to worry about discipling the nations or proclaiming the gospel.” On the contrary, we Reformed have always professed the importance not only of divine sovereignty but of secondary causes, which have a creaturely freedom within that sovereignty, and through which God works. Divine sovereignty is never a license for human passivity. So sure, you might believe that God won’t let the human race destroy the world, but it may be that the only way he’s going to prevent it is through humans taking action to prevent it. No doubt there were Christians in the Cold War who were confident that God would not let the world destroy itself through thermonuclear war; but rightly understood, that should’ve served as a motive for a Christian statesmanship that aggressively pursued disarmament, not for passivity.
Likewise at the present time. I too believe that God is sovereign and gracious, and will not let the human race destroy our home planet; but I also believe that we are called to be the agents of his will, that we are called to do what lies within our power to make sure we don’t destroy the planet. After all, he did call us to rule over it, and he won’t be too happy with us if we blow it.