I am a believer in Christ who rests firmly on the authority of Scripture, and I am a member of the scientific research community. I am neither a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, the Evangelical Climate Initiative, the Evangelical Environmental Network, nor any other related initiative or organization. I appreciate their "deep commitment to Jesus Christ and His commands to love our neighbors, care for 'the least of these,' and be proper stewards of His creation." I do not believe "everything hinges on the scientific data."
This letter is to insert a new combination of observations into the debate:
- climate change is real,
- the best we can hope to do is slow down or delay the process,
- we should plan now to adjust for its effects, and
- ultimately this climate change could be beneficial.
Second, I believe the human contribution to global warming has been overstated. Although the burning of fossil fuels is contributing much more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than other (even non-human) sources, carbon dioxide levels have increased a total of only 30 percent over pre-industrial revolution levels. In contrast, geological evidence suggests there have been times in earth’s past with carbon dioxide levels were many times higher than present levelsand none of those elevated levels are thought to have been caused by humans. Additionally, if you were to take away the human contribution of carbon dioxide altogether, carbon dioxide levels would still increasefrom entirely non-human sources.
Furthermore, carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas, although it may be the only one humans are significantly increasing. In the case of one greenhouse gas, oxygen, the burning of fossil fuels is decreasing atmospheric oxygen. For other greenhouse gases, such as sulfur dioxide, modern volcanoes release at least as much as humans, and volcanoes inject their greenhouse gases directly into the upper atmosphere where they generate a quicker and longer-term effect. Plus, modern earthquake and volcanic activity is at what may be an all-time low. Some volcanoes of the past were 1,000 to 10,000 times larger than present volcanoes. If this increased geologic activity occurred immediately after the Flood, as some of us believe, the human contribution of carbon dioxide over all human history is dwarfed many times over by events in the Flood and immediate post-Flood period.
Beyond earth sits a more significant and obvious source of (at least short-term) global warming: the sun. 2005 was an unusually active year for the sun with respect to its well-known 11-year solar cycle. The effects of this have been noticeable during the mild winter following. There has been a general rise in average solar activity per 11-year cycle for several decades now. Similar solar activity levels 1,000 years ago caused a similar period of global warming that opened up the seas and northern coastlines to the sea-faring Vikings. Few would seriously argue such solar variation is human-induced.
Third, assuming these trends continue, the long term effects of global warming are significant and should not be ignored. And this will most likely be the case even if we are able to immediately reduce, or even eliminate, the burning of fossil fuels. Chief among these effects is the rise in sea level. There is enough ice in the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica to raise earth's sea level by more than 200 feet. That is enough to leave just the dome of the Capitol and 350 feet of the Washington Monument above water. For New Yorkers, that's 100 feet of Lady Liberty wading atop a submerged island. The Gulf of Mexico would reach the State of Illinois and the Atlantic ocean would lap against the eastern foothills of the Andes. Current estimates indicate the rise in sea level could force the relocation of more than 200 million people worldwide. Even while we are seeking to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, relocating our major cities and coastlines is a project that we should begin planning now.
There is not a geologist in the world that can say with definitive authority what kind of timetable we have to deal with these problems. It could be 10 years; it could be 300 years. Neither can anyone say with authority that these climate changes will be permanent once they come. We should not delude ourselves into believing we can hold back the inevitable, and that we should not prepare for it. Jesus never promises us "stability" nor encourages us to work for such. In fact, he promises us the opposite (John 16:33).
Fourth, along with the acknowledged challenges, global warming is likely to bring positive changes to our existence on earth. Higher temperatures worldwide would allow us to farm more land at northern latitudes such as Canada and Russia. The burning of fossil fuelsorganisms of the pastwould allow plants to recapture carbon previously an active part of the planet's ecosystem. Higher carbon dioxide / oxygen ratios would reduce the threat of wildfires getting out of control. Higher carbon dioxide levels would stimulate plant growth and thus increase crop production. Fishing would be enhanced with the greater areal extent of shallow seas which come from higher sea level. All this means more food available on earth. Global warming may very well provide more of a solution to world hunger than a contribution thereto.
Just as the period of global climate change 1,000 years ago produced significant geopolitical changesthe end of the Roman empire, the rise of the middle agesso could the current period of climate change on which we embark today. Although the rise in sea level could be inconvenient for people along the coasts (and disastrous if it happened rapidly), this period of global warming could ultimately make the earth a more habitable place. The basic task for all of the world's inhabitants with respect to climate change is to prepare for and act on the coming changes.
There remains a lot that scientists do not know about earth's climate, including how, why, and when it will change. There's a lot more we don't know than we know, and there are probably many more things we don’t even know that we don’t know. That is why we do well to trust the more sure word (2 Peter 1:19) and live by faith (Romans 1:17) in doing what we know we can do (James 4:17) than to pretend we can hold back the coming change that could, in the end, actually be for the better.
Kurt P. Wise, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Science
Director, Center for Origins Research
Bryan College, Box 7802
Dayton, TN 37321-7000
(or, as of August 1, 2006):
Kurt P. Wise, Ph.D.
Professor of Science and Theology
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
2825 Lexington Road
Lexington, KY 40280
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