Religion and Science
The recent article by professor Denis Rancourt, The Climate Religion, argues that belief in climate change is a religion. Although he is right that religion is a powerful belief system common to human societies, which leaders take advantage of to control people, he is dead wrong about acceptance of the science of anthropogenic global warming being a religion. This is a one-time rebuttal (no spitting match, thank you) of his contention.
Professor Rancourt is a climate change denier. Climate denial itself has become a religion, impervious to evidence. There have been many prominent climate deniers, such as the late Michael Crichton, whom Rancourt cites. Most of them, like Crichton, are not climate scientists. Of the few who are scientists, most have received funding directly or indirectly from the fossil fuel industry, which has spent millions on manufacturing uncertainty about climate science. For more on the climate denial industry, see Global Warming Skeptic Organizations.
Note that, contrary to the name of the article just referred to, there is a difference between global warming deniers and skeptics. Skeptics are willing to converse with scientists on the nature of the evidence and the conclusions, in a spirit of inquiry and cooperation, sometimes even contributing to the science. Like scientists they are prepared to alter their views on the basis of rational dialogue. Deniers do not dialogue, they attack, without peer review, accusing scientists of fraud or grave error, often indulging in conspiracy theories.
Science operates on informed consensus. If there is a consensus among qualified scientists that organisms evolved, we should accept that consensus – as a result, modern biology is irreversibly based on the century-and-a-half-old theory of evolution, and creationists’ “disproofs” and “alternatives” have been refuted. Albert Einstein founded both relativity and quantum mechanics, the source of many important scientific discoveries over the last century. Modern climatology, about half a century old, is very robust, with thousands of articles in top peer-reviewed scientific journals annually, by climatologists, chemists, physicists, geologists, anthropologists, archeologists, paleontologists, and even space scientists. Like creationists, climate change deniers’ arguments have all been refuted or proven irrelevant.
The scientific method differs greatly from religion, in one fundamental way: religions claim to be based on absolute, revealed truth, which cannot be questioned, whereas science is based on observation, hypothesis formulation, testing, and rejection. Religious adherents work hard to twist observed facts to fit their doctrines; scientists modify their theories on the basis of empirical evidence.
So what? Why is global warming important? Because our failure over the last three decades to take global warming seriously has led us to a present climate disruption which can lead either to a guaranteed hostile planet for humans, or a planet which is totally uninhabitable by any life, depending on our actions — now.
The scientific evidence
Here is the science, in outline form. The evidence is extensive, and it takes more explaining to rebut, than to make glib denials. Links are to scientific sites, or to lay articles with their own links to original scientific work. There’s a very brief conclusion at the end.
(1) Ocean, land and atmospheric warming is accelerating
(a) The Record
Climate Change 2001: Chapter 2, Observed Climate Variability and Change
(b) 5 Key Takeaways From Alarming New Climate Report
(c) Climate records are being broken regularly, and warming-induced changes are unprecedented in human history. Just a few examples:
1. Stuck on record warm: Earth has unprecedented 16-straight warmest months.
2. Kuwait, Iraq sizzle in 129-degree heat, setting all-time eastern hemisphere record.
3. Atlantic bathwater: Why the ocean is so warm right now and what it means.
4. The longest — and probably largest — proof of our current climate catastrophe ever caught on camera.
5. Greenland’s ice melting faster than we thought, study finds
6. The Alaskan village that needs to be relocated due to climate change.
7. Flooding of Coast, Caused by Global Warming, Has Already Begun.
8. Causes of Drought: What’s the Climate Connection?
9. Increased flood risk linked to global warming.
10. 375 top scientists warn of ‘real, serious, immediate‘ climate threat.
(a) The greenhouse effect: About 31 % of the incoming radiation from the sun is reflected directly back to space by the earth’s atmosphere and surface, and another 20% is absorbed by the atmosphere. The rest is absorbed by oceans and land, and converted into heat. Certain gases in the atmosphere act like the glass of a greenhouse, preventing the heat from escaping. These greenhouse gases absorb heat and radiate some of it back to the earth’s surface, causing surface temperatures to be higher than they would otherwise be. The most important naturally occurring greenhouse gas is water vapor, the largest contributor to the natural greenhouse effect. Other gases, in much smaller quantities, play a substantial and growing role in the greenhouse effect. These include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Without this natural greenhouse effect, the earth would be much colder than it is now.
(b) The main cause of global warming is the human-enhanced greenhouse effect.
Proof that greenhouse gases, especially CO2, are warming the Earth:
(i) Using satellites to compare how much energy is arriving from the sun, and how much is leaving the Earth, scientists have seen a gradual decrease in the amount of energy being re-radiated back into space. The amount of energy arriving from the sun has not changed very much at all. This is the first piece of evidence: more energy is remaining in the atmosphere.
(ii) What can keep the energy in the atmosphere? The primary greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), water vapor, nitrous oxide and ozone. This is the second part of the proof: a testable mechanism by which energy can be trapped in the atmosphere.
(iii) CO2 has increased by nearly 43% in the last 150 years, in parallel with temperature increase – consistent with the hypothesis.
(iv) The final piece of evidence is ‘the smoking gun’, the proof that CO2 is causing the increases in temperature. CO2 traps energy at specific wavelengths, and other greenhouse gases trap different wavelengths.
The graph shows different wavelengths of energy, measured at the Earth’s surface. Among the spikes you can see energy being radiated back to Earth by ozone (O3), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N20). But the spike for CO2 on the left dwarfs all the other greenhouse gases, and tells that most of the energy being trapped in the atmosphere corresponds exactly to the wavelength of energy captured by CO2.
Where are the greenhouse gases coming from?
The recent rise in CO2 levels in the atmosphere is known to be mainly due to human activity. Researchers know this both from various national statistics, and by examining the ratio of various carbon isotopes in the atmosphere. Observed isotopic ratios correspond to an origin millions of years old, which can only come from fossil fuels.
Human sources of greenhouse gases
(a) The most emitted greenhouse gas is CO2.
Other anthropogenic causes of global warming
Forests decrease global warming in many ways:
- Evapotranspiration has a cooling effect, puts more water in the atmosphere that can return as rain.
- Forests slow, halt or reverse desertification.
- Sequestration of CO2 by trees is an important factor in keeping atmospheric CO2 levels down.
- Forest soils sequester CO2 more long-term.
- Deforestation has destroyed societies as far back as Biblical times: the fertile triangle was converted to desert by deforestation (Perlin, John, A Forest Journey. The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilisation (Cambridge, MA; London, 1989). It is still destroying civilizations.
- Deforestation is proceeding at a very rapid rate today.
(i) Clearing land
— For agriculture
— Mineral and fossil fuel extraction
(ii) Global warming
— Bark beetles are thriving at warmer temperatures, killing boreal forests.
— More frequent forest fires are destroying forests.
(iii) Population growth
— There are no problems – climate change, mass extinction, depletion of resources, killer pollution – that would not be eased by slowing, ending, or best of all, reversing population growth.
— Effects on climate:
(a) Robert I. McDonald and colleagues concluded that by 2050 population growth in cities in the developing world will multiply the number of people perennially short of water seven-fold, from 150 million to 1 billion. Projected climate change, they found, will add 100 million people to this number – no trivial growth increment, but still a much smaller one.
(b) More fossil fuel use
(c) More farming
So there are the facts of climate change, in a large nutshell. As you can see, there is a lot to it. We not only know that global warming and therefore climate change are happening now, and accelerating, and that they are caused by human activities, primarily the burning of carbon. We know how these changes affect heat waves, droughts, floods, ice melting, and sea level rise. What can be documented on another occasion are the consequences for the ecosystem, of which we are part, and the fact that amplifying feedbacks are now causing global warming to accelerate on its own, and might lead to runaway warming even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases. Also, the greenhouse gases we have already emitted will remain in the atmosphere for centuries, continuing to heat the planet. That is why our inaction has made the problem especially urgent.
Deniers will pick at details or claim that climate change is impossible, or it’s caused by other factors, but remember this: 1) All their objections have failed to disprove the main tenets of anthropogenic climate change and its effects; and 2) All of their proposed alternative explanations for climate change have been refuted. This article, already too long for many, can’t go into those refutations, although some links have been provided to them.
It is therefore no surprise that deniers have not come up with a robust theoretical framework that can be built upon scientifically, unlike the current theory of anthropogenic climate change.