Four Questions to Ask About Climate Change

climate-change

Is our climate changing? is it human induced? Is that bad? Can government regulations help?

These are the four questions Jay Richards presented as the basic issues involved in the climate change debate. His lecture at the 2016 Acton University helpfully framed these major questions, some of the important data, and introductory directions of thought on these key issues.

Christians should care about the environment, and in fact the Judeo-Christian tradition gives the best framework for environmental stewardship (Gen 1:26-28). Understanding this debate is therefore important for Christians interested in the public sphere.

There are six basic claims made by those who seek governmental policies to curb human-induced climate change:

  1. The overall temperature of the earth is changing
  2. This change is largely human induced
  3. Increases in carbon dioxide and other gases lead to a greenhouse effect.
  4. The temperature has risen during the 20th century while greenhouse gases have increased due to human activities
  5. Therefore, greenhouse gases are probably the cause (although causation is not directly evident).
  6. This human induced change is catastrophic to the earth

Jay suggests that these claims stem from four major questions, to which he provides some introductory direction on how to think about them.

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Is the earth warming?

There is a gradual warming trend that started around 1850, amounting to a total of +0.8 Celsius. The industrial revolution is the suspect here.

Yet, most of the models used to predict future climate change have predicted continued warming, while since 1998 we have had little to no increase in average temperature. Moreover, most of the CO2 added to the air has been added after 1998, when China and India have especially increased their output.

We must also broaden our historical view of climate change. In the last 12,000 years (since the end of the last glacial), the gradual warming we experience now is well within the general trend of warming and cooling. We are currently in a typical warming trend that is no worse than previous warming trends.

 

Are we causing (or contributing to) it?

There is an extreme diminishing effect of CO2 alone: ~1.0C per doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere. For each degree you want to warm the air, you have to double the amount of CO2. Also, almost all models assume that CO2 will have a positive “feedback” (effect) on temperature, but that is not certain.

Observations actually show that temperature trends contradict predictions. The temperature has actually risen twice as much as the predictions. This probably means there are feedbacks (positive, neutral, or negative) we don’t understand that are not included in the models.

 

Is Climate Change Bad?

There are several factors to consider here. First, what is the optimum global temperature? The answer is probably, the temperature at which the benefits outweigh the costs for human flourishing, but we have no idea where that is. Moreover, as technology increases and humans adapt, that temperature may adjust.

Some have predicted an increase in catastrophic natural disasters, but these have not been helpful. Rather than proving the efficacy of models, natural disasters have circularly become evidence to support theories about natural disasters.

We should consider that increased CO2 might be beneficial to plants, since that is their “food.” Plants generally respond well to increased CO2. Thus, more CO2 on the earth could lead to more greening, better crops, and more flourishing forests and parks. This suggestion is partially borne out by the fact that the greening of the earth has increased since 1981.

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Would Advised Policies Make Any Difference?

According to Jay, none of the proposed policies to date make any sense at all. The biggest failure has been the neglect of the question whether we should attempt to mitigate climate change or simply adapt. Most regulations will likely affect the poor the most. Since adaptation is easier than mitigation, we should spend more time on adaptation and avoid policies that will harm the poor.

Another factor to consider is that human life has vastly improved as consumption and population have increased. The cost of basic commodities has always drastically decreased. Life expectancy and health has increased. (See on this, e.g., Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape).

One last issue is that the market allows people to have a tipping point at which they decide for themselves to start protecting the environment. E.g., when a society begins to believe that they are harming the environment, they will begin making purchases and choices that protect it.

What would you add? Comment below to weigh in.


About Todd Scacewater

Todd is a Teaching Fellow in New Testament and PhD candidate at Westminster Seminary in Hermeneutics. He holds a Th.M. in New Testament and a B.A. in Political Science, and has served the church in music, college, youth, children, and discipleship ministries.