What are the climate change facts? Is a disastrous change in the climate looming? Is man responsible?
There is good evidence that global temperatures have been slowly climbing for
the past four centuries and were slowly declining for many centuries prior to
that. But are these temperature changes a serious threat to our way of life, or are they just a part of normal variation to which we can readily adjust?
Sadly, our lives are going to be affected whether global warming is a real threat
or not. Global warming has been blamed for almost every ill in our society.1 In
his State of the Union speech in 2013, President Obama said this:
Within this short quote, many of the common issues related to climate change
are raised—recent events that are not necessarily indicative of a long-term
trend, a claim that the “science” is settled, and a warning that we must act
right now. The president followed these words by vowing that, if legislation
were not forthcoming, he would do all he could by executive order.
These new policies will almost certainly raise the cost of energy. Higher energy
costs will lower the standard of living for all, particularly the poorest among
us. Is a disastrous change in the climate looming? Is man responsible?
Let’s begin our journey to answer those two questions by defining our terms.
What Is Climate Change?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines climate change as a change in
global or regional climate patterns, in particular a change apparent from the
mid to late 20th century onward and attributed largely to the increased levels
of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by the use of fossil fuels.3 Other dictionary definitions
are much more succinct and do not specify cause, direction, or time frame. It
is not surprising that there is some disparity in the definitions. With controversial
subjects, people often disagree on exactly what the words mean. For the purpose
of this chapter, the phrase “climate change” will be used to mean long-term
changes in climate (mainly temperature) without implying any cause for, or direction
in, the change.
Do Climate Change and Global Warming Mean the Same Thing?
Some use these phrases interchangeably, and others do not. Those who see the
global temperature as going only in one direction often use them interchangeably.
However, the phrase “global warming” was much more popular before 2006 and 2007
when the average global temperature declined significantly. “Climate change”
is much more commonly used today and seems much less prejudicial. Therefore,
“climate change” will be used herein.
How Could There Be So Much Disagreement over a Scientific Issue?
When there is a lack of good data and when people view the data from two very
different perspectives, it is easy to have disagreement.
A Lack of Good Data
Measuring the average temperature of the earth is very difficult. At any point
in time, different parts of the earth are experiencing different conditions;
for example, day and night, summer and winter, cloudy and clear, arid and humid,
and windy and calm. This level of variability requires frequent measurements
to be made in many places over many years in order to calculate an average global
temperature. Temperature measurements have been made at land-based weather stations
since 1880. Two main factors have made those measurements less accurate than
they need to be—drastic changes in the immediate area around some of these weather
stations and poor distribution of weather stations around the earth. These facts
led scientists to push for temperature measurements from satellites.
Satellites are able to provide much-improved data over land-based systems.
But even the satellite measurements, which began in 1979, are not without their
issues. In 2002, the satellite orbits were adjusted so the measurements could
be made at a consistent place and time of day.4
Clearly, only a few years of useful measurements are not enough to give us a
good understanding of climate change. That’s not even enough time for us to
be sure that these new satellite measurements are sufficiently accurate. Lord
Kelvin said, “To measure is to know.” We will never have a clear understanding
of climate change until we are able to accurately measure the earth’s temperature
for decades, if not centuries.
The lack of accurate measurements has not stopped scientists from interpreting
the data they do have. No problem. That is how science works. Scientists do
their best to gather accurate data and propose theories based on those measurements.
They test those theories by doing further experiments to see if the new measurements
are consistent with the latest theory. In the process of using this scientific
method, scientists learn how to do better experiments, make more accurate measurements,
and propose better theories. The problem here is that we are in a very early
stage in the process of understanding climate change. In early stages, researchers
have a strong tendency to develop theories based on their own worldview and
to run experiments designed to prove their theory rather than test it. The current
bias toward global warming will likely lengthen the time required to construct
more accurate climate models.
Two Different Views of the World
To those who believe that the universe is the result of the supposed big bang,
where invisible particles somehow came into being and randomly organized themselves
into atoms, molecules, stars, and planets, there would be no reason to expect
that the earth’s temperature would be controlled within a specific range. That
life exists at all should be considered exceedingly unlikely from this perspective.
Stephen J. Gould, an evolutionist, put it this way: “We are here because one
odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs
for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an
ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of
a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We
may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer—but none exists.”5
To those who believe that the heavens and the earth were designed and created
by a “higher” power, there is ample reason to expect that earth’s temperature
will remain in a range to support life. In fact, God gives us that promise in
Within this worldview it makes perfect sense that the earth would have a temperature
control system just like our bodies do, since God designed them both.
Has the Media Accurately Reported on Climate Change?
“When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog that is
news.”6 Likewise, a stable climate is not news, but a dramatically changing
In the late 1970s, numerous popular media outlets were reporting dire warnings
about impending climate change. An April 28, 1975, article in Newsweek
began with this phrase: “There are ominous signs that the earth’s weather
patterns have begun to change dramatically and that these changes may
portend a drastic decline in food production,” and ended, “The longer
the planners delay, the more difficult will they find it to cope with the climatic
change once the results become a grim reality” (emphases mine).7 Sounds familiar,
doesn’t it? We hear similar pronouncements today. For example, then-Senator
Barack Obama said in 2006, “Not only is it [global climate change] real, it’s
here, and its effects are giving rise to a frighteningly new global phenomenon:
the manmade natural disaster” (emphases mine).8
The surprising thing is that the Newsweek article in the 1970s was referring
to global cooling, and then-Senator Obama was referring to global warming.
Yes, that’s right. The panic in the ’70s was that the earth’s temperature was
declining and would continue to decline. Today, the concern is
the earth’s temperature is rising and that it will continue to rise.
How Could Predictions About the Direction of Climate Change Be So Different
After Only 30 Years?
If, in the 1970s, you considered the data from only the previous 30 years,
it would have been possible to conclude that the short-term trend is cooling,
particularly if you extrapolate well into the future expecting that trend to
continue (figure 1). Interpolation of data, trying to estimate a value within
a range you have studied, is challenging enough. But extrapolation of scientific
data into a region that you know nothing about is not wise.
If today you again take the perspective of the last 30 years and extrapolate
far into the future, it is possible to conclude that the short-term trend is
warming (figure 1).9
Actually, over the last century, it appears that the temperature rose from 1900
to 1940, declined slightly from 1940 to 1970 and increased from 1980 to around 2000. It is easy to make headlines by drawing sweeping conclusions from small
ranges of data; however, it is still unclear whether these short-term trends
add up to an unprecedented rise in global temperature. Some climatologists claim
that the science was not settled in the 1970s and that they were not in agreement
with the popular press at that time.10 Today those climatologists
are convinced that the latest data, now that it has been corrected, is reliable,
and the earth is warming.11
Very recently, a few people have begun to conclude that we may actually be in the early stages of another cooling trend.12 Those who suspect this generally fall in one of two camps. Some are looking at a specific, narrow range of time (1998 to 2012) where there has certainly been no increase in global temperature. Others are focused on solar activity. They are convinced that the sun is the major factor in determining global temperature. This, of course, is a very reasonable conclusion since almost all our energy comes from the sun. In fact, the number of observed sunspots in this latest sunspot cycle is expected to be the lowest in many decades, and the earth did experience the Little Ice Age at a point in time when sunspot activity was very low.13 Has the global temperature started to decline after having increased for about 400 years? Only time will tell. Frankly, with our limited understanding of the major factors that affect global temperature, no one should be confident in predicting the future global temperature.
What Are the Politics of Climate Change?
At present a number of expert climatologists and the IPCC (Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change) appear to be in agreement that the earth’s temperature
is rising and will continue to rise. However, it is hard to know what the scientific
judgment of these individuals would be in the absence of overwhelming political
pressure. Their funding and their livelihoods are clearly affected by their
stance on this issue.
We scientists want to believe that we are unbiased—that we are strictly interpreting
the data and are not swayed by other factors. Are scientists different from
all other human beings in this regard? Obviously not. We are swayed by our emotions
and our beliefs, just like everyone else. So beware when scientists become emotionally
attached to their theories, ignore the uncertainties in their data, or claim
that “all reputable scientists agree” or that “the science is settled.”14 When one or more of these is true,
you can be sure that the issue being discussed is not purely scientific. When
“the science” really is settled, the evidence will be overwhelming, and there
will be no need to claim that the science is settled.
While investigating any subject, it is interesting to follow the money. There
is big money in climate change issues. The person that is the most closely associated
with “global warming” is Al Gore. “Critics, mostly on the political right and
among global warming skeptics, say Mr. Gore is poised to become the world’s
first ‘carbon billionaire,’ profiteering from government policies he supports
that would direct billions of dollars to the business ventures he has invested
“Mr. Gore says that he is simply putting his money where his mouth is.”16
Gore’s many multi-million dollar investments in green energy projects and his
purchase of a $9M ocean-view home in California are clear evidence of his financial
success in this arena. He will certainly have a good vantage point from which
to watch a possible rise in sea level!
Is the Truth about Climate Change Really Inconvenient?
It is tempting for each of us to focus only on what has happened in our lifetime.
However, for questions related to climate, we need a much longer-term perspective.
Have the global temperatures in the last few decades been significantly higher
than in the distant past? Unfortunately, there is no way to know for sure. No
temperature measurements are available before 1880. Scientists have tried to
correlate other scientific data with global temperature, but estimating temperatures
in this way is fraught with difficulties. Correlation of ice core or tree ring
data to global temperatures is full of assumptions that cannot be verified.
Figure 2 shows eight different attempts that were made to predict global temperature.17
The dark line is the average of these data for what they presume to be the last
12,000 years of earth history. Confused as to why anyone would be convinced
by these data? You should be. The most recent reconstructions are shown in the
insert of figure 2 for the last 2,000 years. These data have led many climatologists
to conclude that the climate is much warmer now than in the last 2,000 years.
Historical evidence provides a different perspective on global temperatures
during the last two millennia. There is good evidence that the climate in the
Northern Hemisphere was warmer about a thousand years ago—the Vikings were able
to farm in Greenland. After a few hundred years, they stopped farming due to
a cooler climate. The temperature continued to decline for a few hundred more
years, and the Thames in London began to regularly freeze.18 The
decline in temperature reversed course in about A.D. 1700. If this warming trend
continues, it may again be possible to farm in Greenland, and the sea ice in
the north Atlantic may again be scarce. Figure 3 is an estimation of the relative
global temperature from historical observations before 1900 and from weather
station data after 1990. While we cannot be certain about what was true in ancient
times from either historical or scientific data, the historical observations
seem more reliable in this instance. From these limited data, it appears that
the global temperature cycles around a mean temperature and has been slightly
warmer in recorded history than it is today. There is no reason to panic.
Are We the Cause of the Rise in Temperature Since the Little Ice Age?
Many believe that this recent rise in temperature is caused by an increase
in carbon dioxide due to our burning of more fossil fuels. Let’s look at some
facts about carbon dioxide and examine the evidence of its effect on global
The presence of carbon dioxide in the air is essential to life on earth. Without
carbon dioxide, there would be no plant life, and without plant life there would
be no animal life. Despite this, Lisa Jackson of the Environmental Protection
Agency declared that carbon dioxide was a pollutant under the Clean Air Act
and deemed that it was a hazard to human health.19
So is CO2 essential to life or a pollutant? The government apparently thinks
that it is both—essential at low levels and harmful at high levels. But is there
a level at which CO2 is too high? As with most government regulations, this
regulation preceded our understanding of the science. While CO2 does influence
the global temperature, the exact relationship has not been established nor
has the maximum CO2 concentration in air.
We do know that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gases act as
a blanket over the earth. When sunlight heats the earth’s surface, the warm
earth radiates some of that heat into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases slow
the escape of that radiated heat. You have been led to believe that the most
important greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide. It is not. Water vapor and clouds
are actually responsible for about 80 to 90 percent of the total greenhouse
effect. That’s right, at least 80 percent. That is why clear mornings
are usually much colder than cloudy mornings. On clear mornings, we do not have
that blanket of clouds to hold in the heat. The percentage of the greenhouse
effect attributable to CO2 is believed to be as high as 20 percent
by some and as low as 4 percent by others.20 Almost everyone agrees
that the percent of CO2 that is man-made is only about 4 percent of total CO2.
Therefore, the greenhouse effect caused by man-made CO2 is less than 1 percent
of the total and may be a small fraction of 1 percent.
Despite this, many scientists today claim that the rise in man-made CO2
is the major cause of the rise in global temperatures over the past century.
Just because global temperature and CO2 concentrations have risen
over the past several decades does not mean that one caused the other. Figure
4 shows that the correlation between the CO2 concentration and global
temperature is not strong, particularly between 1900 and 1950. The temperature
profile in figure 3 also does not match well with man-made CO2 levels
because man-made CO2 was not high during the Medieval Warming Period.
These data are not convincing.
Is the Global Temperature Nearly Out of Control?
Climatologists’ greatest concern is that a temperature increase during the
last few decades might be amplified by positive feedback causing the global
temperature to spiral out of control. They are worried, for example, that a
higher temperature on the earth could melt more of the permafrost, release more
CO2, and cause a greater greenhouse effect. On the other hand, a higher temperature
on earth could cause more evaporation, more cloud formation, and more sunlight
to be reflected away from the earth. This negative feedback could moderate the
global temperature. Which type of feedback is more influential? Scientists are
currently not able to quantify them well enough to know whether the negative
feedback outweighs the positive.
Engineers familiar with control systems are well aware that control systems
dependent on positive feedback easily go out of control whereas those based
on negative feedback generally do not. Since the earth’s temperature has been
relatively stable for many centuries, it seems more likely that the earth’s
climate is moderated by more powerful negative feedback systems.
It appears that a brilliant designer has designed a molecule that is both essential
to human life and essential for controlling the climate of the earth. Water
is a polar molecule that is able to dissolve salts, proteins, and DNA that are
essential for our cells to function and for life to exist. Water’s other physical
properties are just as critical to controlling the earth’s climate. It takes
more heat to change water from a solid to a liquid or from a liquid to a gas
than any other common molecule. The 310,000,000 cubic miles of water
on the earth’s surface are able to hold a tremendous amount of heat and provide
great temperature stability to the earth. Water can readily transfer heat from
the earth’s surface to the air by evaporation and condensation, a process which is the
basis of the hydrological cycle and much of our weather. Cloud formation may
also be the key to a negative feedback system that helps moderate temperature
changes in the earth’s atmosphere. Without water, the range of temperature from
day to night and from the earth’s surface to the upper atmosphere would be much
greater. Clearly water is critical to human life in many, many ways.
How Should We Then Live?
In the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, God commands us to subdue
the earth (see Genesis 1:28). Most interpret this to
mean that we should take care of the earth and be good stewards of its natural
resources. If it were true that the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas did
have a significant negative effect on our environment, it would make sense for
us to modify our behavior. But it appears that we are just in the upper range
of a natural temperature cycle. It is not at all clear that the small amount
of additional CO2 produced by the burning of fossil fuels is detrimental
to the environment. It is humbling to remember that when God was judging the
earth with a global flood that He was creating inexpensive fuel sources for
future generations. Let’s obey God’s command and use our scientific knowledge
to be good stewards of our natural resources and preserve our environment for
the next generation until He comes again.21
This content was originally published here.