Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Climate Change Denial and Creationism

I have noticed that most, if not all, of my fundamentalist Christian acquaintances are also climate change deniers.  I've been wondering whether there is a connection and I've concluded that there is, and that it's young earth creationism.

Young earth creationism often goes under the name of Creation Science, but it's not science, it's apologetics.  Science is an open pursuit of knowledge - it seeks explanations for observed phenomena, and tests these against the evidence.  Its hypotheses may be proved or disproved - both proof and disproof are valid scientific outcomes.

Apologetics, on the other hand, is the task of defending a particular view or idea.  The truth is already known and the task of the apologist is to bolster belief in that truth by marshalling evidence in its defence.  In this case the faith position is the literal inerrancy of the Bible, and in particular the literal truth of the early chapters of Genesis which are understood to describe a seven-day creation roughly 6,000 years ago. 

Apologists are not required to prove their viewpoint, only to find a way to present it as rational and to question alternative viewpoints. Creationists have a number of strategies for achieving this. 

First of all, they hone in on weaknesses and gaps in the ideas of their opponents.  For creationists, these include the incredible complexity and statistical improbability of life, apparent gaps in the fossil record,  the variable results of radioactive dating methods, and so on.  These issues are exaggerated, and in many cases disorted, to cast doubt on the theory of evolution, while the huge amount of evidence in favour of evolution is downplayed or ignored.

Secondly, evidence is cited out of context or in a distorted way so that it appears to support the creationist view.  This often involves relying on outdated and discredited explanations for known phenomena.  A classic example of this is the citation of the presence of oceanic fossils on high ground as evidence of the Great Flood, an explanation long replaced by an understanding of the motion of oceans and continents over time.

Thirdly, scientific endeavour is recast as a field of conflict, a partisan exercise in which competing world views strive to win the day.  Creationists suggest that evolutionists are hiding and distorting evidence in order to ensure victory for evolution.  In its mild form, scientists are hapless victims of a kind of groupthink which favours orthodoxy.  In its extreme form this becomes full blown conspiracy theory, with scientists conspiring to promote their atheistic views out of a clear ideological agenda.

If you read this blog regularly, you will know that I find young earth creationism both scientifically untenable and theologically unnecessary.  However, I do understand that a lot is at stake here.  Biblical inerrancy is a core idea in Christian fundamentalism, and giving that up means you have to give up lots of other things as well.  Many former fundamentalists, having abandoned inerrancy, find it impossible to sustain any other kind of faith.  It's little wonder they work hard to maintain it. 

Now to climate change.  Decades of research on this issue have led to a high level of consensus among scientists from a wide range of disciplines.  This consensus is best summed up by quoting key statements from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 4th Assessment report.

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level ...

Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG (i.e. greenhouse gas) concentrations. It is likely that there has been significant anthropogenic warming (i.e. warming caused by human activity) over the past 50 years averaged over each continent (except Antarctica)....

Continued GHG emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming and induce many changes in the global climate system during the 21st century that would very likely be larger than those observed during the 20th century.

This position is explained by Tim Hall, adjunct professor at Columbia University, in Climate Change: Picturing the Science edited by Gavin Schmidt and Joshua Wood,

It is not possible in any field of natural science to absolutely prove that an explanation for a phenomenon is correct, only that one is incorrect or inadequate. Many explanations may be put forth to explain a series of observations or results from an experiment. The explanations, to be most useful, make distinct predictions about other observations. As additional observations become available, some explanations are shown to be incorrect, while others remain consistent with the data....

The theory of anthropogenic climate change has made predictions that have been borne out. Climate change theory has correctly predicted that sea levels should rise as ice melts and warmer seawater expands....that the stratosphere should cool in reponse to increasing levels of greenhouse gases....that warming in the Arctic would be enhanced due to ice melt and the subsequent energy absorption of exposed seawater....that heat content would rise in the ocean, and that the land would warm more rapidly....all of which have been observed.

....if a new theory of global warming were put forth, not only would it have to explain observed climate change over the industrial era, it would have to explain why the climate was not responding to greenhouse gases in a way consistent with the known physics. No-one has put forth any such theory to compete with anthropogenic influence.

Of course there is also a small group of scientists who dispute this view, and they have been getting a lot of air time.  Robert Manne's recent essay in The Monthly outlines how they operate, with financial support from key conservative think-tanks, to dispute this scientific consensus.  As I read articles by climate change deniers, and as I read Manne's critique of them, it sounds uncannily like the creation vs evolution debate in fundamentalism.  Climate deniers exaggerate flaws and uncertainties in climate science, stress discredited or irrelevant data and interpretations, and imply that climate scientists are conspiring to suppress contrary opinions and data for their own venal purposes.

There is nothing theologically at stake in global warming. In fact, it's far less theologically problematic to believe that fallen, hopelessly sinful humans are damaging the planet than to believe we are not. Global warming is exactly the type of thing that Christian theology predicts. Nor are climate change deniers necessarily motivated by faith. Ian Plimer, one of Australia's most prominent deniers, is also the author of a trenchant critique of creationism called Telling Lies for God.  Yet their approach to science is so similar to that of the creationists that it immediately resonates with people already convinced by the arguments of Creation Science.

Most of us lack the knowledge to genuinely assess the research on either question for ourselves and reach our own conclusions. We are highly reliant on the interpretations of experts.  We trust that their expertise, and the public, multi-national and multi-disciplinary nature of the process Hall describes, will ensure scientific explanations are as close to the truth as the evidence allows.

Yet for fundamentalists, creationism has broken this trust.  Science is seen as suspect and, more to the point, as the enemy of faith.  Critiques by outsiders, Christian or not, are more to be trusted than the general scientific consensus.  An apologetic method designed to protect their faith has been hijacked to promote a cause which, if anything, is at odds with Christianity.

Since I gave up on creationism myself in my early 20s, I have regarded it as a bit silly but essentially harmless.  After all, if you live by the gospel, what does it matter if you believe the earth is only 6,000 years old?  However, there is nothing harmless about climate change denial.  All of a sudden I feel a whole lot more sympathy for Richard Dawkins....

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