By Bill Chameides
Despite claims to the contrary, planetary sh*t does happen.
Caveat at the outset: This post addresses some issues of faith. It is not my intention to question or undermine any individual's religious or spiritual beliefs. Merely to point out that an insistence of "solid or good science" cannot use religion as a context for judging what is good science.
Did you catch the news? That renowned politician and self-appointed climate expert Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) has written a new book: The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. Now, I've only read a free Kindle sample of it from Amazon.com, so I'm not about to comment on the book itself. But my dive into the first few pages did get a little something stirring deep down.
A Principled Stand for Good Science?
Two of the passages early on that caught my eye:
- In the endorsements section Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic, seems to disparage climate science by calling it a "global warming religion."
- In the book's introduction, Inhofe quotes from a 2003 statement of his that blames "phony science" for propagating concerns about global warming.
OK, not bad, senator. You may have your climate science wrong -- I don't know, I didn't read the whole book -- but I can certainly get behind your principled stand for good, solid science. And yes, just as Klaus seems to suggest, let's leave religion out of it. Right?
It seems that for the senator, religion is very much part a huge part of climate science. So much so that during a recent interview [mp3], Inhofe pronounced that his beliefs on global warming are "biblically inspired," and he quoted from Genesis 8:22 where God made his covenant with Noah: "as long as the earth remains, there will be springtime, harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night."
Inhofe's point being, I suppose, that catastrophic global warming cannot happen because it would violate God's covenant -- and that to even consider/register such a thought is sheer arrogance.
Oh well, so much for science. But you know, I'm bothered by the senator's implication that we are free to do what we want, that it will all be taken care of by a higher being. Experience, history, and geology tell us the world can be a dangerous place.
Yes, Senator, Global Catastrophes Do Happen
Being neither a biblical scholar nor a prophet, I am unqualified to judge what falls either within or outside the parameters of God's domain. But I would like to point out for your consideration that really, really bad stuff has happened on our planet in the past.
For recent history, you have to go no further back than a year ago when the one-two-punch of an earthquake quickly followed by a tsunami in Japan killed thousands, devastated the Fukushima power plant, displaced 320,000 people, and rendered the area uninhabitable for at least a generation. The area around Chernobyl, a human-inspired accident a bit further out, is still radioactive and off-limits for at least another 300 years.
But to take a look way back, first and foremost among global catastrophes, I'd say, have been the mass extinctions in which anywhere from 50-90 percent of all species that have ever roamed the Earth were wiped out. Thus far, five such events have taken place. The last one, occurring some 65 million years ago, annihilated more than half of the planet's species at the time, dinosaurs included. (See also here.)
But I guess a counterargument could be made that all of these events occurred well before modern humankind happened on the scene some 100,000-200,000 years ago (see also here) and therefore before the days of Noah and so there is no biblical contradiction (all that bad stuff preceded the covenant). Some people have a problem with this because it appears to contradict a religious text -- the stance Inhofe's endorsement seems to suggest we should avoid. But let's not go there; there are lots more modern examples.
A Quick Review of Some Bad Scenes on the Earth From the More Recent Past
There's no room to list them all, but here are a few highlights of Earth's past catastrophes.
- About 70,000 years ago, humans came within a hair's breath of going extinct. What's a hair's breath? Lev A. Zhivotovsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences and colleagues, in a paper published in 2003 in the American Journal of Human Genetics, estimated that at its nadir the human population was only 2,000. And it wasn't a Noah-like flood that almost did in those couple thousand people living in small isolated patches of Africa; the culprit appears to have been a series of devastating droughts.
- Then there are the Ice Ages -- the most recent glacial maximum occurred from 26,500 years ago to 19,000 years ago, a time period that constitutes about 7,000 years when there was not exactly a regular progression of "cold and heat, winter and summer."
- And after the thaw following the last Ice Age came the so-called Younger Dryas when the warming climate suddenly made a 180-degree turn back into ice-age conditions for another 1,300 years. A time that saw widespread extinctions as well as a significant drop in the human population. Some scientists have speculated the Younger Dryas was caused by a shutdown in the ocean's conveyor-belt circulation, a scenario The Day After Tomorrow (2004) turned into cinematic sci-fi. Another theory, advanced by Richard Firestone of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and colleagues in a 2007 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests a large extraterrestrial object (such as a meteor or comet) colliding into the earth triggered the Younger Dryas. Further evidence supporting that hypothesis came from Isabel Israde-Alcántara of Universidad Michoacana de San Nicólas de Hidalgo and colleagues in a paper published in the same journal last week. Bear in mind that such an event would have injected huge amounts of dust and soot into the atmosphere, effectively blotting out the sun for a while, making for lots of twilight and night but not much day maybe for as long as a few months.
- And don't forget the likely fallout from Mount Tambora's 1815 eruption: 1816, the year without a summer.
So there you have it: a review of a few bad times in our planet's past, all caused by the natural progression of things.
Is it sheer arrogance to think humanity could cause a global catastrophe? How about nuclear war? Does anyone doubt that a global catastrophe would be in the offing if we humans stupidly decided to start a full-out nuclear exchange? So far we've kept away from that precipice. Maybe because we've been careful and smart? Albert Einstein said, "The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking ... the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind."
So Einstein thought mankind held the key to the avoidance of nuclear catastrophe, just as humans, himself included, were the ones who had unlocked the technology in the first place.
Others might think it's been by the grace of God that we've averted such disaster. If that's the case, here's hoping for some grace on the climate front as well. I hope I'm not being too arrogant to remind those hoping for heavenly intervention on climate of the old saw that "God helps those who help themselves." Some cuts in greenhouse gas emissions might be a graceful way of chipping in.