There has been much in the news about the issue of global warming. There are many in the scientific community who believe that the warming trend in earth’s climate has been caused by human beings by “greenhouse emissions” or “carbon emissions” from man-made technology. The chief emissions of concern in this discussion are carbon dioxide, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Carbon dioxide is of more interest because it is much more prevalent than methane or CFCs. Carbon dioxide is given off by automobile engines and many factory processes where fossil fuels are burned. Most of the mainstream media are saying that if humans do not reduce carbon dioxide emissions there will be negative consequences for the world. The issue of global warming has effectively escalated out of the scientific arena to the political arena.
Recently there has been a growing scientific voice against the warnings of the global warming community. Recent scandals, such as “climategate” and questionable practices of the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University, have raised new doubts about the conclusions of climate scientists.1 It seems that, similar to the origins controversy, this is another issue where scientists have allowed their personal biases to lead them off the line of truth. It has become similar to the creation versus evolution issue in that there is so much emotional investment in the global warming position not because of facts or the science, but because of worldview assumptions and ideology. This was mentioned in a recent article in the Arizona Republic, “The issue of global warming has stirred passions not unlike the battle over evolution, similarly dragging scientists into the political arena to defend their research.”2
The debate over climate change could have great practical ramifications because of recent efforts to pass laws and international agreements regulating carbon emissions. The trouble with this is that the strict recommendations for industry of “cap and trade” type laws would have great cost to individuals and businesses. Internationally, carbon regulation could put a burden on corporations and governments that could actually cause suffering in some nations where resources would be better spent feeding the poor and building economies. Cap and trade laws have been implemented in some nations but have been resisted in others.
An open letter was presented to the United Nations in December 2007 by the Secretary-General of the U.N., Ban Ki-Moon. This letter was presented at a U.N. global climate conference and was signed by a significant list of individuals, most of whom are scientists, some quite well known. This letter can be read on the website of the National Post. Following is an extended quote from this letter:
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued increasingly alarming conclusions about the climatic influences of human-produced carbon dioxide (CO2), a non-polluting gas that is essential to plant photosynthesis. While we understand the evidence that has led them to view CO2 emissions as harmful, the IPCC’s conclusions are quite inadequate as justification for implementing policies that will markedly diminish future prosperity. In particular, it is not established that it is possible to significantly alter global climate through cuts in human greenhouse gas emissions. On top of which, because attempts to cut emissions will slow development, the current UN approach of CO2 reduction is likely to increase human suffering from future climate change rather than to decrease it.3
The letter also said, “We therefore need to equip nations to become resilient to the full range of these natural phenomena by promoting economic growth and wealth generation.”3 In other words, implementing restrictive regulations against carbon emissions would probably actually hinder corporations and governments around the world from dealing with the real, basic needs of people. Note that Ban Ki Moon has made many other more recent statements implying that mankind should indeed take action to prevent global warming. He speaks out often for the cause of global warming and works for international agreements to limit carbon emissions.
There may be real problems in various local regions that result from climate changes, but those are the kind of issues human beings have always had to deal with throughout history. Disaster preparedness is an issue human beings need to address, but expecting to prevent natural disasters by restricting carbon dioxide emissions is not realistic for many. Climate changes may affect animal life in some regions as well, and there may be something human beings can and should do to help animals that may be losing their habitat, but none of this is indicative necessarily that there is a long-term global problem caused by human beings. Often animals can relocate or adapt to minor climate changes.
Many have rightly questioned whether the cost of carbon regulations is even warranted. New strict carbon emission standards are not likely to significantly change earth’s global average temperature and are not needed for several reasons: (1) carbon dioxide is not a pollutant and should not be thought of as a pollutant, (2) as a minor constituent of earth’s atmosphere, carbon dioxide is not the most significant greenhouse substance, and (3) the various natural processes that determine earth’s long-term climate are designed by God to be self-regulating and to prevent dangerous climate extremes (for example, water absorbs and transfers heat in earth’s atmosphere and oceans).
Design of Earth’s Climate
The question of global warming and climate change is fundamentally about God’s design of the earth. There has indeed been a warming of earth’s climate, though the amount of warming is still debated. But the key questions are (1) could mankind be to blame? (2) could any actions taken by mankind really make a difference? and (3) will the climate change resolve itself without mankind’s help? First of all, advocates of global warming being a serious problem treat carbon dioxide as if it were a pollutant, but it really isn’t. Carbon dioxide is a natural constituent of earth’s atmosphere (about 0.04% of all atmospheric gases; methane and CFCs are much less), although it is true that it is one of a number of “greenhouse gases.” A greenhouse gas is a substance that allows light to transmit through the atmosphere to the surface, but which absorbs radiant energy escaping back out through the atmosphere. The overall process tends to convert mostly visible light from the sun to infrared, which heats the atmosphere. Light is able to pass through the atmosphere to earth’s surface, but the surface reradiates the energy at longer wavelengths in the infrared that get absorbed by the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. When the infrared is absorbed on its way out of the atmosphere, this heats the atmosphere and affects our climate.
But, carbon dioxide is not the most important “greenhouse gas” in earth’s atmosphere. The great majority of the greenhouse effect in earth’s atmosphere is from water vapor. Water vapor often changes state from gas to liquid or to solid. Its form and concentration also vary with humidity and cloud cover, thus its effect on climate and weather is extremely complex. It is very difficult for scientists to predict how water vapor might affect the temperature of earth’s atmosphere as a whole. Predicting global climate from climate computer simulations, especially over long periods of time, may be beyond what our methods are capable of at this time. There are many types of effects that scientists do not know how to model accurately in computer simulations, such as effects of different types of clouds, the presence of snow and ice, ocean surface effects, etc.
Isaiah 45:18 in the Old Testament says that God made the earth “to be inhabited.” In many origins issues scientists have often seriously underestimated the complexity of life and the physical prerequisites for life. God has designed the earth as a system with “checks and balances” which prevent climate from getting out of control. There are many aspects to how the earth is designed to support life. Orbital distance from the sun and the nature of the sun itself are important factors that determine our climate, as well as earth’s tilt, but there are still many other factors that affect earth’s climate. There are multiple interacting and competing processes involved in what determines the climate we experience. If a process tends to amplify the greenhouse heating effect, climate researchers refer to it as a positive feedback. But if an earth process works opposite the greenhouse heating effect and thus limits or moderates the heating, it is known as negative feedback. Everyone learns even in elementary science that heat is transferred by radiation, convection, and conduction. The greenhouse heating effect is heat transfer by infrared radiation. If that were the only type of heat transfer in the atmosphere, it would be so hot at earth’s surface that we may not be able to survive except perhaps near the earth’s poles. Convection creates movements of air that transport heat upward. Convection as well as prevailing wind currents even out temperatures and limit how much the greenhouse effect can raise the temperature at earth’s surface.
It is necessary to understand how water is so important to the climate we experience. Water is an unusual substance with a high heat capacity and the temperature and pressure in earth’s atmosphere are in just the right range to allow many movements of water and changes in its state from liquid to gas, liquid to solid, gas to liquid, etc. Thus water is able to circulate and move throughout earth’s atmosphere and transfer heat in a number of ways. Some changes of state in water happen in clouds, but clouds affect the greenhouse effect in multiple ways.
Clouds reflect sunlight, and so they can reduce the radiation making its way to the surface (a negative feedback, cooling the atmosphere). They can also absorb infrared radiation that comes from the surface, which can heat the atmosphere (positive feedback). There are often multiple layers of clouds in the atmosphere at different altitudes and these clouds interact with solar and infrared radiation differently. So, clouds can produce either positive or negative feedback in relation to the greenhouse effect.
There are also effects that complicate determining whether there are any long-term changes in temperature. Thus some alarming predictions of rises in temperature made by global warming advocates have not been measured in reality. There have been many estimates of how increases in the amount of carbon dioxide will increase the global average temperature. One researcher, Patrick Michaels, of the Cato Institute and George Mason University, was involved in a study looking at how temperature measurements were done in weather monitoring stations. They were examining whether some of the evidence claimed to suggest global warming could actually be what’s called “urban warming,” a well-known effect around major cities. They found that temperature measurements were often associated with many socioeconomic indicators around cities and temperature measurements are often done in inappropriate locations that bias them toward higher temperatures. For example, a temperature monitoring device may be located too close to a building, which tends to radiate heat onto the monitoring device. Thus, because people tend to move from rural to urban areas (true all over the world) and urban centers are warmer than surrounding areas, coupled with the weather station measurement problems, this explains some of the observed warming. Michaels and his colleagues concluded that global warming was about half what had been previously estimated when these effects were taken into account.4
There have been many computer simulations of the effects of increasing greenhouse gases on earth’s climate. Some scientists are now challenging the results of studies promoting the global warming agenda. According to Richard Lindzen, a well-known climate scientist from MIT, some of these studies overestimate the heating effect of carbon dioxide because they do not adequately account for other competing processes, often related to water vapor, rain, and clouds. There has been an increase in carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere in recent years but this has not made a significant change in temperature, and even doubling the amount of CO2 probably would only have a very trivial effect. Some researchers have estimated that the amount of CO2 in earth’s atmosphere in the past has been as much as 20 times present amounts and thus any change in carbon emissions from human beings is likely to have a very small effect. These estimates regarding past levels are probably not very precise but it is reasonable that human emissions of greenhouse gases would have only a trivial effect. Note that there are real changes over time in the temperature in certain parts of the world, but earth is able to vary in average temperature to some degree and life can usually adapt to it. There are sometimes other processes that may be significant in some situations. NASA has reported evidence that sulfur emissions and aerosols (produced from burning coal and other human activities) may have a greater warming influence in Arctic regions than carbon dioxide.5
Climate scientists today are finding that there are negative feedback effects that limit how much greenhouse heating there could be due to gases like carbon dioxide. In recent years climate researchers have studied something about earth’s clouds that is known as the Iris Effect—a somewhat controversial idea proposed by Richard Lindzen.6 Some researchers still dispute it, but some observations seem to confirm it.7,8,9,10 The Iris Effect is the tendency of certain clouds to moderate how heat is able to escape into space so that the temperature we experience at the surface is prevented from becoming too extreme. Lindzen developed the idea from data based on the tropics, looking at how the relative amounts of cirrus and cumulus clouds are related to sea surface temperature. When it is very hot at the surface this tends to drive high cirrus clouds to dissipate. Because earth has a transparent atmosphere, this allows infrared radiation from near the surface to reach the upper atmosphere and thus the energy escapes into space. But when it is cooler at the surface, high-level cloud cover increases and this prevents the infrared radiation from transferring heat out into space. This seems very much like a mechanism tailored to what life on earth needs to survive.
This iris-type mechanism is not always possible on other planets and moons in our solar system. Even if this mechanism did happen on other planets and moons it would not have the same significance it has on earth. Venus, for example, has a very thick atmosphere that is not transparent, thus heat cannot escape into space very effectively. Venus’ atmosphere has thick clouds (made up of mainly sulfuric acid) that never clear away and the greenhouse effect in Venus’ atmosphere is extreme compared to earth, making it very hot. Mars’ atmosphere is transparent but it is very thin and cold, and water is in the form of ice. On Mars there are limited clouds from time to time; and there may even be an iris-type effect. But Martian clouds would not be significant in moderating temperature. Saturn’s moon Titan has an atmosphere even thicker than earth’s and has clouds that are likely to rain methane and ethane. Titan’s lower atmosphere may be mostly transparent, but its upper atmosphere is dominated by organic hazes (similar to smog). The hazes on Titan never clear away and thus infrared energy cannot transfer heat out into space. It is also extremely cold on Titan so any Iris Effect would not have much effect on temperature. It seems that on all these worlds something like the Iris Effect would be unlikely to moderate temperature significantly, but on earth the Iris Effect is significant in helping maintain a livable climate for us. This suggests God has designed the Iris Effect in earth’s clouds for our benefit.
The Limitations of Climate Science
Richard Lindzen (apparently not a creationist) has spoken out against mankind being totally responsible for global warming. He indicates that today’s computer models are very inadequate in their ability to handle water vapor in computer simulations. Scientists sometimes just don’t know enough about the physics. Models are “tuned” to give the desired results. Approximations and questionable assumptions are programmed in to keep the simulation working and giving useful results. So there is a tendency for some climate researchers to bias the simulations toward results that show more warming than is realistic. The inability of the simulations to properly deal with the effects of water vapor and clouds tends to lead to higher than reasonable amounts of greenhouse warming. Dr. Lindzen makes the following interesting statement about people being sometimes overly swayed by claims based on computer simulations. “Unfortunately, there is a tendency to hold in awe anything that emerges from a sufficiently large computer.”11 There are often such problems with computer simulations in science, but the issue is honesty and realistic reporting of the results of computer studies.
Doctor Roy Spencer is a principal research scientist in climate studies at the University of Alabama–Huntsville. He has also been outspoken against mankind being totally responsible for global warming. He was involved with a group of researchers that looked into the iris effect and found empirical evidence confirming that it was real and significant for climate. He wrote an article expressing his frustration with the fact that the global warming idea now seems too ingrained for people to listen to contrary evidence: “The fact is that so much money and effort have gone into the theory that mankind is 100 percent responsible for climate change that it now seems too late to turn back. Entire careers (including my own) depend upon the threat of global warming. Politicians have also jumped aboard the Global Warming Express, and this train has no brakes.”12
There is probably not merely a single cause of long-term climate change, but one very likely source of change is the sun, rather than human technology. The sun has very complex magnetic fields that affect our weather. Sunspots are formed in magnetic eruptions on the sun. The more sunspots, the stronger the sun’s magnetic field is and the more it deflects galactic cosmic rays. Galactic cosmic rays are charged particles that come from outside our solar system. These consist of a variety of charged subatomic particles. There are also charged particles that come from our sun. The charged particles from the galaxy and from the sun constantly flow through our solar system and affect earth’s upper atmosphere and thus our weather. Cosmic rays seem to be related to how much low-level cloud cover there is through a complex series of particle effects in earth’s atmosphere. When there are more frequent sunspots, the cosmic rays reaching earth are fewer. Fewer cosmic rays mean less low-cloud formation, and this allows the ocean and lower atmosphere to be warmed slightly. Thus, if the reverse occurs, the sun’s magnetic field being weaker (fewer sunspots) leads to more intense cosmic rays penetrating earth’s atmosphere, generating more low-cloud cover over the oceans and this cools the lower atmosphere.
This is all relevant to the global warming issue, because the sun has recently been in a period of intense magnetic activity known as a grand maxima. This grand maxima has lasted from approximately 1940 to 2000. This maxima is likely to have caused some slow warming of earth’s atmosphere. It has also been reported that in history there have been times when solar activity was low where earth’s climate was colder than average. Creationist atmospheric scientist Dr. Larry Vardiman has written about this trend.13 Some related comments come from the journal Physics Today from March 2008. Physics Today published an opinion letter from two researchers who did some sophisticated statistical analyses of solar fluctuations and related them to earth’s climate. One of these researchers is from the Duke University Physics department and the other is from the U.S. Army Research Office. They argue there is a link between changes in earth’s climate and changes in the sun. They speak of the “complexity of the earth being linked to the complexity of the Sun.”14 In the same article they conclude that “the Sun could account for as much as 69% of the increase in earth’s average temperature . . . .” Since 2008 there has been an ongoing debate about this research.
Some scientists are now arguing that the sun has moved into a period of less activity, and this could start a period of cooling for us on earth. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that the winter months from December 2007 through February 2008 were the coolest months since 2001 for the United States and for the globe.15 Though these winter months were relatively warm in some U.S. states, this was more than made up for by the cold temperatures and extensive winter precipitation in other parts of the U.S. Another very recent study by researchers from the University of Reading in Britain have showed a connection between low solar activity and cold winters in England over 351 years of temperature measurement data.16
In conclusion, we can be thankful for how God has designed the earth with “checks and balances” that maintain a livable climate for us. Earth’s climate is designed to be able to compensate for and even cancel out various climate effects. Earth’s atmosphere, the abundance of water on earth, and even the nature of the sun are all factors in what determine the temperatures we experience. We are stewards of the earth, but we must understand our planet’s climate realistically in the light of God’s design.