Religion is a difficult concept to define. A simple definition is that it is a system of supernatural beliefs. Brad Stephens believes that there is a religion of global warming with “a doom-saying prophecy and faith in things unseen.” For Stephens, there is no evidence of climate change, and whatever evidence people cite is inadequate.
But is there a “religion”, as he claims?
It may seem that advocates for intervention in the global climate have a sort of religious belief in the importance of being environmentally conscious, but is it supernatural? There appears to be a fair amount of science behind the identification of man-made global warming and the inevitable rise in sea level. By definition, science is not religion, it is tested information that claims to prove increasing temperatures in the atmosphere.
There is a specific field of science in which the climate is the main focus: it is known as climatology, and climate scientists that compare ancient climates on earth are called paleoclimatologists. They would be surprised to hear their field described as a religion.
Such specialists have been able to isolate different lines of evidence to show the warming trend of the earth’s environment.The evidence is obvious in villages such as Shishmaref, located on an island a part of Alaska, and Taku, a coral island near Bougainville. These islands see the changes we already face in a shockingly obvious way.
In Shishmaref the people are dealing with the melting of sea ice, easily observed by hunters starting in the early 1990’s. The fall sea ice was forming later, and leaving sooner (Kolbert 8). In Taku, the sea level rise is readily apparent and apparently due to global warming. A large swell, known as a “king wave” to some, displaced many people by destroying homes. But these effects are only noticeable to people in high latitudes or coastal regions, or by comparing satellite photos of the arctic from different decades.
Climatologists have done many studies scientifically proving that the Earth’s climate is changing at a rate best explained by human factors.
The comparison of satellite photos, for example, makes clear the decline of arctic ice. The two types of ice there look similar, although they have some differences. The first is seasonal ice, the ice that forms in the winter and melts in the summer. The second is known as perennial ice, that is, the ice that exists year round (Kolbert 26). In 1979 NASA used satellites equipped with microwave sensors to determine that the perennial ice covered 1.7 billion acres of the arctic.
“The ice’s extent varies from year to year, but since then the overall trend has been strongly downward” (Kolbert 28).
By now, though, the perennial ice has lost over 250 million acres (Kolbert 28). And this information does not detail the depth of the perennial ice.
When it comes to climate change, one of the most discussed topics is the issue of greenhouse gas emission. CO2 levels, the most discussed greenhouse gas, now are the highest they have been in recent geological history, at 378 parts per million (Kolbert 130). Most climate scientists think that an objective estimate of danger is somewhere around 450 parts per million, but others put the critical number closer to 400 parts per million or lower (Kolbert 129).
By comparing this concentration level to that of the past it is clear that something has changed. It is believed that the concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere has not been as high as the present for three and a half million years. And that the most recent high of only 299 parts per million was 325,000 years ago. By looking at ice cores from the Vostok station in Antarctica we can see that CO2 concentrations and temperature variations on earth vary in tandem with one another: that is, if CO2 levels change then global temperature is likely changing as well (Kolbert 130). This data appears to be of scientific, rather than supernatural, origin.
The changes in temperature across the globe affect Greenland greatly, as 80% is covered by ice. The entire island is located north of the arctic circle and the ice sheet is made up entirely of accumulated snow. This snow contains a natural record by which scientists can discover past temperatures and gas concentrations. A core sample taken at the surface provides information about the most recent snow accumulation, and the deeper parts of a core go further and further back into history with exponential speed due to compaction (Kolbert 49).
“Much of what is known about the earth’s climate over the last hundred thousand years comes from ice cores drilled in central Greenland” (Kolbert 50).
Even the naked eye can see different time periods in the snow, much like the rings of a tree. Scientists can analyse the isotopic composition of the core and tell how cold it was at the time that the ice formed. It is not uncommon in the Earth’s history for climate to fluctuate, and the Greenland ice cores show that the temperatures have often swung wildly. The Greenland ice sheet, if melted completely, could raise the sea level 23 feet, and throughout the 1990’s it was shrinking some 12 cubic miles per year (Kolbert 52).
With warming temperatures and the retreat of many ice sheets and glaciers there have also been great effects on animal species such as the Butterfly. The English have been fascinated by the butterfly for centuries and have detailed records of locations and the many species. It is said that butterflies can be divided into two groups: the “specialists”, who require specific conditions, and the “generalists”, who are much less picky organisms (Kolbert 70).
One butterfly in the category of “generalist” is the Comma, or common butterfly. The Comma’s range used to extend from the south coast of England northward to Liverpool and to Norfolk. But as soon as the region was recorded, it was out of date. The Comma was moving further north, into regions typically understood to be colder (Kolbert 68). As temperatures increase the generalist’s range also increases, allowing them to move into these areas.
While butterfly distribution is not likely to have a large effect on the environment, it shows that global warming, and climate change in general, is affecting many other species than just the humans being displaced.
While there is a great deal of science to prove that the Earth’s climate is changing, there are also a great many unknowns. We can estimate how long it might take for sea levels to rise to a certain point at current rates of emissions, but unfortunately we have no way of knowing if the rates will remain constant, decrease or increase. We can guess at the many different environmental effects of the increasing temperatures, but there is no way for us to know the number of species that will be affected.
Scientists spend considerable amounts of time studying all the possible outcomes of the changing climate, but because humans are now a large contributor to the problem with emissions from commercial agriculture, it is becoming more difficult to keep up with all of the potential changes. Regardless of these unknowns, global warming continues.
A rapidly changing climate is an issue that cannot be ignored. While Stephens feels that the people who “preach” of the rising temperatures are basing their knowledge on things unseen, it should be clear by now that there is much scientific knowledge regarding the existence of global warming. Stephens’ argument seems to be one of a person who wishes to believe that it is not occurring. But as evidence mounts, I think he would find it difficult to find errors in so many different scientific studies. Perhaps his point of view is best understood as a “religion”–the religion of climate-change denial.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. Field Notes From A Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2006. Print.