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ecently in an adult Sunday school class at my


church, when asked what barriers they experience
to being better stewards, parishioners expressed
frustration that environmental problems are driven by
media hype. They were concerned that they were unable
to discern hype from truth. Here Ill describe how you
can read the landscape of an environmental claim
without necessarily understanding the science. I will use
global warming as an example and compare it to other
contentious environmental issues from the recent past.
This article will be limited to how you can know what
most scientists think, even when one side claims general
consensus and the other claims dissension. I will also
provide some general advice on understanding science
in the media.
READING THE LANDSCAPE
In my observation, most scientists are convinced that
A) global climate change is real
B) that it is at least signicantly human-caused,
C) that it will result in signicant negative
consequences for much of the globe.
However, some people in the scientic community
are still skeptical of global warming. The names of
these science skeptics come up repeatedly on the
Internet and in the media. In spite of these dissenters,
you can understand the general opinion of scientists
by listening to premier scientic groups, reading key
documents by professional and scientic groups, and
considering the trajectory of the discussion.
PREMIER SCIENTIFIC GROUPS
The evidence for global warming is best summarized in
the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC 2001a,b,c,d, 2007). The IPCC
represents the research of thousands of scientists
around the world. They concluded that other, natural
factors like solar cycles, volcanoes, and changes in the
earths orbit do affect climate, but are not likely to fully
account for the variability we are currently seeing.
In the United States, The National Academy of
Sciences represents the top scientists in the country.
In the last 15 years the NAS has had panels of experts
(called National Research Council panels) produce at
least fteen reports on global climate change, many
trying to solve some of the scientic questions raised
by climate skeptics, and to reconcile different analyses
of scientic data in order to detect a trend or anticipate
the results of climate change. In the earliest studies,
the NAS/NRC reports (NAS 1975) concluded that
we did not know enough to conclude anything. Later
reports have revised our certainty upward as climate
models have gotten better and as we have gotten more
data. Now, in spite of some limited dissension, the
majority of these top scientists believe that the evidence
for human-induced climate change is compelling.
The conclusions of these top scientists are that global
warming is real and that a signicant amount of it is
human-caused (NAS 2001a). National Research Council
Reports are available on the web and are written for an
educated layperson, not a scientist in a particular eld.
KEY DOCUMENTS
On June 7, 2005, The National Academies of eleven
countries (the G8 countries as well as Brazil, China,
and India) issued a joint statement that climate change
is real and human-caused, and that it should be the
subject of efforts at a solution (NAS 2005). Most
recently, in Europe on Feb 2, 2007, the IPCC released
its newest report on climate change (IPCC 2007). It was
the executive summary of a longer, more detailed report
that came out in stages throughout the rest of the year.
It states the current scientic consensus: that global
warming is more than 90% likely to be happening and
to be human-caused.
Other scientic groups, including the American
Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical
Union, and the American Association for the
Advancement of Science, have also issued statements
arguing that human-caused global climate change
is real. These statements have to be voted on by
their organizations membership, and consequently
represent the opinions of large groups of scientists.
These scientists recognize that there are other,
natural factors that may account for some amount of
climate change. Nonetheless, the human-induced effects
are added on top of natural forces, and may increase the
rate of adaptation required by natural systems.
THE TRAJECTORY OF THE DISCUSSION
Dissenting voicessuch as that of Richard Lindzen, a
scientist at MIT and member of the National Academy
of Sciences (Lindzen 2006)exist even among the
premier IPCC working groups. However in the last
several decades, as more work has been done, the data
has become more, not less, clear. More scientists have
become convinced of human-made global climate
change, and fewer remain skeptics. This is what you
expect to happen with new scientic information.
While mistaken or even bogus science (like cold fusion)
can sometimes be published, the peer-review process
causes such science to be heavily criticized. In the
case of global warming, there is increasing certainty
in climate reports, an increasing number of lines of
evidence, and a decreasing number of people who
disagree.
For example, a recent paper in Science (Rahmstorf
et al 2007) suggested that the climate models used
to make projections are more accurate than skeptics
claimed and in fact have underestimated climate
change. The paper revealed new ndings that
temperatures are rising more rapidly and sea level
changes are more rapid than climate models had
predicted, laying to rest criticisms that earlier IPCC
models had overblown risks.
HOW DOES THIS COMPARE?
Compare this to other environmental controversies.
If you hear, for example, that global warming seems
unlikely because scientists in the 1970s thought an
ice age was coming and they were wrong, this is a
misrepresentation of history. There were two main
papers in which scientists either a) predicted an ice
age in 20,000 years (Hays et al 1976) or b) discussed
the impact of aerosols and carbon dioxide on climate
change without making a prediction about the future
climate (Rasool and Schneider 1975). There were only a
few other papers on cooling in the scientic literature,
but several predicting anthropogenic warming
(Connelly 2005). A popular book was published on the
subject (Ponte 1975), and the topic was picked up by
the media. But the authors of the scientic papers did
not make claims of imminent global change, and in
1975 a National Research Council report said there was
not enough information to conclude anything on the
future of the worlds climate (NRC 1975). The 1970s ice
age scare was a short-term phenomenon in the popular
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press, hyped by non-scientists, that went away quickly
and did not involve the majority opinion of climate
scientists.
In contrast, the global warming discussion has
had a similar trajectory to the discussions over three
signicant environmental problems of the past: the
dangers of tobacco smoke, the pollution of lakes
resulting from phosphates, and the depletion of the
ozone layer by CFC pollution (Masters 2007). In each
case, we had a vigorous scientic and public debate. In
each case there was increasing evidence of a problem,
early media hype that exaggerated the known science,
skeptics who reacted against that hype, new science, a
gradual agreement in the scientic community, strong
business pressure not to nd a problem, and hold-out
skeptics. But in each case eventually nearly everyone
agreed that the problem was real and warranted action.
Seeing the trajectory of the discussion and key
documents from scientic groups and premier
statements gives us an idea of how to read this new
environmental problem.
The big environmental problemsacid rain, lead
and mercury, PCBs, dioxin pollution, ozone depletion,
and tobacco smokehave staying power and have
remained concerns for decades. Global warming is in
this group.
GENERAL ADVICE ON SORTING THROUGH
COMPETING CLAIMS
Avoid extremists
Two U.K. scientists, Paul Hardaker and Chris Collier,
recently chided other scientists for making what they
felt were exaggerated claims about global warmings
effects (Ghosh 2007). Hardaker and Collier believe that
global warming is real and that exaggerating its effects
will cause people to disbelieve the whole thing. I agree
that that is a likely result of exaggeration. Exaggeration
is sometimes promoted by the non-scientic media.
To avoid exaggerated claims, avoid getting
information from the most polarized groups, the least
scientic groups, or those with a clear ideological bent.
Look for people expressing levels of scientic
uncertainty and moderate positions. The best thing to
do is look at the mainstream science, including group
statements by professional societies, and not at popular
books, television shows, newspaper editorials, or web
sites. If you do use web sites, look for those associated
with reputable professional societies and avoid those run
by private individuals or groups with an obvious bias.
Remember that when there is a scientic question
with two sides, there are likely to be people on BOTH
sides who exaggerate. Even if one side is actually correct,
some people on that side are likely to be extremists. To
sort out the truth, gather your information from those
who are the least over-simplifying and the most willing
to explain their reasoning. Avoid conspiracy theorists.
For example, climate change skeptic Arthur
Robinson claims:
The human-caused global warming myth is not only
ridiculously bad science;
It is basically a pagan, New Age effort to reduce
world population by withdrawal of technologyan
activity that no Christian should associate himself
with. (Robinson 2000)
On the other hand, Ellen Goodman of the Boston
Globe says, Lets just say that global warming deniers
are now on a par with Holocaust deniers (Goodman
2007).
The strong language used by both of these
individuals will not help anyone gure out whether
climate change is actually occurring; instead they will
further polarize the debate.
Get more information
Sometimes, even if you are an expert, you have to
get more information. For example, in 1988 NASA
scientist James Hansen testied before Congress
about climate change. (Hansen et al 1988, Hansen
2004). Hansen showed a graph of three possible climate
change scenarios calculated using then-current models.
This graph was criticized by a number of skeptics,
particularly Patrick Michaels, who claimed that
Hansens numbers were wrong (Michaels 1998, Pease
2005). But Michaels had removed two of the lines on
the graph and left only the most extreme values on the
third line. The actual observed trend in the intervening
years had tracked well with the second of the lines on
the original graph. This misrepresentation of Hansens
work was repeated in Michael Crichtons popular novel,
State of Fear (Crichton 2004). Hansen wrote a rebuttal,
describing the graph and how it was misrepresented
(Hansen 2004), but the popularity of the novel and
claims on the web left many people wondering about
the graphs accuracy.
Another example was that of the famous hockey
stick graph created by Mann et al. (1998) and
used in an IPCC report. This graph was criticized
for smoothing out past variations in temperature
(McIntyre and McKitrick 2005). However, subsequent
analysis of the graph statistics by the National Research
Council (NRC) showed that while there were errors
in the original statistical techniques, the results were
robust. Thus even when the statistics were recalculated
with modications, the ndings were upheld (Brumel
2006, NRC 2006).
It may be difcult to follow all of the threads in
such a he said/ she said debate. But the point is that
some scientists do not present the actual work of other
scientists who may have been very careful not to avoid
extremism. Often the original scientists will speak out
about it.
Dont confuse the science of the problem with
concerns about proposed solutions
There is a great deal of disagreement over the
magnitude of the effects of global warming and what
solutions should be attempted. Scientists estimate that
climate change will help some sectors of the economy,
such as shipping in the far north, and some northern
places where agriculture may increase. But most
scientists believe that it will harm even larger numbers
of people than it benets (IPCC 2001 b, NAS 2007).
Global climate change will likely increase severe events
such as storms, droughts and oods. It has already
begun to affect organisms and weather patterns. A
warmer-than-usual winter in China in 2006-2007 left
300,000 people short of water (AFP 2007). Whether
this particular event is due to global climate change
or not, climate change would certainly be expected to
bring that type of outcome in the future. At this point,
moderate positions include concerns about signicant
impacts on precipitation patterns, crop yields, ice,
biodiversity, and El Nino events.
Some climate skeptics claim to be skeptics of the
whole phenomenon because they do not think it will
be worth the billions of dollars that will be required
to stop it. This reluctance to accept a problem because
of the cost of solutions has been expressed with regard
to previous environmental issues, including when
environmentalists suggested lowering CFC use or
removing phosphates from detergents. Today, while
there is a robust debate about how much money is
needed to stop global warming, here are some things
we know:
Ve will not develo solutions to a roblen until
we recognize that the problem is real.
Ve do not address only one roblen at a tine.
Some of the possible solutions to global warming
involve changes that would also lower local air
pollution or improve distributive justice.
Sone actions, sucl as generating less waste, nay
save money
Thus it is disingenuous to be skeptical of climate
change itself because one has already decided the costs
of solutions are too high. We must do what we can, and
advocate for what is most easily done rst, but we need
to at least agree on the science of the problem and then
address the issue of its solutions.
Empowered with this information and the capacity
for discerning truth in controversial environmental
debates, Christians with a lay understanding of
scientic issueslike the members in my Sunday
schoolwill be better equipped to take an educated
approach to stewardship over Gods creation.
A longer version of this article, with full references for this
article are available at Creation Cares online community,
deepgreenconversation.org. Search for Dorothy Boorse.
Dr. Dorothy Boorse is an aquatic ecologist and
Biology Department faculty member at Gordon
College in Wenham, MA. She is one voice in the
christian environmental stewardship movement
and lives with her husband and two sons in Beverly, MA.
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