“Rounded with a Sleep” — Time-Scales, MXEs, and Climate Change (Part 2)

skep_collIn Part 1, I said that the “only” substantive issues remaining to be dealt with vis a vis global, anthropogenic climate change are political and ideological, not scientific. That’s like saying that the “only” problem in dealing with Hurricane Katrina was that there was “Gosh … lotsa water!”. This is not without precedent. Scientific issues that impinge on ideological, especially religious, issues are exceptionally delicate, requiring uncommon levels of finesse. What makes the political dimensions of climate change unique is that, to a degree not shared by other such volatile issues, the literal survival of the human species is at stake, nothing less. Discussing a hotter Earth will require a correspondingly cooler rhetoric.

Problem is, especially if you are talking to a conservative individual or audience, all the above is virtually guaranteed to make your audience less likely — not more likely — to take the issue of global warming / climate change seriously.  No matter the degree of unanimity in the literature and among members of the scientific community (the 97% being bandied about is extensively backed up by climatological literature), there is something about citing scientific conclusions, together with the relevant numbers, that makes one’s pro-climate-change argument less credible among the people who are skeptical.  I strongly suspect that this paradoxical-sounding effect is traceable to the fact that (a) conservatives are much more likely than liberals / progressives to be religiously observant, and to be much more observant within theologically conservative traditions, which has the effect of (b) rendering the time-scales of the foregoing MXEs much more problematical in the minds of conservatives than in the minds of liberals / progressives.

If I am religiously conservative, I am much more likely to believe in a young — or at least much younger — earth than someone to the left of me, ideologically.  Consequently, when the latter cites climate-change precedents that rely on time-scales measured in several-hundred-million years, as with the end-Permian event, a conservative with a religiously grounded chronology reacts with reflexive skepticism:  the dinosaurs could not have been killed off 65 million years ago if the entire planet is only 6 thousand or 10 thousand years old. (Ironically, this argument is often advanced by people who insist that they believe in the authority of the Bible, but the 6-thousand-year number is found nowhere in the Bible. It was calculated by Anglican Bishop James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, in the 17th century.) Add to that the conservative tendency to equate academic attainments with religious skepticism or even outright atheism (which statistics substantiate), and an additional layer of skepticism is added. The issue is more a clash of ideologies than science:  more a matter of climatologists than climatology. At that point dialogue degenerates into some stereotyping that, if applied to gay people and African Americans, would elicit outrage — and the signal about climate change gets lost in the noise of ideological jingoism.


Bottom line: in enlisting public support of actions to mitigate global warming, what strategy might avoid the self-defeating effects of a premature appeal to scientific literature and scientific consensus? This is not a question of intellectual integrity.  Rather, it is a question of what works.  It is a question of what works because of the brute fact that, at least in Western, European-derived, First World democracies, governments respond to people, and if the people en masse do not consider climate change a priority, then neither will their governments. Reversing climate change is inevitably going to cost money, great massifs of money, and if the heart of people is not in the issue, neither will the money be there (Matthew 6:21). Besides, even on the level of intellectual integrity, the prior questions are “Whose intellect?” and “Whose integrity?”  I would venture two suggestions, one drawn from personal experience; the second just common sense:

(1) While thinking globally in public, speak and argue locally in private.

That means leaving the rigorously scientific “paleo” climatological substantiation for climate change in the background, at least initially.  Omit references to 65 million or 250 million years ago, the 40 or 50 or 100 thousand years it took for the end-Permian event to extinguish 90% of all life on earth, the inferences to be drawn from the iridium layer laid down by the meteor / comet that marks the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary epochs, etc., etc. Leave all that out. Yes, it’s important. Yes, it’s real. But if you are talking to and debating with people who are not conversant, even on the level of an interested and educated layperson, with the various esotericisms that support conclusions about climate change — and certainly if you are talking to and debating with people with a pre-existing “hermeneutic of suspicion” vis a vis science — bringing up data from remote geological epochs is virtually guaranteed to be counterproductive.  Paradoxical as it may sound, the rigorous science detracts from the credibility of one’s arguments. But the paradox is not real, only apparentyou are doing politics now, not a research colloquium.

Instead, talk in terms that are local, both in terms of space and time. For example, when my wife and I moved to Seattle from Boston 25 years ago, we were gratified to discover that, though very few houses had even window air conditioners, much less central air, there would only be a handful of days in a typical Seattle summer when any kind of air conditioning would have been really nice. Most of the time, we could leave windows open on opposite sides of the house, and the prevailing breeze blowing between the two windows would be ample — and there were only a few days during a typical summer when we needed to do that. But at about the 15- or 20-year mark, summers became so warm that we finally broke down, bit the financial bullet, and had central air installed. By that time, summers in Seattle had become warm enough for long enough that air conditioning was cost-effective. After roughly 20 years, my wife and I concluded that, yes, the climate was changing, becoming warmer, and these changes were gradually becoming perceptible. Keeping our house habitably cool requires no complex excursions into Christian, or any other, theology.


Which leads me to my second bit of advice:

(2) Leverage the young-earth ideology itself as a means of rendering the issue of anthropogenic climate change both credible and urgent.

Empirical science being as it may, if the entire cosmos was indeed created 6,000 years ago, then, once the empirical reality of climate change has been conceded, the time-line of climate change is far, far more compressed than anyone, even professional climatologists, realized at first. So the issue is correspondingly more urgent. I am no being sarcastic in the least when I say that people who believe the earth was created in 6,000 years and that the eschaton could occur in the next few days should – for reasons of pure logic alone – be in the forefront of efforts to address global warming. We may not have to wait for “the elements [to] melt with fervent heat” (II Peter 3:10). Indeed, in a sense St. Paul could not have anticipated “Now is the day of salvation” (II Cor. 6:2). There is no point in arguing about whether the earth is 6 thousand years old if the earth, as is surely the case, will not be habitable for another 6 hundred years.

Consequently, one would be well advised to discuss the precedents for climate change that are well within the accepted chronology of a typical conservative-evangelical Christian audience. Stay well away from time expressions that have to be expressed in floating-point scientific notation, e.g., 6.5 x 107, 2.5 x 108, 4 x 109, etc. There is abundant short term data indicating the reality of global warming on time intervals comparable to a few human generations. One interesting by-product of these so-called “dT” (variation in temperature, temperature-differential) studies is that local cooling is entirely consistent with the overall trend of global warming. And all of this is easily contained within the 6,000-to-10,000-year history of the planet demanded by conservative religious ideologies. So, Superstorm Sandy is entirely consistent, on a near-continental, short-term scale with global warming on a planet-wide, long-term scale. (Incidentally, this is a good reason to use the term “climate change” in preference to “global warming”: the former term carries no implicit bias as to the scale of the change in terms of space or time.) Finally, based on the data supporting such comparatively short-term studies of climate change, one can – while remaining strictly within the several-millennia range of conservative chronologies – reference model-based predictions of what is likely to happen to the earth’s climate in the next, say, century or two. One need not reference time-frames measured in millennia or geological epochs to elicit concern, even alarm, about climate change.


Far too much discussion of climate change in progressive / left-of-center venues these days tends to begin with debates about science only to degenerate into ridiculing others’ religious beliefs. This has two immediate effects: (1) it makes us on the left feel warm and fuzzy, because it makes fun of others’ anti-scientific, flat-earth biases; but it does so at the cost of (2) in the long run making conservatives like Mike Pence and Ted Cruz – granted, lost causes to the climate-change issue – more credible to large swathes of the conservative population than people who believe in the urgency of the global-warming issue. Meanwhile, Earth’s transformation into Venus proceeds apace. I vehemently disagree with the Pences and the Cruzes and the other climate-change deniers as much as Prof. Richard Dawkins. But I disagree with Prof. Dawkins’ reaction. He says, basically, “Ignore them.”

The problem with that reaction may be stated in two words: They Vote.

James R. Cowles

Image credits:
Temperature variation chart:  Richard A. Rohde … Creative Commons by SA 3.0
Anti-evolution gathering:  Mike Licht … Creative Commons 2.0 generic
Climate change protest photo … Peter Halasz … CC BY-SA 3.0


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One thought on ““Rounded with a Sleep” — Time-Scales, MXEs, and Climate Change (Part 2)

  1. James, thanks for taking on both the science and the sociology about our dire circumstances! A big wad to chew on, and much that seems distasteful, but we must get at it in order to find that which can sustain us! I appreciate your research and presentation here, big time. ❤


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