Hurricanes, Climate Change, Pope Francis, and the Poor

Never letting a serious crisis go to waste, climate change advocates seized upon hurricanes Harvey and Irma as evidence that climate change is real and happening, its effects devastating, and without drastic remedial measures global cataclysm is inevitable.

Joining in was Pope Francis. While Irma was hammering the Florida coast, El Papa warned against inaction, predicting, “History will judge our decision.”

In his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, Francis stated that climate change “is a global problem with grave implications.” So grave, that it was the only issue he raised to the level of moral urgency during his talk later that year at the White House, one day after the U.S. Congress blocked a pro-life bill aimed at banning late-term abortions.

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For those who may have doubts on these matters, Francis counsels “go to the scientists… [who] speak very clearly…telling us which path to follow.”

However, there are scientists who come to very different conclusions. Like those in the Royal Astronomical Society who less than two months after Laudato Si’ warned of a “mini-Ice Age” by mid-century caused by carbon irregularities in the sun’s solar cycle. There are also the 31,000 climatologists, meteorologists, physicists and other scientists who signed the Global Warming Petition stating,

There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth.

As to how credentialed experts can look at the same sets of data and come to diametrically opposed conclusions, the late astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle pulled back the wizard’s curtain:

It is a mistake to suppose that science is an unswerving pursuit of objective truth. Partially it is, but only to the extent that the truth does not turn out to contradict what has already been taught in the educational process.

Indeed, confirmation bias and groupthink can affect scientists as well as anyone else, leading to conclusions that are wrong, very wrong. Remember Ptolemaic geocetrism, Newtonian determinism, spacetime absolutism and, only few decades back, global cooling? In fact, if scientific opinion is to be taken as the ultimate litmus test, then the Christian belief in ex nihilo creation by the Creator will have to go for molecules-to-man evolution.

Science can also be strongly influenced by ideology, whether it’s scientific materialism in which all phenomena are reduced to material causes, or radical environmentalism which holds that there’s nothing ailing Mother Earth that couldn’t be made better by population control.

Then there are the corrupting influences of personal interests. In a jibe about climate change skeptics, Al Gore once quipped, “You can’t make somebody understand something if their salary depends upon them not understanding it.” Well, that applies equally to climate change proponents.

In the science arena, every research project is in competition with every other for research dollars. In a marketplace economy, those who capture public interest and convince funding institutions of technical merit come out on top. A proven formula is projecting a sense of urgency with visions of the apocalyptic.

Early in the debate, global warming activist, Steven Schneider, tipped the hand:

To capture the public’s imagination … we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have… Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

Sure enough, imaginative depictions of shrinking coastlines, flooded cities, mass extinctions, and polar bears clinging to melting ice drifts created a “tipping point” that bypassed critical analysis and cleared the way for a new social movement.

Once public awareness is raised, politicians and grant institutions respond to the perceived crisis by creating budgets and allocating funds which, in the case of climate-change, are in the many of billions of dollars.

With visions of new labs dancing in their heads, department heads scramble to tie their programs, however tangentially, to global warming. Programs that confirm the paradigm and call for new emission regulations, serve to expand the power of politicos who, in turn, exercise that power to fund more research. See how this works?

The self-feeding process receives a steady energy supplement from mainline media giving headline coverage to the latest dire prediction while ignoring objections of credentialed experts.

And don’t forget star power. Robert Redford, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Pharrell Williams are but a few of the celebs who have come out, making climate change socially conscious and all so chic.

My technical expertise is in nuclear science with 30 years of experience in radioactive effluent modeling involving meteorological transport. I know, first hand, how easy it is to give computer models far more credibility than they deserve. For example, a “good” environmental dispersion model can be easily off by a factor of ten. That’s because they are based on idealized conditions that do not adequately account for micro-meteorological effects, small-scale topographical conditions, and chaos processes whose influences can produce major unforeseen effects.

In the case of global warming, the combinatorial effects and feedback mechanisms of land, sea, solar, and human activity are even less well understood and, in some cases, unpredictable, making modeling results far less reliable, especially for timeframes decades in the future. A cautionary tale to anyone banking on long-term weather predictions, were the hour-to-hour revisions of Irma’s path made by dozens of the most sophisticated models on the planet using real-time data.

However, if Pope Francis is right that history will judge us, we need to decide what, if any, action is called for by asking four questions: Is the earth warming? Is that an overall bad thing? Is human activity the primary cause? And would forced standards be cost-effective?

Regrettably, none of those questions can be answered with absolute confidence because our knowledge is limited by data, finite in number and dependent on processes that, in some cases, are not fully known and, in others, not even identified. As already discussed, answering the first question and most basic with any degree of confidence is unlikely.

Yet even if each of those questions could be answered in the affirmative with 80 percent probability, their cumulative probability would be 41 percent, indicating the proposition that “manmade global warming is a problem with solutions that are cost-effective” is, at best, problematic.

Yet, had the probabilistic result supported the proposition, one question, perhaps, the most important question remains: Would government-enforced standards create more, or more severe, problems than they solve?

For instance, could mitigative actions trigger a cooling trend with colder and longer winters, shorter growing seasons, and lower crops yields, conditions that throughout the ages have proven the biggest threats to human flourishing and survival? And what about the impact on the poor, a concern which Pope Francis raises over sixty times in Laudato Si’?

Experts on both sides of the debate agree it will take trillions of dollars and decades (or longer) to affect global temperatures sufficiently (assuming manmade emissions are the primary cause) to mitigate the most severe consequences of warming.

But what if those enormous funds, addressing speculative impacts far in the future, were devoted to tackle the very real challenges the poor face now—AIDS, malaria, clean water, health care, sanitation and affordable energy? Those are real crises “not to be wasted” for remedies that have real, near-term solutions to the benefit of the most vulnerable among us.

Oh, that those with the heart of Pope Francis could narrate a crisis that would unleash those resources for the betterment of the poor and all people.

(Photo credit: Catholic News Agency)


  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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