Resources: Climate change and the purposes of God

Listen to the prophets: expert voices on climate change

Posted in: Climate change and the purposes of God, Science
Resource type: Further reading

Among our modern-day prophets are James Hansen of NASA, who states: ‘The blame, if we fail to stand up and demand a change of course, will fall on us, the current generation of adults. Our parents honestly did not know that their actions could harm future generations. We, the current generation, can only pretend that we did not know.’ This article outlines some of the many clear introductions to the science of human-induced climate change.

There are many clear introductions to the science of human-induced climate change, among them:

1. Sir John Houghton Global Warming: The Complete Briefing

Fourth edition 2009, Cambridge University Press. (The quotations below are from his own summary in “Global Warming, Climate Change and Sustainability”, John Ray Initiative Briefing Paper No 14, 2011.)

Sir John Houghton FRS was professor of atmospheric physics in Oxford, Chief Executive of the Meteorological Office, founder of the Hadley Centre, and for a while Chair of the scientific assessment working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The Hadley Centre at the Met Office is a primary source of scientific research into climate change. There are resources available on their website at www. metoffice.gov.uk/research

2. Nick Spencer and Robert White Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable Living SPCK 2007

Nick Spencer is Director of Studies at Theos, a public theology think-tank. Robert White FRS is Professor of Geophysics in Cambridge and a Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.

3. James Hansen and others “The case for Young People and Nature: a path to a healthy, natural, prosperous future” from www.columbia.edu May 2011.

James Hansen is Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, and also a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University.

In summary:

There is a record of the gases in the atmosphere trapped in ice-cores from the Antarctic and Greenland which show a very rapid increase in the percentage of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

Before about 1750, the average concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million – and with some slight fluctuations had stayed there for several hundred thousand years. Now is it 392 parts per million and rising fast.

Chemical analysis indicates that this increase is very largely due to the burning of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere acts as a blanket over the earth’s surface, and together with other ‘greenhouse gases’ such as methane and water vapour, keeps the earth’s temperature about 20 deg. To 30 deg warmer than it would otherwise be. Without some carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we would have extremes of heat and cold like Mars, and life as we know it would be impossible.

Over the past 150 years, the average global surface temperatures has gone up and down, due to volcanic eruptions, changing radiation from the sun, industrial particles in the atmosphere. However, John Houghton argues that “the substantial rise in global average temperatures during the last 50 years is well outside the range of known variability and cannot be attributed to any of these natural causes.” Most of the temperature rise is attributed to increasing emission of greenhouse gases.

If the average surface temperature were to rise another 2 degrees in the next half-century, it is expected that there would be more flooding in some areas, more drought in other areas, shortage of drinking water, change in crop yields affecting food security, increasing acidification of the oceans, sea level rise, a changing distribution of insects affecting health.

If the rise were more than 4 degrees, these effects would be dramatically worsened; crop yields would decrease very significantly; more than 40% or earth’s species would face extinction.

As John Houghton notes, the temperature difference between the middle of an ice age and the warm periods in between is only about 5–6 degrees. So “likely warming in the 21st century will be a rate of climate change equivalent to, say, half and ice-age in less than 100 years – a larger rate of change than for at least 10,000 years. Adapting to this will be difficult for both humans and many ecosystems.”

Having reviewed various technological and economic options both for mitigating and adapting to anthropogenic climate change, James Hansen concludes:

‘The basic matter, however, is not one of economics. It is a matter of morality – a matter of intergenerational justice. The blame, if we fail to stand up and demand a change of course, will fall on us, the current generation of adults. Our parents honestly did not know that their actions could harm future generations. We, the current generation, can only pretend that we did not know.’

It was conversations between the scientist James Hansen, and the environmental activist Bill McKibben that led to the creation of a world-wide movement 350.org. This argues that a considerable weight of scientific evidence points to the need for a ‘planetary boundary’ of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – level that was reached and passed in 1988. This would require very large reductions in current carbon dioxide emissions. It is why Operation Noah, among others, is calling for a ‘zero carbon Britan by 2030.’ (See for further information, for example, www.cat.org.uk or www.zerocarbonbritain.com).

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