By: Jim Virkler
Articles about climate change are often intensely agenda-driven. We prefer to characterize climate as a wonder-driven topic. When I was a science teacher, I hoped my weather and climate units were approached with wonder. That unit was one of my favorites as an instructor because it enabled me to teach many fascinating principles of physical science, even though meteorology is taught as an earth science. As a teacher of weather/climate units half a century ago, I do not recall dealing with the topic of harmful fossil fuel carbon emissions and a dangerously warming Planet Earth. Neither were these issues high on the radar screen of media articles and broadcasts. But during the 1970s a tug of war developed between opposing camps. One camp, mainly communicating by media articles, proposed we were headed for a new Ice Age; another camp began to suggest global warming might become an issue. In the latter were scientists who began to study the effects of increasing CO2 emissions.
Public concern about fossil fuels and their harmful emissions was practically non-existent before the mid-20th century. Scientists knew about the greenhouse gas qualities of carbon dioxide, but until roughly 1950 there was minimal concern about the warming of Earth’s atmosphere from the combustion of fossil fuels. Concern remained on the back burner of public awareness. The global warming proponents slowly won the day as CO2 levels in the atmosphere continued to show a significant increase. The CO2 composition of the atmosphere has significantly increased about 40% from 296 parts per million (ppm) in 1900 to 415 ppm in 2019. Publishers and scientists on the global warming side of the discussion still predominate, including those who predict looming planetary catastrophe. The average temperature of Earth has increased less than 1ºC since the Industrial Revolution while sea level has risen only 6.3” to 8.3.”
The beauty of a balanced treatment of weather and climate topics need not be overly obscured by harsh predictions of environmental catastrophe. We suspect that warnings of looming environmental catastrophe fundamentally dilutes genuine wonder at the beauty of our weather and climate systems.
To put the matter in perspective, CO2 is only a tiny percentage of the composition of Earth’s atmosphere—about 0.04%. Textbooks in 1950 or 1960 would have reported the percentage of CO2 as approximately 0.03%. By a different metric the 2019 CO2 fraction of our atmosphere is about 1/2500, slightly increased from about 1/3300 in the early 20th century.
A Center for Science Education graphic is an effective tutorial for expressing relative proportions of atmospheric gases. Envision a large rectangle representing the entirety of the atmosphere. The largest portion (blue) represents nitrogen (78%). Superimposed is a smaller rectangle, a red area representing oxygen (21%). Also superimposed is a very small green rectangle for argon—slightly less than 1% of the area of the rectangle. A tiny black rectangle represents CO2 (0.04%). A barely visible, miniscule rectangle represents all the remaining gases—mostly helium, neon, and methane, and tiny traces of others. Vitally important, life sustaining CO2 has earned a negative reputation because its molecule contains carbon. Some forms of uncombined carbon or other compounds of carbon can be harmful. Some people have generalized the life-giving compound, CO2, to be a harmful pollutant. This was aided by a 2007 Supreme Court 5-4 decision and subsequent EPA rulings. Many alarmists long to be carbon free or carbon neutral in our near future, a completely unrealistic goal.
Each atmospheric gas has its distinct role, including water vapor which varies from 0-4%. Water vapor and clouds are responsible for 75% of Earth’s greenhouse effect. There are many feedback effects between water vapor and CO2. If we attempt to correlate graphics of increasing atmospheric CO2 over a given time to graphics of increasing planetary temperature over an identical time frame, we may paint a misleading picture. CO2 has increased about 40% from its relatively consistent atmospheric amounts in the two centuries following the Industrial Revolution. On a line graph extending from the Industrial Revolution to the present, the curve rises substantially in the past century and has been described as shaped like a “hockey stick.” Planetary temperatures have increased 0.9ºC (1.4ºF) since the Industrial Revolution.
If graph scales are too big, too small, do not start at zero, or exclude relevant data, the graphs may deliberately shock or mislead. A famous saying claims we may prove virtually anything with statistics, including graphic statistics. Given: Earth’s temperatures are clearly on a slow rise. As stewards of our planet we must be aware of possible harmful effects of climate change as well as possible benefits. The recent 40% increase in atmospheric CO2 is assuredly a source of interest, even concern for humanity. But we must respond to the concern in a sensible and appropriate fashion. Currently the spectrum of concerned onlookers ranges from scientists of all stripes to politicians, theologians, ideologues, profiteers, catastrophists, and a plethora of others. Some members of society do not share any concern. Others are skeptical deniers.
Ken Bakke’s June 2019 Christianity Today article “God Gave Us Oil—Should We Keep Using It?” is a thoroughgoing balanced article dealing with many sides of climate change issues from a Christian perspective. It is well worth the effort to read it. Bakke quotes Alex Epstein, energy theorist, author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (2014)that “…turning away from oil would deny people in the developing world the same gifts that built and succored the West.” The Cornwall Alliance, a right-of-center network of Christian scholars in diverse fields, affirms on its website “that one way of exercising godly dominion is by transforming raw materials into resources and using them to meet human needs.”
Bakke continues, “The Cornwall Alliance’s arguments are persuasive in many ways: There’s no denying that the gifts of oil and other fossil fuels have enabled countless other ‘good and perfect’ gifts that, as Scripture points out, came in some way or another from God. Their critique of carbon haters is that to suddenly change the rules of the energy game and deprive the rest of the world the quality of life that Americans enjoy is not especially loving.”
Will acres of solar panels, wind farms, and electric and hybrid cars lead to disappointment based on substituting nasty new environmental side effects for problems we already have? Bakke closes with the proposal that “…Americans, including Christians, will eventually have to learn to live with less.”
Carbon is a key component of all known life on Earth. Let us make a commitment to our Creator to manage carbon with utmost respect and wisdom.
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Jim Virkler, a retired New Jersey public school science educator, now devotes his time investigating the harmony of scientific discoveries and Christian faith. He and his wife, Eleanor, now reside in the mid-west near their children and grandchildren.