The News that Didn’t Fit—What I Told a New York Times Reporter, and He Didn’t Report
On June 16, 2015, I received an email from New York Times reporter Justin Gillis, who has written much highly critical of those who are skeptical of claims of catastrophic, anthropogenic global warming—people like me. Because I had taken the lead in producing An Open Letter to Pope Francis on Climate Change, Gillis posed some questions to me for an article he was working on about religious people’s reactions to Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’.
I wrote extensive replies, not expecting that they’d get into his eventual report but hoping they might just get him past the superficial thinking typical of most journalists covering the topic.
As of August 21, 2015, the only result I’ve seen from that is Gillis’s article “For Faithful, Social Justice Goals Demand Action on Environment,” published June 20, 2015. In it I play the role of token conservative/skeptic—what I suppose Gillis thinks is journalistic “balance.” Read the article for yourself and see how balanced you think it is.
The Times once had a motto, “All the news that’s fit to print.” Nowadays its motto should be “All the news that fits our agenda.” True to form, Gillis used essentially nothing from our email interview exchange.
So, here’s a peak behind the curtain, showing what Gillis deemed not fit to print.
I began my response:
Thanks for the emailed questions and for taking the time to watch my Rome presentations and read some of my other writings. The complexity is precisely why this is a good way to handle it. It allows for more careful answers, more sure “hearing” of the answers, and an exact record of what was said. As a former newspaper reporter, editor, and publisher myself, I value all those things.
I must forewarn you that I’m not going to give you soundbite answers. Climate is probably the most complex physical system—with the possible exception of human genetics—we’ve ever studied. Energy production, distribution, and use constitute another of the most complex physical systems we’ve ever studied, and certainly one of the most complex we’ve ever devised. There simply are no simple answers.
Here, then, ad seriatim, are my answers to your questions, as brief as I can make them without being oversimplified and misleading:
What follows are his questions (numbered and in italics), and then my answers (the only changes being breaking some long paragraphs apart, fixing a few typos, and changing numbered to lettered paragraphs to distinguish them more clearly from the numbered questions).
1. You rely, as do many people, on the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:26 and 1:28 in your thinking about the climate problem. Do you interpret the mandate to mean that God would not allow man to misuse or abuse the Earth, or do you think it is possible in principle for humanity to abuse it?
Allow is a somewhat ambiguous term. It can mean “not prevent.” Clearly God does not prevent human abuse of the Earth—in the dominion mandate or anywhere else. But allow can mean “approve,” and God definitely doesn’t approve human abuse of the Earth, either. So, it is possible, though wrong, for humanity to abuse the earth.
2. Do you interpret the dominion mandate, or perhaps Genesis 2:15, to encompass a duty of care for the Creation, and if so, what sort of human activities might violate that duty?
We at the Cornwall Alliance summarize the goals embedded in God’s instruction in Genesis 1:28 for humanity to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over” everything in it as godly dominion, which we describe this way: “Godly dominion is men and women, created by God in His image, laboring lovingly together to enhance the fruitfulness, the beauty, and the safety of the earth, to the glory of God and the benefit of their neighbors, thus fulfilling the two Great Commandments to love God and to love neighbor.”
This we think encompasses care for the earth while making it clear that care for the earth doesn’t mean just preserving it as we find it but permits our enhancing it in various ways for human benefit.
3. You stated in Rome that following policies to lower CO2 emissions would effectively keep poor people in poverty. Yet the explicit aim of most groups advocating climate action is to break the link between emissions and economic growth, and to find ways both to lower emissions and to elevate the poor. Is this professed goal on their part not relevant to your analysis of the morality of the policies they advocate?
Having the goal of breaking the link between economic development and CO2 emissions is one thing. Achieving it is another entirely. Hell is paved with good intentions.
Economic theory and economic history, coupled with the physics and engineering of energy production and distribution, strongly suggest that decoupling economic development from CO2 emissions is, now and for the foreseeable future, not possible. The physics and engineering of energy production and distribution reveal that usable energy can be derived at lower cost from materials with higher energy density (roughly defined as the quantity of energy inherent in the material by volume) and power density (roughly defined as the rate at which energy can be extracted from a material) than from materials with lower energy density and power density.
Basic economic theory (the laws of supply and demand) reveals that consumption of (i.e., demand for) any given good or service rises as price falls and falls as price rises. It follows that consumption of energy will be higher at lower prices and lower at higher prices.
Fossil fuels’ energy density and power density are scores to hundreds of times greater than those of wind, solar, and other alternatives. Consequently, the cost of deriving and distributing energy from fossil fuels is lower than that from wind, solar, etc. It follows necessarily that energy consumption (demand) will be higher for energy from fossil fuels than for energy from wind, solar, etc.
Economic history (along with common sense) tells us that energy consumption is absolutely indispensable for all economic production. Everything we do requires energy: our bodies’ functioning, our production of food, clothing, shelter, transportation, communications, health care, education, everything—requires energy. Make energy more expensive, and its consumption will decline, and therefore so also will the production of everything else we produce, i.e., people will either not rise out of poverty or will fall back toward or into it. Make energy more expensive, and the cost of everything else will rise, too, because energy is part of the cost of all production.
4. Your position seems to depend on being certain that the link between emissions and economic growth cannot be broken. How do you know this?
“Cannot be broken” ignores the underlined phrase “now and for the foreseeable future” in my last point. Every energy source we’ve ever used so far has been a transitional source—eventually superseded by others of higher density when we developed the technology needed to harness them. What we haven’t seen in history so far is a reversion from higher-density to lower-density energy sources for large-scale, on-demand energy.
(That’s an important qualifier. Firewood is great for heating a single home that’s too far from a grid or natural gas line to be heated with electricity or gas, or when one prefers the ambience of the fire—though of course it creates indoor air pollution that carries higher risks than those from coal- or gas-fired electricity or from gas heaters. But firewood is prohibitively expensive and polluting for heating millions of homes—and of course it doesn’t power lights and refrigerators and air conditioners and computers and dishwashers and clothes washers and dryers and all our many other electrical aids.)
Fossil fuels will turn out likewise, but if history, coupled with the physics and engineering summarized above, is our teacher, they won’t be superseded by lower-density wind and solar but by higher-density radioactive substances like uranium and thorium, the energy and power density of which are much higher than those of fossil fuels. Nuclear sources yield zero CO2 emissions, so for those who really want to lower CO2 emissions, they’re the way to go. But for the near term future (say, the next fifty years or so?),
a. the technical difficulties of nuclear power generation are beyond the capacity of most developing nations to operate in sufficient numbers to replace the energy to be derived much more simply from coal and natural gas;
b. the costs of constructing nuclear generating units are (largely because of excessive regulation—mind you, I don’t reject all regulation, just excessive) significantly higher than those for constructing coal and natural gas, which means they’re out of reach in numbers and scales large enough to power grids that can supply the amounts of pure and reliable and on-demand energy we in developed nations take for granted; and
c. for most developing nations, the risks of spent fuel’s being put to military use also bears careful consideration.
I.e., the link between energy and emissions can, I think, eventually be broken, but it will take considerable time and the development of significant new technologies and significant technical and economic capacities in developing nations, and when it happens, it will be by moving from less-dense to more-dense energy sources, i.e., not from fossil fuels down to wind and solar but from fossil fuels up to nuclear.
5. To what extent does your moral analysis depend on climate science being false, or overstated, in its description of the possible risks? In other words, if some dramatic new piece of evidence emerged that proved the science to be true, what then would be the duty of Christians in relation to fossil fuels, in your view?
Let’s address this question in several ways:
a. Moderately wealthy people (say, in the range of Western Europe’s lower-middle-class, i.e., significantly lower than America’s lower-middle-class) can thrive in any climate from the Arctic Circle to the Sahara Desert and hot tropical rainforests, and they can protect themselves much better than poor people from any natural disaster. (The latter’s why injury and death rates from hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, etc., are hundreds of times lower in wealthy countries than in poor ones. Wealthier people build property that protects them from the elements. That makes for higher property losses but lower life losses.)
Poor people—like most in sub-Saharan Africa and large parts of Asia and Latin America, i.e., the roughly 1.3 billion who live on the equivalent of under $1.25US per day, have no electricity, and use wood and dung as their primary cooking and heating fuels, the gathering of which consumes about 6 to 8 hours per day per household (hours that otherwise could be used for productive labor lifting people out of poverty) and the smoke from which kills about 4 million a year (mostly women and children) and debilitates, to varying degrees and for varying periods, hundreds of millions of others due to respiratory diseases and eye infections—such poor people cannot thrive in any climate, even the most paradisaical, and they cannot effectively protect themselves adequately from any natural disaster
I.e., the risks from poverty far exceed the risks from human-induced climate change, even if the higher end of the IPCC’s estimated range of climate sensitivity (how much warming ensues from doubled atmospheric CO2 concentration after all feedbacks are accounted for, which, by the way, takes hundreds of years), i.e., 4.5˚C (which the IPCC now considers very unlikely) turns out to be true.
b. The IPCC’s own coupled economy/climate scenarios (treated by Working Group III) couple higher temperatures with higher economic growth, and lower temperatures with lower economic growth, in both instances especially for currently poorer nations—because (as IPCC wisely acknowledges) the growth is driven in large part (at least through the end of this century) by increased use of fossil fuels for energy. Because of this, its scenarios have the currently poor nations reaching the highest economic levels by the end of this century in the warmest scenarios.
That means the wealth achieved in those currently poor nations will, in those scenarios, be in the same range as the wealth in the United States and other industrialized countries today—plenty to enable their people to thrive regardless of climate and to protect themselves adequately in the face of any extreme weather event. I.e., even if the IPCC-posited plausible higher-end climate sensitivity turns out true (let alone the outrageously improbable 10˚C or more).
c. The risks to human health and life from human-induced climate change, in other words, are significantly lower than the risks from poverty, even if the upper end of the IPCC’s estimated range for climate sensitivity turns out true, and those risks can be minimized at far lower cost by growing economies, especially in currently poor countries, to equip people to thrive regardless of climate and to protect themselves regardless of extreme weather event, than by attempting to mitigate the warming by reducing CO2 emissions, which would require reducing fossil fuel use, which would require reducing energy consumption, which would require reducing economic development and growth in those poorer countries, which would entail reducing the ability of people in those countries in the future to thrive whatever the climate and to protect themselves whatever the extreme weather event.
This entails that the ethical policy—for someone who values human life and wellbeing—would, on the hypothesis you offer (“some dramatic new piece of evidence emerge[s] that prove[s] the science to be true”), be to continue fossil fuel use, thus economic development, not to reduce the former, which would reduce the latter.
d. Now a bit of a side comment, but it’s important for anyone’s understanding of science.
Your hypothesis (“some dramatic new piece of evidence emerge[s] that prove[s] the science to be true”) uses the interesting term the science. Perhaps you use it only as shorthand, but it is a dangerous shorthand because, unless one keeps its being shorthand in the forefront of his or her mind, it is bound to be misleading.
There is no such thing as the science. There are activities that scientists perform, and there are opinions that scientists form as consequence of their activities, and there are statements scientists make expressing those opinions. But the science is an abstraction that has no concrete reality, and appeal to it is actually an indicator that one doesn’t understand scientists’ processes.
“The science,” in the controversies over anthropogenic global warming, seems to me (and I read multiple articles in the field every day) to be shorthand for “the consensus among scientists.” But whether real or not (and I think that, with regard to the actually contested points—whether human activity is the primary cause of global warming over the last fifty years or so, and whether it has caused or will cause dangerous warming, and whether the benefits of mitigating that warming would exceed the costs—such consensus is at least greatly exaggerated and perhaps nonexistent), consensus is not a scientific value. (Even as an interesting sociological phenomenon about scientists it is of value only if it is spontaneous, but, as Georgia Tech climatologist Judith Curry has shown, the “consensus” about AGW, such as it is, was intentionally manufactured.)
Consensus matters in politics—he who gets the most votes wins. But consensus doesn’t matter in science—as demonstrated by the frequently repeated reversals of consensus on scientific questions large (e.g., the existence of phlogiston, the constancy of the speed of light, the Big Bang versus Steady State versus Pulsating Universe theories, and plate tectonics) to small (e.g., whether ulcers are most often caused by stress or by bacterial infection, and whether there is a system of vessels connecting the brain to the lymph system, which was denied for decades and has just been confirmed). (You can read about such reversals [though not those about ulcers and the vessels linking brain to lymph system because they came too late] in Thomas Kuhn’s justly famous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.)
It is not consensus but skepticism that is the hallmark of true science. The true, responsible scientist, the one acting with integrity, does his best to disprove his theory just as much as to prove it. To fail to do that is to fall prey to the fallacy of confirmation bias—to look only for evidence that supports, and not for evidence that might refute, a theory.
Albert Einstein is reputed to have said, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” (Quoted in Alice Calaprice, The Quotable Einstein (1996), 224.) That insight finds more comprehensive statement in Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman’s justly famous quote:
“In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is—if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it.” (Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law [London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1965], 4, emphasis added.)
We might add—and I’m positive Feynman would agree—that it doesn’t matter how many people agree with you, or whether they’re members of national academies of science. If your prediction disagrees with experiment, observation, experience, nature, it’s wrong. Period. Not bowing to consensus but systematic skepticism is the hallmark of true science.
(It’s also a hallmark, by the way, of true Christianity, reflected in the Apostle Paul’s instruction, “Test all things, hold fast what is good” [1 Thessalonians 5:21]. This is part of why science as a systematic method, not just as occasional flashes of insight here and there now and then, arose only once in history, and in only one place, medieval Europe, and because that culture was the first to be overwhelmingly informed by the Biblical worldview that a rational God designed an created an ordered universe to be understood and controlled by rational people made in His image, and He instructed them to test all things, hold fast what is good.)
6. How do you know that the science is false, and how certain are you of this position?
That side comment leads directly into my answer to your sixth question. In addition to pondering your using in this question, as in the last, the misleading abstraction, “the science,” re-read the Feynman quote, and then consider these facts, all of which are readily documentable in the refereed literature:
a. On average, the 110+ computer climate models on which the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other climate alarmists rely simulate more than twice as much warming from enhanced atmospheric CO2 as actually observed over the relevant period.
b. If the models’ errors were random, their simulations would be randomly distributed above and below observations. Instead, over 95% simulate more warming than observed. This entails that we don’t understand how the climate system responds to enhanced CO2 and that the errors arise at least in part from bias.
c. None of the models simulated the complete absence of statistically significant global warming over the past 16 to 26 years (depending on which database one chooses—the most reliable, the satellite records, show no warming for 18.5 years).
All of this makes it increasingly clear that the models greatly exaggerate the warming effect of carbon dioxide. The models’ errors are not random—as often above as below observed temperatures, and by similar magnitudes—but clearly biased, consistently above observed temperatures. The scientific method demands that theories be tested by empirical observation. By that test, the models are wrong. They therefore provide no rational basis to forecast dangerous human-induced global warming, and therefore no rational basis for efforts to reduce warming by restricting the use of fossil fuels or any other means.
7. Most of the mainline Protestant churches, many Jewish congregations, a minority but rising number of evangelical churches, and now the Catholic church all take a position opposite to yours regarding climate change. To what do you attribute this growing embrace of the climate movement by people of faith?
First, re-read the Feynman quote. That should cement in your mind that I don’t commit the fallacy of argumentum ad populum or consensus gentium (both of which amount to “truth by popular vote”) or argumentum ad verecundiam (appeal to authority) in determining my views—on anything. I couldn’t care less how many people think something, or how great their expertise is, if the evidence contradicts it, I reject it. Now, why are so many religious bodies embracing climate alarmism? There are probably many reasons. Here are a few:
a. Most people nowadays have never taken a course in logic (Have you? I used to teach it, at the graduate level.), so they don’t recognize the fallacy of appeals to consensus/popular vote in scientific debates.
b. Most people nowadays have a woefully inadequate science education, so they readily think doubling of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere sounds really ominous. If told that it means raising CO2 concentration from about 280 to about 560 parts per million, their eyes glaze over—they never think in terms of parts per million. Even if that’s translated into percentages—raising it from about 28 thousandths of one percent to 56 thousandths of one percent—they still won’t have a firm sense of the significance, because so many people today are essentially innumerate (like illiterate, but related to numbers and math rather than letters and language). They just don’t get it that this doubling amounts to an almost infinitesimally small change in atmospheric chemistry, a change of a magnitude hardly likely to cause catastrophic results.
c. Most people have had drummed into them by the Green movement the idea that the natural environmental is tremendously fragile, subject to catastrophic harm from minute stimuli. (Try Googling the words environment and fragile together and see how many hits you get.) They don’t know, because their science education is so poor, that in fact the environment is tremendously robust, resilient, and self-correcting. They don’t know this for two reasons.
First, their science education is so poor, they haven’t learned that in pretty much all (maybe all—at least all we’ve been able to study) natural systems negative feedback mechanisms (which reduce the impact of new stimuli) outweigh positive feedback mechanisms (which enhance the impact of new stimuli). (Indeed, most don’t know the definition of “feedback mechanism”—other than to confuse it with the “feedback” one gets when a microphone is placed such that the sound amplified from it is fed back into it.)
Second, their geologic history education is so poor they don’t know that about 18,000 years ago most of the Northern Hemisphere was covered by ice sheets one to two miles thick, under which there were no forests and no fuzzy animals, which harmed the underlying environment millions of times more than anything human beings have ever done or ever could do, but then recovered to what they are today; they don’t know that forest coverage has rebounded over the last eighty years or so in the United States (and most other developed countries) so that it now exceeds what it was 150 and more years ago; they don’t know that air and water pollution in developed countries were much worse thirty years ago, still worse forty years ago, still worse fifty years ago, than they are now, but that our air and water have recovered tremendously to the point where, in industrialized countries, they pose lower risks to health and longevity than the routine risks we all choose to embrace through such everyday activities as driving.
d. Several hundred billions of dollars of government spending and many millions of private industry spending have fueled the climate alarmist message through research and publishing. That’s thousands of times as much as funds what I’d call the “climate realist” message. It’s no wonder the former reaches and persuades many people.
e. Lots of people, including plenty of very religious people, confuse good intentions with good policy. They figure if they mean well by their embrace of climate alarmism, climate alarmism must be right, and anybody who (acting like a good scientist, by Feynman’s criterion) questions it must be evil.
f. Most of the media have played lapdog to the movement environmentalists, failing in their responsibility for careful fact checking, and have become advocates rather than journalists. (My father was a lifelong journalist and longtime journalism professor and, in the early 1970s, started a foundation to teach journalism professors how to teach their students to write objective reports rather than advocacy. Unfortunately, the economy took a nose dive shortly thereafter and the foundation went broke.)
8. Given your concern for the poor, do you consider efforts to drive down the use of fossil fuels to be sinful?
As a former professor of ethics, I find this question very important, and it deserves a careful answer.
I approach it from a Biblical definition of sin as either doing what God in His law (summarized in the Ten Commandments) forbids or refusing to do what God in His law requires. The doing of sin therefore requires knowledge of God’s law and knowledge of what comports with it and what does not. On some questions, that’s pretty easy. God’s law says, “You shall not murder” (Sixth Commandment). Murder is the intentional, unjustified taking of another’s life. Thus God’s law clearly forbids my going out and randomly killing someone.
But some things aren’t so clear, and so even Biblical law (in its more detailed expression in case laws and prophetic passages) distinguishes among various kinds of offense. E.g., Biblical law requires capital punishment for premeditated murder but lesser punishment for negligent homicide and no punishment for unforeseeable, accidental homicide. Further, Biblical law distinguishes between intentional sins and sins of ignorance—the latter being sins that one commits without realizing at the time that they’re sins but of which one later becomes aware. The required atonement sacrifice for intentional sin was greater than for sins of ignorance.
And Biblical ethics also recognizes that not only the consequences of one’s action but also the motives behind it are relevant to whether it is sinful. (Someone might help a blind person cross a street safely out of beneficent motive, or might do it to gain the blind person’s trust to pave the way for later exploitation. The former act is good, the latter is bad, though the two acts are precisely the same in terms of physical movement.)
Thus actually I would answer your question differently for different people depending on their knowledge of the ins and outs of scientific evidence related to climate change, the physics and engineering of energy production and distribution, and the economics of energy and its relation to development. Those who know a great deal about such things are more responsible than those who know very little. If I, knowing what I know about all those things, were to advocate reduced use of fossil fuels to mitigate AGW, I believe that would be sinful—sin of the intentional variety, and therefore I would bear very high responsibility for it. But if someone knowing far less about those things were to advocate it, I would classify that either as not sin at all or as, at worst, sin of ignorance.
In short, I can’t give a blanket answer to that question. It would vary depending on each person’s knowledge.
9. Do you see theological or moral grounds to oppose research that attempts to lower the cost of low-carbon energy sources?
No. (How about that for a simple answer?!)
But I must qualify slightly: There are opportunity costs to the use of any resource. Money we spend on A we cannot spend on B. Money we spend on research to lower the cost of low-carbon energy sources cannot be spent to improve access among the poor to purified drinking water, sewage sanitation, adequate nutrition, protection from communicable diseases, education, health care, safer transportation, and on and on. Benefit/cost analyses should guide our decisions about where we invest our scarce resources, and those analyses will reach different conclusions in light of differing circumstances and the differing capabilities of the people involved, but they must not be ignored.
In general, I’m persuaded that we can prevent much more suffering, in present circumstances, by addressing those other problems than by trying to reduce the cost of low-carbon energy sources.
By the way, an addendum to this: Carbon and carbon dioxide are not the same thing. Unburned bits of carbon are black particles that can reduce health when breathed in. Carbon dioxide is an odorless, colorless, non-toxic gas that is essential to all life and puts animal [including human] health at risk only at concentrations 20 or more times higher than today’s 400 parts per million and only when those concentrations are continued for long periods. (U.S. Navy submarine standards are that CO2 concentrations can stay around 8,000 parts per million for long times without endangering the submariners. The air you breathe in outdoors has about 400 parts of CO2 to every million parts total, but the air you breathe out has about 40,000.)
We already have and, in developed countries, routinely use technology that prevents the emission of pretty much all particulate matter and other real pollutants (sulfur oxides and carbon monoxide) from coal- and gas-fired electricity generating plant emissions.
There is no good reason to reduce CO2 emissions, and indeed there is plenty of good reason to increase them, since plants grow better with more CO2 in the atmosphere. On average, for every doubling of CO2 concentration, you get an average 35% increase in plant growth efficiency. Plants grow better in hotter and colder temperatures and in wetter and drier soil. They make better use of nutrients. They resist disease and pests better. They expand their ranges. They improve the ratio of fruit to fiber. Consequently, food becomes more abundant for all things that eat plants or that eat things that eat plants—i.e., for all animals, including people. This makes food less expensive, helping the poor more than anyone else.
Reducing CO2 emissions is therefore not a good reason to seek lower-carbon energy sources. There might be some other good reasons—e.g., the long-term cost and safety advantage of nuclear over hydrocarbon fuels—but reducing CO2 emissions isn’t one.
10. If the costs of low-carbon energy sources fell to the point that they were equal to or cheaper than high-carbon sources, and they thus became more accessible to the poor, would you continue to oppose them?
No. I have no in-principle preference for hydrocarbon fuels. My preference is for the best benefit/cost ratio we can get, whatever the activity might be.
You concluded by welcoming me to point you toward other writings you might have missed. Presumably that doesn’t mean you welcome my pointing you to all of the roughly fifty books on climate-change science and thirty-five on climate and energy policy and the many thousands of articles, peer reviewed and otherwise, I’ve read on the two subjects. I don’t recall and can’t take time now to review our past correspondence, but if I haven’t previously asked you to review the documents under the “Landmark Documents” tab at our website, I’ll do so now.
Well, that’s it. The challenge to you now, both an intellectual one and a moral one, is to accurately represent my thinking in whatever you write. I wish you well.