Climate Conflict

Is Environmental Science an Exact Science?

Notes from the Wasteland

During his visit to Washington this summer, British Prime Minister Tony Blair voiced only one substantive disagreement with the policies of his host’s administration: He told a joint session of Congress that “climate change, deforestation, the voracious drain on natural resources cannot be ignored. Unchecked, these forces will hinder the economic development of the most vulnerable nations first and ultimately all nations.” Blair insisted that “world security cannot be protected without the world’s heart being one,” which means that “ America must listen as well as lead.” Finally, he added that “we need to go beyond even Kyoto, and science and technology is the way.”

“Science isn’t exactly an exact science with these bozos.” Blair’s right about the need to go beyond Kyoto and the imperative of listening to science. The problem is that, as James Cole learned in the movie 12 Monkeys (quoted above), you can’t always depend on what on scientists are telling you. When the BBC Science desk says that “few now dispute that humans are contributing to global warming through car and industrial emissions,” the finality in that statement betrays one of modern science’s dirty little secrets: the role that dogma, group-think, ideology and even religious zeal plays in the formation of “scientific consensus.” Reading Blair’s comments, you wouldn’t know that there is a plausible—actually more than plausible—alternative explanation for climate change.

That alternative account is the subject of the award-winning Danish documentary Climate Conflict, which recently aired on the Discovery Science Channel. In it, Danish physicist Henrik Svensmark suggests that it is the level of solar magnetic activity, and not human activity, that is driving climate change. What follows is the Cliff Notes version: The possible link between solar activity and our climate isn’t new. From approximately 1450 to 1850 the northern hemisphere experienced what has been called the “Little Ice Age.” During much of this period, Greenland and Iceland were completely cut off by ice; Dutch canals and rivers such as the Seine and the Thames routinely froze solid; and in North America, Indian groups formed alliances in response to food shortages. This “Little Ice Age” coincided with a decrease in sunspot activity, and the coldest part of the “Little Ice Age,” between 1645 and 1715, coincided with a period of, in NASA’s words, “little or no sunspot activity”: fifty sunspots, as opposed to a more typical forty to fifty thousand, over a thirty-year period. (This period is known as the “Maunder Minimum.”)

This isn’t the only observed correlation between solar activity and climate. Research by Knud Lassen and Eigil Friis-Christensen of the Danish Meteorological Institute found a substantial correlation by the levels of solar magnetic activity and average global temperatures. (Sunspots are caused by the sun’s magnetic forces.) Svensmark suspected that there had to be some physical process that accounted for the correlation. He found it in the effects of galactic cosmic rays. In addition to creating comic book super heroes, the data suggest a strong link between cosmic rays and cloud formation. Stated simply, the more cosmic rays reach Earth, the more clouds are likely to form and to reflect the Sun’s rays back into space, which, in turn, would cool the Earth. What keeps cosmic rays from reaching earth is the sun’s magnetic fields carried into space by the solar wind. Thus, the more solar magnetic activity, the more magnetic fields reach earth. This reduces the amount of cosmic rays that reach Earth, which means fewer clouds and warmer temperatures.

If I’ve confused you, Svensmark’s data and hypothesis didn’t confuse climate scientists. They understood him just fine; many of them just hated what he had to say. The former head of the United Nations’ climate panel called Svensmark’s theories “naïve” and “irresponsible.” (He later retracted his statement.) And, at a presentation in London, Svensmark’s data and hypothesis was rudely dismissed by the former head of the British Meteorological Society who called his ideas “misconceived” and demonstrating “a complete lack of knowledge.” Strong words, but hardly unique. The passionate adherence to the idea that human activity has had a significant effect on the climate—the “greenhouse” theory—has prompted British science writer Nigel Calder to compare it to a religion, complete with zealous converts.

Calder is more right than he knows. There is a strong religious element to all of this. Whatever the “greenhouse” theory lacks in hard evidence, it makes up for in a proper worldview: It is suitably misanthropic. In a kind of inversion of the biblical account, it sees a balanced and harmonious natural order being violated, as it were, by the coming of humanity. You see this in discussions about the extinction of the large prehistoric land mammals—mastodons, mammoths, giant sloths, etc.—that roamed North America until 10,000 years ago. The most popular explanation for their extinction is human hunting, even though, to put it politely, there are some problems with this theory. Questions about climate change and disease are relegated to secondary status in the pursuit of the human culprits.

Man is simultaneously “just another animal” when his status in the biological pecking order comes up, and a kind of demi-god with near-magical powers to shape and control nature. (Kind of a cross between Rousseau and Francis Bacon: in other words, modernity.) There’s no intrinsic human quality that justifies the amount of resources we consume or even giving our well-being priority over that of other animals. Yet, man, alone among the animals, is expected to care about his impact on the environment and do something about it. This is what the prime minister meant by “science and technology is the way.” It’s not that hard to see how Svenmark’s explanation would make no sense within this context.

But there’s another, more interesting parallel between contemporary environmentalism and the Christian tradition. David Vogel, who teaches at the Hass School of Business at UC-Berkeley, has written about a correlation between a Protestant heritage and “strong environmentalism.” He writes about the “cultural codes” that societies learned from Protestantism, codes that shaped their outlook even after religious faith waned. (I learned about Vogel’s research from Robert Bellah’s article “The Protestant Structure of American Culture” in the Spring 2002 issue of the Hedgehog Review.) What Muir calls “dark green” environmentalism shares with Protestantism includes a pessimistic view of the world, an essentially apocalyptic vision, an emphasis on asceticism, and a moralistic streak. Most fascinating of all, he argues that the “weakened sense of liturgy and sacramentalism” opened the door to a heightened “aesthetic appreciation of nature.”

This is why Calder was “righter” than he realized. The zeal he witnessed was a kind of religious zeal. It was the “cultural codes” finding a way of expressing themselves long after the faith that had produced them had been abandoned. And, as often happens with religious arguments, true believers aren’t going to allow evidence to get in the way of their vision for the rest of us. (I believe it was Orwell who said that we are seldom so cruel as when we seek to be kind.)

I guess I should add that no one is saying that we shouldn’t reduce emissions for automobiles and factories: not Svensmark, not Calder and not me. We have responsibility to be good stewards of the environment, and reducing such emissions, while they probably won’t do anything to affect the climate, is the right thing to do. Stewardship and gratitude, not some displaced religious impulse, is why we should do it. Of course, that requires holding the people you’re exhorting in the proper esteem, which is hard to do when your “religion” insists that they’re the problem.


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