The GeoChristian

The Earth. Christianity. They go together.

1970s climatology textbook and global warming

How things have changed. My first exposure to the science of climatology was in 1980, when I took an upper-division Physical Climatology course at the University of Utah. I still have the textbook: Smith, 1975, Principles of Applied Climatology.

The picture is a scan showing just about everything the book said about CO2 and climate change.

A few thoughts:

1. Climatologists in the 1970s predicted that atmospheric CO2 would increase to 418–450 ppm by 2010 [the atmosphere just hit 400 ppm this past few months], and a doubling of atmospheric CO2 by sometime in the 21st century.

2. Climatologists in the 1970s predicted global warming of 2° to 3°C in the 21st century because of this increase of atmospheric CO2.

3. There was no discussion in the textbook about the implications of a global 2° to 3°C temperature increase.

4. I didn’t make any marks or notes in the section, so it didn’t make too much of an impression on me at the time.


Grace and Peace

©Kevin Nelstead/The GeoChristian


October 1, 2016 Posted by | Climate Change | , , | 7 Comments

Rush is wrong — Analyzing Limbaugh’s statement on God and global warming

On August 12, 2013, Rush Limbaugh made the following statement on his radio program:

“If you believe in God, then intellectually you cannot believe in manmade global warming.”

This, of course, is utter nonsense. Unfortunately, millions of American political conservatives and Evangelicals believe Rush is right on just about everything, but Limbaugh is clearly wrong this time. The error of his statement is not in whether or not climate change is occurring, nor in whether or not observed changes are due to human activities, but in making a false connection between belief in God and whether or not human activities can affect the climate.

To start with, there is no connection between “believing in God”—or even more specifically being a Christian—and having a certain position on a scientific issue such as climate change. The Bible does say that the creation groans because of human sin (Romans 8:22), so we should expect there to be environmental consequences for our actions, but the Bible does not say what those consequences will be. Ascertaining the ramifications of our actions is part of the human task of understanding the creation, expressed in our age through science. Limbaugh’s statement is the theological equivalent of saying, “If you believe in God, then intellectually you cannot believe in genetics” (or chemical bonding theory, or plate tectonics, or general relativity, etc.).

Second, there are sincere and intelligent believers on both sides of this issue—scientists, Bible scholars, and laypersons. All of these have intellectual reasons—biblical and scientific—for holding their positions.

And finally and most importantly, the theological basis of Limbaugh’s statement is flawed. When I’ve heard this sort of statement before, it has been based on the premise that God has built sufficient robustness into his creation to offset or minimize the damage caused by humans. An illustration of this from climate science is the concept of a negative feedback. A good example of negative feedback is how the atmosphere responds to a global temperature increase. If the temperature of Earth were to increase, evaporation of water from oceans and other bodies of water would also increase, which would lead to greater global cloud cover, which would increase the albedo (reflectivity) of Earth’s atmosphere in regards to visible light, which would result in more solar energy being reflected back into space, which would result in a lowering of global temperatures which would offset the initial warming.  This is all good and true, but it isn’t easy to measure or predict the degree to which the increased albedo would offset the initial increase in temperature. But that is a scientific issue, not something to be decided by unsubstantiated theological pronouncements.

If we apply the same sort of reasoning to the human body—another part of God’s creation—the error becomes obvious. The human body uses negative feedbacks as well. If someone smokes a cigarette, the body responds in ways to offset the introduction of foreign material. If a person smokes just one cigarette in their lifetime, the chances that there will be long-term negative consequences, such as emphysema or lung cancer, are negligible. If a person smokes a pack of cigarettes a day over a period of decades, the odds become virtually certain that there will be negative health consequences. This is despite the fact that most of the air that enters a heavy smoker’s lungs in the course of those decades is the ordinary nitrogen-oxygen-argon mix of the atmosphere.

The Genesis creation account states that the Earth God made was good, and that he intended its occupants—human and non-human—to flourish. Once sin entered the picture, human management of the creation could still maintain (or even enhance) that flourishing to some degree, but now the possibility also exists that we can cause serious damage to the creation. It is clear that our activities can all too easily lead in the direction of harming the creation—its water, land, air, and organisms—rather than healing it. The “global warming couldn’t happen” position ignores the reality and disastrous consequences of human sin, and leads many to bury their heads in the sand in the face of potential environmental consequences of that sin.

When Christians enter into the climate change debate (or any other environmental or natural resources discussion) with an attitude of “humans can’t mess up the Earth all that much,” it is inevitable that they will come to conclusions like “global warming, if it is happening, couldn’t be caused by humans.” This is analogous to atheists starting with the assumption that there is no God, and then coming to a “scientific” conclusion that God is not necessary for the origin of the universe.

My short response to Rush Limbaugh’s statement would be:

“If you believe in God, then intellectually you cannot believe that human activities have no environmental consequences.”

One who accepts Limbaugh’s philosophy towards the environment will automatically conclude that the idea of human-caused global warming is wrong at best and an evil Satanic hoax at worst. Scientific evidence will be deemed “good” if it supports their side, and “bad” if it does not. But there is no Biblical support for having this “it simply cannot happen” approach to the scientific question of climate change.

On the other hand, if one adopts what I consider to be a more biblically accurate approach—acknowledging that we do not know the limits to the consequences of our actions—then they can follow the evidence where it leads. Most scientists who are actually involved in climate change research, including Christian scientists, are presently convinced that the evidence points towards a significant human impact on Earth’s climate. That is not the end of the matter, but objectively, that is where things stand right now.

Grace and Peace


The Christian Post has printed at least three guest columns which discuss Rush Limbaugh’s statement. The first and third of these are critical of Limbaugh; the second is in agreement. Here are some excerpts:

1. Climate Change: Evangelical Scientists Say Limbaugh Wrong, Faith and Science Complement One Another — by Katharine Hayhoe and Thomas Ackerman, Evangelicals, and meteorology/climatology professors at Texas Tech and the University of Washington.

Rush Limbaugh doesn’t think we exist. In other words that evangelical scientists cannot subscribe to the evidence of global warming.


Talk radio personalities often make hyperbolic statements. It is what their listeners expect and want to hear. But in this instance, Rush’s uninformed rhetoric is demeaning to Christians who care deeply about what humans are doing to God’s Creation and ignorant of the consequences that future generations will face if we don’t respond quickly to the challenge of climate change.

We are both atmospheric scientists who study climate change, having earned advanced degrees in our respective fields and having devoted our lives to increasing knowledge through scientific research. We know climate change is real, that most of it is human-caused, and that it is a threat to future generations that must be addressed by the global community. We are also evangelical Christians who believe that God created the world in which we live.


We were appalled at the ignorance behind Rush Limbaugh’s statement but we weren’t surprised. One of us had previously been dismissed by him as a “climate babe.”

This isn’t meant to invoke pity, but rather to highlight the absurdity of our public debate around faith and climate change. Rush Limbaugh has a very big megaphone but no expertise or formal credentials to be considered an expert on the changes in climate occurring all around us. He has no theological training or record of leadership within a faith community. He’s simply a radio show host willing to say controversial things, regardless of whether they are true or not.

2. God, Rush, and Global Warming — by Calvin Beisner, founder and national spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation

Ironically, these climate scientists-Katharine Hayhoe and Thomas Ackerman-acknowledged at the outset, “Talk radio personalities often make hyperbolic statements ….” Why is that ironic? Because, having acknowledged that, they then took Limbaugh literally-precisely what one must not do with hyperbole-and castigated him for meaning something they acknowledge he didn’t.


So, what was Limbaugh’s point when he said, “If you believe in God, then intellectually you cannot believe in manmade warming”? Not that no theist can believe that human emissions of greenhouse gases can contribute positively to earth’s temperature. Rather, that it is difficult to reconcile belief in the infinitely wise, infinitely powerful, and infinitely faithful God of the Bible with belief that a minuscule change in atmospheric chemistry-raising CO2 from 27 thousandths of 1 percent to 54 thousandths of 1 percent of the atmosphere-is likely to cause catastrophic harm to human and other ecosystems. It’s that latter belief that’s encompassed by the shorthand “global warming.”


Now I ask you, does an infinitely wise designer plan something to be so fragile that a proportionately tiny stress will cause it to collapse? Does a good architect, for instance, design a building so that if you lean against a wall, the rest of the building reacts by magnifying the stress of your weight until the building collapses?

But that’s what’s assumed in the theory of catastrophic, anthropogenic (manmade) global warming (CAGW): that a proportionately tiny stress can cause catastrophic consequences. The theory is that CO2’s rising from 27 thousandths of 1 percent to 54 thousandths of 1 percent of the atmosphere-which itself is a relatively tiny part of the entire climate system, which includes the oceans, land masses, all living things, and even energy from the sun and cosmic rays from stars in distant galaxies-will raise earth’s temperature so much as to threaten catastrophic harm to human and other life.

Such a result would come only from a design that made positive feedbacks vastly outweigh negative feedbacks. In other words, it would make the rest of the climate system magnify rather than offset the warming effect of CO2. Yet natural systems are dominated by negative rather than positive feedbacks-otherwise they’d all have collapsed long ago.

So God’s wisdom in designing earth’s climate system is hard to reconcile with belief in CAGW [Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming].


So, does belief in God make belief in CAGW utterly impossible? No. But it’s very difficult to reconcile the two beliefs.

3. Are Climate Skeptics Ignoring God’s Design? — by David Jenkins, president of ConservAmerica Education Fund (ConservAmerica used to be called Republicans for Environmental Protection).

Beisner writes “The Bible teaches that earth and all its subsystems – including the climate system – are the product of a God who is an infinitely wise Designer.” Nothing to quibble with there, but he then concludes – as Limbaugh has – that an infinitely wise designer would not create something so fragile that mankind can mess it up.

That view is at odds with both Biblical scripture and physical evidence.


Just as God has charged us with the responsibility to care for His creation, he has also granted us the ability to harm it. Man has demonstrated the capacity to level mountains, foul the air and water, drive animal species to extinction, develop weapons capable of mass destruction, acidify rain and damage the earth’s ozone layer.

While nature is resilient over time, it is also intricate and fragile. The smallest bacteria or virus can kill the largest person or animal. A minute amount of airborne mercury can travel up the food chain and ultimately harm an unborn child.

Another climate-related viewpoint Beisner and others have expressed is that fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, are gifts that God wants us to dig up and use without limitation.

One must be careful when ascribing intent to God, especially when the claim appears to run counter to His design.


Does it not then stand to reason that God, after designing the earth’s processes to sequester excess carbon, might prefer that we respect His design and look for other ways to heat our homes and power our cars?

Beisner and Limbaugh, in peddling the notion that God designed the earth and its atmosphere to be immune from mankind’s actions, are also implying that we can do anything we want to it without serious consequence.

Does that sound like something God would say?

Actually, it sounds a lot more like something the snake in the Garden of Eden would say.



I was alerted to Rush Limbaugh’s statement by Climate Conservative: Are Climate Skeptics Ignoring God’s Design?

October 24, 2013 Posted by | Christianity, Climate Change, Creation Care, Environment, Ethics | , , | 7 Comments

Thin ice and the importance of Quaternary geology

From NASA Earth Observatory:

2011 Sea Ice Minimum

From the description (emphasis added):

In September 2011, sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean declined to the second-lowest extent on record. Satellite data from NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) showed that the summertime ice cover narrowly avoided a new record low.


Melt season in 2011 brought higher-than-average summer temperatures, but not the unusual weather conditions that contributed to the extreme melt of 2007, the record low. “Atmospheric and oceanic conditions were not as conducive to ice loss this year, but the melt still neared 2007 levels,” said Walt Meier of NSIDC. “This probably reflects loss of multi-year ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, as well as other factors that are making the ice more vulnerable.”

The low sea ice level in 2011 fits the pattern of decline over the past three decades, said Joey Comiso of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Since 1979, September Arctic sea ice extent has declined by 12 percent per decade.

“The sea ice is not only declining; the pace of the decline is becoming more drastic,” he noted. “The older, thicker ice is declining faster than the rest, making for a more vulnerable perennial ice cover.”

While the sea ice extent did not dip below the record, the area did drop slightly lower than 2007 levels for about ten days in early September 2011. Sea ice “area” differs from “extent” in that it equals the actual surface area covered by ice, while extent includes any area where ice covers at least 15 percent of the ocean.

Arctic sea ice extent on September 9, 2011, was 4.33 million square kilometers (1.67 million square miles). Averaged over the month of September, ice extent was 4.61 million square kilometers (1.78 million square miles). This places 2011 as the second lowest ice extent for both the daily minimum and the monthly average. Ice extent was 2.43 million square kilometers (938,000 square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average.

Climate models have suggested that the Arctic could lose almost all of its summer ice cover by 2100, but in recent years, ice extent has declined faster than the models predicted.

A few years back, I blogged about a report that the Arctic Ocean may have been ice-free around 6000-7000 years ago, so this may be a natural cycle. Or it may be caused by human-induced global warming. I don’t know. I ended that post with the following:

I’m not a global warming denier, which bothers some of my friends. I do believe that human activities are affecting Earth’s climate. This does point out, however, the importance of geological studies of Quaternary (ice age to present) climate systems. Whatever is happening today, even if caused by humans, can only be fully understood in its geological context.

Grace and Peace

October 7, 2011 Posted by | Climate Change, Creation Care, Environment, Imagery, Nature, Why Earth science matters | , , , | 8 Comments

New England under water

From the ESRI Map Book Online volume 25: What if all the polar ice melted?

Credit: Paul Jordan, University of Rhode Island

The description from the ESRI Map Book:

This map is a depiction of Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts/Cape Cod inundated by a 67-meter (73-yard) sea level rise resulting from a total melting of the polar ice caps. Although an unlikely scenario, the map was created as an attention grabber for display at the University of Rhode Island 2008 Honors Colloquium Lecture Series on Global Warming.

A good map can be artistic as well as informative; in fact the two often go together. The annual ESRI map books are available online or in book form (I am happy to own a couple editions).

Grace and Peace

February 1, 2011 Posted by | Art, Future, Geography, Geology, Maps | , | 7 Comments

Cizik Resigns

From Christianity Today: Richard Cizik Resigns from the National Association of Evangelicals

Richard Cizik resigned Wednesday night as vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) during a week of growing uproar over his comments that he is shifting his views on same-sex unions.

“Although he has subsequently expressed regret, apologized, and affirmed our values, there is a loss of trust in his credibility as a spokesperson among leaders and constituencies,” Leith Anderson, president of the NAE wrote to board members today. Cizik did not return calls for comment.

Last year, more than two dozen evangelical leaders sought to oust Cizik, who has been vice president for 28 years, because of his “relentless campaign” on global warming.

I understand why he resigned at this point, and I agree that this was the right thing for him to do.

I do, however, appreciate the positions he has taken on the environment. Not all Evangelicals agreed with him on this, but if we can get together in the National Association of Evangelicals even though we disagree on things like baptism, predestination, eschatology, and ordination of women, then surely Cizik’s position on global warming should not have been such a lightning rod. Richard Cizik was a good balance to the anti-environment wing of Evangelical Christianity.

Grace and peace

December 12, 2008 Posted by | Christianity, Environment | , , | 1 Comment

Pliocene and Quaternary sea levels

Tying into a post from earlier tonight: global Pliocene and Quaternary sea levels, from the US Geological Survey.

The natural range of sea level for the past 3 million years is from a high of 35 meters above present sea level, to a low of 120 meters below present sea level:


The +35 m value is from the warm period that occurred during the mid-Pliocene, before the Earth plunged into the Quaternary cycle of alternating ice ages and interglacial periods (we live in an interglacial). In the mid-Pliocene, lowlands such as much of Florida and the lower Mississippi River valley were under water.

The -120 m value is from peak-glacial times, when large quantities of water were stored on the continents in continental ice sheets which were over 1000 meters thick covering millions of square kilometers. In this time, large areas of continental shelf were exposed, such as a wide area west of the current Florida coast, and the Bering Land Bridge that linked Alaska and Siberia.

The slight changes in sea level that have been observed during the past century (2-3 mm per year) are largely due to the expansion of sea water as global temperatures have increased. The wide range of sea level over the past three million years is mostly due to changes in the amount of water stored on the continents as ice. Because of the high density of human settlement and development along coastlines, even modest changes in sea level, on the order of 0.5 to 1.0 meters, could cause havoc in low-lying areas.

The geological perspective is: change is the norm in the Quaternary.

Grace and peace

December 9, 2008 Posted by | Climate Change, Geology, Meteorology | , , | Leave a comment

The Pliocene as a model for the 21st century?

The US Geological Survey has a news release regarding climate during the mid-Pliocene Epoch, between 3.0 and 3.3 million years ago: Getting Warmer? Prehistoric Climate Can Help Forecast Future Changes. Scientists used paleontological data (i.e. fossils) to reconstruct surface water and deep-ocean temperatures, as well as ocean circulation patterns. Here are some of the findings:

  • Global average temperatures in the mid-Pliocene were 2.5°C (4.5°F) greater than today. This is in the range of temperatures predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for later in the 21st century.
  • CO2 levels were only slightly higher than what is found today. This implies that the atmosphere currently has enough CO2 to cause a couple of degrees of warming. It could be the other way around: the higher CO2 levels could have been caused by the higher temperatures; either way, there is a correlation between high CO2 levels and higher temperatures.
  • Warming was much greater in the North Atlantic and Arctic than in other oceanic areas. While worldwide temperatures in the Pliocene were on the order of 2.5°C warmer than today, temperatures in the North Atlantic were up to 18°C warmer, bringing the average annual temperature in some areas from -2°C to 16°C, which is temperate rather than polar. This is radical–and in this case, natural–climate change. It is also consistent with computer models that predict greater warming in polar regions than in the rest of the world during the 21st century.
  • One of the conclusions was that “the likely cause of mid-Pliocene warmth was a combination of several factors, including increased heat transport from equatorial regions to the poles and increased greenhouse gases.”

Here’s a map showing the sea surface temperature (SST) anomaly for August, which is a comparison of the Pliocene SST with today’s SST. The dark blotch over the North Atlantic is the area that experienced the most extreme warming in the Pliocene compared to today. The yellow areas were about 2°C warmer than today. Note also  the warmer area off the Pacific coast of South America. This indicates an el Niño-like warming of the east Pacific surface waters in the Pliocene.


This study shows again the importance of a geological perspective when talking about climate change:

  • Not only is the present a key to the past, the past is a key to the present. By better understanding climate change in the Pliocene, we can get a better idea of the effects of warming in the 21st century. Being that the geometry of ocean basins has not changed appreciably since the Pliocene, the temperature and circulation patterns present in the Pliocene could be a good model for changes that could occur if global temperatures do increase by 2°C in the 21st century.
  • Geology gives us a context for climate change in the present. We cannot hope to distinguish between natural climate fluctuations and human-caused climate change if we don’t have a good grasp of natural climate change that has occurred over the past few millions of years.

Grace and peace

December 9, 2008 Posted by | Climate Change, Geology, Meteorology, Why Earth science matters | , | 1 Comment