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When I first started personally studying and writing about climate change two decades ago, many skeptics and deniers existed. Now the skepticism has diminished – but not entirely.

A reminder of that fact happened a few weeks ago when I received a comment in response to my recent BahaiTeachings.org article about climate change and the burning of the Amazonian rainforests. The comment said, in part, that “The purported CO2 greenhouse effect has been vastly overestimated and actually climate change has failed to produce the catastrophic warming predicted by climate models.”

While I normally don’t have the time or the inclination to engage in disputes over issues, I felt that this particular comment represented a good opportunity to actually delve into the science of the matter, and simultaneously discuss the important Baha’i principles of consultation and the essential agreement of science and religion.

Baha’is revere science. That may sound unusual, coming from the perspective of a global religion, but the Baha’i writings themselves have always exalted scientific knowledge, making its acquisition “incumbent on everyone” and even calling it humanity’s “highest attainment:”

Arts, crafts and sciences uplift the world of being, and are conducive to its exaltation. Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone. The knowledge of such sciences, however, should be acquired as can profit the peoples of the earth … Great indeed is the claim of scientists and craftsmen on the peoples of the world. – Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, pp. 26-27.

Scientific knowledge is the highest attainment upon the human plane, for science is the discoverer of realities. It is of two kinds: material and spiritual. Material science is the investigation of natural phenomena; divine science is the discovery and realization of spiritual verities. The world of humanity must acquire both. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 136.

But regardless of the science involved, arguments over climate change continue daily. Much of the contention and the shouting involve strong conflicting opinions, so let’s see if we can take a short break from those emotional disputes and begin our discussion about the verifiable truth of the matter. We’ll start with five reality-based, non-controversial, generally accepted scientific facts:

  • The Earth’s surface is warming. The overwhelming majority of scientists agree that the Earth is warming; and the data proves it. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – a group of 1,300 independent scientific experts from countries all over the world under the auspices of the United Nations, who regularly issue peer-reviewed assessments of the world’s climate on behalf of 195 countries – reports that “Scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” 
  • The Earth’s overall temperature rise is measurable. Here’s the actual data from the U.S National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): “The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere. Most of the warming occurred in the past 35 years, with the five warmest years on record taking place since 2010.”
  • The world’s seas are warming – and rising. The top 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) of ocean has warmed by more than 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969. Global sea level rose an average of 8 inches in the last century. The rate in the last two decades, however, is nearly double that of the last century and is accelerating slightly every year. (Both of these measurements come from NOAA and are confirmed by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration)
  • Human activity is the primary driver of the Earth’s temperature increase. In its Fifth Assessment Report, the IPCC concluded that there is a more than 95 percent probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet.
  • Carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels causes most global warming. According to literally thousands of scientific studies, the industrial activities that our modern civilization depends upon have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from 280 parts per million to 400 parts per million in the last 150 years. That excess CO2 traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Any literate person can verify these facts with a little research and some relatively light reading. 

Those five basic facts have resulted from decades of determined, professional scientific investigation and measurement reported in thousands of peer-reviewed research studies all across the globe. Although a few (or even all) of these five facts used to be disputed by those who deny the existence or the importance of climate change, only a few fringe naysayers now question them. 

Even large oil companies now acknowledge the reality of climate change. For example: in peer-reviewed climate studies by Exxon Mobil from 1977 to 2014, 83 percent acknowledged the reality of climate change, and that it is caused by humans.

So how do those who continue to minimize or deny climate change justify their arguments in the face of this accepted science? 

Some say that wobbling of the Earth’s axis is responsible, but cite no actual evidence to back up that contention. Some say yes, the Earth is warming, but we can’t “prove” the cause – despite the fact that the overwhelming preponderance of scientists agree on the causes.

Others say that a natural fluctuation in atmospheric carbon has occurred throughout history, which is certainly true – scientific core sample measurements of ice show that our planet had much higher concentrations of atmospheric CO2 millions of years ago. However, that argument leaves out a salient point: human beings didn’t have to survive in those conditions, because we didn’t exist yet. Dinosaurs did, and look what happened to them.

Another myth: “Record snowfall disproves global warming.” The scientific fact: Warming leads to increased evaporation and precipitation, which falls as increased snow in winter and increased rain in some areas in other seasons.

Yet another myth: “Solar cycles cause global warming.” The scientific truth: Over the last five decades, since 1970, the sun’s temperature has actually cooled slightly.

Then, those who want to create doubt about climate change promote maybe the most irresponsible myth of all: “The science isn’t settled.” 

That oft-cited argument reveals a basic misunderstanding, or a purposeful one, of how science itself works. It assumes that the scientific method leads to absolute certainty – when it never does. 

Instead, scientists always rely on a preponderance of evidence, and then leave their views open to change based on new evidence. We define science, after all, as a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable, factual explanations and predictions about the universe.

The standard scientific method represents the best way we know of to reach relative empirical truth – with transparency, continuing skepticism, gathering more evidence and repeatedly testing prior scientific conclusions. Scientists always aim at truth as the goal, but the scientific method itself dictates that absolute truth can never be permanently reached in practice, because our understanding of the physical universe keeps evolving. 

All of this simply means science employs a rigorous, fact-based standard of belief we would all do well to emulate. As the Baha’i teachings point out: “… there is a great difference between facts sustained by science and theories upheld by blind belief …” – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, pp. 104-105.

So when people say the science isn’t settled on climate change, they miss a fundamental verity of science itself – which is never completely settled. That’s why we call it science:

The outcome of this intellectual endowment is science, which is especially characteristic of man. This scientific power investigates and apprehends created objects and the laws surrounding them. It is the discoverer of the hidden and mysterious secrets of the material universe and is peculiar to man alone. The most noble and praiseworthy accomplishment of man, therefore, is scientific knowledge and attainment. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 29.

11 Comments

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  • Carl Brehmer
    6 days ago
    There is 100% agreement that water is beneficial to the biosphere. Everywhere in the world that humidity and cloud cover are high organic life thrives in great abundance. Deserts have sparse life because they are dry not because they are hot. Humidity and cloud cover are said to cause up to 80% of a "greenhouse effect" that some claim threaten the very life that water and carbon dioxide (CO2) have been creating through photosynthesis for millions of years. It is only rational that thinking people are skeptical of assertions that water and CO2 have suddenly become ...a threat to the very life that they create. For more info on the benefits of water and CO2 to the biosphere study Plant Physiology, Phytochemistry, Biology and Horticulture.
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  • Shane Mackenzie
    Oct 30, 2019
    Well put David. It is in my experience difficult to have a calm conversation with people on this matter. They tend to have a very strong opinion on whichever side of the fence their belief resides. Whatever the underlying cause may be, our contribution in terms of pollution and waste of earth's resources and our choice of energy sources and destruction of forrests are but a couple of examples of what is within the control of human behaviour. Planned obsilescience of material goods is an example of greed which both expends energy and creates rubbish. Nothing short of a spiritual ...revitalisation of humanity will ensure the abandonment of the greed which stalls our collective effort to implement energy changes and reduction in pollution.
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  • Mark David Vinzens
    Oct 24, 2019
    “Times are difficult globally; awakening is no longer a luxury or an ideal. It's becoming critical. We don't need to add more depression, more discouragement, or more anger to what's already here. It's becoming essential that we learn how to relate sanely with difficult times. The earth seems to be beseeching us to connect with joy and discover our innermost essence. This is the best way that we can benefit others.”
    ― Pema Chodron
  • Rosslyn and Steven Osborne
    Oct 24, 2019
    So well 'spelt out' David, Thank you and I like the comments below as well. We all have an obligation to start curbing back on our habits and the way we could be helping our planet and ourselves. We have borrowed this planet from our children so now it is up to us to help as much as we can. No magic wand, but we each have a role to play.
  • Carl Okamoto
    Oct 24, 2019
    My skepticism was fueled by the creation of carbon credits, carbon exchange market, carbon offsets and other things where $$$ is involved. Even people who work for Nonprofits Get paid. Enough about $. We are in an interglacial period within an Ice Age. But it looks like we are coming to the end of the interglacial period. Without the greenhouse effect , we may have a glacier in Centeral Park NY again. Will we have too much or too little? I hope this is all inteligent design and that we won't be too far off ...the mark. As far as Centeral Park and sea levels, we can't be sure because of tectonic movement. Where was Centeral Park when there was a glacier there and it is impossible to determine a benchmark to measure sea level changes.
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  • Steve Eaton
    Oct 23, 2019
    This was solid as can be! In a burning house, do we take adaptive action and flee, or analyze to death, our own, the possible causes as well as the potential for biochemical degradation of our bodily tissues and viability in an oxygen-free environment? Practical living is always based on our sense of probabilities, EVEN on religious matters. If we wait for total proof, we simply die in place.
    • Andrew Scott
      Oct 24, 2019
      We're in a burning house, in which all the doors are locked and the windows barred, so there is no-where to flee to. And we're fighting the fire with a leaky water pistol. There's a fire-hose available, connected to main supply outside, but we don't touch it because we believe we're not worth saving. So we convince ourselves we're enjoying shooting up the fire with the water pistol ...
  • Darren Hedley
    Oct 23, 2019
    Excellent article, really good to have a concise summary, I have shared with my family as basic environmental literacy. I also think that climate change is simply one more argument for why we should adopt a more moderate, less materialistic lifestyle, the sooner the better. Also need to plan for the long-term future, emphasizing more renewable energies, while still accommodating current needs, and this balance requires unity and wisdom on the part of our leaders. I see the increasing demand in the developing world, and feel strongly we must help them continue to grow while promoting a more sustainable lifestyle ...balancing material with spiritual aims.
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  • Charles Boyle
    Oct 23, 2019
    Thank you David. I am gradually coming to the view that no-one really disputes that the climate is changing, but don't want to admit to this for fear that they will have to change. This is justified by all manner of arguments about whether it is a natural phenomena, or a grand conspiracy, a socialist plot, that it is self-correcting, that changes to human behaviour will have a negligible effect, that it will destroy economies, but are unwilling to debate these issues. It is thus a spiritual challenge as a material one as you posit, demanding ...of us to apply moderation, responsibility, compassion, creativity - perhaps every virtue we know has a part to play.And suddenly the entire thrust of the Revelation of Baha'u'llah makes sense.
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    • Andrew Scott
      Oct 24, 2019
      To add to the excellent comment above, ultimately it comes down to a form of cost-benefit analysis in the minds of those who don't want to change. They see themselves as 'separate' from other people, and consider the intrinsic worth of other people to be less (sometimes much less) than themselves. This is from their point of view just as true for their neighbours, as well as for people remote from them in space or in time. In the last analysis, the root of this view is a very negative and limited view of human nature, which is in turn ...borne out of the fear of death: of annihilation, or of judgement. Baha'u'llah has revealed the sovereign remedy, which tens of thousands are now telling us of through their NDE accounts.
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  • Warren Houghton
    Oct 23, 2019
    When deniers talk about the Earth "wobbling" they are probably referring to the Milankovitch cycles - I have seen them cited as THE explanation of the current warming many times. The eccentricity of the Earth's orbit around the sun does vary as do the angle and direction of the Earth's tilt. There is good correlation between these cycles and past climate change and ice ages . . . BUT the variations are very slow and predict, if anything, a very gradual cooling.