Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Most Surreal Country on Earth? Part 2

Back in August, I referred to inflation in Zimbabwe, which was at risk of hitting 100,000% by the end of the year. Now it looks like they might fall short. But no one knows for sure. From The Economist's weekly politics update:

Zimbabwe's chief statistician said that he can no longer work out the country's inflation rate because there are not enough goods left in the shops to count. In September inflation was reckoned to be almost 8,000%.
Prices can't go up if you've nothing left to sell. Now there's a novel - or should we say surreal? - approach to battling inflation.
(Photo: Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Irenaeus On: Knowing God


"God cannot be known without the help of God."

- Irenaeus, 2nd Century bishop of Lyon

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

What Kind Of Traveler Are You?

Something without implications for metaphysics or public policy, for a change . . .
Here's a 3-minute test I just found about about that tells you which of six "travel personalities" applies to you. It will tell you what kinds of vacations will appeal to you, and what won't.

I took the test, and I'd say 80% of my travel personality description ("Mid-Venturer") is exactly spot-on for how I like to travel. Seems this could be a good diagnostic for figuring out whom (or whom not) to take trips with.

So here's the test. Click on the "Plog Travel Personality Quiz" (at the top center of the linked page). You can just ignore the part later that asks for your name and e-mail; it'll still give you the results without it. If you take the test, and are brave enough to post a reply, I'd be curious to know:

  • What's your type, according to the results?
  • How accurate is the description? (Really, Somewhat, Dunno, Not So Much, Not At All)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Global Warming, Part 6

In Global Warming, Part 5, I reproduced a manuscript of an interview with John Christy, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC was the co-winner with Albert Gore of this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

After my previous post, I found out that Christy is one of "thousands" of members of the IPCC, so it's a bigger club than I had realized.
In any case, he wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that is an excellent, readable summary of some of the issues related to global warming. At the end, he suggests that spending massive sums of money trying to stop global warming is unwise and uncompassionate. Better to spend the money on third-world health issues and economic development. Interestingly, he calls this a "moral imperative."
Here's the full text of his November 1 essay:

My Nobel Moment
November 1, 2007; Page A19

I've had a lot of fun recently with my tiny (and unofficial) slice of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But, though I was one of thousands of IPCC participants, I don't think I will add "0.0001 Nobel Laureate" to my resume.

The other half of the prize was awarded to former Vice President Al Gore, whose carbon footprint would stomp my neighborhood flat. But that's another story.

Both halves of the award honor promoting the message that Earth's temperature is rising due to human-based emissions of greenhouse gases. The Nobel committee praises Mr. Gore and the IPCC for alerting us to a potential catastrophe and for spurring us to a carbonless economy.

I'm sure the majority (but not all) of my IPCC colleagues cringe when I say this, but I see neither the developing catastrophe nor the smoking gun proving that human activity is to blame for most of the warming we see. Rather, I see a reliance on climate models (useful but never "proof") and the coincidence that changes in carbon dioxide and global temperatures have loose similarity over time.

There are some of us who remain so humbled by the task of measuring and understanding the extraordinarily complex climate system that we are skeptical of our ability to know what it is doing and why. As we build climate data sets from scratch and look into the guts of the climate system, however, we don't find the alarmist theory matching observations. (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite data we analyze at the University of Alabama in Huntsville does show modest warming -- around 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit per century, if current warming trends of 0.25 degrees per decade continue.)

It is my turn to cringe when I hear overstated-confidence from those who describe the projected evolution of global weather patterns over the next 100 years, especially when I consider how difficult it is to accurately predict that system's behavior over the next five days.

Mother Nature simply operates at a level of complexity that is, at this point, beyond the mastery of mere mortals (such as scientists) and the tools available to us. As my high-school physics teacher admonished us in those we-shall-conquer-the-world-with-a-slide-rule days, "Begin all of your scientific pronouncements with 'At our present level of ignorance, we think we know . . .'"

I haven't seen that type of climate humility lately. Rather I see jump-to-conclusions advocates and, unfortunately, some scientists who see in every weather anomaly the specter of a global-warming apocalypse. Explaining each successive phenomenon as a result of human action gives them comfort and an easy answer.

Others of us scratch our heads and try to understand the real causes behind what we see. We discount the possibility that everything is caused by human actions, because everything we've seen the climate do has happened before. Sea levels rise and fall continually. The Arctic ice cap has shrunk before. One millennium there are hippos swimming in the Thames, and a geological blink later there is an ice bridge linking Asia and North America.

One of the challenges in studying global climate is keeping a global perspective, especially when much of the research focuses on data gathered from spots around the globe. Often observations from one region get more attention than equally valid data from another.

The recent CNN report "Planet in Peril," for instance, spent considerable time discussing shrinking Arctic sea ice cover. CNN did not note that winter sea ice around Antarctica last month set a record maximum (yes, maximum) for coverage since aerial measurements started.

Then there is the challenge of translating global trends to local climate. For instance, hasn't global warming led to the five-year drought and fires in the U.S. Southwest?

Not necessarily.

There has been a drought, but it would be a stretch to link this drought to carbon dioxide. If you look at the 1,000-year climate record for the western U.S. you will see not five-year but 50-year-long droughts. The 12th and 13th centuries were particularly dry. The inconvenient truth is that the last century has been fairly benign in the American West. A return to the region's long-term "normal" climate would present huge challenges for urban planners.

Without a doubt, atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing due primarily to carbon-based energy production (with its undisputed benefits to humanity) and many people ardently believe we must "do something" about its alleged consequence, global warming. This might seem like a legitimate concern given the potential disasters that are announced almost daily, so I've looked at a couple of ways in which humans might reduce CO2 emissions and their impact on temperatures.

California and some Northeastern states have decided to force their residents to buy cars that average 43 miles-per-gallon within the next decade. Even if you applied this law to the entire world, the net effect would reduce projected warming by about 0.05 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, an amount so minuscule as to be undetectable. Global temperatures vary more than that from day to day.

Suppose you are very serious about making a dent in carbon emissions and could replace about 10% of the world's energy sources with non-CO2-emitting nuclear power by 2020 -- roughly equivalent to halving U.S. emissions. Based on IPCC-like projections, the required 1,000 new nuclear power plants would slow the warming by about 0.2 degrees Fahrenheit per century. It's a dent.

But what is the economic and human price, and what is it worth given the scientific uncertainty?

My experience as a missionary teacher in Africa opened my eyes to this simple fact: Without access to energy, life is brutal and short. The uncertain impacts of global warming far in the future must be weighed against disasters at our doorsteps today. Bjorn Lomborg's Copenhagen Consensus 2004, a cost-benefit analysis of health issues by leading economists (including three Nobelists), calculated that spending on health issues such as micronutrients for children, HIV/AIDS and water purification has benefits 50 to 200 times those of attempting to marginally limit "global warming."

Given the scientific uncertainty and our relative impotence regarding climate change, the moral imperative here seems clear to me.

Mr. Christy is director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and a participant in the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, co-recipient of this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Dalit Defections

The Dalits of India have been receiving a fair amount of press in the last couple years. Some Christians have taken them up as a cause.

Dalits are not an ethnic group; rather, they are a sociological group (caste/class) that used to be generally referred to as the "untouchables." There are about 130 million of them in India.

Some of those 130 million are converts to Christianity. But their conversions lead to a form of persecution, and many are consequently hiding their faith. Here are some excerpts from a September 19 Wall Street Journal article describing the situation. I've cut out a lot of the article in order to keep the focus on the point that stood out to me:

MEDIPALLY, India - Every Sunday, women and children gather to pray in a tiny, whitewashed church on the edge of this southern Indian village, sitting cross-legged on blue plastic sheets as they sing Christian hymns.

The men don't dare to come. "If they are seen in the church, the officials will be informed," says Vatipally Aharon, Medipally's Baptist pastor.

Almost all the Christians here -- and the overwhelming majority across India -- hail from the so-called Dalit community, the former "untouchables" relegated to the bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy. Under India's constitution, Dalits are entitled to affirmative-action benefits, including 15% of all federal government jobs and admissions in government-funded universities. That provides the country's most downtrodden with a way to escape their traditional occupations such as emptying village latrines, burying cow carcasses, and tanning animal hides.

But there is a catch: Any Dalit caught abandoning Hinduism for Christianity or Islam loses these privileges, and can be fired from jobs gained under the quota. The rules are enforced by vigilant local officials who keep a close eye on villagers' comings and goings.

. . .

But with India's expanding economy offering unprecedented opportunities for social and economic advancement, a great many Dalits are now turning to Christianity, attracted by benefits like education and health care that are sometimes offered by Western-funded congregations. This allows them to seek opportunities beyond the government sector, in the booming information-technology and services industries that put a premium on the Westernized outlook and English-language skills.

Much to the dismay of Hindu nationalist groups, the number of India's secret Christians has climbed in recent years to an estimated 25 million people, about the size of the officially registered Christian population.

The gains among secret Christians come despite the obvious risks: Affirmative-action benefits often mean the difference between grinding poverty and a glimmer of hope for better life.

A lanky 30-year-old with a trimmed mustache, Venkatesh Gunti was born into a Dalit household here in Medipally, a cluster of pastel-colored homes set in the rolling green hills of Andhra Pradesh state. Since his teenage years, Mr. Gunti frequently prayed in the village's Zion church, established by South African missionaries. Three years ago, he found a prized job that would have allowed him to escape the misery of rural life -- as a handyman in a government college in the town of Bhongir. Zoologist Mukesh Kumar says he was denied a job because he converted to Islam.
The job was reserved for a Dalit, and Mr. Gunti had to produce a "scheduled caste" certificate -- something he believed would be a mere formality.

But when Mr. Gunti applied for it at the local government revenue collection office, the clerk, Mr. Gunti recalls, refused to issue the document. According to reports filed by the village secretary, Mr. Gunti was a regular churchgoer and therefore no longer qualified for "scheduled caste" status. He didn't get the job and had to stay in the village, eking out a living as a manual laborer.

To gain back the affirmative-action benefits, Mr. Gunti says he had to pretend that he had reverted to Hinduism, participating in a Hindu religious festival when he knew that the village secretary was watching. Last year, the subterfuge finally worked, and Mr. Gunti was reclassified as a member of the "scheduled caste." He says he won't partake in any more Hindu rituals, but will also steer clear of the church. Mr. Gunti has yet to find a new job.

Questioned about the case, Raghu Rama Rao, Medipally's village secretary, explains that he has no choice. "This is the law -- if we'll come to know they go to church, we'll have to make an inquiry and submit a report," Mr. Rao says in his home, its outer wall sporting a poster for a Hindu nationalist organization. Mr. Rao adds that he's already showing kindness by reporting only the active churchgoers, and leaving alone those believed Christian Dalits who do not openly flaunt their faith.

Such thorough enforcement means that secret lives have to be lived throughout India's society. "If they ever find out I'm a Christian, I will lose my position, no question about it," says a Dalit schoolteacher who behaves as a Hindu when he teaches in a state school near Medipally but decorates his Hyderabad apartment with pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

"The government is forcing us to lie," echoes Prasadarao Yadavalli, a 48-year-old official in Andhra Pradesh's state bureaucracy who rose to his post thanks to Dalit quotas while hiding his Christian faith. Mr. Yadavalli says he has decided to finally come out this year, as he could no longer maintain this double life: "Whatever the consequences, God will take care of us." . . .

So, to summarize:

  1. The Constitution guarantees educational and job opportunities for Dalits . . .

  2. But they become ineligible if they convert to Christianity, because they lose their status as Dalits (which is a Hindu classification) . . .

  3. So they pretend they're not Christians in order to remain eligible.

This bothers me. Not belonging to the Joel Osteen School of Happy Christianity, I tend to think that persecution is a natural consequence of proclaiming faith in Jesus and that steadfastness in suffering/persecution is a sign of true faith. Our American culture is an aberration, in that not many of us have to suffer for our faith in Jesus - certainly not in the way some New Testament believers did.

It's easy for me to criticize the Dalits, because I'm not in their shoes (or their bare feet). But I am sincere in my hope that if I have to choose between Jesus and a job, then I'll choose Jesus. Otherwise, my faith will be shown to have been nothing more than a faith of convenience. . . and thus, no faith at all.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Religion, Fecundity, and Politics

If you picked 100 adults out of the population who attended their house of worship nearly every week or more often, they would have 223 children among them, on average, according to the 2006 General Social Survey. Among 100 people who attended less than once per year or never, you would find just 158 kids. This 41% fertility gap between religious and secular people is especially meaningful because people tend to worship more or less like their parents. According to data collected in 1999 by Gallup, 60% of adults who were taken to church at least once per month as children grew up to attend at least this often; only 15% stopped attending as adults.

The demographic implications are even more profound for the political left, where a disproportionate number of secularists are located. Religious people who call themselves politically "conservative" or "very conservative" are having, on average, an astounding 78% more kids than secular liberals. Studies show that people are even more likely to vote like their parents than they are to worship like them. The secular left, therefore, has to rely on the tough slog of bringing people from the political and religious middle over to their views. The religious right simply has to keep having lots of babies.

- Arthur C. Brooks (professor at Syracuse University's school of public affairs and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Global Warming, Part 5

Little known fact: Al Gore was not the sole recipient of this year's Nobel Peace Prize. He was the co-recipient with the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

John Christy is a member of that panel and was interviewed on by Miles O'Brien on CNN after the award was announced. Here's a transcript of the October 19 interview, as provided by . I bolded some sections for emphasis - and quick reading if you're in a hurry:

O'BRIEN: But I'll tell you who's not laughing, the critics who accuse Gore of being an alarmist, who say global warming is not a catastrophe. One of them is, ironically, one of the scientists who shares a piece of the Nobel Peace Prize with Gore, former NASA scientist John Christy, joining from us Huntsville, Alabama. Dr. Christy, good to have you with us.

Dr. JOHN CHRISTY, University of Alabama: Hello.

O'BRIEN: I assume you're not happy about sharing this award with Al Gore. You going to renounce it in some way?

CHRISTY: Well, as a scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, I always thought that, and I may sound like the Grinch who stole Christmas here, that prizes were given for performance, and not for promotional activities. And when I look at the world, I see that the carbon dioxide rate is increasing, and energy demand, of course, is increasing. And that's because, without energy, life is brutal and short. So I don't see very much effect in trying to scare people into not using energy when it is the very basis of how we can live in our society.

O'BRIEN: So what about the movie [An Inconvenient Truth] do you take issue with, then, Dr. Christy?

CHRISTY: Well, there's any number of things. I suppose, fundamentally, it's the fact that someone is speaking about a science that I've been very heavily involved in and have labored so hard in, and been humiliated by, in the sense that the climate is so difficult to understand, Mother Nature is so complex, and so the uncertainties are great, and then to hear someone speak with such certainty and such confidence about what the climate is going to do is, well, I suppose I could be kind and say, it's annoying to me.

O'BRIEN: But you just got through saying that carbon dioxide levels are up, temperatures are going up. There is a certain degree of certainty that goes along with that, right?

CHRISTY: Well, the carbon dioxide is going up. And remember that carbon dioxide is plant food in the fundamental sense. All of life depends on the fact carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere. So we're fortunate it's not a toxic gas. But, on the other hand, what is the climate doing? And when we build, and I'm one of the few people in the world that actually builds these climate data sets, we don't see the catastrophic changes that are being promoted all over the place. For example, I suppose CNN did not announce two weeks ago when the Antarctic sea ice extent reached its all-time maximum, even though, in the Arctic in the North Pole, it reached its all-time minimum.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk about the critics in general. Many of the critics we hear from have links to the fossil fuel industry. A lot of their funding comes from the coal and oil industries. How about you?

CHRISTY: All of my funding is federal and state grants. And I apply for them and write my papers, which are peer-reviewed. So I have disengaged and never was really involved in any of that.

O'BRIEN: Does it make you angry that Al Gore got the Peace Prize?

CHRISTY: No, I think it's just a commentary on a prize that is a political prize. I think it was clearly designed to influence American elections and so on. But, in a sense, you can't begrudge someone who has become a star. I mean, he has really attracted the media attention and so on. So that's just what happens in the world of politics.

O'BRIEN: So you say this is a political award then?

CHRISTY: Well, as I said at the very beginning, I don't see any accomplishment here. I don't see CO2 going down because of the campaign, the crusade that he's on. And I only see it going up, because, and I come back to this, energy is absolutely vital for human society, and its use will increase. There's a tremendous amount of pent-up energy demand, especially in the Third World right now. So we shall see it rise.

O'BRIEN: But some would say it's time to look at alternatives that don't put that CO2 into the atmosphere.

CHRISTY: Well, I've done the work on that, and the only alternative that can make a tiny dent in the rate of temperature increase, if it is increasing at a high rate, is nuclear power. So if you built 1,000 nuclear power plants right now, you would be able to affect the global temperature by, listen to this, one-hundredth of a degree per decade. I don't know if that's the price we want to pay, but nuclear power, in democratically accountable countries, is fairly safe and useful that way.

O'BRIEN: John Christy, thank you for your time.

CHRISTY: My pleasure.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Rodney's Adventure

Sometimes, being in the center of God's will doesn't turn out the way we expect. And prayers may get answered in surprising ways. Courtesy of the Wittenburg Door:

Rodney's Adventure

Rodney was a handsome bighorn sheep who spent his days wandering through the mountains of Moriah. He was well known to all the other sheep, and a good friend to the other animals who lived on the mountain. He allowed the sparrows to ride on his magnificent horns, and sang with the owls in the moonlight, and was always careful not to trample the rabbits under his mighty hooves.

One morning he decided to climb higher up the mountain than he had ever been before. He made his way slowly up the mountainside, putting one hoof carefully in front of the other as his father and grandfather had taught him.

But when he got to the top of the mountain, he lost his footing and tumbled into a bramble patch. The burrs grabbed and tugged at his wool, and no matter which way he turned, he could not find his way out.

"Oh, dear," thought Rodney. "I seem to be trapped in this thicket!"

Now it so happened that a man and his son were approaching, and Rodney bleated and called for their assistance as loud as he could.

"If only they hear me," thought Rodney, "they will set me free! Sir! Sir! Over here!"

But the man and his son paid no attention. They talked quietly for a while, and the man seemed very serious indeed about building something in the clearing on top of the mountain. Rodney cried and shouted until he was hoarse, but it was no use at all.

Then an Angel of the Lord appeared, and said: "Dearest Rodney! I have been watching you for a long while. I am so sorry you have been caught in this thicket. I shall set you free, so that you may fulfill God's plan for your future."

And with a wave of his hand, the Angel caused the thicket to vanish into thin air!

Rodney sprang forth, and shook himself, and his beautiful black eyes glistened in the sun with joy and relief.And then the man set upon him, and caught him up, and sacrificed him to the Lord.When all was said and done, it was a pretty poor excuse for an adventure.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Global Warming, Part 4

Should we feel sort of bad when we fly somewhere? Don't airplanes add to the global warming problem?

Michael O'Leary is CEO of Ryanair, the Ireland-based low-fare airline. He's known for being outspoken, and when he talks about global warming, he remains true to form. Here's an excerpt from an interview with him that was printed in the September 15-16, 2007 Wall Street Journal:

Mr. O'Leary's low opinion of his own industry, though, is nothing compared to his outright disdain for those who regulate air travel -- particularly when it's done in the name of the environment. Mention airlines and carbon dioxide in the same sentence, and he begins peppering his language with four-letter words.

Earlier this year, before becoming Britain's prime minister, Gordon Brown raised taxes on air travel to and from the U.K. The then-Treasury chief's stated purpose was fighting climate change. Mr. O'Leary, whose airline serves more than a dozen British airports, demurs: "He just raised taxes on airlines. It has [bleep]-all to do with climate change! We've written several letters . . . to the Treasury, asking what the money's going to be spent on. We still haven't gotten a reply.

"This is the problem with all this environmental claptrap . . . it's a convenient excuse for politicians to just start taxing people. Some of these guilt-laden, middle-class liberals think it's somehow good: 'Oh, that's my contribution to the environment.' It's not. You're just being robbed -- it's just highway [bleeping] robbery."

Airlines have become an enormous target for global-warming doomsayers. Last month, campaigners staged a nine-day protest outside London's Heathrow airport, hoping to discourage summer vacationers from flying. Mr. O'Leary points out that air transport accounts for only 2% of carbon dioxide emissions world-wide -- "It's less than marine transport, and yet I don't see anyone [saying], you know, 'Let's tax the [bleep] out of the ferries.'"

Mr. O'Leary assigns further blame to "the chattering bloody classes . . . or what I call the liberal, Guardian [newspaper] readers -- they're all buying SUVs to drive around the streets of London. And there's this huge disconnect between their stated passion for or care for the environment and what they actually do. They all want to buy kiwis and kumquats in the supermarket on Saturday. They're flown in from New Zealand for chrissakes! They're the equivalent of, you know, environmental nuclear bombs! But nobody says, 'Let's ban the kiwi fruits.'"

I guess this means his airline won't be selling carbon footprint offsets with their tickets.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Masterpiece Theatre

"Satan's masterpiece is not the prostitute or the skid-row bum. It is the self-sufficient person who has made life comfortable, who is adjusting well to the world and truly likes living here, a person who dreams of no better place to live, who longs only to be a little better - and a little better off - than he already is."

"The Spirit's masterpiece is the man or woman who much prefers to live elsewhere, who finds no deep joy in the good things of this life, who looks closely in the mirror and yearns to see something different, whose highest dream is to be in the Presence of the grace-filled Father. It is the person whose life here is consumed with preparing to meet Him there."
- Larry Crabb, Shattered Dreams, p. 126

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Global Warming, Part 3

Thomas Sieger Derr has written an interesting article in the August/September 2007 issue of First Things. It's a bit long, but I'm reprinting it in its entirety below, because you might otherwise need a subscription to read it on the First Things website. (If you don't subscribe, you really ought to think about doing so.)

The bolded words/passages are my addition, if you just want to scan the article. But it's worth reading in its entirety, especially in order to gain an insight into the thought processes behind the global warming bandwagon.

The Politics of Global Warming
by Thomas Sieger Derr

With the virtual apotheosis of Al Gore, talk of global warming has become pervasive—and pervasively one-sided. Churches of all varieties have signed on as a moral cause. Corporations, including former doubters, have adopted anti-warming language, either from new conviction or convenient public image. Politicians, with few exceptions, dare not openly deny that there is a problem, though their responses may vary.

Through it all, one would never know there are dissenters of distinguished credentials in the scientific community. Even where their existence is admitted, they are thoroughly marginalized, accused of being in the pay of the oil companies (Gore slyly and meanly implies this in his movie, An Inconvenient Truth), or dismissed as over-the-hill retirees out of touch and perhaps a bit senile. Their articles are denied publication in Science and Nature, those two so-called flagship science journals of high reputation despite some embarrassing lapses.

When dissenters do speak and publish, the majority who embrace the prevailing theory that humans are causing global warming try to silence them on the grounds that, because they are in error, they must not be allowed to be heard. Newspapers who seek balance in their reporting are told that they are doing a disservice to the public, to truth, and to the survival of the human race. The Weather Channel, a full-bore promoter of global-warming alarm (which feeds its appetite for newsworthy disaster), has, through its chief climate expert Heidi Cullen, even said that weather reporters who don’t accept the reigning thesis should be decertified by the American Meteorological Society—in other words, believe our way or lose your job. When British television producer Martin Durkin made a counter-movie to Gore’s, the head of the Royal Society declared that he should not be allowed to show it.

The result is that anyone who finds the dissenters persuasive—including me—is suspected of being a right-wing extremist, making politics determine science. In vain do we point out that dissenters from established scientific consensus have often been dramatically vindicated. Undeterred, some of our critics have even compared us to Holocaust deniers or urged that dissenters be tried as war criminals. Or maybe burned at the stake for heresy—for our religious critics do think of us as heretics and sinners.

This dismal state of affairs is made possible by an astonishing historical amnesia. It is indisputable that climate swings are a regular feature of our planet’s life. Short-term changes lie within our personal memories: The current warming trend dates from only about 1975. Before that, a pronounced cooling period starting about 1940 led the scientific consensus of the 1970s to proclaim global cooling and perhaps the first signs of an ice age. Note that these swings do not correspond to the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere; 60 percent of global warming since 1850 occurred before 1940, while 80 percent of CO2 was emitted after that date—and temperatures fell from 1940 until the turnaround in the late 1970s.

Going further back, we find the “little ice age” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the Hudson and the Thames froze, crops failed, and disease was rampant, so that millions died. Before that, we come upon the “medieval climate optimum,” when a prevailing warmth made life pleasant, grape vines grew in England, and the Vikings established settlements in Greenland and Newfoundland (which they called Vinland; the names are revealing)—settlements that lasted until the little ice age froze them out.

That period was, in turn, preceded by an unfavorable climate in the Dark Ages, and that by another warm stretch in Roman times. Using proxy records (tree rings, ice-core samples, ocean-bottom sediment), geologists have determined that such climate swings stretch back into prehistory. Fred Singer (who has impeccable credentials and experience as a climate scientist) and Dennis Avery have calculated that this swing-and-return pattern occurs roughly but regularly every 1,500 years. Obviously, the pattern has nothing to do with human activity. Nor does it correspond to the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. If anything, climate change appears to precede, not follow, increases in CO2.

So what’s going on? There is a significant body of scientific opinion that finds the sun to be the principal climate driver. The sun’s output is variable and complex, more and less intense at different periods. A German team has shown an almost perfect correlation between air temperatures and solar cycles for the past 150 years. A Danish team likewise has constructed a multi-era match of solar activity (measured by sunspots) to global temperatures. Nigel Weiss of Cambridge University, a mathematical astrophysicist and past president of the Royal Astronomical Society, also correlates sunspot activity with changes in the earth’s climate. Because solar activity is cyclical, he expects that a downturn is coming and will usher in a cooling climate for earth in, maybe, three decades. Actually, global average temperature seems to have plateaued since 2000, though it is probably too soon to expect the downturn to have begun. Still, Richard Lindzen, a distinguished atmospheric physicist at MIT and a leading doubter that human activity is driving warming, thinks the odds are about 50 percent that the earth will be cooler in twenty years—due to natural cycles.

It may or may not be significant, but it is suggestive, that NASA’s instruments calculate that Mars, Jupiter, Pluto, and the Titan moon of Neptune are warming, suggesting a solar-system-wide phenomenon. To be sure, this is not hard evidence; other factors (axis tilt and wobble on Mars, for instance) may be a cause. Still, it may be a clue to what is happening here on our planet.

Some caveats are in order. Human activity may add something to the natural cycle, though how much is hard to tell. I have seen a paper that estimates the human contribution at 3 percent and another that gives it at 0.28 percent, for an almost undetectable effect on climate. The principal greenhouse gas, some 97 percent of the total, is water vapor, which leaves little for CO2 and other trace gasses. Scott McIntosh, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, says that warming caused by CO2 compared to the effect of solar magnetic fields is like a flea’s contribution to the weight of an elephant.

We do know, however, that atmospheric emissions can affect climate—for example, the serious consequences of the ash cloud thrown up by volcanic eruptions; so perhaps there is something to the greenhouse-gas theory. People can also argue about the historical record and try to modify the data that shows natural climate cycles. There may be problems with the sun theory; climate is also affected by ocean currents, meteor impact, the tilt of the earth’s axis, cosmic rays, precipitation systems, and other factors. And so on. Those of us who are doubters will not complain when we in turn are doubted. Debate is healthy and must not be choked off.

Nevertheless, the large, rough historical record should be enough to awaken the critical instincts and make anyone take a long second look at the claims of the global-warming alarmists—and alarmists they certainly are, deliberately and unabashedly so.

They’ve claimed, for example, that the glaciers will melt in Greenland and Antarctica and raise the oceans so much that low-lying cities and countries will be submerged and the Gulf Stream will shut down and plunge Europe into an ice age.

As it happens, while there is edge-melting in Greenland and along the peninsula of Antarctica that stretches toward South America, snow is accumulating in the interior of Greenland and in most of Antarctica. The warming peninsula there is just 2 percent of the continent; the other 98 percent is cooling. The Larson B ice shelf, which collapsed, was 1/246 the size of the West Antarctic ice shelf, which has been retreating slowly anyway for thousands of years. As for the Gulf Stream threat, oceanographers debunk it. Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the U.N. body that puts out huge periodic reports warning of climate disaster, has backed down from its earlier estimates of sea rise, from three feet for the next century to seventeen inches—and many scientists think even that is too high.

Speaking of glaciers, the alarmists point out that they are melting everywhere. Kilimanjaro will be bare in a few years, and the Alpine glaciers will be but pale shadows of themselves, and so on around the globe. But Claude All├Ęgre, a distinguished French climate scientist, has recanted his earlier support for the IPCC’s conclusions, and says of Kilimanjaro specifically that its snow cap is retreating from natural causes having to do with moisture from the Indian Ocean. Alpine glaciers, like most everywhere, grow and retreat often through their lives. In 2003, as the Schnidenjoch glacier in Switzerland was retreating, a 4,700-year-old archer’s quiver was exposed; that pass has been open to human travel many times since the last ice age.

On and on, the alarms go. Perhaps you’ve seen the claim that the Arctic sea ice is disappearing and that polar bears are threatened with extinction because they can’t hunt from ice floes any more. But Arctic sea ice, like the glaciers, grows and retreats in natural cycles. Gore’s computer simulation of the drowning polar bear may look sad, but, of course, it’s fake. Canadian wildlife biologists say most populations of the bears are actually increasing.

Or perhaps you’ve heard that storms on land and sea will increase in number and intensity, and we can expect more Katrinas. In fact, there has actually been a downward trend in the number of the bigger, detectable tornadoes since 1950; we detect more because better reporting picks up more small ones. New evidence shows that hurricane intensity does not correlate with ocean temperature.

Maybe you’ve read that tropical diseases such as malaria will spread into now-temperate zones, higher latitudes, and higher altitudes—Nairobi, for example. But Nairobi was built when malaria was already endemic there. It was repelled with better insecticide, especially, in Africa, DDT. The current resurgence of malaria comes not from global warming but from the ban on DDT spraying, growing resistance to drugs, and poverty.

You’ve also been told that failing to curb our greenhouse-gas emissions will cause irreparable economic damage to the poorer nations, as the Stern Report insisted. But the report was savaged by economists. William Nordhaus of Yale is among those who fault Stern for using a near-zero social-discount rate, which would charge current generations for problems not likely to occur for two or three centuries hence.

In fact, one can make the opposite case from Stern’s with greater plausibility: Economies would be wrecked by adoption of the Kyoto targets. Even a moderate stabilization of greenhouse-gas emissions would require something like a 60 to 80 percent reduction in fossil-fuel use, and standards of living would drop through the floor. Poor countries would have a nearly impossible time rising out of their poverty. Is it any wonder that China and India and other developing nations will have none of Kyoto-style proposals, and are loudly and clearly telling the developed nations to proceed without their participation? Naturally, they are much more interested in Bush’s proposal to bypass the useless Kyoto framework and substitute technological changes and voluntary goals for the binding targets championed by the Europeans.

One of the goofiest ways of raising consciousness about global warming has been the lectures we’ve received about purchasing carbon offsets. As it happens, the purchase of carbon offsets allows the buyer to continue his merry energy-guzzling ways, his sins having been forgiven for a cash payment. The process has the ring of a medieval indulgence sale, as many critics have gleefully noted. Gore buys carbon offsets so he can justify living in a mansion with huge electricity use. And he can certainly afford that, as his $100,000 lecture fees and his relations with Internet companies and environmental businesses have made him extraordinarily wealthy.

Everywhere you go, you hear the news that we have only a few years to save the planet before we reach the point of no return, the tipping point, irreversible catastrophic climate change, and the end of civilization. Hyperbolic statements like these are meant mainly to scare people into acting and accepting the enormous sums required for the proposed reduction program. Sir John Houghton, the first chair of the IPCC, wrote in a 1994 book, “Unless we announce disasters, no one will listen.”

A backlash against such exaggeration is growing, not least among scientists concerned for their own professional integrity. In any case, we need cooler heads to go with a warmer climate. Lindzen and Israeli astrophysicist Nir Shaviv calculate that a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere by 2100 would cause a temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius, which is only a little more than the rise from the late nineteenth century to the present has been. A 50 percent rise would yield a 0.5-degree-C. increase. There are, of course, good reasons for controlling many emissions and finding alternative sources to fossil fuels: pollution control, for instance, and freedom from economic fealty to some rather nasty oil-producing regimes. But stopping global warming is not one of them.

It almost seems as if the issue is not in science but in ideology and social psychology. Environmental alarmism is part of a systematic rejection of industrial civilization, of technology, consumerism, globalization, and what most of us think of as growth and progress, in favor of a return to local, simpler, largely agricultural societies—and, of course, fewer children, since humans are the ultimate pollution. Climate reversal has grown to become the latest focus of this way of thinking.

It is an issue that has acquired popular traction, even among people who do not share the radical goals of the larger movement, thanks to deliberate alarmism; and it is now firmly entrenched in our public discourse, especially in our politics. I suspect that it will stay there until the temperature starts to decline again, at which point, as in the 1970s, we’ll hear more about the inevitable return of an ice age.

Thomas Sieger Derr is professor emeritus of religion and ethics at Smith College and the author of "Environmental Ethics and Christian Humanism."

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Luther On: Promises

"God does not deal, nor has he ever dealt, with man otherwise than through a Word of promise. We in turn cannot deal with God otherwise than through faith in the Word of his promise. He does not desire works, nor has he need of them; … But God has need of this: that we consider him faithful in his promises [Heb. 10:23], and patiently persist in this belief … [P]romise and faith must necessarily go together. For without the promise there is nothing to be believed; while without faith the promise is useless, since it is established and fulfilled through faith."

Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

Monday, November 5, 2007

Global Warming, Part 2

Some questions I have about global warming:
  • What is the ideal temperature for planet Earth? Should it be, on average, a degree or two warmer than it is now, cooler than it is now, or are we now at the ideal?
  • If mankind stopped doing absoultely everything they are doing to add to global warming, what would be the effect, how large would the effect be, and how quickly would it happen?
  • What part of climate change is "natural rhythm" and essentially unstoppable?
  • If we stop doing 50% of what we are doing to add to global warming, will we get 50% of the "benefit," or is the effect not linear?
  • What, then, is the desired effect, and how much must be done to achieve it, and what will be the cost to achieve it? Looking at the cost-benefit ratio, is it in fact a good idea for us to pursue this reduction?

S. Fred Singer is professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, a distinguished research professor at George Mason University, and president of the Science and Environmental Policy Project. He performed his undergraduate studies at Ohio State University and earned his Ph.D. in Physics from Princeton University. He was the founding dean of the School of Environmental and Planetary Sciences at the University of Miami, the founding director of the U.S. National Weather Satellite Service, and served for five years as vice chairman of the U.S. National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere. I'm guessing that means he knows more than I do.

Here are some excerpts from a talk he gave at Hillsdale College in June 2007. Good food for thought. If you'd like to read the whole text, you'll find it here.

[I]n seeking to understand recent warming, we also have to consider the natural factors that have regularly warmed the climate prior to the industrial revolution and, indeed, prior to any human presence on the earth. After all, the geological record shows a persistent 1,500-year cycle of warming and cooling extending back at least one million years.

In identifying the burning of fossil fuels as the chief cause of warming today, many politicians and environmental activists simply appeal to a so-called “scientific consensus.” There are two things wrong with this. First, there is no such consensus: An increasing number of climate scientists are raising serious questions about the political rush to judgment on this issue. For example, the widely touted “consensus” of 2,500 scientists on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an illusion: Most of the panelists have no scientific qualifications, and many of the others object to some part of the IPCC’s report. The Associated Press reported recently that only 52 climate scientists contributed to the report’s “Summary for Policymakers.”

Likewise, only about a dozen members of the governing board voted on the “consensus statement” on climate change by the American Meteorological Society (AMS). Rank and file AMS scientists never had a say, which is why so many of them are now openly rebelling. Estimates of skepticism within the AMS regarding man-made global warming are well over 50 percent.

The second reason not to rely on a “scientific consensus” in these matters is that this is not how science works. After all, scientific advances customarily come from a minority of scientists who challenge the majority view—or even just a single person (think of Galileo or Einstein). Science proceeds by the scientific method and draws conclusions based on evidence, not on a show of hands.

. . . .

The irony is that a slightly warmer climate with more carbon dioxide is in many ways beneficial rather than damaging. Economic studies have demonstrated that a modest warming and higher CO2 levels will increase GNP and raise standards of living, primarily by improving agriculture and forestry. It’s a well-known fact that CO2 is plant food and essential to the growth of crops and trees—and ultimately to the well-being of animals and humans.

You wouldn’t know it from Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, but there are many upsides to global warming: Northern homes could save on heating fuel. Canadian farmers could harvest bumper crops. Greenland may become awash in cod and oil riches. Shippers could count on an Arctic shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific. Forests may expand. Mongolia could become an economic superpower. This is all speculative, even a little facetious. But still, might there be a silver lining for the frigid regions of Canada and Russia? “It’s not that there won’t be bad things happening in those countries,” economics professor Robert O. Mendelsohn of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies says. “But the idea is that they will get such large gains, especially in agriculture, that they will be bigger than the losses.” Mendelsohn has looked at how gross domestic product around the world would be affected under different warming scenarios through 2100. Canada and Russia tend to come out as clear gainers, as does much of northern Europe and Mongolia, largely be-cause of projected increases in agricultural production.

To repeat a point made at the beginning: Climate has been changing cyclically for at least a million years and has shown huge variations over geological time. Human beings have adapted well, and will continue to do so.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Take a Look

Feeling bored at work today?

Check out my trip photos, all 414 of them. Just click on this link.

The captions are sketchy, indeed, but they'll at least allow you to know what was taken in Naples, Pompeii and Herculanaeum, Rome, and Malta.

(The bronze statue you see here was originally in Pompeii but now resides in the Naples Archaeological Museum. Quite a modern face and hairstyle, considering he was buried by ash in AD 79. From the look of his eyes, he seems to have known what was coming.)