Planting Trees As Penance For Sin?

"I guess I would ask which human beings - where and when - are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate we have today is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that's a rather arrogant position for people to take." Michael Griffin NASA Administrator.

Robert Royal in First Things examines the position of various religious leaders on the current discussion surrounding global warming. Paraphrasing what he writes we read:

Religious fervor for curbing global warming and protecting the environment reached a confusing peak this week when a member of the Council for Culture at the Vatican announced that offsetting carbon emissions, which the Holy See will be able to do almost completely in the future thanks to a donation of land in Hungary to be planted with trees, is roughly parallel to doing penance for your sins. There’s nothing wrong and a good deal right with contemporary religious leaders pointing out our responsibilities to care for the Earth. But with all due respect to the good monsignor, it’s a very bad idea to suggest that steps to deal with environmental questions are like doing penance for sins.

Carbon emissions are not intrinsically wrong. All animals that inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide do so by natural design all the time. Even cars, electricity generating plants, and mechanical appliances do much good in addition to adding to atmospheric greenhouse gases. Deciding when and how to use them is not like deciding to cheat on your wife, an intrinsic wrong that requires confession and penance. It’s more like deciding how much of the family income to allot for a better gas-mileage car, and how much for food, housing, healthcare, or education for the children. In other words, it’s always a choice among competing goods, not between good and evil, within limited resources.

In addition, though the potential negative consequences of global warming are worthy of serious consideration, they need to be put in the proper perspective of the actual nature of the world that God created. Temperatures on the earth have changed drastically without benefit of human intervention. In the multiple Ice Ages that have regularly occurred over geological time, glaciers miles thick covered Northern Europe and much of North America. At their retreat, they scraped the earth cleaner than any logging company would dare, but enabled the growth of the lovely boreal forests we prize today.

In historical times, the changes have been less drastic but still quite striking. Leif Eriksson found grapes growing in Newfoundland, which is why he called it Vineland. Other explorers seem to have had similar reasons for giving the frozen expanses of today’s Greenland its name. From just before 1000 A.D. and continuing for a few centuries, the earth experienced what is sometimes called a Medieval Climate Optimum, a period of significant warming that may have helped in the cultural recovery of Europe, followed by a cooler period called the Little Ice Age beginning in the sixteenth century and lasting until around 1850. Since then, the earth has generally warmed but with another cooling dip from around 1950 to 1975. These simple facts of geology are much cited by both sides in the debates about global warming. But it’s rare to find any religious figure who shows any familiarity with the fact that God did not create a world of stable climate where species and habitats are forever fixed and or that change represents anything other than a violation of, and perhaps a sin against, the created order.

NASA administrator Michael Griffin was vilified when he called it “rather arrogant” to assume that the present climate was optimal for human beings. Contrary to the claims of his critics, Griffin was not saying that global warming should not be examined carefully. What he was saying - that we need to calm down and examine evidence more fully - is so outside the generalized hysteria among the media and the political class that his opponents could not fathom it. A similar fate has befallen Bjorn Lomborg, whose just-released book Cool It looks to be a worthy sequel to his controversial The Skeptical Environmentalist. This statistician has tried to weigh the various potential harms and benefits of global warming, which he not only believes is occurring but concedes is significantly owing to anthropogenic causes. There are two unforgivable sins among the most fervid environmentalists. As Al Gore has taught us, one is being a global-warming denier, which is on a moral level with the Holocaust deniers. Deniers at least can be summarily excommunicated. But it is precisely the Lomborgs and his like who are more infuriating to a certain type of true believer. To acknowledge anthropogenic global warming and to believe it may be effectively handled through anything but curtailing global capitalism through reducing carbon emissions, or, even worse, that we ought to add some of global warming’s benefits to our deliberations seems, to some, on a par with calling evil good.

But the facts are the facts. In Cool It, for example, Lomborg analyzes the conditions that produced the thirty-five thousand deaths in Europe during the infamous and much reported on heat wave of August 2003. That was a great tragedy, but every year, in Europe and around the world, far more people die of cold. In August 2003, some two thousand Britons died from the heat; on average, twenty-five thousand Britons a year die of cold and in some years more than twice that figure. If you turn to any ordinary media outlet, you will hear the usual litany of impending catastrophes: twenty-foot sea rises owing to Greenland melting that will submerge Florida and Bangladesh; widespread famine and death because of changes in precipitation patterns; the spread of tropical diseases to warmer environments; and of course the disappearance of charismatic flora and fauna. This, we are told, is the scientific consensus that should tug at our heart strings, and only reduced carbon emissions can prevent such an apocalypse.

This is a mixture of truth and misapprehension. If the Greenland ice pack melts, for example, it will take one thousand years and over the next century will produce a sea-level rise of about one foot. Furthermore, it is not at all clear that this Greenland, which was naturally green around 1000 A.D., is being ravaged by human activity. Glaciation naturally varies a great deal in the Northern Hemisphere and similar doomsday scenarios were common in the 1930s, a naturally occurring warm period that preceded emissions of large quantities of greenhouse gases.

Our religious leaders cannot be expected to be experts in environmental sciences or policies. But it would be a great help toward a better climate debate if they made greater allowance for the complexities of creation and the inevitable trade-offs in policy decisions while calling us all to responsible action. Our technological developments have brought great benefits to the whole of humanity in the past century. Failure to spread those benefits further may be the greatest harm we can do to the poor and marginalized. And it is beyond question a mistaken application of a crucial religious notion to suggest that the costs of those benefits are, even metaphorically, like sins.

Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of The Virgin and the Dynamo: Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates

Global Warming - Curse or Blessing?

Posted September 26, 2007


Michael N. Hull said...

Let me kick this off with the comment that Al Gore says rising CO2 levels caused by human activities are the cause of global warming. However, there seems to be some evidence that disputes this.

For example, an article in CO2 Science states that over the past half-million years a rise of CO2 concentration did not precede the changes in air temperature but followed them. If this is so then the rise in global temperatures could not have been caused by CO2 but rather the reverse was the case.

Read the full article a part of which is quoted below:

A weak short-term correlation between CO2 and temperature proves nothing about causation. Proponents of the notion that increases in the air's CO2 content lead to global warming point to the past century's weak correlation between atmospheric CO2 concentration and global air temperature as proof of their contention. However, they typically gloss over the fact that correlation does not imply causation, and that a hundred years is not enough time to establish the validity of such a relationship when it comes to earth's temperature history.The observation that two things have risen together for a period of time says nothing about one trend being the cause of the other. To establish a causal relationship it must be demonstrated that the presumed cause precedes the presumed effect. Furthermore, this relationship should be demonstrable over several cycles of increases and decreases in both parameters. And even when these criteria are met, as in the case of solar/climate relationships, many people are unwilling to acknowledge that variations in the presumed cause truly produced the observed analogous variations in the presumed effect. In thus considering the seven greatest temperature transitions of the past half-million years - three glacial terminations and four glacial inceptions - we note that increases and decreases in atmospheric CO2 concentration not only did not precede the changes in air temperature, they followed them, and by hundreds to thousands of years! There were also long periods of time when atmospheric CO2 remained unchanged, while air temperature dropped, as well as times when the air's CO2 content dropped, while air temperature remained unchanged or actually rose. Hence, the climate history of the past half-million years provides absolutely no evidence to suggest that the ongoing rise in the air's CO2 concentration will lead to significant global warming.


Joan Ferguson said...


It seems to me that one of you scientists should be able to do a simple calculation to prove/disprove the CO2 theory.

We know how much oil comes on the market daily and we know how much coal is burned daily. If we assume that all oil and coal are converted to their equivalents in pounds of CO2 then we know how much CO2 enters the atmosphere. We have a good idea how much of the earth is covered by CO2 absorbing vegetation and we know the areas of the world oceans and their rate of CO2 absorption. The difference is what remains in the atmosphere and builds up.

Does this difference come into the correct ballpark for the present rise in atmospheric CO2 levels?


James Carnaghan said...


This article makes some excellent points against man-made CO2 being the cause of global warming.


Helen Wright said...

In the NY Times today I read that the Bush administration is admitting that human activities are the cause for the rise in CO2 which is the cause of the present global warming.

But from what I read on this thread there are plenty of scientists that don’t agree with this. I’m confused. Just what is the problem with the science? Do most of the world’s atmospheric and geologic scientists agree that the cause of global warming is CO2 or not?

Helen Wright

Michael N. Hull said...

While in the UK this year I saw a documentary entitled The Great Global Warming Swindle which led me to wonder if the CO2 rise preceded a temperature rise or was vice versa as the documentary indicated.

Recently a colleague pointed out that this documentary has come under a lot of criticism.

Some of this criticism reads as follows:

Antarctic ice cores show that rises in levels of CO2 have lagged 800 years behind temperature rises at specific times in the geological past. What Durkin's film failed to explain was that the 800-year lag happened at the end of ice ages which occur about every 100,000 years. Scientists believe that the end of an ice age is likely triggered when the amount of heat reaching the Earth rises as a result of a periodic change in the Earth's orbit around the sun. Jeff Severinghaus, Professor of Geosciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, explains why the rise in CO2 initially lags behind the temperature rise:

"The reason has to do with the fact that the warmings take about 5000 years to be complete. The lag is only 800 years. All that the lag shows is that CO2 did not cause the first 800 years of warming, out of the 5000 year trend." The best current explanation for the lag of 800 years is that this is how long it takes for CO2, absorbed by the ocean in an earlier warm period, to be "flushed out" at the end of an ice age. Once that CO2 has been released into the atmosphere its heat-trapping properties as a greenhouse gas lead to even stronger warming: an example of positive feedback. "In other words, CO2 does not initiate the warmings, but acts as an amplifier once they are underway."

I can’t say that I am convinced by this argument given that it is the best current explanation. It doesn’t strike me that the scientists are convinced by this theory.


Jean-Francois D’Aubigne said...

Mr. Hull

Anyone can find someone that supposedly debunks documentaries. I have seen similar articles that debunk Mr. Gore’s position. What we need to do is to try and look at the evidence on both sides and make up our own minds. From what I understand even if we deindustralised the whole world tomorrow and went back to living as we did two centuries ago the earth would still warm up.

Personally I think that global warming might just delay the onset of the next ice-age and that might not be a bad thing. No one in France wants to see the glaciers cover all of Northern Europe and the English move into France in greater numbers that are already here!

Here in France everything is the fault of your President Bush. It’s the American capitalists that are destroying the world. We don’t actually believe that but someone has to be blamed so it might as well be Bush. And since no one here cares any bit about religion we don’t care what the Pope says as long as he blames Bush!

So the solution to all of the world’s problems is to wait for Bush to go and a Kerry/Gore clone to be elected. Too late for France, some would say, as it elected a Bush clone as President here.

Ps I voted for him!

Brian McKay said...

Jean-Francois: Welcome to this Forum. I spent many years in France and also the U.S.A. I live in London now and it’s the same story here. Bush is the problem of global warming.

We have a columnist here called George Monbiot who suggested that every citizen be given a free annual quota of carbon dioxide which they could use to buy petrol, bus tickets etc and that when their quota ran out they would have to buy someone else’s quota. Now our dopey royal family is running around scared of its carbon footprint. Monbiot also said that every time someone dies as a result of floods in Bangladesh, an airline executive should be dragged out of his office and drowned.

Such is the state of discourse on the topic here!

As for our religious leaders … just a pack of looney wafflers who refuse to modernise their 10th Century theology and think they will pack their churches again if we all return to living in straw huts.


Arthur McCorry said...

I remember reading that 10% of the electricity needs of a part of Massachusetts could be met by windmills placed out in the sea off the Kennedy compound. Who objected to this? The Kennedy family! A case of ‘not in my backyard’. Apparently, the scenic view from the compound would be hurt by a few windmills on the distant horizon.

That one event proved to me that even if there is a man-caused global warming problem there will never be any agreement on a solution.

I can tell you that if Kennedy doesn’t want his view disturbed then what about a nuclear power station up there. Or is that a problem too?


Geoff Fox said...

Correlation is not the same as causation. Just because CO2 and temperature rise are correlated does not mean that one is a cause of the other.

The medical profession and the news media constantly fall into this trap. How many times have you heard that a study has been conducted of the people who suffer from breast cancer and it has been found that increase in breast cancer is related to a high consumption of something like bananas? It’s all baloney. Newark has more synagogues than Salt Lake City and the crime is higher in Newark. So is the higher crime rate caused by the presence of synagogues? The correlation is certainly there, the causation is NOT.


Derek Bell said...


You asked:

We know how much oil comes on the market daily and we know how much coal is burned daily. If we assume that all oil and coal are converted to their equivalents in pounds of CO2 then we know how much CO2 enters the atmosphere.

About 3% of the CO2 in the atmosphere is anthropogenic; 97% comes from natural sources.

I seriously doubt that this 3% has any significant effect given all the other reasons why the Earth cools and warms periodically.

D. Bell

Janet Witherspoon said...

Has anyone noticed that any time there is a piece on global warming on TV it is always about the possible ‘effects’ of the warming and not about warming per se?

For example, the other day I was told that if the polar ice melts half of Florida will be flooded at a cost of so many trillions of dollars not to mention the massive population displacement etc.

These types of stories are constantly put out to get us to believe that this is all the cause of human activity. The media presents a dire effect (x) and then leads the gullible to conclude that the cause is their pet explanation (y).

But given the quality of what passes for TV programming these days maybe the ‘gullible’ deserve what they get!


Avid Reader said...

Ross McKitrick has a wonderful website on global warming with lots of useful links. Now hear this …..

Ross shows that from 1950 to 1990 there were about 10,000 – 12,000 stations across the world measuring the local temperature. These readings were averaged to get the average global temperature. About 1990 the number of stations taking readings dropped precipitously to about 5,000 – 6,000 due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most of these stations were in very cold regions of the world. What happened from 1990 onwards was that the global warming alarmists continued to average the 5,000+ stations to get the average global temperature and guess what? They got a huge and sudden jump in the average global temperature. This is the Al Gore famous ‘hockey stick’.

So think carefully; I have 10 pots of boiling water and 10 pots of ice water and I average the temperatures getting 50C. Guess what happens if I only measure 5 of the pots of ice water and average these with the 10 pots of boiling water. As Homer would say: “D’Uh!”


Geoff Fox said...

I should also point out that projections and predictions are totally different and vastly misunderstood terms.

When we place inputs into a computer model we get an output which can be extrapolated to make a 'projection' based on the model's inputs. Unfortunately, the media and the global warming alarmists take these computer projections and refer to them as 'predictions'.

Projections are always accurate - the computer has just calculated something based on what you gave it. But to refer to the projection as an 'accurate prediction' is stupidity gone mad.


Derek Bell said...

I think that most of us are skeptical of the whole Al Gore “inconvenient truth” pseudo-science stuff. Gore talks about sea levels rising by 20 feet or so while the actual data from satellites is showing a sea level rise of a fraction of this. Gore also seems to miss the point that you can only calculate possible sea level rises from the melting of ice that is ON LAND. The only such ice is in Greenland and Antartica. Ice that is ON WATER is essentially floating and as such would add next to nothing to rising sea levels even if it all melted.

The website has a ton of useful information which I found quite useful. It calculates that it will take 1,000 years for sea levels to rise by 5 cms at the present ice melting rate of 0.05mm per year.

Somehow I don’t thing that the Archbishop of Canterbury is spending time on any of these calculations ;-)

D. Bell

Stan Preston said...

Pretty convincing! Plug in your own city and see what I mean.


Diana Malcolm said...

You wrote Newark has more synagogues than Salt Lake City and the crime is higher in Newark. So is the higher crime rate caused by the presence of synagogues? The correlation is certainly there, the causation is NOT.

What does this mean for anthropogenic CO2 and warming? Are the latter cause and effect or not?

Di Di

Geoff Fox said...

Di Di

The cause of the higher number of synagogues and crime in Newark is probably that there are more people in Newark than in Salt Lake City. So while synagogues and crime are ‘correlated’ they are each independently caused by an increase of population.

As to CO2 and warming ….. One argument is that increased solar radiation is warming the earth. This radiation may also cause the oceans to release some of the CO2 that has naturally been absorbed there. As water temperature rises the solubility of CO2 in it decreases. So the majority of the build up of CO2 in the atmosphere is not driven by human activity but is driven by the sun’s activity.

Now as the sun drives CO2 out of the seas, this CO2 can indeed act as a blanket trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere and magnify the warming of the earth beyond what would occur in the absence of a CO2 ‘sink’ in the seas. Also as things warm up white stuff melts and the reflectivity goes down (more heat absorbed).

It is not surprising that once a warm period begins that the warming accelerates. The same thing will happen in reverse in millions of years when the process reverses and we enter the next ice-age.

So a ‘cause’ of global warming (in my view) might likely be an increase in the radiation output from the sun (an increase in population) which has the effect of causing an increase in warming (crime) and CO2 (synagogues).

Just my opinion for what it is worth!


Pianoman said...

Now this makes any study of global warming interesting!

The Guardian reports that scientists are studying paintings by the ‘Old Masters’ to see if they can improve their computer models which predict global warming.

Is this a case of ‘Good Art’ in ‘Global Warming’ out or ‘Garbage’ in ‘Garbage’ out?

S. Smith said...

This sun stuff is nonsense. The main problem is that solar activity is trending downwards in the past few decades just as temperatures are significiantly increasing. And the inconvenience of having to explain why CO2 isn't having the anticipated warming effect. Of course the scientists who compile the IPCC reports are reading what comes in are looking at the solar issues.

Lead author Mike Lockwood has worked extensively on solar physics and effects on climate:

This is worth reading, too:

S. Smith

Geoff Fox said...

S. Smith - Welcome to the blog!

Interesting links! The more I read the more I learn how little I know. One thing we can agree on is that the world is warming and beyond that .....