For Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) — who recently brandished a snowball on the Senate floor to make a point about global warming — the seasons would seem to have a grander, more resonant meaning than they do for some of the rest of us. It’s about a lot more than where the Earth is in its yearly orbit and whether its axis tilts toward or away from the sun. It’s also about faith.
“God is still up there, and He promised to maintain the seasons and that cold and heat would never cease as long as the earth remains,” wrote Inhofe in his 2012 book “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.” Here, Inhofe is referring to Genesis 8:22:
As long as the earth remains
there will be springtime and harvest,
cold and heat, winter and summer,
day and night.
Inhofe calls this one of his “favorite Bible verses.” For the senator, then, the denial of human-caused global warming is at least partly wrapped up with his views about how the world was created — and by whom.
This backdrop helps to explain Inhofe’s much maligned Senate snowball stunt from late last week — a moment which prompted The Post to suggest that Inhofe is making his Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairmanship a “national embarrassment.” Beneath the display, though, may lie Inhofe’s feeling that the seasons are theologically inviolate, and that contrary to what those climate “alarmists” say, there’ll be no messing with the planetary distribution of heat and cold — because that’s how God works.
That said, there’s certainly no monolithic Christian view on climate change. To see a sharp contrast with Inhofe’s take, consider the evangelical Christian climate researcher Katharine Hayhoe. Hayhoe recently remarked — in a speech in a cathedral, no less — that “Massive snows are a symptom of climate change. A warmer planet increases the risk of heavy snowfall too.”
So for Inhofe, allow me to present another view of climate change and of winter — one that is not irreligious, but is suffused with a broader contextual understanding of how global climate change now strongly shapes weather phenomena.
First, God created everything, but did so in such a way that the universe proceeds according to physical laws. Those laws are inviolate, and figuring out how they work may even be considered a form of devotion — after all, in doing so you’re learning about the creation. (This isn’t what I personally believe, but many serious believers do — including Galileo, who called the universe a “grand book…written in the language of mathematics.”)
One physical reality that is inviolate and law-like involves the radiative properties of greenhouse gases and especially carbon dioxide — discovered by the Irish scientist John Tyndall in 1859, the same year Darwin published “On The Origin of Species” (which was attacked for being contrary to faith, though Darwin thought otherwise). Tyndall discovered that “molecules of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and ozone are the best absorbers of heat radiation, and that even in small quantities, these gases absorb much more strongly than the atmosphere itself,” as NASA puts it.
From here, you get the greenhouse effect, whose existence also flows from basic physical principles and laws, and which is observed on many planets other than our own. And in light of this effect, it is simply basic physics — God-made or otherwise, depending on what you believe — that more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere creates a warming planet. QED.
We’re on that warming planet, though faiths may differ about what to do about it. But as they debate and debate, the seasons will turn. They will not, however, look precisely the same as they once did.
There are, in broad outline, two major scientific ways in which a warming climate could indeed change winter — which we’ll call “thermodynamic” and “dynamic.” Thermodynamic means just what you would expect: There’s more heat in the overall climate system, which leads both to some obvious effects — like snow and ice being easier to melt because temperatures on average are higher — but also some less obvious ones — like the air holding more water vapor, which is why Hayhoe can say that “a warmer planet increases the risk of heavy snowfall.”
I’ve already blogged about thermodynamic changes to winter, and suffice it to say that many other climate researchers agree with Hayhoe. In a global warming world, you can get more snow in some cases because the air can hold more moisture. (So much for Inhofe’s snowball.)
And then, there are the dynamic changes. This is where things get really contested, uncertain…and interesting.
A dynamic change to winter, due to global warming, would occur if the warming of the planet overall alters patterns of atmospheric circulation in some way. And this is precisely what some researchers have proposed as the reason why we’re getting these crazy winters.
Jennifer Francis, a climate scientist at Rutgers University who focuses on changes to the Arctic, is the best known researcher to make this argument. She believes that the decline of Arctic sea ice is weakening the northern hemisphere jet stream, which brings us our weather. A weaker jet stream, she continues, is more likely to get “stuck” in persistent weather patterns, leading to weather extremes of varying types (whether snow, rain, or lack of rain). You can see a video of Francis explaining her views below.
Last week, Francis said that when it comes to this winter and also the last one for the East Coast, “Mother Nature certainly has been giving us lots to talk about.” She noted that while her views are certainly not accepted by all researchers, “there’s been so much new work that’s come out, just in the last six months even, that, it’s getting harder for people to say, ‘oh, there’s nothing to this hypothesis.'”
Indeed, another researcher who thinks that Arctic change is driving winter extremes is Judah Cohen of Atmospheric and Environmental Research, a company that works with governments to study climate and weather. But his proposed dynamic mechanism is different from that of Francis. Cohen thinks that more moisture in the Arctic is leading to more snow cover over Siberia. “And this increased snow cover across Siberia then leads to changes that we’re seeing in the winter circulation,” said Cohen, “that results in this weakened polar vortex or perturbed polar vortex in the winter time.”
So some respected researchers, publishing in scientific literature, do think that climate change is giving us these insane winters — but others remain skeptical. Like Elizabeth Barnes, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University. “Natural variability is very large, and the Arctic is not acting in isolation in terms of its influence on mid latitude weather,” Barnes told me. “To date, I can’t think of a study that shows that the Arctic is more important on influencing mid latitude weather than these other factors, like tropical warming.”
Barnes’s climate altered winter thus looks very different from those envisioned by Francis and Cohen. “We’re expecting warmer temperatures, all seasons,” says Barnes.
In the science world, then, there’s still a lot of doubt and uncertainty — and disagreement — about what will happen to our winters, going forward. But all of the researchers above would surely amend Inhofe’s view of the seasons. Yes, there will still be “cold and heat,” but perhaps a lot less of the former than before — except in some places.
And sure, there will still be “winter and summer,” but these will look a lot different than what we’re used to — even if scientists aren’t always in agreement about precisely how.
All of this is not only scientifically plausible — it’s what the best information currently available tells us.
As for whether it’s consistent with faith — well, that depends on the believer and his or her interpretation. But if you think God created a world governed by natural laws, you can certainly understand how we could have gotten to the place where we now find ourselves.