Creationism and Global Warming Denial: Anti-Science’s Kissing Cousins?

South Dakota Rep. Don Kopp doesn’t believe we descended from apes, but he claims that’s not why he wrote a resolution to cast doubt on climate change. His feelings on climate change, he says, have nothing to do with evolution.

Still, the connection is hard to ignore. Last month, Kopp successfully led efforts to adopt a resolution in his state calling for a “balanced approach” to global climatic change in public schools.

As Donald R. Prothero, Occidental College geology professor and lecturer in geobiology at the California Institute of Technology, says, “It’s all out of the creationist playbook.”

The New York Times raised the connection in a March 3 article “Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets.” But just how much do anti-evolutionists and global warming deniers have in common?

There is one clear connection: just as there is virtually no debate in the scientific community regarding the validity of evolution, there is also little disagreement among scientists actively studying climate change.

“The overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is occurring due to man’s activities on the planet,” said Jeffrey Shaman, assistant professor of Atmospheric Science at the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. “The problem is that there are enormous economic and political consequences to accepting this idea.”

A peer-reviewed study by the University of Illinois at Chicago from January 2009 of US-based scientists showed that of scientists most specialized and knowledgeable with regard to climate change (those who listed climate science as their area of expertise, and who also have published more than 50 percent of their recent peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change) 96.2 percent answered ‘risen’ to the question, “When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?”

Of those same climate scientists, 97.4% answered ‘yes’ to the question, “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?”

Despite these figures, some state lawmakers are now part of a misinformation campaign to foster the notion that there is no consensus—just as they have with evolution.

And they’re using the educational system to get out that message.

Astrology and the Gas of Life

Rep. Kopp says his primary reason for doubting the role of humans in climate change is because he doesn’t think that humans actually have that much impact on the earth. “I think we like to think we do,” he said. “I think we tend to think we’re more important than we are.”

Though Kopp, a forester by training, presents himself as well-versed in the scientific debate, there are religious roots at the heart of his arguments.

His research as a forester was on fire-dependent plant species, and he claims to have read extensively on the issue. As a retired forester, he says he has witnessed firsthand the positive agricultural effects of carbon dioxide on atmospheric fertilization. But he also says evolution disproves the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (Entropy in a closed system will tend to increase over time), a common creationist misinterpretation since life is not a closed system.

Kopp attends the Open Bible Christian Center, “an association of autonomous evangelical Pentecostal/Charismatic churches,” which embrace speaking in tongues and the resurrection in the Apocalypse. He is married to Joanne, the church’s executive secretary and community pastor and has written a book, Modern Science and an Ancient Text, about how he came to embrace biblical literalism.

Admitting to climate change would, he claims, lead to a world government takeover and risks bankrupting the United States. Still, he is clear that he has no intention of returning to this topic in the House, nor will he be bringing up evolution.

“People are tired of government telling them what to do. Since I’m against big government, I don’t believe government should be telling the schools what they should be teaching. This was just a resolution.”

Since his resolution passed, he says, he’s been overwhelmed by emails from educators around the country accusing him of trying to promote religion.

Indeed, the version of the resolution that passed the Senate and was amended in the House said, “Evidence relating to global climatic change is complex and subject to varying scientific interpretations,“ and that “all instruction in the public schools relating to global climatic change be presented in a balanced and objective manner.”

For anyone who follows the culture war debate of religion and science, the phrase “presented in a balanced and objective manner” sounds eerily familiar. “Balanced treatment” was used in the ’80s in the US Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard, in which teaching creation science in Louisiana’s public schools was ruled unconstitutional. Teach evolution, Louisiana lawmakers had told educators, but you must then balance it by also teaching “creation science.”

Kopp also received criticism for the wording in the original resolution, which passed in the House, which said that a variety of other factors play a role in “weather phenomena,” including “astrology.”

Although he wrote the first paragraph, Kopp said, the section that mentioned ‘astrology’ was added by the House Legislative Research Council, which meant to write ‘astronomy.’ “I will admit it was quite embarrassing to me,” he said. “After the changes came back, I didn’t read the entire bill again.”

The bill states that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but a highly beneficial gas, also known as the “gas of life.” Supporters of this language may have forgotten the lesson from health class that excess carbon dioxide in the bloodstream is fatal to humans.

Academic Freedom

Just as not all Christians are fundamentalists (indeed, most mainstream faiths have no problem with evolutionary theory), not all conservative Christians deny climate change.

The Evangelical Call to Action on Climate Change and its lobbying arm Evangelical Climate Initiative seek to address environmental problems from a Christian perspective of charity, social justice, and biblical stewardship.

“With climate change, it’s not as directly tied into a literal interpretation of the Bible, it’s more piggybacked,” said Prothero, whose book, Greenhouse of the Dinosaurs, presents a narrative account of the science of climate change.

“Denialism goes very deep; evolution or climate change, it’s the same vein. They view science as a threat.” Prothero says. “Creationists tend to think the world was created for us. They don’t see us as a part of the planet. The climate change denial is part of that worldview.”

“But beat the bushes hard enough, you’ll find corporate money behind dissenters on any topic.”

South Dakota boasts the first resolution to focus solely on climate change without any mention of evolution, though other states could soon follow. In Utah earlier this month, the House approved legislation that urges the Environmental Protection Agency to put any plans for regulating carbon dioxide emissions on hold, “until climate data and global warming science are substantiated.”

“I think there may be a tangential connection in terms of methods to creationism and intelligent design, but perhaps not a direct linkage or advisement,” says Steven Newton, a spokesman for the National Center for Science Education.

As the Times article points out, “academic freedom” bills that are being introduced by state lawmakers around the country instruct educators to teach students about “both sides” of controversial issues—most notably on evolution. The Seattle-based, pro-intelligent design Discovery Institute is behind efforts to introduce many of these bills and has proposed sample legislation for lawmakers to follow.

Since the Louisiana bill was passed (making it the only state to have actually passed an academic freedom bill into law), proposed bills have included global warming and human cloning on the list of “controversial topics,” as they encourage “thinking critically” about the “relationships between explanations and evidence.”

More recently, in Kentucky, a bill was introduced in the Legislature that would encourage teachers to discuss “the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories,” including “evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

The inclusion of other topics is part of a legal strategy to show that evolution is not being singled out for special scrutiny. The strategy’s roots are in a 2005 Cobb County, Ga. case, in which the school board put warning stickers on biology books, saying evolution is “just a theory, not a fact.” A judge struck down the warning stickers as unconstitutional because it unfairly targeted evolution for special scrutiny.

“I think it speaks to a religious purpose, one of the prongs of the Lemon test,” said Steve Newton. 

The hot-button issues of human cloning (a code word for abortion, Newton says) and global warming are linked to increase the appearance of evolution’s controversy.

Fostering Fear of Science

The science blog Denialism has a list of themes used in the global warming debate that have been similarly deployed in intelligent design battles:

  1. Well-funded think tanks are capable of derailing a scientific consensus, in this case the consensus on global warming which has existed for nearly three decades; 
  2. The goal of denialists is not to propose an alternative theory that is explanatory and useful, but to create controversy and doubt where it does not exist; 
  3. These attempts are highly effective despite a complete absence of controversy in the scientific literature. Attacks in the lay press are more than sufficient to create a false debate using an appeal for parity or balanced presentation of ideas.

In fact, the Discovery Institute has become quite vocal in the past several months about climate change. Since Jay Richards (who co-authored the intelligent design book Privileged Planet with Guillermo Gonzalez) returned to the Discovery Institute this year, he has been writing extensively on climate change skepticism and questioning the notion of scientific consensus.

In his May 16 column for the American Enterprise Institute, Richards wrote:

Anyone who has studied the history of science knows that scientists are not immune to the non-rational dynamics of the herd. Many false ideas enjoyed consensus opinion at one time. Indeed, the ‘power of the paradigm’ often shapes the thinking of scientists so strongly that they become unable to accurately summarize, let alone evaluate, radical alternatives. Question the paradigm, and some respond with dogmatic fanaticism.

To raise doubt about the validity of evolution and climate change, members of the Discovery Institute are now trying to get around the fact that the scientific community has reached a consensus by trivializing the years of empirical research, testing and peer-reviewed study that led to the conclusion as “dogmatic fanaticism.”

“What is going on is broader than attacks on specific scientific disciplines. In a way, it doesn’t matter to them which scientific discipline they are criticizing, whether it’s evolution or global warming or medicine—their main thrust is a denial of the validity of science itself,” Newton said. “Ironically, these right-wing deniers find common ground with extreme left-wing postmodernists, who deny textual meaning independent of a social context. These science deniers think that empirical experiments cannot have an independent, objective meaning outside of a social context, whether that be a “Darwinist” perspective or an “Al Gore” perspective.

At the same time, intelligent design proponents have done no research advancing their ideas beyond a poorly thought-out hypothesis. Rather, they cherry pick data to raise doubt about evolution. For the most part, dissenters of climate change are also not engaged in active research, but review the tracking of temperature trends, picking apart any inconsistencies in the overall pattern. For instance, skeptics say that the earth has cooled in the years since 1998. However, 1998 was an unusually hot year due to El Nino effects. Additionally, while the increase in atmospheric and land temperatures may have slowed, ocean temperatures continue to increase.

And just as the Discovery Institute has a Dissent from Darwin petition, which attempts to cast doubt on “natural selection and random mutation being able to account for the complexity of life,” global warming skeptics have their own list as well.

The Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine petition has 31,000 scientists who reject the science behind human-caused climate change. The petition’s purpose is to create the impression that there remains a vast debate among climate scientists. However, to be considered a qualified scientist, the list only requires a B.S. degree in a range of areas including food science, general science, veterinary science, and electrical engineering.

Meanwhile, climate research directly incorporates data from a myriad of scientific disciplines, including paleontology, oceanography, chemistry, geology, and ecology. The conclusions from these fields are remarkably unified, but skeptics jump on any disagreement or differing conclusions, however small, to argue that there’s no legitimate consensus.

“That’s the way scientists hammer out their differences,” Prothero said. (Prothero offered an example in which the scientific community has not reached consensus. Despite the recent publication of a paper asserting that scientists have reached the conclusion that an asteroid in the Yucatan killed the dinosaurs, paleontologists generally do not accept the theory, and no vertebrate paleontologists were part of the publication’s research.)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its 2007 Synthesis Report, “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.”

Additionally, the report said, “There is very high confidence that the net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming.”

At its most simplistic, Shaman says that “dumping more selective absorbing gases (greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere produces a radiative imbalance that increase the energy and temperature of the earth’s atmosphere, land, and oceans. We can measure the CO₂ increase by infrared spectroscopy from satellites as well. And we know that a doubling of CO₂ from 180ppm to 360ppm (which has happened and been surpassed) leads to a ~1 degree Celsius increase of temperature on average.”

Still, there is legitimate debate regarding climate change. “Not as to whether we are affecting the planet, but how much,” Shaman said. Various feedbacks, such as cloud cover, could decrease warming, while others, such as water vapor, could increase it.

In light of last fall’s email scandal in which some members were accused of trying to push data, it’s relevant that the IPCC document is a consensus document, Shaman said.

This means that every participant from every country has to agree to every word in both the summary and the full 1000 page report… This consensus process, which is long and painful and grays all its participants produces an inherently conservative document—i.e. middle of the road assessment of the state of our understanding of the climate system and global warming. There is slim chance that an extreme position can get into the document when any one person can object and demand it be stricken. However, even a middle of the road document can have errors that ongoing scientific inquiry should correct.

Just as scientists have been reaching a consensus, acceptance by the general public has declined. The latest survey by the Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of Americans think there is solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades, down from April 2008, when 71 percent said there was solid evidence.

“I don’t know what the tangible proof would be,” Shaman said. “The collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf? Would it take that?”

Just as with evolution, Shaman said that climate scientists haven’t been their best advocates in responding to attacks of misinformation. He said climate change desperately needs a Ken Miller, the Brown University biology professor best known for his cheerful smackdowns of creationists and intelligent design proponents.

“Climate change requires people to get out there and talk about it,” Shaman said. “You need people like [Miller] who get out and articulate themselves, who don’t get ruffled in any way.”

At this fall’s Tea Party protest I attended in Washington DC, many participants decried the rather wonkish issue of cap-and-trade legislation. Shaman said the Tea Party opposition is actually a perfect fit. People view any attempts by government to legislate solutions as a restriction on personal liberty.

“Unfortunately, this requires a larger worldview, that resources on the planet are limited and must be utilized in a sustainable way,” he said.