Climate Change and Biblical Prophecy

In the midst of a nearly continental wide North American heatwave, I find myself reflecting on the ominous forecasts of prophetic voices.

Wail, for the day of Yhwh is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty! Therefore all hands will be feeble, and every human heart will melt, and they will be dismayed. Pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labor. They will look aghast at one another; their faces will be aflame. See, the day of Yhwh comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it. (Isa 13:6-9 NRSV slightly altered)

The prophetic oracles of doom in the Hebrew Bible exploit the extreme climatic events typical of the semi-arid region of Palestine, the environment in which these prophets lived and operated. Because of this, their woes sound familiar to contemporary scientific forecasts of global warming. I’m intrigued by this intertextuality.

Fortress Press has just published its newest volume in its Text @ Contexts series, Exodus and Deuteronomy. I contributed an article to this volume entitled “What Would Moses Do? On Applying the Test of a False Prophet to the Current Climate Crisis(pp 183-94). My article explores the complexities surrounding the identification of false and true prophetic oracles in the Hebrew Bible.

I observe, for example, that Deuteronomy 18:18-22 provides no avenue of validation. The concern is limited to discrediting a prophetic oracle—”‘How shall we know the word which YHWH did not speak?’ If a prophet speaks in the name of YHWH, and the word does not take place or come true, that is a word which YHWH did not speak.” This text, framed negatively, is of limited utility for the Hebrew Bible as it must subsequently develop the criterion positively (e.g. Jeremiah 28:9) and even abandon it (e.g. Jer 18:1-10; Ezekiel 29:17-21).

Likewise, I find the typical rhetoric of climate change skepticism of limited utility in our modern, global society. As I write in the conclusion of my essay, “If catastrophic warming is the only conclusive proof we will accept that we are fundamentally changing the climate of our planet, or at least that the climate is indeed changing, then we are essentially embracing our own judgment at the expense of our own salvation” (193).

A modern day scientific prophet:

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15 thoughts on “Climate Change and Biblical Prophecy

  1. If James Hansen is even half way accurate in the predictions he has been making, and even if his catastrophism is overblown, he might be classed with a prophet like Micah in getting the fundamentals right (note Jeremiah’s affirmation of Micah).

    To be honest however, I doubt that he is even halfway right in his predictions. Be that as it may,a biblical environmental theology and ethic, with a healthier epistemic structure of utopic and dystopic horizons than the secular green movement currently offers, and a robust objective correlative that consists in more than shopping at Whole Foods or Trader Joes, recycling, and voting for politicians who at least make the right noises, would be nice to see.

  2. Considering that many climate scientists regularly receive death threats, the identification of Climatologists as modern-day prophets is more fitting than you realize.
    See: http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2012-06/battle-over-climate-change

    The masses accuse these contemporary Jeremiahs of conspiring with the Babylonians to destroy our nation.
    Exhibit A in the “conspiracy of climate scientists” the Heartland Institute- http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2012/may/04/heartland-institute-global-warming-murder
    Exhibit B: The Media: Fox News, The Washington Post
    Exhibit C: The Pundits: Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bryan Fischer, Sean Hannity, Brian Sussman
    Exhibit D: The Politicians: Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), Rep. Joe Read (R-MT), Rep. John Shimkum (R-IL)
    Exhibit E: The Contrarians: John Christy, Richard Lindzen, Roy Spencer, William Grey, Ian Pilmer

    Do not trust in these deceptive words, “We are a Christian nation, a Christian nation, a Christian nation.” (cf. Jer. 7:4) The time may come when those of us who destroy the earth, may ourselves be destroyed (cf. Rev. 11:18).

    1. John, this is one subject about which I would be happy to be wrong! However, I cannot bring myself to side with a 3% scientific minority, especially when the fundamentals of the science (CO2 = Greenhouse gas = traps solar energy + unprecedented human activity transferring CO2 in the atmosphere = bad) make sense and correlate with the conclusions of 97% of publishing climate scientists. The majority of the skeptical community is too similar to my eyes to the anti-evolutionist camp in which I was raised for comfort.

      But I strongly agree with you, something “more than shopping at Whole Foods or Trader Joes, recycling, and voting for politicians who at least make the right noises” would be nice to see, especially for those who claim to be persuaded by the science of AGW. I take my trash out (tall kitchen bag) twice a year. You don’t recycle your way into that lifestyle; it is a change of mind and will. We need a more robust environmentalism, climate change or otherwise.

  3. Hi Joseph,

    I don’t think your figures are meaningful, I would hope that *more than* 97% of the scientific community is convinced that the earth is currently warming over the long duration and the net effect of human activity is to make than trend more significant. Beyond that, there is little consensus among scientists. The relative importance of various climate drivers, the nature and extent of feedback effects, theories about these are a dime a dozen. Exactly what one would expect give the state of the discipline.

    Moreover, I find arguments from consensus weak to the point of being counter-productive. The history of science is littered with examples of majorities getting it wrong.

    Climate science is not at a point in which it can make reliable predictions about the future. It has yet to explain climate variation in the past – in fact, it is still learning to accurately record climate change.

    If we pretend that climate science is in a position to accurately model future temperature variation when it is not, we simply set it up to be covered with mockery. Finally, a rigorous distinction has to be made between scientific models and predictions about climate variation, and (typically hare-brained) attempts by politicians to address climate variation.

    But enough of that. The pundits and politicians Caleb cites surf the waves of social and political movements the redeeming value of which I struggle to identify. On the other hand, a skeptical environmentalist like Bjorn Lomborg makes a number of points well worth considering.

    And, in a final note which runs counter to everything I just said, if Hansen gets it wrong in the sense that his predictions come true a century and a half later than what he put forward, that would make him like the great prophet Micah. In the aftermath of the apocalypse, Hansen’s predictions will be remembered, and the cooler heads in the middle and the hotheads of the right will be seen to have lacked discernment of the very kind that was needed. The meaning of the saying “it’s not over until it’s over” is very poignant in this context.

    1. I see Lomborg treated by his scientific peers the way Chris Heard, Mark Goodacre, and Robert Cargill treat James Tabor and Simon Jacobovici. The latter find a way to defend a (contrarian–no less) vision of the Exodus or Christian Iconography, but one that specialists who are a part of but do not argue from the consensus find problematic and document it so. See for example, this website: http://www.lomborg-errors.dk/

      I can’t be the kind of specialist in climate science that I am training for in biblical theology and biblical ethics, so I consign myself to being as informed as I can be while remaining deferential to authority figures. Having been raised in one kind of fundamentalism, I simply can’t bring myself to embrace contrarian thinking as a kind of intellectual virtue. I was raised on a kind of contrarian thinking that I find deeply problematic, and my intellectual and emotional scars make it difficult for me to so casually accept contrarian thought.

      I agree, progress in science or in biblical studies comes often at times when people are willing to challenge the consensus, and there is no reason why the consensus should not be challenged. However, I feel no need to challenge the consensus for the sake of challenging the consensus (do man an ape share a common ancestor? did the Holocaust happen? has man really landed on the moon? was 9/11 an inside job?). On the issue of climate change, I am compelled by the science and the consensus it has achieved.

      1. Thanks for the conversation, Joseph. I don’t think your analogy is fair to Lomborg, nor do I think there is a consensus of the kind you assume there is. The consensus of which you speak is a journalistic fiction. It’s kind of like saying that there is a consensus among critical scholars of the Hebrew Bible that is a product of Persian period. In reality, there is general agreement that the contents of the Hebrew Bible go back to the pre-Assyrian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic periods, and large areas of disagreement, even among scholars of a perfectly critical bent, about which parts are to be assigned to which periods.

        “Nullius in verba” is the motto of the Royal Society of London, the academy of sciences of the United Kingdom. Literally: “On the words of no one.” An excellent watchword, the opposite of deference to authority. How to apply the watchword to a field outside of your specialization? Very carefully, of course. But if you care about the issues, and I know you do, I invite you to find on campus or among your circle of acquaintances someone who is knowledgeable in climate science, and ask him or her some basic questions, such as: if global CO2 emissions drive global temperatures such that bringing down the former will bring down the latter in decisive fashion, why do the following graphs correlate so weakly? ,

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Global_co2_emissions_graph.png with

        http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/bild-662092-33920.html or
        http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/fig_tab/nclimate1589_F2.html

        When I’ve tried this exercise myself, the kind of answer I get is: there is a lot we don’t understand yet.

  4. John, I appreciate the thought and reasoning in your post. Climate change is a science problem that is quintessentially postmodern. There are so many narratives out there making it difficult to determine who to believe, and many of them – even contradictory ones – seem reasonable, no one study or test is absolutely decisive or free of critique, and each person is situated and none has the “God’s eye” objective view. No one of us has inspected each and every thermometer or retried each and every experiment or re-derived each and every equation. All of the knowledge that we have is secondary or tertiary and we seek to come up with a coherent and realistic view. However, I have come to the conclusion that the situation is indeed very serious and reality will eventually move everyone to that location. So, I’ll try and discuss the three graphs.

    The first shows the amount of carbon injected into the air over the past 250 years. It is important to note that it is a semilog plot and though linear in this depiction, it is exponential when viewed on a cartesian graph. So, I did a simple analysis. I assumed plotted two points, approximating 1775 at 3 megametric tonnes and 2000 at 6000 megametric tonnes. The equation in cartesian space becomes y = exp(1.09+.0337*x) where y is CO2 in megametric tons and x is number of years from 1775. Remember that what is emitted into the atmosphere stays there for a very long time. The number 300 years sticks in my head but I’m not certain. That is, the gas accumulates and for the present I assume no oceanic or ground absorption (but there will be some) . When we examine that equation and play around with it, we learn that the amount of CO2 emitted into the air from 1980 to 2000 equals approximately the amount of CO2 from 1775 to 1980. Of course this is back of the envelope but it is illustrative of the rate that things are happening. Climate model predictions for the period of 1980 to 2000 are probably a couple of tenths of a degree. If so, that would would indicate the same couple of a tenths of a degree for 1775 – 1980, an amount that would be buried in the noise over that long period. In conclusion, I don’t understand how it can be said that the first graph contraindicates climate change.

    The second graph is taken from a 2009 article that claimed that during the previous ten years the global warming stalled and scientists were puzzled. From what I have read, ten years is too short a period on which to jump to such a conclusion. The warming rate of 0.2 C per decade is equivalent to the normal year to year average near term deviation. Since 1998 was a particularly warm year, by starting out at the date and going out only a few years one can get the wrong impression. The last three years have indeed been warmer and in my opinion it is inescapable that warming continues. My own experience here in Knoxville squares with what responsible voices are saying about this fact.

    The Nature article on “Orbital forcing of tree-ring data …” is an interesting and useful article. I don’t know how many times an article such as this has been published and many of the skeptics take it as proof that the global warming narrative is not true. It is always the case that it is either misrepresented and/or they are making a mountain out of a mole-hill or it is a flawed study. Usually, as in this case, it is the first and the authors themselves make no such claim. One of the authors said that their study related only to northern Scandinavian summers and it was not right to infer global temperatures from that alone. It is my opinion that even if they proved that Roman and Medieval temperatures were a little warmer than previously thought that still does not invalidate that global warming is occurring here and now.

    I think I’ll repost this at my blog and include the graphs. Probably later this week.

  5. Hi Steve,

    First of all, congrats on becoming a grandfather! I noticed that on your excellent blog. It’s nice to find someone who is willing to talk about the nitty gritty of these matters.

    Perhaps I need to begin with a disclaimer. I am not a climate change denier nor do I fall into the category of “skeptics” unless by “skeptics” is meant someone who reads enough of the scientific literature to realize that nothing like a true consensus exists among climate scientists with respect to the specific diagnoses and prognoses of someone like Hansen or Mann.

    According to Hansen, the accumulation of CO2 gas to date guarantees that warming of catastrophic dimensions is around the corner. Maybe that’s true, but I’ve noticed that not even Hansen draws the obvious conclusion that we are therefore on a sinking ship and we can bale water all day but it will not save us. I respect Hansen as an environmental activist and want as much as he does that we get off coal. Not because of global warming but for the same reasons environmentalists like me have wanted us to get off coal as far back as the days in which climate scientists like Reid Bryson warned of global cooling (yes, I have a long memory and yes he was an idol of mine when I was a teenager). But I’ve lost respect in Hansen as a scientist because he makes predictions and fails to act as if they were true. I also have no respect for Al Gore or Tom Friedman who put on a big show about being concerned about carbon footprints but not their own, apparently, as is evident from the houses they live in and the lifestyles they practice. Now I may stand in need of correction. Perhaps Hansen now thinks that his earlier diagnoses and prognoses were mistaken and, even at this late date, we can make things right. If he has made admissions along these lines, I would love to see them cited chapter and verse.

    I could be wrong but I believe Mann also insists his hockey stick is still correct. That remains a non-starter for me because I approach climate science with a background of considerable reading in paleoclimatology. I am not interested in a vision of things that eliminates warming periods of the past that archaeology and other sciences have painstakingly reconstructed. In particular, I am not interested in a theory of warming that claims to be able to explain the period we are in but has no explanation for warming periods of the past, of which there have been many. One of the graphs I link to describes two precedent warming periods of more or less the same magnitude of the one we have had to date. Those warming periods if anything were good for the ecosystem, not least for humanity therein. Food for thought. Before discussing what drives the warming we are now experiencing, I would like to know what the drivers of the earlier warming periods were. I don’t think that is an unreasonable request. I’m okay with someone saying we really don’t know but don’t be surprised if I reply that, to judge from fairly wide reading in current literature, it appears we really don’t know for sure this time around either. Obviously human activity has a net warming effect. Still, it is if anything clear that it is not by any means the only significant driver. Otherwise we would have graphs that track together more closely than they do. Beyond that, it also not clear that the warming we have had so far in this cycle has been bad for the ecosystem or the humanity therein.

    1. John, I don’t know about Hanson in particular, but I generally recall that those I have read and listened to say that it is possible the CO2 in the atmosphere is already past a tipping point from which we cannot return. This is a matter still uncertain to some. I see much less uncertainty about the fact that we are already past “life as normal” and that we will continue to feel the impacts of this beyond our response to the calls to action, which is why we should act sooner than later.

  6. John, I enjoyed reading your story. I’ve learned a little bit about narrative theology in recent years and that has impacted how I see the world and helped me realize how important our personal stories are in how we view the things. My own story in regards to the topic at hand begins in 1991 when I heard a lecture at work. The speaker showed a plot with temperature and CO2 sloping up and he was palpably concerned. It seemed plausible and from that point I tended to think it was a valid concern. It was the nineties and we didn’t think about it much and it wasn’t in the news as often as now. But every once in a while in conversation with someone, they would bring up a contrary observation and I would think to myself that they had a good point and someday I should get around to studying the matter further. Then, around the turn of the century, it seemed the major objections began falling away and around 2006 or 2007 I through in the towel and decided that they, the scientific proponents of the theory, were right all along. By that time, it appeared to me that their predictions were coming true. Not just temperature rise, but a number of things; ice cap melting, the movement of fauna and flora, spring arriving three days earlier now, as farmers have recognized, the ratio of high temperature records being set to low temperature records, sea level rise, and glacier retreat (they were melting already but the rate is accelerating, on average.) The list could go on. And it squares with personal experience. These past twenty years snowfall has been less and locally the temperature has risen. Such is not proof I know but it is supportive. To sum, what was predicted has been observed. Could it be a coincidence that it is hotter than it has been in many hundreds of years or more? I don’t think so. I support learning as much as we can about the medieval and Roman periods and recognize there are many factors that affect climate. Whether those instances were due to a confluence of several factors or had one main driver would be helpful to know. But the graphs show the rise in temperature occurred more slowly than our present temperature rise. If we are not yet hotter than then, we soon will be due to what we have already put into the atmosphere. In the interest of open disclosure, I work at Oak Ridge National Lab where there is a significant amount of work going on in nuclear and renewable energy. Early in my career I was supported mainly by nuclear energy research and from time to time have worked a little in renewable energy. In recent years it has been mainly defense related. My emphasis has been a special thermometry technique used mostly for very high temperatures as inside gas and turbine engines. I don’t think this has biased me but possibly so. Nevertheless, I will be retiring in a few months. It has been 33 years and am content and happy that I’ve lived my dream. I’m glad you posted those links because it provided me with an opportunity to think and investigate. It was the first time I’ve written more than a couple of sentences on the topic.

  7. Joseph, I have posted on this topic several times. I have not seen any reason to modify what I wrote more than 2 years ago: “based on Hansen’s own science [ ] we need to direct all our energy and resources in the direction of adapting to climate change, not trying to stop it.”

    I encourage you to consider the remarks of Walt Bennett, which I quote at length here:

    http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2010/02/the-advocacy-politics-of-the-global-warming-science-bandwagon-what-went-wrong.html

  8. Steve, you have a story as well and I enjoyed hearing it. I don’t follow your comment that “the graphs show the rise in temperature occurred more slowly than our present temperature rise.” I am unable to square that comment with the following graph:

    http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/fig_tab/nclimate1589_F2.html

    What I don’t like about that graph is that it excludes 1900-2012 from its linear trend. If that time period were included, the linear temperature trend would be close to flat. That is a paradoxical fact but then, reality is full of paradoxical facts. Regardless, the rate of increase that graph shows for the most recent period is unexceptional compared to five other increases the same graph shows.

    For the rest, note the authors’ primary conclusions, which they highlight:

    [1] Solar insolation changes, resulting from long-term oscillations of orbital configurations, are an important driver of Holocene climate. The forcing is substantial over the past 2,000 years, up to four times as large as the 1.6 W m−2 net anthropogenic forcing since 1750, but the trend varies considerably over time, space and with season. … [2] large-scale near-surface air-temperature reconstructions relying on tree-ring data may underestimate pre-instrumental temperatures including warmth during Medieval and Roman times.

    [1] implies that we need to learn to adapt to climate change rather than pretend we can control it. [2] is important to me as a student of history. Archaeologists and historians have long argued that Medieval and Roman times saw warming of the same magnitude as we are currently experiencing, A “move along, nothing to see here” approach to the history of climate change over the last two thousand years or 200,000 years, in the interests of making the temperature increase of the last hundred years seem exceptional, is self-defeating given a reasonably educated public. Okay, I admit that politicians can safely assume that they are not speaking to an educated public, but I don’t see how a responsible intellectual can follow the same approach.

    I wish that environmental organizations would educate the public about climate change rather than practice scare tactics. I am also convinced that environmentalists need to be adamant IMBYists. That is, we should do everything in our power to mine the minerals our way of life requires in our backyard, not in Indonesia which lacks environmental safeguards altogether. Now that fracking is the new rage, something that the Obama administration has encouraged with its “all of the above” energy policy, environmentalists should do everything in their power to make sure it is done with the least possible damage to the ecosystem. But I’m afraid the power of the environmental movement is very weak. It has shot itself in the foot by its willingness to embrace solutions that are indistinguishable from pure NIMBYism and its willingness to allow hypocrites like Al Gore and Tom Friedman to be its poster boys.

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