Climate Connections

As we noted in the previous article, (April 15, 2017, p. 332) news reports regarding the “state of the environment” regularly appear, but often with differing conclusions. Sometimes we have heard of global cooling and at other times we have been told of global warming. Scientists admit the difficulty of predicting what will happen due to the complexity of the creation. We know there are certain factors that have a definite effect on the climate; but due to the many factors involved, and the impossibility of isolating all possible factors in order to determine precisely how much of an effect each has, the challenge to predict global climate is very real. In addition, one must consider how these factors interact with one another and what effect that has on the climate. As we noted in the last article, issues such as global warming and acid rain may seem at first glance to be unrelated, but they are actually closely intertwined. In this article we will consider some of these climate connections, mindful of God’s sovereign care over all creation, as well as of our own responsibility to be faithful stewards within it.

Connections Related to Human Factors

In order to understand how certain factors can affect the climate, we must understand that any solid or liquid particle in the atmosphere has the ability to reflect light. Some particles reflect incoming sunlight back into space rather than absorb it and, consequently, the earth is not warmed by these particles. Of the total incoming sunlight, approximately 30% is reflected back into space by the clouds and by other tiny particles in the air, as well as by snow and other “lighter-colored” objects on the earth. “The fraction of sunlight reflected back into space by an object is called its albedo, which therefore is about 0.30 for the Earth overall.”1 Therefore, a higher earth albedo correlates to lower global temperatures.

More cloud presence, as well as the presence of certain other particles in the atmosphere, increase earth’s overall albedo. This means that more light is reflected back into space and, consequently, there is less heating of the earth. On the other hand, there are also atmospheric particles, like black carbon soot, that absorb sunlight and convert it to heat—increasing the temperature of the atmosphere. These kinds of particles lower earth’s albedo value and result in a gradual heating of the planet.

Analyzing climate change is difficult due to the many offsetting processes in the creation. Consider, for example, the effect of burning coal in a power plant. Sometimes carbon ash (soot) is released in the burning process. Although the ash exists in the atmosphere for a short time, it eventually settles on the earth, darkening the surface of the earth (particularly in areas of snow). This decreases earth’s albedo and therefore promotes global warming.

However, coal burning also produces sulfate aerosols—sulfur dioxide (SO2). And sulfate aero sols tend to reflect sunlight back into space—increasing earth’s albedo, thus promoting global cooling. Clearly, soot and sulfate aerosols are offsetting factors influencing global temperature changes. However, sulfate aerosols also result in acid rain. As we discussed in a previous article, acid rain is not a desirable side-effect of coal burning. Therefore, much of the sulfur content of coal today is removed by methods either prior to burning or by a process within the smoke stacks. Efforts to remove sulfur have been, for the most part, successful and the sulfate aerosol content in the atmosphere in North America and Europe has been reduced. This in turn has reduced the amount of acid rain produced. Again, however, there is an offsetting factor. As indicated above, those sulfate aerosols serve also to reflect sunlight away from earth, thus contributing to the desired global cooling. Removing the sulfate in the interest of controlling acid rain will therefore contribute at the same time to global warming.

In all of this we see how one environmental factor is often intricately connected to another. Alleviating problematic effects in one area can result in the enhancing or, at least, uncovering of an effect in another area, due to the interrelated nature of God’s created world. This interaction can also be observed in the “natural” occurrences within the creation.

Connections Related to Natural Effects: Mt. Pinatubo and Phytoplankton DMS

What we are not often aware of is that there are also naturally occurring events that significantly influence the environment. Consider the effects of the volcanic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo (Philippines) in 1991.

Initially tons of ash spewed into the atmosphere resulting in a slight local warming as more heat was trapped and the air warmed due to the absorption of light by the dark ash particles, decreasing earth’s albedo. This effect, however, was short-lived, as the soot particles eventually fell from the sky and were widely distributed.

However, 30 million tons of SO2 from the volcanic eruption remained in the atmosphere for several years. These sulfate aerosols reflected sunlight back into space, thus increasing earth’s albedo. During the following two years (1992 and 1993) a decrease in the global temperature by 0.2oC (0.36oF) was observed. It would appear that the decrease in global temperature was due to the volcanic eruption (I write “would appear,” for as this article notes, there are many factors that may contribute to a particular climatic event. Without a controlled experiment, one cannot definitively conclude how one factor affected a particular observation. This is, at heart, the issue with much of the debate regarding the causes of climate change). After the eruption, North America experienced several cool summers in the early 1990s. As the aerosols slowly fell from the sky, the global temperatures (by 1995) again returned to values similar to what they were before the volcanic eruption.

Another interesting factor that affects global temperature is the rate of dimethylsulfide (DMS) production. DMS is produced in the oceans by phytoplanktons. Phytoplanktons are the ocean’s ‘grass.’ As microalgae, phytoplanktons contain chlorophyll and use sunlight to perform photosynthesis. Phytoplanktons play a critical role in the entire creation because of the tremendous amount of oxygen produced by these ‘plants.’

But phytoplanktons also produce DMS—an odorous gas that many of us associate with that “smell of the sea.” DMS reacts in the atmosphere with oxygen gas to produce sulfur dioxide, which in turn is converted to sulfate aerosols that scatter incoming sunlight back into space. Consequently, DMS is indirectly associated with global cooling.

The DMS factor clearly illustrates a means by which global temperatures can be kept in check. If global temperatures temporarily increase, one would expect a consequential increase in the amount of phytoplanktons in the oceans, as warmth should promote plant growth. More phytoplanktons should result in more DMS production, and, therefore, also in more sulfate aerosols. More sulfate aerosols would scatter more sunlight away from earth’s surface, resulting in global cooling. Therefore, any global warming pattern should, if all other factors are kept constant, be followed by a period of global cooling.

This gives reason for pause. We must see that God wisely governs the creation is such a way that there are processes that He provided and governs so that a balance within the creation (in this case, with global temperatures) may be maintained.

A Unified Creation

We have considered a few of the many factors that affect global temperature. And we have only skimmed the surface of one aspect of an exceedingly complex creation. Throughout my study of these matters, my thoughts return again and again to the profoundly complex, yet amazingly cohesive nature of God’s creation. British chemist James Lovelock, the “originator of the Gaia hypothesis… suggests that the Earth functions as a single living organism and maintains the conditions necessary for its own survival.”2 Lovelock’s theory resonates with us, who in light of Scripture recognize that God created a universe that is an “organic unity.” God marvelously governs the creation by appointed means in which balances are maintained. God works and governs all things in the creation in a harmonious way, through Jesus Christ, His Son, by whom all things consist (Col. 1:17). This harmony is still evident to a great extent in the various parts and systems of the creation, even with the devastating effects of sin. What a marvelous God we serve!

A Sovereign God

In our consideration of the various means that affect global climate, we do well to reiterate that it is our God who rules sovereignly and omnipotently. God reigns supreme in all things. Because God rules, we are not to be alarmists or driven to fear by other alarmists. Sometimes God is pleased to use the efforts of mankind to reduce pollution or mitigate a particular effect to accomplish a particular purpose. At other times, man’s attempts prove to be futile, as God uses them to accomplish a different purpose. Therefore, we ought not to despair in the face of all the ominous news reports we hear regarding the health of the earth, for God is sovereign and wisely governs and upholds the creation for His purpose—to glorify His name through the saving of His people. The creation, then, serves as the stage upon which God accomplishes His purpose. Therefore, that creation must endure, according to God’s plan, in order to serve His church (Gen. 8:22; Belgic Confession, Art. 12).

The child of God does not respond to this truth of the sovereignty of God with an attitude of despair nor of stoical indifference. Rather, we rejoice in God’s sovereignty! This truth of the sovereignty of God over all things is a source of our deep confidence and assurance in God and His works. Encouraged by this truth, we are mindful of our calling as stewards to care for God’s creation and to use His good gifts faithfully. For God “put [Adam] into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it” (Gen. 2:15). In reference to Christ and to those in Christ, the psalmist declares: “Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet” (Ps. 8:6). Therefore, we are not careless in our use of God’s creation. But with sanctified wisdom we strive to make good decisions in our use of the creation, recognizing our calling to care for and use the creation wisely. In so doing, we seek to honor the name of the great God whom we serve—the Almighty, triune Jehovah.

1 Colin Baird and Michael Cann. Environmental Chemistry (New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 2012), 167.