Environmental Issues within the Creation

Mr. Minderhoud is a science teacher in Covenant Christian High School and a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church, Walker, Michigan.

Various environmental issues are brought to our attention from time to time in news reports. Yet, these reports often leave us with more questions than answers. Are these environmental issues a hoax, or scientifically proven phenomena? Or perhaps, something in between? We are left to wonder, “Is there anything to be gained from looking into these issues?” I believe there is.

I see value in examining various environmental issues— not to determine the extent to which certain of them are caused by human pollution or not, nor to wade judiciously through all the politically motivated and media-biased information on the topics—but, chiefly, to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of the creation, and thereby, of its Creator. And, therefore, we can:

a) Honor and praise the name of God as we observe this absolutely fascinating creation that He has made, with all its parts and processes, working as a cohesive unit by His Almighty power and wisdom;

b) Become better equipped faithfully to care for this creation as our understanding of it grows; and

c) Find comfort, despite the many feeble attempts of man to “fix” the creation or to “govern” it for his own ends, for we acknowledge the sovereign and all-wise control of God in His creation.

Also, it is good for us to be aware of and to be able to discuss that which is going on in the world around us. Let us, then, briefly consider two key environmental issues, global warming and acid rain, and then look more closely at how these two are connected.

Global Warming

One of the interesting aspects of research on this topic is that the “global warming” issue is not of recent origin. The February 24, 1895 (yes, that is correct—1895) the New York Times carried an article entitled “Prospects of another glacial period; Geologists think the world may be frozen up again.” In contrast, the July 1, 1950 Saturday Evening Post asked the question “Is the World Getting Warmer?” However, the National Geographic Magazine was suggesting in the early 1970s that a period of global cooling was to be expected. Interestingly, throughout the 1970s, the term “climate change,” rather than global cooling or global warming was utilized because it was not certain which of the competing environmental phenomenon would dominate. By the late 1980s the term “global warming”—referring to the effect of greenhouse gases on earth’s global temperature—was well entrenched in our vocabulary, while more recently the general trend in the scientific community is to utilize the broader term “climate change” to refer to a broader set of issues affecting earth’s climate or some of its various regions.

What the research history reveals is that global warming is highly complex. The complexity of the issue stems from a number of factors. It has been and continues to be difficult to predict what effect a particular factor will have on the climate. For example, how sensitive is the global temperature to carbon dioxide levels? In addition, there is the interaction of all the various factors that could have an effect on the global climate: man-made pollution, natural pollutants, and solar flares, to name but a few. Also, the influence of political agendas and media bias impact what information is presented on the various environmental issues. To understand to some degree why scientists would sometimes predict global warming while at other times global cooling, we must understand the “greenhouse effect.” In addition, it is helpful to be aware of some of the science connected to other environmental issues, such as acid rain, and how such an issue interplays with the global warming issue. With a better scientific understanding of the factors surrounding these environmental issues, we will be in a better position to discuss and evaluate them—because of how interconnected they all are. The knowledge of these interconnections will not surprise us, because we confess an Almighty God, whose sovereign hand guides and directs all things—including the interrelated, multifaceted creation, which is truly an organic unity.

Greenhouse Effect

It is important to realize that “greenhouse effect” is a term given to describe the natural phenomenon directed by God so that life can exist on this planet. God wisely governs what we call the “greenhouse effect,” so that the necessary heat is trapped below our atmosphere to keep us warm and to sustain life.

God provides a layer of gases that traps heat. The sun emits light in various forms—most notably ultraviolet (UV), visible, and infrared (IR). As the sunlight approaches earth, some of it bounces off clouds and atmospheric gases, scattering back into space. Some of it causes the gases of the atmosphere to vibrate, thus generating heat in the atmosphere. But much of it passes through our atmosphere, giving us the light we need to see.

When this penetrating sunlight hits objects on earth, it causes the objects’ particles to vibrate—generating heat. This heat is radiated away from the object and, therefore, away from earth, in the form of IR radiation. As this radiation leaves earth it interacts with the atmospheric molecules. Some of these molecules are able to absorb the IR radiation—resulting in a warming of the atmosphere and, therefore, of earth. Some of the IR radiation even passes through the atmosphere and back into space.

The gases of the atmosphere that do most of the trapping of heat are: water (60%), carbon dioxide (26%), ozone (8%), methane (4.5%), and others (1.5%). These gases trap heat to give us the warmth and climate we need to live—without which earth’s surface temperature would be about 57 degrees Fahrenheit (F) colder.

As the concentration of atmospheric gases increases, the expectation is that more heat will be trapped. The “thickening” of the atmosphere is akin to putting another blanket on your bed. In addition, the kinds of gases in the atmosphere also influence how much heat is absorbed. Carbon dioxide, for example, is capable of absorbing much heat. For comparison purposes, Venus’ atmosphere is composed of approximately 96% carbon dioxide and has a surface temperature of 860 degrees (F), while earth’s atmosphere has only 0.04 % carbon dioxide and, consequently, a much cooler surface temperature. While it is true that Venus is closer to the sun than earth, the difference in distance plays only a small role in the temperature difference. The difference in temperature is primarily due to the thickness and make-up of their atmospheres.

It is important to note that many associate global warming with ozone depletion. The lack of ozone (due to its being destroyed by CFC molecules, as we investigated last year) in the atmosphere does not enhance the greenhouse effect or, consequently, cause global warming. In fact, an ozone hole should lead to global cooling rather than global warming. This is because ozone is particularly effective at absorbing IR radiation, which is radiated off earth. With less ozone in the atmosphere, more IR radiation should be able to escape into space, preventing our planet from warming.

The debate regarding this environmental issue, in recent decades in particular, is whether or not man-made pollution is causing more heat to be trapped below the atmosphere—thus contributing to global warming; or whether man-made pollution is causing an opposite effect—contributing instead to global cooling. Perhaps the broader question is whether or not global heating or global cooling is a result of man-made pollution, or a normal result of numerous other “natural” factors, such as solar fluctuations and volcanic activity, or of both. Before we look any closer at these questions, let us briefly examine another environmental issue—acid rain.

Acid Rain

Acid rain forms when sulfur and/or nitrogen oxides are released into the atmosphere and react with water vapor. The burning of coal is the major contributor of sulfur oxide compounds into the air. This is because coal—primarily a carbon compound—contains particles of sulfur. As the coal burns, chemicals are released into the atmosphere. One of those chemicals is sulfur dioxide. Coal, particularly bituminous coal, has up to 4% sulfur by weight.

As the coal burns, carbon combines with oxygen to form carbon dioxide, while the sulfur atoms combine with oxygen to form sulfur dioxide. These gases are released out of smokestacks into the air. As the coal burns at very high temperatures, it causes a chemical reaction between the natural nitrogen and oxygen found in the air in the furnace, producing nitrogen oxides. This reaction occurs in the combustion chambers of coal-burning power plants. (A similar reaction occurs in automobile engines.) In addition, coal itself contains nitrogen, so that nitrogen oxides are also a natural by-product of the combustion of coal. The various forms of nitrogen oxides that can be formed, either from coal power plants or from automobile exhaust, are collectively called NOx emissions.

The sulfur dioxide and NOx emissions react with water in the atmosphere to form acid rain. Acid rain is precipitation (snow, sleet, fog, rain, etc.) that forms with a pH less than “normal” clean rain (pH of about 5.5). Acid rain lowers the pH of soil and water. It damages the leaves of plants and trees, which over time can kill the vegetation. It reacts with important minerals in the soil, so that those minerals are dissolved—resulting in a less fertile soil. The leaching of certain minerals, including aluminum, from the soil can also result in an increase of these minerals appearing in stream and lake water, as the rain’s runoff finds its way to these waterways. Also, the pH of lake water can be lowered over time by the presence of acid rain. This change in pH, along with the increase in aluminum-ion concentration, has an effect on various forms of aquatic life and on the overall health of the lake. Interested readers can find more information online regarding the effect of acid rain on lakes—particularly on the lakes in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, which receive acid rain deposits due to air pollutants released in the Midwest U.S. Readers may also recall that Lake Erie was once declared a “dead lake” due to the many industrial pollutants, including acid rain, that caused great harm to the lake.

Interrelated Processes

What should be abundantly clear is that there are real chemical processes in operation in the creation. These processes are no less important or less active than the chemical processes in our bodies. Few in society would deny the fact that the chemicals in an aspirin aid in the reduction of a fever or take away the edge of a throbbing headache. No less should one deny that chemical pollution has an effect on the creation. On a small scale, we recognize that pouring used motor oil into the soil of one’s garden will not serve the good of his plants and flowers. The salt one uses to melt the ice on the sidewalks/driveways eventually is shoveled onto the surrounding lawn, and the grass at the edge of the sidewalks and driveways is inevitably harmed by this. Similarly, the use of chemical pollutants on a larger scale—which in this case centers on the air pollution that plays a role in an increase in greenhouse gases and acid rain—has an impact on the larger ecosystems around the globe.

But this is only half the story. Global warming and acid rain may seem, at first glance, to be unrelated environmental issues. What we hope to emphasize next time is that the creation is an intricate and unified whole. When we understand that God’s creation is an organic unity, with all the various parts harmoniously knit together, we will see that disturbing one aspect of the creation will have its effects on other parts of the creation. I will demonstrate that, although there are man-made pollutants that adversely affect the creation, there are other “natural” calamities and processes that have tremendous impact on the environment as well.