Weathering Climate Change – A Fresh Approach

Review of a book by Hugh Ross

I discovered Hugh Ross recently (see his Wikipedia page), and am very impressed by his ability to explain astronomical phenomena. I am also hugely impressed by his courage and ability to interpret these phenomena from a Christian perspective. He is an “old-earth creationist”. In various speeches and interviews he shows how extremely unlikely the existence of life in the universe is. He explains the long array of unlikely coincidences which have to happen – some of them concurrently – to make life possible (see e.g. here and here). He runs a website called “Reasons to Believe“.

I resolved to find out more and bought a couple of books by him. One of those I have now finished reading: “Weathering Climate Change – A Fresh Approach” (RTB Press, Covina, CA, 2020). This is my review of this book.

We know that over the past few centuries, the Earth’s atmosphere has been warming somewhat. We also are reasonably sure that human activity has had some input into this warming, although we’re not at all sure what exactly and to what extent – despite what politicians and media appear to want us believe in this regard. (See e.g. the content description of this current book by Steven E. Koonin, a former top science advisor to the Obama administration.)

Ross clearly believes that the human contribution to the current climate change is considerable and dangerous to our continued existence. He suggests some measures, about which more later.

I am sceptical of that claim. However, I’m not in a position to contend it. The reason I’m writing this review is that Ross adds a perspective I have rarely seen before. And that is his contention that in the past near 10,000 years, human activity has decisively contributed to preventing the onset of a new glaciation. I say “glaciation”, not “ice age”, because the latter refers to a much longer time, measured in millions of years, in which periodic glaciations take place, which typically last thousands if not tens of thousands of years.

The current ice age started about 2.6 million years ago. It’s still ongoing. At the beginning of that age, glaciation phases happened roughly every 41,000 years. About 800,000 years ago this rhythm changed to about 100,000 years. We’re not sure why. Ross lists 14 currently discussed explanations, one of which is a large meteorite strike. This switch also meant that the interglacial phases lengthened to 2-4,000 years. (p. 140) Another hugely interesting fact he discusses is that another meteorite strike, about 12,000 years ago on the north-west edge of Greenland, stopped the “normal” warming phase that would otherwise have triggered a new glaciation within a couple of thousand years or so. This happened “just in time” so to speak, to allow human civilisation to flourish. (See chapter 14, “The Marvel of [current] Climate Stability”)

If you look at a temperature chart of the past 800,000 years (such as this one using ice cores from Antarctica), a few things stand out: 1. In the past 300,000 years or so, the glaciation phases have become progressively longer and deeper (i.e., colder). 2. While the previous interglacial phases were always very short (just a couple of thousand years at most), shown by sharply upward indicating points of the graph, followed swiftly by an equally sharp decline in temperature), our current interglacial is untypically long. It has lasted almost 10,000 years.

The reason (apart from the above mentioned Greenland meteorite), Ross contends, is human activity. “The human factor . . . has played the predominant role in delaying the onset of the next glacial episode.” He emphasises why this is important: “We need to understand how the fortuitous balance and current imbalance came about – and to gain hope that we can do something to stabilize the temperature, at least for a while.” (p. 199)

He goes into detail: “The dramatic rise in the number of cattle and the breeding of cows to increase milk and meat production that began during the sixth millennium BC substantially augmented the emission of greenhouse gases, specifically methane and carbon dioxide, into Earth’s atmosphere.” In addition, “[t]hroughout Eurasia, deforestation to make room for intensive crop cultivation and pastureland raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels by replacing trees with photosynthetically less-productive plants.” (p. 199-200).

He continues: “Prior to the industrial revolution, the combination of animal husbandry, rice farming, and transformation of tropical and subtropical forest land to cultivated fields and pasture raised the atmospheric methane level from 450 parts per billion to 700 parts per billion and the atmospheric carbon dioxide level from 245 to 280 parts per million. These three human activities over the past 7,000 years not only helped to delay the onset of the next ice age [!], but they also contributed to maintaining an unprecedented period of extreme global climate stability.” (p.200)

However, “the explosive rise in technological and industrial development, transportation, standard of living, and resource consumption that has occurred in nearly all the world’s nations over the past 70 years has accelerated global warming beyond the global cooling rate from natural causes. As the imbalance continues, it has the potential to hasten the onset of warming disasters, followed by the greater devastation of the next glacial era.” (p.200, my emphasis)

The reason for the latter is, according to Ross, the current distribution of sea and land. Specifically, the fact that at the North Pole, there is no land. That in turn means there is not much ice at the North Pole, compared to Antarctica. So, a relatively small temperature rise will make all that ice disappear. What happens then, according to Ross, is this:

“As Arctic sea ice continues to vanish, the newly opened waters of the Arctic Ocean, with their much lower reflectivity than that of ice and snow, will absorb more heat from the sun. . . . This extra heat absorption increases the temperature and moisture content of the overlying atmosphere, which in turn means more precipitation falling on the landmasses adjoining the Arctic Ocean (primarily Canada and Russia).” (p. 189)

That would explain why previous interglacial phases ended very soon after the temperature spiked at a few degrees above the current global average level and much of the world became covered in immensely thick sheets of ice.

As mentioned, the reason that has not happened yet in the current warm phase is, according to Ross, human activity. However, our activities are tipping the temperature higher, so a new glacial phase might result.

Again, as mentioned, I am in no position to know whether this is true or not. However, I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Ross as a Christian and a scientist.

So, what to do about this (possible) threat?

Near the end of the book, Ross presents some measures that might prevent the world tipping into a new glaciation. At least, “for a while”. And here, I am in a position to judge, at least to a certain extent, whether these measures are viable and/or wise.

It is laudable that Ross has recognised a very important point. The measures generally suggested nowadays involve economic sacrifices. “This”, he warns, “ignores the fact that humans are inherently selfish. While some individuals and nations may go along with austere governmental restrictions, most will battle them. Cheating is inevitable”, which in turn will “not only make the intended goal unachievable but also sow seeds of political mistrust and animosity.” (p. 200).

He then asks: “What if we could significantly prolong climate stability without resorting to draconian economic sacrifices?”

However, when one surveys his list of suggestions, some of which he himself admits are quite outlandish, one is struck by the fact that he doesn’t seem to realise that they all, too, involve some kind of economic sacrifice, at least from some. I will discuss this fact after I’ve presented Ross’ suggestions.

Here they are. He starts with “geoengineering ideas”: Artificial sun shields (possibly orbiting the sun, placed between earth and sun); solar power generators in space (where no clouds and haze prevent the collection of solar energy – which must then be beamed to earth through microwave radiation); Aerosol injection into the stratosphere (here at least he concedes that this may lead to “unintended consequences”); removal of atmospheric greenhouse gases (current technology only addresses CO2, not however methane, nitrous oxides and hydrofluorocarbons, the removal of which would “likely be 10-10,000 times more expensive than CO2 removal”, thus, “greenhouse gas removal factories will likely fall far short of compensating for emissions”); ocean fertilisation (again, “major concerns surround the potential environmental consequences and economic risk”); rocket earth (pushing earth out to more distant orbits around the sun while the sun continues to get brighter). (p. 203-05)

Ross concludes: “Although the rocket planet proposal seems too far-fetched, the other five proposed geoengineering ideas show some promise”, however, their implementation “in time to solve the current global warming trend seems remote.”(p.205)

So instead, Ross lists some “wise management of life resources” ideas, which he precedes with an important caveat: “If we keep the realities of human nature in view and follow well-established free-market economic principles, we should be able to resolve our environmental problems in ways that enhance both human welfare and the welfare of Earth’s life.” (p.206)

Here they are: Rice Paddy Management. Apparently, “direct seeding of rice into initially dry paddies” reduces “methane emissions by18-90 percent” compared to flooded rice paddies, which emit about “500 million tons of methane” or “20 percent of methane emission form human activity”. (p.206)

Alternative meat source. Ross advocates finding ways to replace beef, lamb and goat with ostrich meat. While texture, taste and colour resemble that of beef, it is much leaner, richer in iron and lower in cholesterol. Ostriches emit “very little greenhouse gas . . . virtually no methane.” They also “need far less water and pastureland”. (p. 208) The problem is: We have yet to discover how to “farm” them because ostriches, compared to cattle, “are far more sensitive and social animals. They tend to mate for life, and they need contact with other ostriches with whom they have developed emotional bonds. They need social contact with their ranchers, too.” (p.209)

Effective lumbering. Here, Ross makes a hugely important point. “Replanted forests grow at a much faster rate than virgin forests and, thus the rate at which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere is much higher.” (p. 210) This echoes the commandment given by God in Genesis that we should “tend and watch over” creation (chp. 2, v. 15). Ross advocates “reduced-impact logging techniques” instead of “traditional, clear-cut logging” (p. 210)

Smart dams. Dams reduce dependence on fossil fuels for electrical power generation. However, they come with their own environmental challenges. Citing experts, Ross contends that “dams can be designed in such a way that the environmental positives outweigh the negatives.” (p. 211) Here too, we can allude to Genesis 2,15.

Restoring whale populations. Apparently, whales’ faeces fertilise the ocean’s phytoplankton. They in turn remove a lot of CO2 from the atmosphere. Whales contribute to CO2 production, but their presence allows for significantly more CO2 reduction due to their fertilisation of the oceans. (p. 212)

Replanting expanded deserts. Speaks for itself really. (p. 213-14) Unfortunately, Ross doesn’t mention the interesting fact that deserts are currently actually shrinking, without active, direct input by humans. And that is due to the risen CO2 content in the atmosphere.

Multilevel hydroponic farms. This means “growing plants without soil and often without natural light, nourishing them via water and dissolved minerals. . . . Shelves of plants and lights can be stacked on top of one another.” This not only means less use of natural ground, but “photosynthesis [i.e., removal of CO2] per unit of area also multiplies.” (p. 214)

Finally, Ross also advocates the “management of current technology”. He provides three examples: Solar power generating rooftops, bitcoin elimination (because “cryptocurrency consumes vast amounts of electricity” and “alone could push the global mean temperature 2°C above the preindustrial level in less than three decades.” [p. 215]) and wearable thermoelectrics (“wearable devices that can deliver more than 10°C of adjustable cooling or heating effect for up to eight hours” which, were they to become ubiquitously available, “more than 10 percent of the total energy presently being consumed by humans could be eliminated.” [p.216])

What to say about these suggested measures?

The idea of preventing/forbidding cryptocurrency appears nowadays as a non-starter. In fact, it’s amazing that no-one else has picked up on this, considering what Ross says about it. Maybe the reason is that central banks around the world are feverishly working on creating their own cryptocurrency and hoping to herd us all into exclusively using it for money, thereby immensely enhancing the powers of surveillance and behavioural control.

More generally however, when surveying the ideas that Ross promotes, he appears to overlook some basic facts of economics. For one, every measure (every human action, to be precise) involves an “opportunity cost”. We live in a world of scarcity. Using time, effort and material for one thing means they cannot be used for something else. That is the opportunity cost. A more religious term, which means the same thing, is the aforementioned “sacrifice”. What are we sacrificing when we embark on these measures? And then: Who should make the ultimate decision on what to sacrifice? For which purpose exactly? How certain can we be of reaching that goal? And how certain can we be of the scope and volume of the sacrifice? Who, in the meantime, gains from those measures?

These are important questions that may have been beyond the scope of Ross’ book, so will have to be addressed elsewhere.

These questions also bring me to the second basic fact of economics: For every measure, there are unintended consequences. In a free market system supported by the rule of law, unintended consequences are dealt with swiftly and efficiently, and damage is limited. However, when government intervention is involved (and most of Ross’ suggestions require a huge amount of government intervention), unintended consequences are, for unavoidable structural reasons, not dealt with swiftly and efficiently. Therefore, damages are not limited.

The biggest, and sadly largely unrecognised, unintended consequence of allowing large-scale government interventions is a metastasising state. Every unintended consequence is another “reason” for the government to intervene even further, causing more unintended consequences in a downward spiral that ends in societal disaster of one kind or another.

In order to cover/ignore/rationalise the resulting and growing mess, an ideological superstructure is sought that will justify this “mega-sacrifice” everyone (except for the “wise” managerial elite) is expected to endure. The end result is a totalitarian state, which tries to keep the lid on ever growing chaos in the society below. The Bible has a precedent for this development. It is the Tower of Babel. It is ungodly. It is anti-God.

This is an important aspect that Ross has missed out in his book. Christians need to be aware that, in allowing or even supporting unchristian methods, they are paving the way for a catastrophe for themselves and others that is much greater than even the onset of a new glaciation. They might even get the glaciation or some other climate catastrophe on top of totalitarianism, because of the common phenomenon of “government failure”. Bad weather, even very bad weather, can be dealt with when it arrives, by applying new, as yet undreamt-of technologies emerging on the free market – where, as mentioned above, unintended consequences are swiftly dealt with, while resources continue being concentrated on the actual task at hand.