Rod Dreher

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Heat And Futility

We have hardly had a winter in Louisiana. We had two cold days, but that’s it. It’s been warm here all winter long. I have spent most days in January outside in a t-shirt. It’s miserable. Mosquitoes are lingering. Nobody really likes very cold weather, I don’t suppose, but the summers are so long and punishing here that we love a respite from the heat, however short it is. This year, it hasn’t been hot, exactly, but it has been warm — so warm that it feels that we’ve not had a winter at all.

So I wasn’t all that surprised to read this news today:

Marking another milestone for a changing planet, scientists reported on Wednesday that the Earth reached its highest temperature on record in 2016 — trouncing a record set only a year earlier, which beat one set in 2014. It is the first time in the modern era of global warming data that temperatures have blown past the previous record three years in a row.

The findings come two days before the inauguration of an American president who has called global warming a Chinese plot and vowed to roll back his predecessor’s efforts to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases.

The data show that politicians cannot wish the problem away. The Earth is heating up, a point long beyond serious scientific dispute, but one becoming more evident as the records keep falling. Temperatures are heading toward levels that many experts believe will pose a profound threat to both the natural world and to human civilization.


Since 1880, NOAA’s records show only one other instance when global temperature records were set three years in a row: in 1939, 1940 and 1941. The Earth has warmed so much in recent decades, however, that 1941 now ranks as only the 37th-warmest year on record.

The modern era of global warming began around 1970, after a long stretch of relatively flat temperatures, and the past three years mark the first time in that period that three records were set in a row. Of the 17 hottest years on record, 16 have now occurred since 2000.

I feel that many of us are like the Mayor of Amity in Jaws: ignoring the threat because the cost of facing it realistically is too high.

Did you know that ExxonMobil (then just Exxon) knew about anthropogenic global warming 40 years ago? From the NY Review of Books:

In 1977, for example, an Exxon scientist named James Black gave a presentation to the company’s Management Committee. He explained, accurately, what the “greenhouse effect” is and how measurements of atmospheric CO2 that had been taken since 1957 showed it was steadily increasing. And, although emphasizing that climate science still had to deal with untested assumptions and uncertainties, he said that “current opinion overwhelmingly favors attributing atmospheric CO2 increase to fossil fuel combustion.” “Present thinking,” Black added a year later, “holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”

By 1980, a report written by Exxon’s Canadian subsidiary and distributed to Exxon managers around the world stated matter-of-factly, “It is assumed that the major contributors of CO2 are the burning of fossil fuels…and oxidation of carbon stored in trees and soil humus…. There is no doubt that increases in fossil fuel usage and decreases in forest cover are aggravating the potential problem of increased CO2 in the atmosphere.” The next year Roger Cohen, director of Exxon’s Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences Laboratory, wrote in an internal memo that by 2030, projected cumulative carbon emissions could, after a delay, “produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population).”

In 1982, Cohen added that “over the past several years a clear scientific consensus has emerged”: atmospheric CO2 would double from its preindustrial quantity sometime in the second half of the twenty-first century, producing an average increase in global temperature of three degrees Celsius, plus or minus 1.5 degrees. “There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community,” he went on, “that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the earth’s climate, including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere.”19

It was clear, too, what a problem these conclusions posed for the oil industry. As a 1979 Exxon memo reported,

Models predict that the present trend of fossil fuel use will lead to dramatic climatic changes within the next 75 years…. Should it be deemed necessary to maintain atmospheric CO2 levels to prevent significant climatic changes, dramatic changes in patterns of energy use would be required.

In other words, the world would have to curtail its use of fossil fuels substantially. Senior Exxon scientist Henry Shaw warned management that according to the predictions of the National Academy of Sciences, global warming, not any lack of supply, would force humankind to stop burning fossil fuels.

In 1982, an Exxon environmental affairs manager named Marvin Glaser wrote a thirty-nine-page primer on climate change that he distributed widely among management.22 It confirmed that, despite remaining points of scientific uncertainty, “mitigation of the ‘greenhouse effect’ would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.” If these weren’t achieved, Glaser warned, “all biological systems are likely to be affected” and “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered,” including an expected “dramatic impact on soil moisture, and in turn, on agriculture,” and, eventually, the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet, which would flood “much of the US East Coast, including the State of Florida and Washington D.C.” He believed that “potentially serious climate problems are not likely to occur until the late 21st century,” but added, “once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.”

Read the whole thing. It shows how Exxon went from being a leader in global warming research to funding denial. It’s breathtaking stuff. But here we are today.

The last thing I want in the comments boxes is another tired war over whether or not global warming is real. We all know what each other is going to say, and we all know that nothing is going to change. The thing that stays on my mind about global warming is the fact that even if the US and Europe did everything we could to combat it, what’s to keep China and India from refusing? As economist Robert Samuelson (who is not a climate-change denier) wrote in 2014, “We have no solution,” Excerpt:

No sane government will sacrifice its economy today — by dramatically curtailing fossil-fuel use — for the uncertain benefits of less global warming sometime in the foggy future. (The focus of the U.S. global warming report on the present seems aimed at bridging this gap.)

Worse, almost all the projected increases in global emissions come from poorer countries, half from China alone. By contrast, U.S. emissions (and those of most rich nations) are projected to stay stable over the three decades. Economic growth is slowing; energy efficiency is increasing; and, in Japan and some European countries, populations are declining. Because poor countries understandably won’t abandon their efforts to relieve poverty, any further U.S. emissions cuts would probably be offset by gains in China and elsewhere. This dims their political and environmental appeal.

He’s got a very serious point: how do you convince poor and developing countries to slow down the engine of what is drawing their people out of abject misery? I’m not asking, “Should we ask them to do this?” but posing it as a question of basic politics and human nature. China’s own capital city is all but unlivable because of pollution and smog, and yet still, the Chinese factories and coal-burning plants chug on.

Are you going to be the one to tell a village full of extremely poor people in India that sorry, the manufacturing plant that might have pulled them all out of the mire is not going to be built because of global warming? You might be 100 percent right that the plant shouldn’t be built, but how do you tell the poor that — especially given that as a Westerner, you are already the beneficiary of industrialization? Serious question.

In 2015, Samuelson expanded on his point:

On climate change, curb your enthusiasm. It’s not that the recent international conference in Paris didn’t take significant steps to check global warming. It did. Nearly 200 countries committed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from preindustrial times was reaffirmed. The trouble is that what’s being attempted is so fundamentally difficult that even these measures may be wildly unequal to the task.

What’s being attempted, of course, is the wholesale replacement of the world economy’s reliance on fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) for four-fifths of its energy. To be sure, the shift is envisioned to take decades, four or five at a minimum. Still, the vast undertaking may exceed human capability.

Hence, a conundrum. Without energy, the world economy shuts down, threatening economic and social chaos. But the consequences of climate change, assuming the scientific consensus is accurate, are also grim — from rising sea levels (threatening coastal cities) to harsher droughts (reducing food supplies).

Samuelson says he accepts the dominant scientific view about human-driven global warming, but points out that without a major technological breakthrough, we’re largely powerless to do much of anything. “The addiction to fossil fuels will triumph,” he says. More:

Despite Paris, we haven’t acknowledged the difficulties of grappling with climate change, whose extent and timing are uncertain. We invent soothing fantasies to simplify matters. The notion that the world can wean itself from fossil fuels by substituting renewables is one of these. The potential isn’t large enough.

Actual choices are harder. For example, Bryce argues that only an expansion of nuclear power could replace significant volumes of fossil fuels. But greater reliance on nuclear poses its own dangers, including the disposal of atomic waste, operational accidents and vulnerability to terrorism.

It’s true that technological breakthroughs could change this. We know what’s needed: cheaper and safer nuclear power; better batteries and energy storage, boosting wind and solar by making more of their power usable; cost-effective carbon capture and storage — making coal more acceptable by burying its carbon dioxide in the ground.

We have been searching for solutions for decades with only modest success. We need to keep searching, but without meaningful advances, regulating the world’s temperature is mission impossible.

It’s at this point that people get really mad, and accuse Samuelson of being a fatalist. But outrage does nothing to answer his point: the task is immense — scientifically and politically — and though we have to keep trying for a solution, there are no realistic ones now.

None of this is to say that Donald Trump is right about global warming, and that we should yield to his viewpoint. At what point, though, do people start to accept that this problem is only secondarily one of US political will? I mean, at what point to people start to accept that nothing serious is going to happen on the climate change front because nothing serious can happen — because of political will globally, yes, but also because the problems are, at this moment, technologically, economically, and politically impossible to solve?

That is to say, at what point does the primary focus of we who accept anthropogenic global warming go on building up community resilience for what’s to come? What would that look like?

UPDATE: A reader writes:

I work in energy and utility policy, so I’m not going to post publicly, but Samuelson makes some great points. There are a few comparisons and points I make to friends of mine that express major concern about this:

Technological Solution – If you want to deal with this, don’t go get a policy degree, get an electrical engineering degree. A decent analog to emissions-causing electric generation is the telephone landline. It’s dying off not because we banned landlines, but because the next generation of communication device became cheaper, better, and more convenient. It’s much harder, but I don’t see a lot of realistic hope on the policy/regulation front.

Developing Countries – Samuelson mentions China, India is also developing quickly, and those are just the big blocs. But grasp the scale. There are almost as many people in India without electricity as there are people in the United States (somewhere around 300 million in the Indian cause is the most recent estimate I believe). They don’t want to forgo affordable electricity (and it will have to be cheap for them to afford it – so – coal) because of some abstract notion of the temperature going up 1.5 C, or whatever an agreement in Paris targets.

Policy for developed countries – Most people when it comes down to it are more afraid of the solutions than the problem. Controlling all major CO2 emitting activities would invade so many corners of private life, it’s hard so imagine it wouldn’t cause a tidal wave of backlash in democracies.

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163 Responses to Heat And Futility

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  1. Hound of Ulster says:

    In short, all of our cute arguments about marriage and all that will be academic when half the world’s population starves to death because of global crop failure. BenOp to save humanity, much less Christiandom.

  2. The Wet One says:


    You’ve just outlined where the stupidity of extreme partisanship takes one when taken to its fullest extent.

    Extraordinary levels of stupidity.

    It’s something to behold and utterly astonishing. It’s a good thing that the color of the sky is not a matter of political debate. Otherwise, I’m sure it would be generally considered red, or green or perhaps chartreuse.

    It is truly amazing, but there it is.

  3. Harvey says:

    ” so in all seriousness why did the global cooling freak out happen in the 70’s”

    Particulate pollution was soaring. The very primitive climate models available at the time could not determine whether the cooling effect of atmospheric particulate pollution would dominate over CO2 or vice versa.

    We then passed the Clean Air Act.

  4. Paolo Pagliaro says:

    Today I read that the increase in temperature from last year is something around 0.01°C – uncertainty ±0.1°C (!).
    If that’s true, why the official report by the NASA/NOAA talked only about the “hottest year on record”, without specifying the actual values?

    Btw: this winter in Italy was very, very cold.

  5. Stephen R Gould says:

    Inevitably a column on what to do about GW gets sidetracked by a debate on whether it’s happening.

    My only comment on the latter is that denialists have to believe in two things for which no evidence has been produced: first, a mechanism whereby increasing CO2 from 280ppm to >440ppm does not affect the climate, and second, a natural mechanism that is causing warming – because just saying “it’s natural” isn’t an explanation, it’s a description of a class of causes – no actual cause having been supplied.

    One problem in the US is that the right-wing politicians and their supporters are actively hostile to alternative energy. (Note Reagan’s mean-spirited removal of an early solar-energy system from the WH.) We hear the mocking cries of “Solyndra” overlooking that the guarantee program overall is profitable and that the reason Solyndra failed was prices tumbling – a good thing – thanks to Chinese production. Some congressmen in Wyoming have drafted a bill preventing energy companies from using alternative energy sources – if you have wind turbines, should the bill pass, the energy companies will not be allowed to buy your energy. This is madness. Florida, IIRC, is imposing some form of “alternatives” tax.

    BTW if anyone thinks that the right will change their minds when Al Gore et al take more active steps to reduce their own carbon footprints, they know little about psychology. The right will mock them for being fools rather than being hypocrites.

  6. Stephen R Gould says:

    ” so in all seriousness why did the global cooling freak out happen in the 70’s”

    As others have pointed out, there was no freak-out. A few speculative articles and a paper or two. Indeed, one of the classic signs of the modern denier is that he reports this alleged scientific position as true, showing his ignorance of the state of science and his credulity and willingness to believe unscientific sources that fit his prejudices.

  7. Stephen R Gould says:

    BTW – to correct a typo – it’s >400ppm, not >440ppm. I don’t want to be accused of exaggeration.

  8. Eliavy says:

    Part of the reason I have a problem with the idea of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming is the power, wealth, and shouting down of “deniers” I associate with advocates. The false 97% figure bandied about years after it was debunked certainly doesn’t help, and neither do the unfulfilled prophecies. Exxon and skeptics are certainly not the ones with the most social or scientific inertia.

    An illustration of my mistrust is when I saw on the news a story about that awful tsunami that hit Japan. A large graphic (filling one third of the screen) said, “Global warming: tsunami hits Japan.” While I think many people who saw that report knew better, mixing up cause and unrelated effect like that certainly indicates a strong agenda behind it, past logic or science.

    The media and educational institutions are the layman’s main interfaces with science, making claims like that news station’s even worse. Whenever I read an article about a record heat wave or a bad tornado outbreak, I almost always find a reference to climate change, rather like checking the boxes for racial and sexual minorities in current entertainment.

    If “deniers” weren’t blacklisted and chased out of polite society (as documented by Lawrence Solomon), I’d be more willing to listen to the dominant narrative because it would be strengthened through criticism and a freer-flowing scientific discussion. Those with power who silence and mock contrary opinions lose a lot of moral authority in their positions as they appear incapable of answering questions or objections.

    This article might be of interest:

    “Scientists are terrible at making forecasts—indeed as Dan Gardner documents in his book Future Babble they are often worse than laymen. And the climate is a chaotic system with multiple influences of which human emissions are just one, which makes prediction even harder.

    “The IPCC actually admits the possibility of lukewarming within its consensus, because it gives a range of possible future temperatures: it thinks the world will be between about 1.5 and four degrees warmer on average by the end of the century. That’s a huge range, from marginally beneficial to terrifyingly harmful, so it is hardly a consensus of danger, and if you look at the ‘probability density functions’ of climate sensitivity, they always cluster towards the lower end.

    “What is more, in the small print describing the assumptions of the ‘representative concentration pathways’, it admits that the top of the range will only be reached if sensitivity to carbon dioxide is high (which is doubtful); if world population growth re-accelerates (which is unlikely); if carbon dioxide absorption by the oceans slows down (which is improbable); and if the world economy goes in a very odd direction, giving up gas but increasing coal use tenfold (which is implausible).

    “But the commentators ignore all these caveats and babble on about warming of ‘up to’ four degrees (or even more), then castigate as a ‘denier’ anybody who says, as I do, the lower end of the scale looks much more likely given the actual data. This is a deliberate tactic. Following what the psychologist Philip Tetlock called the ‘psychology of taboo’, there has been a systematic and thorough campaign to rule out the middle ground as heretical: not just wrong, but mistaken, immoral and beyond the pale…

    “‘We have at least to consider the possibility that the scientific establishment behind the global warming issue has been drawn into the trap of seriously overstating the climate problem—or, what is much the same thing, of seriously understating the uncertainties associated with the climate problem—in its effort to promote the cause. It is a particularly nasty trap in the context of science, because it risks destroying, perhaps for centuries to come, the unique and hard-won reputation for honesty which is the basis for society’s respect for scientific endeavour.'”

  9. A few excerpts from a chapter on this topic from a book I’ve written:


    Thoughts on the fourth and fifth vial (bowl) judgments of Revelation 16

    Dennis E. Johnson, in his commentary on Revelation, Triumph of the Lamb, when introducing the bowl judgments, says, “As the bowls belong to the symbolic dialect in which John’s visions bring their message, so also the effects of the outpoured bowls are conveyed in symbolic impressions, not photographic reproductions.” (p 224)

    The Scripture on the fourth vial reads,

    “And the fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun; and power was given unto him to scorch men with fire. And men were scorched with great heat, and blasphemed the name of God, which hath power over these plagues: and they repented not to give him glory” (Rev 16:8, 9).

    I must admit I am not clear about the issues of climate change and global warming, the conflicting reports confusing, so I take no sides in the matter. What I do know is that all agree the earth’s climate is warming, though whether due to human actions or apart from them, or a mixture of the two, I do not know, and many scientists are not clear either. And from John’s words we are to understand it will increase greatly—though through what causes we are in the dark about, save that God will see to it.

    We see that John prophesies in the passage above the heat of the sun will become very intense upon the earth. Yet it must also be remembered that the images depicted in Revelation are “conveyed in symbolic impressions, not photographic reproductions”, so we do not know exactly what to expect. Only hindsight will tell us clearly. Still, it does seem that painfully increasing heat will be our lot. We will all be observing what happens as the months and years go by.


    One of our problems, I think, is that we are not apocalyptic enough. By that I mean we are not factoring information from the word of God into our reckoning of what is real in these days of 2017 and on. The last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse of John, is a book that reveals hidden dynamics in the interactions between God and man: gospel proclamation, persecution, warning, judgment, and these on an ongoing basis intensifying up through the centuries, culminating in a final showdown between Christ and the nations which are attacking Him through His people.

    Greatly intensifying heat is one of the final judgments upon man’s increasing rebellion and idolatry. I take that to mean that regardless of what steps we take to address global climate change we will not be effective. I say this not to discourage such efforts, but simply to state what is written.

    The real issue for humankind is both moral and spiritual: we need to cease from the egregious sins which ravage our fellow humans, destroy our earth, and offend our God, turning to His Christ for forgiveness and eternal life, these latter both immense gifts given us at great cost to the Giver.

    Apart from this focus we merely spin our wheels.

    I’ve pre-ordered your book, The Benedict Option, Rod, as I realize it may be some time before the end, and it would be wise to preserve our godly communities and their vision of God as long as we can. The world will not get better.

  10. Jon Vaughn says:

    Intellectual con men, particularly those who are not in possession of the facts such as Stephen R. Gould, invariably resort to the gambit of charging that the opposition to their so-called argument need disprove a negative warrant in order to counter an argument which itself is a negative warrant. Any first year philosophy or law student would throw such trash in the incinerator where it belongs.

  11. Matthew says:

    Hector st. Clare:

    For now at least I’m sticking with my hypothesis about the Muslim population and its effect on what we still call the European continent.

  12. ManBearPig says:

    Hi, I consider myself a moderate. The 97% consensus about climate change is correct. There are seven studies that confirm this.

    Oreskes 2004, Doran 2009, Anderegg 2010, Cook 2013, Verheggen 2014, Stenhouse 2014, and Carlton 2015.

  13. Peter Shrock says:

    Ramp up investment in cleaner energies like solar and wind — and, yes, nuclear.

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