Science Corner: The Advent and the Apocalypse

climate change photo

A farmer in Ghana with some of his millet crop. Farmers like him are most vulnerable to climate change, and already experiencing the effects. (Photo by CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture )

Christmas has become synonymous with good cheer, joy, and childlike wonder. From there we get the optimistic mantra “Every day is Christmas Eve” as looking forward to a happy day makes us happy. And so a sense of gleeful anticipation and positivity extends into Advent, the season of preparation leading up to Christmas. But then I am reminded of SAdvent. A few years ago on the Judge John Hodgman podcast (where humorist & actor John Hodgman arbitrates nonlegal questions) a husband and wife sought a decision about their observance of Advent. The husband freely acknowledged the joyousness of Christmas, and so felt that the time leading up to it should be more restrained and reflective to heighten the experience of Christmas. In other words, Christmas is not that special if the festivities stretch out over the preceding 24 days as well. He suggested that this was in keeping with the traditional liturgical observance of Advent, which can be somber and even apocalyptic.

I’ll admit I hadn’t previously encountered much discussion of an apocalyptic dimension to Advent. It’s not a topic lacking for commentary; that just happened to be where I first encountered it, at least in a way that stuck. I find myself returning to that idea as I revisit the topic of climate change in relation to the idea of a new creation. Climate change is not a cheery, Christmas-y topic. At the same time, neither is the death of an entire cohort of babies, and that is part of the Christmas story. If the apocalyptic comes with Advent, and if an apocalypse is a revelation of truth, then perhaps telling the truth about our climate is an appropriate part of preparing for the season of new creation inaugurated by Christmas.

And what is that truth? Human activity is shifting the equilibrium of the environment towards a warmer global climate. However, no one experiences the global climate; instead, we each experience local conditions resulting from the interaction of global climate parameters, seasonal variations, the recent past of our local environment, geographic features, and other causal factors. As climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe attests in this interview, based on discussions she had at the recent Paris climate summit, many humans are already experiencing negative consequences of this warming climate: rising seas, more severe weather, more extremes of temperature and precipitation or lack thereof. While a warming climate may not be the literal end of the world, it can make life more difficult for humans.

Or to put that truth another way, we are in the midst of creating a new world. There are many good features of that new world: we have the means to prevent or cure many diseases and the ability to distribute those treatments around the globe rapidly; we can produce more food, especially protein, than we could in the past; we have ready access to information, knowledge and wisdom previously reserved for a privileged few. But we are imperfect creators, and so not everything about our new world is good. We may still have the ability to mitigate some of the imperfections, but to do so we first need the humility to accept our limitations as creators.

Since we are limited, we lack complete certainty on many matters. We can acknowledge that truth, but more importantly we need to recognize that our certainty and uncertainty are not equal across all questions. For example, when a recent climate report was announced and it was met with some skepticism from the usual corners, some advocates of science responded by pointing to the recent success of the Mars InSight lander as evidence of the reliability of science. And yes, there is some relationship there in terms of methodology and a community of review and scrutiny. At the same time, not all matters of science are created equal; it does not automatically follow that if we can send a robot to Mars we can forecast the climate. Such reasoning invites the opposing claim that because we cannot predict the weather, we cannot predict the climate either. In reality those are different problems and success or failure at one does not lead to success or failure at the other. Ultimately, our certainty about the human factor of climate change and the future state of global climate rests on climate data and that no other hypotheses match it as well as the models of human activity and greenhouse gas emissions.

Fortunately, because of Christmas that is not the whole truth. Our future is not fully determined by our limitations. We are not the only creators at work. We can look forward to a new creation beyond anything we can accomplish. Does that absolve us of the responsibility to care for this world? By no means! We are still called to be stewards of the world and to love our neighbor. We cannot be certain how long we have here in this world, so it makes sense to me to proceed as if it will be a while. As we do, we can focus on creating the best future we can make in this world with the perspective that our failures will not be forever.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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