The Cornwall Alliance gets climate science wrong and harms the poor in the process
The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation is a conservative evangelical Christian public policy group that promotes a free-market approach to protecting the environment. The organization recently published a list of ten reasons it opposes policies to reduce carbon pollution and slow global warming, purportedly to protect the poor. As the first point on the list illustrates, the group essentially believes that the Earth’s climate will be able to correct any damage done by humans.
1. As the product of infinitely wise design, omnipotent creation, and faithful sustaining (Genesis 1:1–31; 8:21–22), Earth is robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting.
The group includes climate scientist Roy Spencer and professor of geography David Legates. Spencer’s research is among the 2–3% of peer-reviewed climate papers disputing that humans are the main cause of global warming. He has often argued that climate policies will harm the poor, and has not been shy in making political and free marketstatements, having gone as far as to make comments about “global warming Nazis.” Legates is known for disputing the 97% expert consensus on human-caused global warming.
The Cornwall Alliance has tried to use scientific arguments to support its religious beliefs about the resiliency of the global climate, claiming,
3. While human addition of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2), to the atmosphere may slightly raise atmospheric temperatures, observational studies indicate that the climate system responds more in ways that suppress than in ways that amplify CO2’s effect on temperature, implying a relatively small and benign rather than large and dangerous warming effect.
By itself, a doubling of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would raise global surface temperatures by about 1.2°C. By claiming the climate suppresses more than it amplifies that warming, the group is arguing that the Earth’s climate sensitivity is less than 1.2°C.
To put that in perspective, ‘sceptics’ Nic Lewis and Judith Curry recently published a paper with one of the lowest best estimates for the Earth’s equilibrium climate sensitivity, at 1.64°C global surface warming in response to a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Their study only included some of the lowest estimates of ocean and surface temperatures, and hence likely underestimated the climate sensitivity, as climate scientist Kevin Trenberth explains,
Lewis and Curry not only low-balled their estimates of climate sensitivity by selective use of datasets but they also failed to take the other datasets into account in assigning error bars or uncertainties. They chose low values of temperature change without factoring in the biases of not adequately sampling the Arctic and the huge changes that have occurred there (see Cowtan and Way). They ignored many papers that document the best and most comprehensive estimates of changes in ocean heat storage such as those by Balmaseda et al (2013), Trenberth et al. (2014) and Chen and Tung (2014). There are a number of ocean heat content change estimates based on Argo data, but these miss many regions including the Indonesian region and Arctic, which contribute perhaps 30% of the total. The result is that the Lewis and Curry estimates are perhaps 50% too low, and their uncertainties are much too low.
Nevertheless, even the low-ball Lewis & Curry best estimate puts the climate at over 37% more sensitive to carbon pollution than the Cornwall Alliance believes.
The Cornwall Alliance’s policy positions are similarly misguided. On the issue of energy in developing countries, they argue,
To demand that they forgo the use of inexpensive fossil fuels and depend on expensive wind, solar, and other “Green” fuels to meet that need is to condemn them to more generations of poverty and the high rates of disease and premature death that accompany it.
Much of my colleague John Abraham’s work involves the design and installation of clean and robust energy sources in remote parts of the world. Based on his firsthand experience, Abraham says the Cornwall Alliance has got it all wrong.
This statement is made by people without much experience in energy or in emerging economies. My own team has led multiple projects where we bring low-cost clean energy solution to very remote and impoverished areas of the globe. Not only can we deliver energy at a competitive (and sometimes lower) costs, but small-scale distributed energy systems such as wind and solar generation provide local control over distribution. What we find is that cleaning the environment also cleans the politics associated with energy.
Abraham also told me about the moral challenge surrounding this subject – poorer countries tend to be the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
In subsistence farming regions, people live and die by the weather and agriculture. I have seen firsthand how changes to climate are affecting real people and real communities. In the United States, it is an intellectual exercise to think about how the changing climate will affect our future economy and society. In Africa, South America, and Asia, this theoretical exercise is occurring in real time. Climate change costs are already occurring around the world, they impact the world’s poorest the most. Surely these social and economic costs should be part of our calculus as we think about solving this problem.
Many evangelical Christians recognize this moral angle of human-caused climate change, and also view the issue as one of stewardship of the Earth. For example, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe is an evangelical Christian herself, and often speaks to like-minded groups. She recently did an interview with Bill Moyers that’s well worth watching. Hayhoe told me,
The foundation of the Christian faith is about loving others as Christ loved us, and it is clear from the work that I do myself as well as I see from other colleagues that those with the least resources to adapt to a changing climate will be most affected by our actions.
The National Association of Evangelicals has likewise acknowledged the reality of human-caused global warming and concluded,
Therefore, even when scientific uncertainties are taken into account, the precautionary principle (e.g., Overture 60, Agenda for Synod 2012, p. 594) compels us to take private and public actions to address climate change.
Evangelical Christians tend to be divided between these two camps. Although they tend to view global warming as a threat, evangelicals are also more likely to doubt scientific concepts that they view as contradictory to their faith. Many like Hayhoe have been working to show them that addressing climate change, taking care of the Earth, and protecting the poor are all consistent with the evangelical faith.
Contrary arguments by groups like the Cornwall Alliance are based on misunderstandings of climate science, free market economics, and the evangelical faith. It remains to be seen who will win over the hearts and minds of the evangelical Christian community, but the poor will be better off if Katharine Hayhoe’s perspective wins out.