Climate Change and Evolution

Many advocates of anthropogenic climate change are also advocates of the theory of evolution. The two are often used in analogy in many different ways. In particular, skeptics of the two theories are often alleged to be either the same people or using the same tactics to spread public confusion.

I am not strongly religious, and I fully accept evolution. I understand that some others do not as it conflicts with their spiritual beliefs. I understand that alternative theories have failed to stand up to scientific scrutiny in the peer-reviewed literature. It is my opinion that these theories of creation or intelligent design should remain religious beliefs, and not attempt to be passed as objective science.

But I really don’t mind if people out there don’t believe in evolution. I couldn’t care less.

My feelings are exactly the opposite on anthropogenic global climate change. Why?

The difference between the evolution debate and the climate change debate is that the latter has consequences for the real world. Endless public debating and alternative theories about climate change could easily spread confusion and delay action to mitigate the threat. Indirectly, public debating on climate change, rather than leaving the debate to the scientists and taking action based on their conclusions, poses a threat to our future and our way of life.

Debating on evolution, in contrast, isn’t like that. At worst, it could slow down scientific progress in the area of biology. It could offend people. But could it wipe out our civilization? Of course not. Could climate change? Even the most skeptical person has to admit that it is a possibility.


28 thoughts on “Climate Change and Evolution

  1. I think you’re missing the worst-case scenario of anti-evolution advocacy. Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution – to reject it is to essentially, selectively, reject the scientific method itself. Having spent time arguing with creationists, I can speak from personal experience here: That is exactly what is going on here. It’s not just biology, it’s all of science they don’t understand and reject. (The number of actual scientists who are also creationists is actually rather small; I would argue it’s akin to the actual scientists opposing AGW – i.e. leaders of the pack but not representative of the majority.)

    Consider Texas, which has a school board chronically plagued with creationists and has, for the longest time, done everything possible to restrict education of evolution. By conditioning people to reject science, this undermines the trust the public places in scientists and scientific progress as a whole – “If all of those biologists are lying to me, why should I trust the atmospheric scientists?” and all that. Since evolution is so pervasive in biology, evolutionary methods so common in other fields (including my own), and, critically, anti-evolution rhetoric taps into people’s religious beliefs (often held as completely beyond critical inquiry – i.e. questioning them is seen as a bad thing), in teaching the next generation that evolution’s a crock, you end up producing an incredibly strong anti-scientific bias in a new generation of potential scientists.

    This gets even worse if you look at how dependent our society is on substantial infrastructure, understanding that the mainstay for developing, maintaining, and enhancing that infrastructure (and thus our quality of life) is scientific knowledge. By undermining trust in science and seeding anti-science rhetoric, you end up crippling our ability to adapt to future conditions or even maintain our society. (I’ll allow another eloquent example to illustrate this point.)

    In other words, if we allow antievolution (anti-science) to spread to our education system, yes, it very well might wipe out our civilization – from within rather than without. Like climate change, it’s a threat to civilization (although not civilization + biosphere, and it doesn’t have as short a time limit).

    While I agree climate change is the bigger threat – irreversible damage to the biosphere kind of implies that – but we rely upon science too heavily to just stand idly by while creationists attempt to destroy it. One of the biggest problems with the West today is that science isn’t held in high enough regard to have every single scientific body on the planet agreeing on something being enough evidence to convince people that something’s even happening. (I’ve even seen creationists argue that climate change isn’t happening because it implies sea level rise, and God promised Noah he’d never flood the world again (Genesis 9:11), and besides, even if the seas didn’t rise, God wouldn’t allow us to destroy the planet he gave us, so we’re fine. I am NOT joking.) This makes our job as scientists impossibly rough.

    Blind belief – the kind espoused by creationists and all but the more liberal theists – is antithetical to science as a whole because it relies on a priori rejecting anything that contests its assertions (for instance, Answers in Genesis (Ken Ham of the Creation Museum) proudly lists on its website that “By definition, no apparent, perceived, or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.”). Creationism is just the most visible sign of this endemic cognitive flaw, but it shows up elsewhere as well – universally anti-science. It’s also one of the core factors in the modern war on expertise that’s basically encouraging Joe Redneck to reject anything scientists say because it doesn’t match up with what he thinks Jesus said (or for any number of other irrational reasons).

    • This just goes to show that the more you think about an issue, the more insightful you can be. I haven’t thought about evolution very much – it doesn’t interest me as much as climate science – and so my conclusions are fairly simple. I love what you say about the scientific method, though, and how anti-evolutionism can undermine the confidence of the public in scientists. Very, very true.

  2. > At worst, it could slow down scientific progress in the area of biology.

    Tell that to the families of sufferers of Alzheimer, Parkinson, and other diseases that, one day, could perhaps be helped by the research the evolution deniers sabotaged when in government. Or to the victims of back street abortionists.

    Evolution denial is just one side of biology denial, which does kill and maim real humans. No, not in their billions.

    Just like science, denialism is indivisible. It’s one enemy.

  3. Creationism is about more than evolution. Evolution, at least as most scientists use the term, is shorthand for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Creationists use it to refer to that, abiogenesis (origin of life), as well as virtually all of the fields of geology, paleontology, cosmology, and maybe a couple of other fields that they claim are working together to promote one basic unifying idea, the natural creation of everything in the universe over billions of years. So you might think that we have ice cores that go back 800,000 years that give us information on the climate and carbon dioxide levels over that period. Congratulations, you are now, according to most creationists, a believer in evolution. I say this just to point out you shouldn’t underestimate the reach of the belief creationists wish to promote; it’s not just biology they are confused about.

    You could measure the similarity to climate denial by similarity in tactics, scientists, or lay public. Of these, the least similar is almost certainly the scientists. There is much more overlap between the climate and tobacco denial communities than with creationism. However, the tactics are quite similar (impossible goal posts, nitpicking while not presenting alternative explanations or presenting ones that fall apart quite easily, etc.) And the origins of these beliefs is quite similar in a way — one from a dogmatic attachment to a literal interpretation of the word of genesis, one from an inflexible attachment to libertarianism, each leading people to attack science which doesn’t fit well with cherished beliefs. Because of the political alignment of religious fundamentalism and economic libertarianism in the US, the alignment among the lay public is pretty high, but there’s no reason these beliefs need to go together and I suspect that alignment may be less elsewhere.

    • By “could it wipe out our civilization”, “it” meant “widespread disbelief over evolution”, not evolution itself. Of course evolution itself could lead to mechanisms which could destroy us – disease, as you rightly pointed out.

  4. climatesight, good blog you have going here. I’m also a student in the atmospheric sciences (just put you on my blog roll) so I can appreciate your efforts here and you’re off to a terrific start.

    I don’t really agree that evolution is unimportant to the real world. I suppose when some think of evolution they might think of the geologic past and dead fossils which are only interesting for curiosities sake (and perhaps the more philosophical arguments of Humanities role in nature), but in fact much of modern medicine, genetics, agriculture, etc revolves around evolution in some sense. At this stage one could easily argue the implications of evolution outside just the “research community” are equal or exceed that of climate change, but in different ways.

    The main difference on the “acceptance” side of things is that for climate change the general population *needs* to be well informed as this has large implications for policy making or for personal “actions.” For evolution, the experts must be well-informed since this has large implications for the advancement of biology. I suppose the lay folk, whether informed or not, will still benefit from the results of evolutionary theory. In a world where only experts are informed, your argument is quite correct, and unfortunately that seems to be nearly the case today for both evolution and climate change.

    Because “evolution” is also a hot topic at the high school education level, it also has very important implications for students– not so much whether they actually learn Darwin’s ideas and how they have progressed over the 20th century (although basic exposure to this stuff would certainly be ideal), but rather to develop a better framework for how to think and to not fall in the mindset of “everyone’s opinion–evolutionists or creationists– global warming science or deniers– are equal.” They are not equal.

  5. Widespread disbelief of evolution = poor understanding of everything related to biology = poor use of anything related to biology, including pillars of our civilization, such as medicine and agriculture. Knock down the pillars and society will fall.

    A classic example that doesn’t even rely upon development of new drugs would be AIDS treatment schedules – antiretroviral drugs that are extremely powerful often lose their potency for individuals after only a short time. However, understanding evolution explains why this happens (namely, the drug wipes out only most of the viruses, with a small number having a resistant mutation: combined with a rapid rate of reproduction you get incredibly fast evolution for resistance), and allows us to develop alternative treatment schedules (for instance, switching to a different drug that works on a different mechanism for a time, removing the selection pressure against the first drug and letting the resistance fade). If we didn’t understand evolution, these patients would just die, if not from the disease then from the ever-increasing dosages of powerful drugs thrown at the problem. (Pesticide spraying works the same way; for a fascinating case study in denialism, look into the DDT story. It stopped being widely and judiciously used because of the evolution of resistance in mosquitoes, but that doesn’t stop people from claiming it was an environmentalist conspiracy.)

    Understanding evolution allows us to better manage our affairs, because humans are an extremely powerful evolutionary force (arguably as strong or stronger than they are a climate force). For example, see Palumbi 2001 (surprisingly readable). Rejecting evolution would lead to all of those systems spinning out of control.

    Note that in times of crisis, people look for stability, which has historically included religion. If that crisis comes from a lack of value of science due to, for instance, taking religious claims too seriously (see ANYTHING by Ken Ham, Ray Comfort, or Kent Hovind, for instance), you get another type of positive feedback loop, spreading from biology to the rest of science. And where to then?

    (As you note, climate does trump this as a threat to civilization, but that doesn’t mean there’s no threat. Look at the doodle diagrams towards the end of What’s The Worst That Could Happen on the pillars of modern society and look at how many require a working knowledge of science.)

    For the record, my own interest in evolution was similar to yours (i.e. tangential and out of my field) until the last couple of years, when I started running into creationists personally (I’m a member of the campus atheists and agnostics group, which isn’t all that well-liked in Alberta, and some of The Crazy we ran into were creationists). This led me to do a bit of research on the arguments they were using that weren’t transparently fallacious, and upon that investigation I found the link to general antiscience. I’m still no expert, but I am no longer a spectator.

    Some fun resources on this (low-credibility but well-cited and more entertaining than can be found by listening through AronRa’s epic Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism series. To one familiar with how the public and special interests manipulate the PR around climate, the similarities in tactics should be obvious even though the details are totally different. It’s a bit like the tobacco fiasco (a great example of The Denial Machine (go CBC!) in action) in that both serve as a good reference for the tactics of the anti-science movement, and both creationism and tobacco denial have been around for long enough to have been well-documented.

  6. “Evolution denial is just one side of biology denial, which does kill and maim real humans.”
    Yup. AIDS denialism, the anti-vaccination movement [1] and general quackery [2] are another examples of biology denial [3] that cost lives.
    As a non-American I find these things to be pretty amazing. If you’re curious on the origins of such things, I’ll offer you a paper published in Environmental Politics and an essay written in 1964:
    – The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism
    “Environmental scepticism denies the seriousness of environmental problems, and self-professed ‘sceptics’ claim to be unbiased analysts combating ‘junk science’. This study quantitatively analyses 141 English-language environmentally sceptical books published between 1972 and 2005. We find that over 92 per cent of these books, most published in the US since 1992, are linked to conservative think tanks (CTTs). Further, we analyse CTTs involved with environmental issues and find that 90 per cent of them espouse environmental scepticism. We conclude that scepticism is a tactic of an elite-driven counter-movement designed to combat environmentalism, and that the successful use of this tactic has contributed to the weakening of US commitment to environmental protection” [4]

    – The Paranoid Style in American Politics
    “t had been around a long time before the Radical Right discovered it—and its targets have ranged from “the international bankers” to Masons, Jesuits, and munitions makers.
    American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wind. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics., In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.” [5]


  7. What’s wrong with your analogy is that the evolutionists early on(and now) would engage in debate with creationists. Now we see scientists refusing to divulge their code and data to inspection. They are the ones being afraid of debate.

  8. I actually got my introduction to pathological anti-science by way of young earth creationism. In Canada, you’re not immune to this problem either though you don’t have it as bad as the US. Young earth creationists trying to prevent or water down the teaching of science in biology class has historically been more of a problem than forces trying to prevent teaching of science on climate (not least, because there’s no particular place in typical elementary school and high school curricula that do teach climate-related science). But young earth creationists have fundamental opposition to the entire practice of science (which they deny, of course) and to the results of almost all of science (likewise). For tactical reasons, namely to prevent the appearance that their only reason for objecting to teaching evolution is their religion — which it is, but which is an unconstitutional basis for objection in the US — they have started adding climate change to their bills against the teaching of science over the last decade. Though the constitutional issues are different in Canada and Australia, the same tactic is showing up there, too.

    In terms of effect on doing of science or teaching science, keep in mind that I work on the climate side of things, not biology, it’s probably more damaging to prevent the teaching of evolution than to prevent the teaching about climate. Climate, in the form it can be taught in elementary through high school (and even early college) is not an organizing principle of an entire science. It is a conclusion, more, from a bunch of different ways of looking at the system. For biology, though, evolution is central. Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.

    Anyhow, have a look at the National Center For Science Education and their materials. Though predominantly US-based and -focused, they do pay attention to Canadian events as well.

  9. “Are they afraid of debate, or do they just think it’s pointless?”
    Scientific debates are conduced in peer-reviewed journals, scientific conferences, symposiums.
    Public debates are shows. Produce a good show, employ snarky tactics, use scientific-sounding words to look smart and you will have won the debate.

  10. What’s wrong with your analogy is that the evolutionists early on(and now) would engage in debate with creationists. Now we see scientists refusing to divulge their code and data to inspection. They are the ones being afraid of debate.

    Early on, I mentioned that often the data and methods are available freely, if one knows where to look. Since the only people with the expertise needed to understand it are scientists, standard scientific literature research is usually all that’s needed to reveal it. There are exceptions (for instance, ice cores from Kilimanjaro, which are locked away because they can’t harvest any replacements) , but they are hardly the norm.

    However, I will illustrate the standard debate-a-denialist process for you. As is standard Internet practice, click to enhance the size of your .png.
    F. Bi. 2009. Civil disobedience is civil. Intl. J. Inact., 2:79–80

    Note that the most recent addition in there (“Yes, but with condition…”) was due to the Plimer fiasco – Plimer himself is well known for having challenged creationists to debate (and faring rather poorly due to poor debate technique, although he did win a few, most notably with Duane Gish, the man for whom the Gish Gallop is named). One need only look at how that’s unfolding to see Plimer’s dishonesty unfolding even before the debate takes place.

    As I and many others say elsewhere, science is NOT settled through these debates, show trials, or similar stage fights for the masses. It’s settled through physical evidence and reasoned logic (PEARL, if you need a handy mnemonic) in the peer-reviewed literature. The anti-science crowd, be they creationists or climate change denialists (or, as James Randerson of the Guardian puts it, climate change creationists), rarely publish in the literature, and if they do their claims are often either refuted by others or misrepresented by anti-scientists or both. (Look into McLean, De Freitas, Carter 2009 – their press release says the paper says things it doesn’t say, and its science was challenged almost immediately.)

  11. I’d just like to echo Eric’s, Chriscolose’s, and Brian’s sentiments about how far beyond evolution that a young earth creationist’s grasp reaches. Any science that shows the earth is older than 6,000-10,000 years is wrong. It comes from blind or corrupted atheist scientists and it doesn’t matter if they’re biologists, astrophysicists, glaciologists, limnologists, cosmologists, geneticists (e.g. mtDNA analysis), geologists, oceanographers, climatologists, dendrochronologists, archaeologists, paleontologists etc etc etc.

    They actively seek to suppress any of the science that contradicts their view, and from there it is a logical step to suppress science period (because it was wrong about the age of the earth/universe so it probably is wrong about other things too). Remove evolution from a school curriculum and next will be things like geology and the other disciplines mentioned above.

    They foster a distrust of science in both the public and in the policy makers from federal to state/provincial to municipal levels of government (including school boards). Some people who reject climate change point out that ice cores that are used to understand past climate go back more than 6,000 years which is “obviously” older than the earth so we can’t trust anything those scientists tell us.

    Denialism of all types often means closing your eyes to reality which is a good way to get yourself hit by a bus. Even worse is if the eyes-closed denialist happens to be driving the bus itself on a busy highway and then we all suffer for their idiocy. (did I kill that analogy?) :-)

  12. Sorry, the less than/greater than brackets giving me grief:

    But could it wipe out our civilization? Of course not. Could climate change? Even the most skeptical person has to admit that it is a possibility.

    Do you have a citation for this scientific claim? I don’t think this is common knowledge and I’d be interested in any peer-reviewed papers that have examined this.

    The Stern Review estimated warming of 5-6C would cause a reduction of 5-10% global GDP:

    It does mention a very small probability exists that temperature rise could be much greater. But wouldn’t this be approximately the same probability that the IPCC assigns to humans not being responsible for warming at all (less than 5%)?

    The problem with the civilization wipe out argument, is that the implied climate sensitivity (greater than 10C?) means that we’re already screwed and no mitigation strategy is going to save us at this stage. I’d be happy to be proven wrong on this point if someone can point me to a paper examining stabilization targets and the possibilities of avoiding -100% global GDP reduction.

    • Personally I believe that it’s much more than GDP. What is the value of a human life in GDP? What is the value of an ecosystem?

      I don’t think I’d call “wipe out our civilization” a scientific claim as much as a risk-management assessment of the hypothetical worst possible scenario – that’s how I intended it, anyway. The worst possible scenario assuming that our emissions continue to grow exponentially, climate sensitivity is in the upper range of 1.5-4.5 C or even higher, positive feedbacks are even stronger than we expected, etc. These sort of scenarios aren’t included in reports such as the IPCC because a lot of the positive feedbacks aren’t included in the models – we don’t understand them well enough yet.

      However, for an examination of potential risks that we face at different climate change scenarios, check out the Age of Consequences. To my knowledge it is fully peer-reviewed, I’m pretty sure it’s from the US government (don’t know your departments as well as I know the Canadian ones!)

  13. I also believe there’s much more to it than GDP, but I think this is the best metric to use. I’ll explain this shortly.

    Your post perfectly states why we shouldn’t debate climate change science, but debating climate change mitigation must still be in play. There is a large spectrum of emissions targets and we have to tradeoff an accepted level of warming with the economic implications.

    When talking about loss of life due to climate change, have you read this?

    The science of death attribution is definitely in its infancy. So economic analyses for the moment are limited to GDP IMHO.

    And economists think the best way to prevent third-world deaths is to grow their economies as fast as possible:

    So we have:

    a) The possibility of destroying civilisation and killing everyone, &

    b) The need to raise emissions (with current tech.) to save lives.

    So my gripe is that the precautionary principle could do more harm than good if we establish overly restrictive targets on this basis.

    As an aside, I don’t think talking about the End of Days being caused by humans is going to win over any creationists. That’s God’s job =)

  14. It’s actually from CSIS, a prestigious think tank (but a think tank nevertheless). As it isn’t science (they got that from the IPCC), it wasn’t peer-reviewed in the classical sense. Indeed, as they largely hold ‘scenarios’ (even less prescriptive than a projection, let alone a prediction), they arguably cannot be subject to the same methos. Still, strategic reports like this reflect the views of their authors, and this one (along with the CNA climate report) have impeccable security credentials. This type of report is generally used when setting military policy, too, so it’s not worthless (note that Iraq was an exception; consider David Strahan’s The Last Oil Shock for a readable summary).

  15. I think there is an element of knee jerk denialism of climate change which is political – and it would be there regardless of the underlying truth. The reverse is also true. None of this is relevant to the scientific debate.

    As for the precautionary principle, I would counter that by saying that there would also be tremendous cost to restructuring an economic system if it was ultimately found to be based on false premise. The current recession is a case in point of a market collapsing based on institutionalized mis-understanding of underlying economic fundamentals. I don’t know the figures off the top of my head but I don’t think it would be unreasonable to suggest that the value tied to a restructured cap and trade economy would dwarf the value of the “toxic debt” which precipitated the current recession.

  16. Interesting video but I think he’s making some serious cherry picks in his “risk management”. Its not difficult to find cost estimates up to 4.5% for developed countries for stabilizing at 550 ppm:

    The same report finds for a +2.5C warming global GDP would be affected by -1.5% to -1.9%. This paints a very different picture.

    I will say that almost all economic reports find that action on curbing CO2 now is the best option but that this is dependent on developing nations being involved. Quoting global GDP figures sometimes hides the fact that developed nations will have to have no net growth or negative growth for a period of time.

    The problem with end of the world scare stories, is that with the current amount of warming we haven’t yet seen any increase in global disasters:[You linked to a transcript of a speech given by Roger Pielke Jr, which was published as sort of an editorial piece in the journal Oceanography. That’s great, but it doesn’t adhere to our comment policy – please cite peer-reviewed articles. Thanks. -Kate]

    • You’re comparing two totally different measurements: the worst-case scenario of costs for only developed countries (keep in mind that the best-case scenario was 0.3% – pretty big range to state only one extreme) versus the range of costs for the entire world. Here’s some more context, so we can weigh risks and benefits more honestly:

      “Annual expenditures would therefore be 0.2 to 3.2% of annual
      current income. Unless “Kyoto plus” agreements extend to developing
      countries, these costs would be borne by the richer nations of the world
      alone, suggesting that the burden would rise to 0.3 to 4.5% of their annual
      current income. However, in both cases, world income would be growing.
      For example, if the world economy grows at 2% per annum, then the “worst
      case” level of costs (assuming all costs are borne in the next 20 years) would
      fall to some 2.3% of world income in 2035. If the costs are spread out over
      50 years, the fraction would fall to 1.3% of world income.”

      Seems pretty dependent on the scenario. Greg found a decrease of 3% in GDP growth as the worst-case scenario – “which means it’s still growing, but not as fast as it otherwise would”. And as we see above, “in both cases [even the worst-case scenario], world income would be growing.” I’m not so sure I’d call that a cherry-pick. I’d ask someone more skilled in economics to explain how to convert GDP growth to GDP before I accused him of cherry-picking. In any case, I recommend that you email the report to Greg.

  17. Sorry, here’s a peer-reviewed one:

    Pielke, Jr., R. A., 2007. Mistreatment of the economic impacts of extreme events in the Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change, Global Environmental Change, Vol. 17, pp. 302-310.

    An excerpt: “This brief critique of a small part of the Stern Review finds that the report has dramatically misrepresented literature and understandings on the relationship of projected climate changes and future losses from extreme events in developed countries, and indeed globally.”

    I think that would reduce the 20% GDP figure considerably since Roger thinks many of the disaster figures were out by an order of magnitude. I’m happy to e-mail Greg if you think it’ll make a difference.

    I do see your point about scenarios, but for much of the video Greg was comparing this 1-3% for taking action to 20% and lots of horrific disasters (like 3 metre sea level increases) for no action, which I don’t think is fairly balanced.

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