Creationism in the service of climate change denial

by Paul Braterman

The graph from 1880 to 2020 shows natural drivers exhibiting fluctuations of about 0.3 degrees Celsius. Human drivers steadily increase by 0.3 degrees over 100 years to 1980, then steeply by 0.8 degrees more over the past 40 years.
Changes in global surface temperature over the past 170 years (black line) relative to 1850–1900 and annually averaged, compared to CMIP6 climate model simulations of the temperature response to both human and natural drivers (red), and to only natural drivers (solar and volcanic activity, green). IPCC/Efbrazil via Wikipedia

Young Earth creationist organisations are united in rejecting the secular science of climate change.  This science, they say, incorporates the study of positive feedback loops as demonstrated by data from Ice Age cores (true). But all of this is part of the secular science that regards the Earth as ancient (also true) and is therefore unsound (no comment). The creationist organisations are left with the task of explaining the Ice Ages, which they do with a degree of ingenuity worthy of a better cause. This in turn leads to a creationist climate science, in which positive feedbacks are ignored. It follows that conventional climate science can be discarded, and our current concerns rejected as alarmism.

This conclusion fits in well with the aims of the right-wing organisations with which the creationists are intertwined. One frequent commentator on environmental matters in Answers in Genesis  is Calvin E. Beisner, founder and CEO of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, which exists to oppose any environmental constraints on industry, and Beisner’s work has been praised by the Heritage Foundation and the Heartland Institute. The Cornwall Alliance itself is deeply linked to creationist theology, and its Statement of Faith commits to separate creation of a historical Adam and Eve, original sin as a historical fact, and “the bodily resurrection of the just and unjust, the everlasting punishment of the lost, and the everlasting blessedness of the saved.” The conservative commentator Jay W. Richards, Senior Fellow of the evolution-denying Discovery Institute, is a Fellow of Heartland and a former adviser to Cornwall. But the political agenda of creationist organisations is a major topic in itself, to which I shall return.

We must also remember that while there is no commercial interest in denying evolution, denying the need for action on climate is a well-funded industry, to whose voluminous output the creationist climate change deniers have full access.

Back in 2010, Answers in Genesis1 (AiG) spelt out clearly what’s at stake:

“It will be shown that the Bible provides sufficient counsel to enable Christians to evaluate the claims of global warming and arrive at a confident position that is in accord with real science. The contention that man’s activities are causing global warming, as described in the media and by its advocates, is a myth. There is no reason either biblically or scientifically to fear the exaggerated and misguided claims of catastrophe as a result of increasing levels of man-made carbon dioxide (CO2).”

This August, AiG, whose Creation Museum and Ark Encounter are located in flood-ravaged Kentucky, reiterated its earlier position even more clearly:

Flood damage in Kentucky. Matt Stone/Courier Journal/USA Today Network via CNN

“Really, this zealous climate activism is a false religion with false prophets. These activists and scientists have no idea what is really happening or what is going to happen” because “they have the wrong starting point (man’s word) and the wrong history (evolution and millions of years), so they come to wrong conclusions about the future.” Moreover, “we don’t need to wail and bemoan the future. The only true Creator has promised, ‘While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease’ (Genesis 8:22).” One related article (by Beisner) on the AiG web page goes on to highlight the statement that “Fear of environmental catastrophe grows out of the lack of the fear of God”, as exemplified by what the prophet Jeremiah said regarding drought in ancient Judaea.

As I was writing this piece, Creation Ministries International (CMI) hosted its Third European Creation Conference, including a lecture offering “a Christian response to climate change”, which we know from CMI’s other statements will come to much the same conclusions. Statements by other major Young Earth creationist organisations (Institute for Creation Research , Is Genesis History?) are similar. In response to growing public concern, there has been a rhetorical shift from describing secular scientists as fraudsters, to more measured tones downplaying the significance of what is happening, and denouncing those calling for action as alarmists and catastrophists. None of this makes any difference to the final conclusion. The creationists, these days, keep telling us that they do not deny climate change itself, but only the need to do anything about it.

In the circumstances, we need to pay attention to what creationist climatology actually consists of, and the best place to start is comparison between different accounts of the Ice Ages. What we have learnt about the Ice Ages has contributed greatly to the scientific understanding of climate, while the alternative, allegedly Bible-based, analysis gives valuable insights into creationist thinking.

Esker in River Teith valley, Scotland. Photo by author

In the development of the science (what creationists call the “secular science”) of climate change, the Ice Ages have played a special role. From around 1840 onwards, the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz developed the concept that large areas of what is now the temperate zone had been covered by an ice sheet, with glaciers reshaping the landscape, gouging out the underlying rock (glacial striations), dumping piles of ill-sorted rock and soil at their edges and ends (moraines), transplanting boulders (erratics) far from their original location, and leaving long ridges of transported material (eskers) from rivers flowing beneath the ice. By the end of the 19th century, it was realised from the location of these features that there must have been at least four separate ice ages, with more temperate periods in between.

In 1864, James Croll suggested that the ice ages were caused by irregularities in the Earth’s orbit, and although his detailed theory proved incorrect he also made the interesting observation that the initial climate forcing through changes in solar irradiation would be amplified by a positive feedback when the ice caps expanded, since that would increase the Earth’s albedo (fraction of sunlight reflected back into space). In the 1920s, Milutin Milanković developed a more complete theory of these oscillations, showing the existence of long-term cycles. There are three separate cycles, involving wobbles in the amount by which the Earth’s orbit, an ellipse, is different from a perfect circle, the direction of the Earth’s axis (cause of the seasons, currently around 23° away from vertical, relative to the plane of the orbit), and the time of year at which the Earth is closest to the Sun. These changes are small, but have their largest effect on the polar regions, and change not only the total amount of the sun’s energy that reaches the surface, but the time of year at which it does so. This in turn influences the growth and shrinkage of the polar ice caps.

Results of ice core drilling at Vostok Station, Antarctica, via Wikipedia. From top, CO2 in ice bubbles, temperature, methane content, oxygen-18 shift, calculated Milankovitch cycle effect on insolation. Note direction of time axis; other shifts follow behind insolation, showing effect of feedbacks. [J. R.Petit et al., via Wikipedia]
In principle, we can test this theory against observation. The timing of the cycles can be worked out from the mechanics of the Earth’s motion, using methods going back to Newton. All we need now is some way of determining the growth and shrinkage of the ice caps in the past.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways we can do this by experiment. The easiest to understand is analysis of ice cores, drilled in the Antarctic ice in a research programme going back to the 1970s. Inspection of these ice cores shows annual bands, on average between 5 and 10 mm thick, so that the age of any particular band can be found simply by counting. The identification of the bands as annual has been independently confirmed for ice cores drilled in Greenland, containing volcanic ash from the numerous eruptions in nearby Iceland, which can be radiometrically dated. The annual bands contain small bubbles of entrapped gas, which can be analysed to give information about the composition of the atmosphere when each band was formed, and the Earth’s temperature at that time (more strictly, the amount of water tied up in the ice caps) can be estimated from the ratio of the isotope oxygen-18 to the much more common isotope oxygen-16 in the water molecules that make up the ice.2

We now have ice cores going back more than 400,000 years, and these clearly show the effects of the Milankovitch cycles. So these cycles are the primary drivers for the Ice Ages. However, the changes in solar irradiation are not enough in themselves to explain the size of the temperature swings. So there was some kind of positive feedback going on. Considering the Earth’s climate system, such feedbacks are unavoidable. At a time when the solar cycle is driving an increase in temperature, the ice sheets will shrink, reducing the amount of sunlight that the Earth reflects directly back into space. At the same time, because carbon dioxide is less soluble in warm water, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will increase, and so of course will the amount of water vapour, and both of these are greenhouse gases. Such changes in carbon dioxide concentration are directly confirmed by analysis of ice core bubbles. These and other feedbacks amplify the effects of the primary driver, as explained here and shown in the above Figure.

At present, that primary driver is the increase in our emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels (for how we know that the increase in carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere comes from this source, rather than from any natural geological process, see here). But this inevitably calls into play the positive feedbacks mentioned in the last paragraph. This is of course a greatly oversimplified picture, and there are some negative as well as positive feedbacks, creating opportunities for confusion and obfuscation by those who would prefer us not to change our behaviour, but the realities of our situation are already all too clear, and will become even more clear in the future.

In the general (not specifically religious) denialist literature, I have seen materials in which self-styled climate change “sceptics” have in turn claimed that there has been no overall increase in atmospheric CO2, that this increase is not due to human activity, that the greenhouse effect of CO2 would not be enhanced by further additions (for my own small part in refuting this particular absurdity, see here), and even that there has been no actual increase in temperature. A more sophisticated recent strategy is acceptance of the reality of human-caused change, but continued denial of the existence of positive feedback, and hence of the existence of a situation serious enough to require action.

The latest round of creationist commentaries on climate change fits in well with this strategy, with the Bible-based pseudoscience of the Ice Age playing a central role. Indeed, Is Genesis History? proclaims it “the #1 reason you shouldn’t worry about climate change” and cites in support the Cornwall Alliance, which I mentioned in the opening paragraphs. (Is Genesis History?, a relatively new arrival on the creationist scene, is described by my friend Joel Duff  as part of “a growing and dynamic new wave of creationism”.)

Young Earth creationists admit the existence of an Ice Age. They could hardly do otherwise, given the gross evidence of sculpted landscapes, changed sea levels, and glacial deposits. Moreover, they are forced to place the Ice Age after Noah’s Flood, since it has refashioned sediments which they claim to be of Flood origin (for a typical Young Earth timeline, see here). In these circumstances, we can understand the creationist insistence on a single Ice Age, although the fact of multiple ice ages has been known for over a century. It immediately follows that conventional climate science, linked as it is to the study of cycles of glaciation and retreat over two million years, must be rejected, and so must the predictions of global warming that are linked to this science.

It remains for creationists to explain the causes of this Ice Age, in a manner compatible with the Bible, and they do so by regarding it as a consequence of Noah’s Flood. Indeed, with enormous (some might say blasphemous) effrontery, AiG tells us that “We know from Scripture that the worldwide Flood changed the earth’s climate dramatically.” Scripture, of course, says no such thing, but the conjuring trick is to make it appear as if the Ice Age was an inevitable consequence of the Flood. Once this is done, the Ice Age and its purported explanation can be celebrated as “biblical science”, in contrast to the secular science that lies behind demands for action.

The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and its Scientific Implications, 50th Anniversary EditionWhitcomb and Morris’ The Genesis Flood, the foundational document of the modern Young Earth creationist movement, now available in its 50 year anniversary edition, attributed the Ice Age to the removal of a vapour canopy that surrounded the Earth before the Flood, combined with the effect of uplift of the mountains. The canopy theory is now rejected, for reasons that AiG spells out, and Creation Ministries International includes appeal to the canopy in their list of arguments that should not now be used. However, the idea of rapid mountain-building after the Flood persists in Young Earth creationist thought, since if the mountains were at their present height, there would not been enough water to cover them. Another argument common to all the creationist organisations is the invoking of volcanic dust. For instance, Creation Ministries International (CMI)  cite a very interesting paper in Earth Science Reviews that reports multiple volcanic deposits in the Greenland ice cores, mainly (as shown by their composition) from Icelandic sources. These cores go back over 123,000 years, as shown by direct counting of layers, radiometric dating of the ash, and correlation with deposits elsewhere. Assuredly, the combined effect of these eruptions would have been very effective in blocking out sunlight, if we ignore the small complication that they were spread out over a period 20 times as large as what CMI regards as the age of the Earth. CMI, like other creationist sources, shows admirable zeal in scouring the regular scientific literature, combined with amazing selectivity in what they take away from it.

The creationist timeline allows only a very small time window, so there must have been a mechanism for rapid deposition of massive amounts of snow in the polar regions and on high ground. As pointed out by the meteorologist Mike Oard as far back as 1979 , this is only possible if the atmosphere was very humid, consistent with the oceans having been much warmer than today. But they would have been after the flood, because floodwaters came from release of the waters of the deep, and these would have been geothermally warmed (Oard’s own suggestion), or because the oceans were warmed as a result of accelerated plate tectonics following the flood, as postulated by present-day creationists to explain the separation of the continents and the elevation of mountains. In addition, according to a suggestion by Andrew Sibley (the speaker on climate at the CMI London conference), warming and the dissolution of nutrient minerals in the oceans, caused by the Flood itself, would have led to massive algae blooms, drawing down atmospheric CO2 and adding to the effects of the volcanic dust.

Oard’s calculations led him to conclude that the ice caps and Ice Age glaciers could have been formed in about 500 years after the Flood. This takes us into the time of the Hebrew patriarchs, but no matter, since the ancient Near East would have been protected from cold by those warm oceans (remember?) The mechanisms proposed by secular scientists cover millions of years, but millions of years were not available, therefore these mechanisms must be wrong, and it follows that secular scientists, unlike creationists, have no good explanation of the Ice Age.

The creationist position is spelt out with admirable clarity in a 14,000 word article (updated August 2022) from CMI. This is based, not on ignorance, but on carefully collated disinformation, with all the standard arguments against current climate science shamelessly repeated despite the fact that they have been repeatedly rebutted. What I find most interesting about this article is its recent date, its protestation, despite repeated CMI articles going back at least as far as 2009, that climate change is not a core issue for them, and the statement that the article was written in response to questions raised at church meetings.

The article relies on Oard’s warm waters theory about the Ice Age. It more or less correctly summarises the current scientific position, and then claims that secular scientists have imposed the Milankovitch interpretation on the data, introduced the concept of a multiplier to explain the size of the observed effects, and then by circular reasoning grafted this concept onto their predictions regarding current CO2 emissions. Such accusations of circularity abound in the creationist literature, where the outcomes of scientific studies are brushed aside as inputs.

The very opposite is the case. We have, as explained above, a coming together of arguments from planetary dynamics, the isotope chemistry used to monitor ancient temperatures, the fundamental physics behind the greenhouse effect, experimental observations on ice cores and ocean sediment borings collected over more than 50 years, and current observational climate science. This is not circular reasoning, but the very opposite; the mutual reinforcement of separate lines of argument leading to the same conclusion, as beautiful in its way as the mutual reinforcement of the arches in a Gothic cathedral.

However, the creationists’ biblical worldview is the ultimate in circular reasoning. They start from the assumption that the Bible is absolute historical truth. The Ice Age happened, therefore it must be compatible with the Bible, therefore there must be some process to make this compatibility possible, therefore this process is what must have happened, and even though there is no mention of Ice Age in the Bible itself, all of this is yet another confirmation of biblical truth. Therefore there is no need for any further discussion, the positive feedback scenario can be rejected, and a doubling of atmospheric CO2 corresponds, not to somewhere between 2.5oC and 3oC, but, according to CMI, to an unamplified 1oC, and so, CMI tells its followers, there is no need to worry.

But there is. That 1oC has already been exceeded. Creationist biology is just a bad joke. Creationist climatology is toxic.

One final irony. The Genesis Flood, published in 1961, speculated on what caused the end of the Ice Age, with among the possibilities an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. It described how the then projected increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, as a result of industrial activity, would provide a natural experiment to test its effect on temperature, and noted with approval the attention being brought to that issue by the 1957-8 International Geophysical Year, and plans for ongoing studies. It is precisely the results of these studies that creationists now deny.

1] Strictly speaking, not AiG itself, but an opinion piece in its journal, accompanied by disclaimer. This level of deniability is typical of AiG’s tactics.

2] Oxygen occurs mainly on Earth as oxygen-16, but includes about one part in 5000 of oxygen-18. Water containing oxygen-18 is very slightly less volatile than that containing oxygen-16, so that water vapour over the oceans is slightly depleted in this isotope, and so, as a result, is the snow formed from this vapour. As a result, when the ice sheets are more extensive, the oceans are slightly richer in oxygen-18, and so is the snow that falls that year.

I thank the Rev. Michael Roberts for helpful discussions.