God and the Tsunami

The ABC News radio outlet in New York, 77-WABC Talk Radio, has an interesting poll question on its website:

How could a kind and benevolent God allow the tsunami?

The results were:

A. God did not cause it, but allowed it, so man could show compassion. (2%)
B. God caused the tsunami to punish the people there. (8%)
C. We will never know why bad things happen, just that God will help us. (88%)
D. God has turned his back on us. This is only the beginning. (0%)
E. I don’t believe in God. This was just a natural disaster. (1%)

Option “E” had to be a head-scratcher for many respondents. Cannot one who believes in God also believe in natural disasters? Judging from most of the commentary of the last few weeks, apparently not.

This is the sort of issue that highlights the stunning illogic of both religious and secular fundamentalists. At least the religious folks are consistent: they are willing to give God credit for everything — even natural disasters. The secular fundamentalists are on shakier ground when they attempt to argue that disasters prove either that there is no God, or that He simply isn’t very nice. I can’t help hearing Edgar G. Robinson in his role as Dathan the Overseer in “The Ten Commandments” sneering, upon learning of a believer’s misfortune, “Where’s your Messiah now?…”

Both God’s apologists and critics seem to suggest that we should be offering Him constructive advice, perhaps along these lines:

Almighty God, creator of the cosmos, although You are reputed to be omniscient, perhaps You are unaware of the fact that earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis cause great harm not only to sinners but also to the most innocent children. That being the case, perhaps, in Your infinite mercy, You could either provide adequate advance warning or schedule such events in unpopulated regions. Just a thought. Amen.

Of course, without plate tectonics we would not have mountain ranges and the climatic diversity they produce. More importantly, without subduction there would be no place to store the abundant carbon dioxide that is bound in carbonate rocks deep below the crust, and earth’s temperatures could eventually soar to those of Venus — say, around 900 degrees. Also, the continents would eventually erode away leaving us to sink or swim in a great planetary ocean, ala “Waterworld.” The novelty of commuting on jet-skis between islands constructed from thousands of oil drums lashed together would wear off pretty quickly, I suspect.

The whole idea of petitionary prayer seems problematic. While it may indeed be worthwhile to pray for wisdom or courage, since, if nothing else, such meditations may help focus the mind on issues that are indeed within one’s control—asking the creator of the universe to tinker with reality on a grander scale takes a fair amount of chutzpah, and, if effective, could lead to undesirable results, both on a practical and spiritual level. The Talmud cautions against this kind of prayer precisely because of the moral conundrums it can produce. If, for example, on sighting a column of black smoke rising from your neighborhood while driving home, you pray “Please, don’t let it be my house that is on fire,” the obvious concomitant of that prayer is that your neighbor’s house should be on fire instead.

Stuff happens, and it is well that it does, even though much of it is unpleasant. I take great comfort from the fact that the universe does indeed seem to be governed by consistent rules. Things always fall down, never up. This strikes me as sufficient evidence of a kind of cosmic compassion. If we learn the rules of nature, we can better our odds for avoiding or surviving the occasional natural calamity. The alternative, suggested by both secular and religious fundamentalists, that an ideal God is one who can be swayed by flattery and pleading to bend the rules just a tad for our convenience, is nightmarish. Chaos would reign if all prayers were answered, and we would be reduced to robots if no harm could ever come to us, no matter our actions.

I prefer plate tectonics.

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The Peculiar Logic of Kyoto

Now that Russia has signed the Kyoto Treaty, thus making it possible to be ratified and enforced, what is the likely result of a few percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the next seven years?

There are three possibilities: the average temperature will rise, fall, or remain constant. If it continues to rise, does this indicate:

— that a planetary climate is a system with such tremendous inertia that it responds very sluggishly to control inputs so we should not expect to see results for decades?
— that industrial gases are not in fact the principal cause of this latest global climate fluctuation?
— that a runaway greenhouse effect is already underway and cannot be stopped?

We don’t know. In fact, we can’t know. The problem with undertaking so grandiose an endeavor as planetary climate control is that we are attempting to govern a system that we don’t understand. We do not have a “control” earth to provide baseline data. We are like medical researchers testing a drug on a single patient. The only indicators that might suggest that our treatment has any effect at all would be instant recovery or sudden death. A gradual decline or recovery of the patient would tell us nothing about the efficacy of our treatment. Such is the case with the Kyoto Treaty.

Suppose, with the implementation of Kyoto, temperatures immediately begin to decline. We might reasonably conclude that our treatment was effective. But is this result necessarily desirable? If earth’s climate is that sensitive, might not a sudden reversal of a 3-century-long trend prove catastrophic? Might we in fact trigger a new ice age?

We don’t know. The relationship between greenhouse gases and global climate is incredibly complex. An increase in carbon dioxide levels can theoretically warm the oceans, thus generating more cloud cover, resulting in reduced sunlight to the surface and cooler temperatures. It can also accelerate plant growth which, in turn, reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide, again (theoretically) lowering temperature. By this reasoning, if we want to cool the planet we should increase carbon dioxide emissions, not curb them.

The logic of Kyoto seems to run along these lines: although there have been dozens of warming cycles in pre-industrial times, average surface temperatures appear to have risen quite sharply during the last several decades. Is this bad? Maybe. Are we responsible? Maybe. Can we do something about it? Maybe. Should we try? Of course!

So here we are, trying to control the climate. The only thing certain about the Kyoto Treaty is that debates about it have generated additional hot air. One wonders why environmentalists are not up in arms, protesting the incredible irresponsibility of this effort to alter the earth’s climate. We are like doctors prescribing random medication to a patient who may not even be ill.

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