Nature is the latest living God

I’ll keep this simple, to avoid ecclesiastical clashes. Last thing I want is a fight to break out between science and religion. Oh, wait …

First, a reader, Rob Taylor, said:

So, in denier fairyland, this all balances out, somehow? Let’s see – crippling drought in one place, horrendous floods in another simply shows that all is hunky-dory?

Then I said:

“Who could approve of them, you twit? But this is Mother Nature. This is God’s will. There’s nothing new here – not for thousands of years. This is life. This is how it goes.”

Another reader, Nick, said:

“this is Mother Nature. This is God’s will” – is that really what you believe? I had been conducting these discussions on the assumption everyone accepted that science rather than divine intervention could explain the weather. Please correct me if my assumption is false. Does anyone else here think that any changes in the climate are “Gods will”?

My meaning here was perverted and then Nick hijacked it. However, together they raise an arguable point about our relationship with our surroundings, so let me explain. Rob made out that we can prevent these natural disasters. His mistake was in believing that we have sufficient influence on the weather to ameliorate droughts and floods. It’s a nutty idea and we don’t.

He further implied that climate sceptics think disasters are peachy, which is simply insulting. To explain the pointlessness of any disapproval of natural disasters, I attributed the events to “Mother Nature”, “God’s will”, “life” and said there’s “nothing new.”

I deliberately chose several descriptions, but they were ALL OF THE SAME THING. To most people one description probably means more than another, so using several should round up everyone. I meant, of course, that natural disasters are entirely natural.

Once, not so long ago, everyone more or less accepted that everything was created and controlled by a single God. When even the most intelligent people wanted to refer to the living forces responsible for the universe, they said “God” and everyone understood what they meant. It worked then, but things have changed.

For us, the word “God” means something completely different and it doesn’t identify reality. The trouble is, reality still exists. It’s real, it’s living, we still talk about it, so what are we to call it? The modern term is Mother Nature, or Nature, often just “the environment.” It embodies spiritual and moral implications – in fact, it means exactly the same as “God” but without the promise of a heavenly afterlife. Mother Nature apparently asks us to be content with a heaven only on earth, with death to follow (but our DNA will go on, hurrah).

My meaning was unambiguous: the weather is caused by events beyond our control. Call it Nature or call it God or call it life – it’s still beyond our control. Now Nick has rather stupidly suggested I’m saying that divine intervention “explains” the weather.

I’m not saying that. But I thank him for bringing it up, because Mother Nature needs a little explaining. As I said, it used to be that everyone accepted the existence of a transcendent, unseen force in natural and human affairs. Nobody believes that now.

Oh, except that everyone believes in Mother Nature, and that’s the same subtle, non-physical token for natural reality as “God”. But she’s merely the latest in a long line of gods and goddesses that describe and explain events. The Maoris have their own pantheon, which has grown in acceptability among our officials, because it’s difficult to deny the pleas of a minority without being accused of hostility. Now, few of our buildings or bridges are begun or completed without the blessing of Maori gods.

Scientific? No.

But here’s my main point: the forces and influences represented by the gods do mostly exist, and those forces can be and are described by science – there’s no conflict between them.

If the gods are real in any sense of the term, they are not hostile to science, in fact they encompass it, and nowhere (so far) are they known to break scientific law or principle. They are entirely amicable towards objective knowledge and remain comically bewildered by our persistent refusal to see the connection between the seen and the unseen. For example, the idea that the Big Bang should have had no cause is brutally unscientific.

To my understanding there can be no conflict between science and spirituality, though there might be false versions of both. So, to return to the statement that sparked these comments:

science rather than divine intervention [can] explain the weather

That’s true, though one does not exclude the other. For a scientific understanding doesn’t prohibit the belief that a god lies behind the winds, the waves, the sun or any other force of nature — so long as that doesn’t prevent a cool, objective examination of reality. Much as, say, a god might bring to the table.

Now I hope nobody else attempts to derail our conversations on climate into ecclesiastical disputes off the topic. ;-)

37 Thoughts on “Nature is the latest living God

  1. Hi Richard T,
    Thanks for addressing my question. To clarify do you think that this God you refer to consciously acts to modify or control the climate for specific purposes?

    • You’re welcome. In the whole history of Man, you’re not the first to raise it.

      Read again the part where I said: “If the gods are real in any sense of the term, they are not hostile to science, in fact they encompass it, and nowhere (so far) are they known to break scientific law or principle.”

      Now, to clarify, do you think that gravity consciously acts to make you fall down?

    • Hi Richard T,
      To answer your question “do you think that gravity consciously acts to make you fall down”, no. When you fall over do you consider that it is God’s will?

      As far as I can tell you are arguing that we cannot cause or prevent crippling droughts or horrendous floods through our actions.

      Is this because God’s will precludes it or is there a physical mechanism that prevents this? If so can you clarify what this physical mechanism is?

    • Gravity makes us fall down, but, Nick, it never makes us fall over. Once having slipped over the edge of the cliff, it’s not gravity’s conscious act of will that makes us fall to the bottom, it’s a characteristic of gravity – it’s what it does.

      Your questions are becoming nutty and you’re certainly not listening, because again you wonder whether it’s God’s will precluding our intervention in climate disasters. The simple truth, Nick, is that there’s no evidence we have any detectable influence on droughts or floods.

      As far as I can tell you are arguing that we can cause and prevent crippling droughts and horrendous floods through our actions.

      If you want a physical mechanism for that, you’ll have to describe one yourself. Because you’re the one who apparently believes in it. I don’t. It’s nuts.

      “For the first time in history, people shouting “we must stop the droughts and floods” are somehow the sane ones, while those of us who say we can’t are now the lunatics.”

    • Hi Richard T,
      You say “The simple truth, Nick, is that there’s no evidence we have any detectable influence on droughts or horrendous floods.”

      But there is good evidence that humans do in fact cause crippling droughts and floods:

      So maybe you need to refine what your “simple truth” is.

    • That says we may have made it worse, but not that we caused the most catastrophic drought in recorded US history. You’re not sensible, picking that one! Of course we didn’t cause it.

      To repeat: “As far as I can tell you are arguing that we can cause and prevent crippling droughts and horrendous floods through our actions.”

      But you have no evidence.

    • Sorry Richard T,
      I edited my comment to insert “horrendous” but put it into your quote rather than my sentence. Please accept my apologies for misquoting you.

      [You haven't misquoted me. The word "horrendous" has been present since you used it in your second comment on this thread. - RT]

    • I see you’ve added a second reference, to the Yangtse. It’s accepted that our land changes affecting drainage can ameliorate or exacerbate floods, also that water storage cisterns can ameliorate droughts. But you must explain why you insert those considerations into a conversation about our CO2 emissions, which have no effect on either. You’re wandering wildly over the landscape.

    • My point Richard is that if there is already evidence that we can cause floods and droughts through changes in land use then it is plausible that we could cause them in other ways.

      Saying that we cannot cause or prevent them because it is not “God’s will” is clearly incorrect.

    • We don’t cause them, only (perhaps, sometimes) make them worse. Nature causes them – if you think otherwise, show evidence.

      The only plausible suggestion is one that is described. Saying we could cause them “in other ways” leaves it undescribed, unknown and therefore implausible.

      Saying that we cannot cause or prevent them because it is not “God’s will” is clearly incorrect.

      Correct. And I didn’t say so, and an entirely natural event cannot be prevented by reducing our emissions of CO2. It’s laughable.

    • 617 Squadron caused a flood below the Möhne Dam in May 1943. It’s probably one of the only human-caused floods in history. Excacerbation is quite different to causation.

      On the other hand, through many engineering projects across the world, we have prevented many floods using dams, levees, drainage systems, stormwater drains, etc.

      We have far fewer floods and droughts now than we did in the past.
      Sheffield, J. and Wood, E.F. 2008. Global trends and variability in soil moisture and drought characteristics, 1950-2000, from observation-driven simulations of the terrestrial hydrologic cycle. Journal of Climate 21: 432-458.
      Narisma, G.T., Foley, J.A., Licker, R. and Ramankutty, N. 2007. Abrupt changes in rainfall during the twentieth century. Geophysical Research Letters 34: 10.1029/2006GL028628.
      Svensson, C., Kundzewicz, Z.W. and Maurer, T. 2005. Trend detection in river flow series: 2. Flood and low-flow index series. Hydrological Sciences Journal 50: 811-824.
      Baker, V.R. 2004. Palaeofloods and global change. Journal of the Geological Society of India 64:395-401.
      Huntington, T.G. 2006. Evidence for intensification of the global water cycle: Review and synthesis. Journal of Hydrology 319: 83-95.

    • Regarding land use changes, the effects may not be as big as Nick assumes, except in rare cases.

      From Petrow (2009):

      Germany is densely populated and has a long history of water resources management. Its basins and rivers cannot be assumed to be pristine. Most of the basins in Germany have undergone widespread land use changes, significant volumes of flood retention have been implemented in the last decades, and many rivers have experienced river training works (e.g., Helms et al., 2002; Lammersen et al., 2002; Mudelsee et al., 2004; Pfister et al., 2004a). In particular, the active floodplains of many rivers in Germany have been reduced through the construction of dykes.
      Pfister et al. (2004a) summarized the impacts of land use change in the Rhine catchment. Although the Rhine catchment has experienced widespread land use changes, significant effects on flooding could only be detected in small basins. There is no evidence for the impact of land use changes on the flood discharge of the Rhine river itself. These findings are in line with different studies, which found little or no influence of land use on flood discharge (Blöschl et al., 2007; Robinson et al., 2003; Svensson et al., 2006). Blöschl et al. (2007) argued that the impact of land use changes on floods is a matter of spatial scale. In small basins land use changes can significantly alter the runoff processes, effecting flood magnitude and frequency. However, these effects are expected to fade with increasing basin scale.

    • Richard C (NZ) on October 8, 2012 at 1:20 pm said:

      From Huntington 2006:-

      One example of a river basin where increases in precipitation and runoff during the latter half of the 20th century have been well documented is the Mississippi river basin in the USA. Runoff from the Mississippi river increased by 22% from 1949 to 1997, during which time precipitation increased by 10% (Milly and Dunne, 2001). Human alterations to the water cycle in the Mississippi river basin during the 20th century have been dominated by increases in consumptive use that decrease runoff (Milly and Dunne, 2001). Two of the more significant changes in the Mississippi river basin in the 20th century are the abandonment of cultivated farmlands and conversion to forest or pasture, particularly in the southeastern part of the basin (e.g. Clawson, 1979; Wear and Greis, 2002) and the construction of numerous large impoundments. Both of these changes would have decreased runoff. Increasing precipitation and runoff in the Mississippi river basin from 1949 to 1997 is consistent with an intensification of the water cycle.

      No mention of solar activity, from Global Warming Science:-

      Mississippi River, USA

      A study by Charles A. Perry (Water Resources Division, U.S. Geological Survey, Lawrence, Kansas USA) “Solar-Irradiance Variations and Regional Precipitations in the Western United States” [Link broken] provides correlations between the sun and localized climatic effects such as precipitation and stream flow. The following figures show the effects on precipitation in Washington and Oregon (left) and stream flow of the Mississippi River at St. Louis, Missouri with solar irradiance variations lagged 5 years (right). These correlations provide further evidence of a strong influence of solar input on climate.

      Precipitation/irradiance correlation Washington R = 0.61, Oregon R = 0.63

      River flow/irradiance correlation Mississippi River

    • Richard C (NZ) on October 8, 2012 at 2:01 pm said:

      From Huntington 2006 (again):-

      In spite of substantial regional variation and uncertainty in the data, there is evidence for an increase in water-vapor at the surface over most northern latitudes (O308N), with the exception of Greenland and extreme Northeastern Canada, during the period 1975–1995 (New et al., 2000).

      “at the surface”. Tallbloke plotted Specific Humidity vs Sunspot Number back to 1945 at 30,000 ft:-

      Interesting correlation: Sunspots vs Specific Humidity

    • Richard C (NZ) on October 9, 2012 at 7:35 am said:

      Joe Bastardi: You have my attention given up and down of US temps with sunspots cycle since August!

      Who would have thought you could correlate Sunspots to temperatures!!!!!! Thanks to Joe it looks like you can….and will the MSM and the Met Office report it…don’t hold your breath! When it comes to DIRECT solar relationships to weather in shorter term,A verse from Book of Dylan. Dont criticize what you cant understand

    • Richard C (NZ) on October 9, 2012 at 9:46 am said:

      Not sure what Joe’s on about because I can’t find a plot of 2012 US temperature vs sunspots.

  2. flipper on October 8, 2012 at 8:32 am said:

    Hell Richard, Mr Taylor has missed his vocation.
    I think we should all chip in to send him to the US where he will be able to apply his extraordinary knowledge and solutions to the elimination of tornados – well, to at least reduce those of Category 4/5 to 1/2.

    The US Government and the US insurance industry will give him an appropriate welcome – like life in ADX Florence, Colorado.

  3. Alexander K on October 8, 2012 at 3:35 pm said:

    Richard, I fully understand the desirability of conversations here, but are conversations with the likes of Nick really worth the effort and aggravation? Your patience is remarkable but that particular conversation was not worth you effort.

    • Alexander,

      Thanks for your comments. I’ve given much thought to them and decided that I’m not responsible for the topics our readers raise for discussion, but I wish to participate, so I do to the best of my limited ability.

  4. flipper on October 8, 2012 at 5:02 pm said:

    Mike J.
    Yep it was one of the barb’s that RDM used on Australian media hacks.
    I was at his Press Conference in Canberra when he lobbed it into the Aussie media scrum.
    He had been asked about AUSTRALIAN concerns over increased NZ ermigration and he said:: “:Well, it has the benefit of incresing the average level of intelligence on bioth sides of the Tasman.”

    It was not until the next morning that they realised what he had said.

  5. Storms and floods are deluging me today, presumably as punishment for taking my (small) 4WD vehicle across the South Island,

    I glad I had it though. I didn’t fancy spending 40 days and 40 nights in this

  6. Richard C (NZ) on October 8, 2012 at 6:27 pm said:

    Looks like Andrew W has taken his rain-heats-the-ocean idea to The Hockey Schtick, not having gained any traction here. No traction there either:-
    Andrew W September 6, 2012 9:32 PM

    I’m thinking that rain falling through a warmer atmosphere, either directly onto the oceans, or via rivers, will be a major driver in transferring heat from sky to sea, anyone know of papers on this?

    MS September 6, 2012 10:12 PM

    Doubt it – it’s really the other way around
    Thunderstorms cool the surface
    Andrew’s a bit desperate to find an anthro ocean heating mechanism since the HS post uses a Real Climate post by Peter Minnett to shoot down the LWIR forcing idea:-

    ‘RealClimate admits doubling CO2 could only heat the oceans 0.002ºC at most’

    The RC post features work by NIWA’s R/V Tangaroa.

    • I like MS’s approach to Andrew W’s ridiculous idea of failing rain heating the ocean (good grief, talk about pure desperation):

      “I’m simply illustrating that a huge amount of heat energy has in fact been transferred from air to sea”

      No, you have absolutely not shown that whatsoever, and it is painfully obvious from this post and others that essentially all heat transfer has been from Sun > Oceans > atmosphere > space.

      I am now finished with your commentary. Got much better things to do. Bye

      Good on you, MS. Maybe Andrew W will start to understand some basics soon. By the way, that’s a great post on HS. All the info you need on one page, from RealClimate no less.

  7. Hi Richard T,
    In the paper regarding the Dust Bowl drought in the 1930s it is made very clear that while the drought in the Southwest was from natural effects the drought in Central and Northern areas was directly caused by human land use changes. If these changes had not occurred there would have been no drought in these areas. So I think it is accurate to say that the drought in Central and Northern areas was caused by humans.

    • No, read it again. The drought already existed, it may have been amplified by the vegetation reduction. This is a model-based result, and although interesting, I wouldn’t go around referring to it as “fact”, as you are doing.

    • Let me explain further. In the paper you reference, the models cannot reproduce the 1930s Dust Bowl drought. Instead, they produce a smaller drought further to the south-west. By tweaking their models to include reduced vegetation, etc., they achieve a more historical result. This seems fine, but we all know that the GCMs are very poor in general, and so the fact that they took an initial, incorrect result, and tweaked it to match reality doesn’t necessarily give me confidence that they have anything right at all.

    • OK, given the evidence in the paper what do you think caused the drought in Northern areas? It seems pretty explicit that the drought wouldn’t have existed in those areas without the human influences.

      If there was a house fire (from natural causes) and someone pours petrol over the house next door who would you blame when the house next door burns down? Who caused it to burn?

  8. Rob Taylor on October 10, 2012 at 6:04 pm said:

    Defeatists. Why bother blogging at all, RT, if you’ve already given up?

    I, for one, believe that my grandchildren yet unborn have the right to live in a peaceful world with a stable climate, and will do whatever I can to bring that about.

    Multiply my small actions by millions now, and billions soon enough, and we will wrest control of our future from the pollutocrats whose greed and ignorance would otherwise be our doom, regardless of the foolish chatter of the ignoranti here…

    BTW, RT, what about the ozone hole – was that the work of God / Nature / the Flying Spaghetti Monster??

    • Rob T,

      Why bother blogging at all, RT, if you’ve already given up?

      You don’t even blog, just snipe at others. What are you talking about – I haven’t given up.

      I believe the ozone “hole” is natural, though I haven’t researched it.

    • Rob Taylor on October 10, 2012 at 9:05 pm said:

      I believe the ozone “hole” is natural, though I haven’t researched it.

      Your beliefs count for nothing, RT; Paul Crutzen won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work identifying the anthropogenic origin of the ozone hole – read this and weep:

      To assign a more specific date to the onset of the “anthropocene” seems somewhat arbitrary, but we propose the latter part of the 18th century, although we are aware that alternative proposals can be made (some may even want to include the entire holocene).

      However, we choose this date because, during the past two centuries, the global effects of human activities have become clearly noticeable. This is the period when data retrieved from glacial ice cores show the beginning of a growth in the atmospheric concentrations of several “greenhouse gases”, in particular CO2 and CH4. Such a starting date also coincides with James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1784

    • Well, again, you ignore my question, scorn my response to your question and can’t even keep to your own topic – you promise something about the ozone hole yet cut and paste a dreary piece about the so-called anthropocene. Of all the hubristic intellectual vanities of our age, such as naming a nondescript period for ever after “modern”, the anthropocene might be the shallowest.

    • From the Wikipedia article on Crutzen, I see that his research was all about the effects on Nitrous Oxide on the ozone layer.

      However, the “Ozone Hole” scare resulted in the removal of CFCs from refrigerants.

    • Rob Taylor on October 11, 2012 at 8:36 am said:

      Hmmm… perhaps you think that CFCs are not man-made, Andy? Otherwise, I fail to see the point of your post.

    • Of course CFCs are man made. However, the “ozone hole scare” was all about CFCs. Your link makes no reference to CFCs.

      Specifically, the Wiki page says

      In 1970 Prof. Paul Crutzen pointed out that emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), a stable, long-lived gas produced by soil bacteria, from the Earth’s surface could affect the amount of nitric oxide (NO) in the stratosphere. Crutzen showed that nitrous oxide lives long enough to reach the stratosphere, where it is converted into NO. Crutzen then noted that increasing use of fertilizers might have led to an increase in nitrous oxide emissions over the natural background, which would in turn result in an increase in the amount of NO in the stratosphere. Thus human activity could have an impact on the stratospheric ozone layer

      (My emphasis added)

      I don’t see anywhere it saying that the “Ozone Hole” was anthropogenic in origin. Sure, it might have been accentuated by human activity.

  9. Rob Taylor on October 10, 2012 at 9:24 pm said:

    Au contraire, mon cher, the whole thrust of your side of this thread is that we humans are incapable of affecting Nature, whereas Crutzen is a scientific giant who says we have been doing exactly that for centuries.

    Should I really have to spell things out for you? I thought English was your forte?

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