If you have any familiarity with Christian dispensationalist “rapture watchers,” the following quote (written in the wake of the Japan disaster earlier this month) should look pretty familiar:
Today, the global world experienced a tragedy of mass proportions. The earthquake which hit Japan’s coast this afternoon has now become part of the long list of natural disasters occurring, the world over. As we watched the videos, heard the eye witness accounts and saw the pictures, our hearts were filled with sympathy, shock and dismay. And even now as I write the death count continues to rise and the full extend of damages are unknown. Has not this scene become all too familiar? Was not the video footage of people standing on buildings amidst rising flood waters reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina? And did not the images of once massive buildings, now toppled, evoke memories of the Jan. 12th earthquake in Haiti? …
… this is only the beginning. As [we get closer to the end] more natural disasters in the way of category five hurricanes such as the eight which developed in the Atlantic Ocean during the last ten years, heat waves such as those experienced by Europe and Russia in 2003 and 2010, respectively, tsunamis similar to the one which struck Indonesia in 2004, tornados like those which touched down in Brooklyn and Queens, New York in Sept. of 2010, spontaneous wildfires like those throughout California in recent years and earthquakes similar to the one we stand distraught over today. …
Of course natural disasters are natural and yes they have always existed. … While natural disasters are natural, the frequency, extent and magnitude in which we are currently facing them is not. This is what should bring about cause for alarm.
This is pretty common rhetoric among the Hal Lindsay, Tim LaHaye, dispensationalist pre-trib rapture camp, looking to the so-called “signs of the times” as evidence that Jesus’ return is right around the corner. As we’ve discussed on this blog before, this is based upon the mistaken notion that that Jesus prophesied that earthquakes, famines, and wars would become more frequent as his return drew near, when in fact he said that all these things would continue to happen throughout history but are not indicators of the timing of his coming. We’ve covered this ground before.
But what makes this quote far more interesting is that it was not from a dispensationalist Christian trumpeting the “signs of the times” but an environmentalist declaring that this latest tragedy was yet another reminder of how we need to do something about global climate change before it’s too late. The only change I made to the wording is in the brackets (second paragraph), where the original quote says, “atmospheric temperatures continue to rise, so will circumstances and conditions necessary for” rather than “we get closer to the end.”
It was only a matter of time before people started to point to the tragic events surrounding the earthquakes and tsunami in Japan as further proof of global climate change and how we need to do something about it. (Actually, it was already happening within the first few hours on Twitter, as you can see here, here, and here.) At this point, I’m pretty convinced that should the earth get hit by an asteroid, we would see people pointing their fingers at greenhouse gas emissions, somehow reasoning that carbon dioxide and methane attract large space rocks. But this time, what struck me was how the rhetoric used in these sorts of posts looked remarkably like the very same kinds of arguments used by so-called “rapture watchers,” effectively, “Oh wow, another huge natural disaster! That just goes to show that ______.” You can fill in the blank with either “the rapture is coming soon!” or “we really need to do something about climate change!” It works perfectly well either way.
But the data belie the conclusions of both camps, at least with respect to increases in earthquakes. As this analysis of the earthquake data demonstrates, there has been no increase in the frequency of earthquakes (or in the frequency of major earthquakes) in the past century (their data traces to 1997). Data plots of the evidence can be seen graphically in the image to the right. Actually, as you can see, statistically, we’ve been on a slight downward trend with respect to both earthquakes in general and major seismic events (above 7 on the Richter scale).
The same is true about the other natural disasters everyone likes to point to. Yes, there have been some big hurricanes over the past decade. But, as it turns out, the frequency of these events doesn’t seem to be increasing (cf. IPCC-AR4, which concluded “[t]here is no clear trend in the annual numbers [i.e. frequency] of tropical cyclones.”). There has been a slight bump in the number of major hurricanes in the North Atlantic, but globally there doesn’t seem to be a trend at all. The same goes for huge rainstorms, tornadoes, tsunamis, etc.
Why then are so many people on both the left and the right convinced that everything is getting so much worse, that natural disasters are stronger than ever before and increasing in frequency? It’s pretty simple: confirmation bias. People tend to remember momentous events, tragedies, and anomalies more strongly than humdrum everyday life. Add to that tendency the dramatically increased news coverage and media saturation we have today, and it’s a recipe for Chicken Littles everywhere. In today’s small world, we don’t just remember the drama and tragedy from our own lives and region, we remember the tragic circumstances of people on the other side of the planet—so we necessarily remember more tragedy than ever before.
It’s not that we have lots more earthquakes, hurricanes, or tsunamis than ever before, it’s that now we see the devastation of a far-off land within hours of the event taking place. A century ago, the general public would probably have never known about the tsunami hitting Indonesia, Sri Lanka, etc. And if they had known about it, it would have come significantly after the fact. But now, we have news helicopters on site, showing us the shattered homes, the dead bodies, and the suffering populace. The effect is that we feel like there are more disastrous events now than ever before, even though that is empirically false.
The good thing about this is that, in large part because we are alerted to these disasters more rapidly, we are able to offer aid and support to these ravaged areas in ways that would never have been possible even fifty years ago. So in that sense, these disasters are probably less horrible than they were before international aid could be offered. We just wouldn’t have known about the horrors before, in a more provincial, regional, and local time.
A Reasonable Response
So then, natural disasters aren’t getting more frequent, much to the chagrin of the rapture watchers and the church of climate change. But they do continue to happen, and people continue to suffer as a result. So, rather than just sitting back and waiting for the rapture or pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into putting less carbon into the atmosphere, my suggestion is that we focus on improving our aid networks for the human beings who are in need either as a result of natural disasters or because of human injustice.
As it turns out, the biggest differences in how given nations or regions are able to endure natural disasters are the result of the basic economic situation of the country (fundamental economic and social inequities). For example, Haiti was thoroughly devastated by an earthquake significantly smaller than what more developed regions (like in Chile) have passed through with far less damage. (If you want to continue to support aid in Haiti, here is one place you can give; they’re old friends of mine and have been working in Haiti for decades.) In light of that fact, one of the best things we can do is seek the economic and social betterment of poorer nations and regions, helping them get on their feet and improve their standard of living.
Secondly, I fall into the camp of those who are somewhat miffed by the religious fervor and histrionics of the climate change crowd in part because it distracts from what I see as much more important and pressing environmental issues, like clean water (a major concern and a humanitarian problem as well as ecological) and plastic-related problems. One thing we know about climate change is that the climate has always been changing, and it’s not clear how much we really can do to affect what changes we’re going to get (and actually, periods of warming have always coincided with a general increase in worldwide standard of living and economic stability). The simple fact is that the climate will continue to change with or without our help. But there is no doubt that we can have impact on whether we have clean water or not, so that’s something we should really worry about, and it is a matter of justice that we seek sustainable clean water for all of our fellow human beings.
UPDATE: Apparently, others have already noticed the similarities between these two groups (caution for those who might be offended by satire or language).