Seeing the (dying) forest for the trees

Mick Pope reflects on the data behind the Knit for Climate Action scarves, climate change, and the message for humanity.

To scientists in most disciplines, data is everything. When I completed by Masters in theoretical astrophysics (it started as a PhD, but that is another story), there was not a lot of data for me to use. Kind of went with the theoretical part. When I did my PhD in meteorology, there was a lot of data to hand. Six wet seasons of hourly satellite data to track blobs of cloud across northern Australia, and over fifty years of balloon data. Add to that, various other sources, and there was much data to process.

However, data, however much you have of it, is not information. Information requires making sense of the data, sorting it, grouping it, fitting it to expectation – otherwise known as a working theory – and seeing how good a fit it makes. Data needs interpretation. Rightly sorted, my data made sense as seasonal variability, matched the expectation of other data sources. It told a story. It made for a good thesis chapter, and a satisfying paper. The “Pope regimes” have been used for some time now for other people’s research. A minor legacy even!

When I turned to the data from NASA, I knew what I had was reliable. Experts who had used a well-maintained global dataset, with good statistical techniques for turning raw data into reliable data, had made something useful. Information. Other places had done similar things but in different ways. Sometimes there is disagreement, but it is small. The fact that many centres get the same result – including Berkeley Earth, which started out to disprove climate change, but simply confirmed both its fact and cause – gives me greater confidence the data does not lie. It tells a story. It is a frightening one.

Humanity (well white western humanity to start with) has unleashed an apocalypse of sorts. The story of varying temperatures yet steadily increasing points to the molecule of life becoming the moral molecule. Carbon in its various forms is either life – our very bodies, or plant food – or now death. Carbon dioxide has varied throughout deep time. However, in human time, our burning of fossil fuels and changing the landscape has released more back into the atmosphere. Long buried in dead plants, it now warms our planet beyond what we have ever known. That is dangerous.

I was asked recently did I think scientists were overstating their case about the existential crisis we face. My answer was simple. No. The story the data tells is that while we have known the risks for a long time – Svante August Arrhenius first raised the concern in 1896, Exxon knew in the 1970s – the numbers continue to climb. Despite all the rhetoric, despite the technology we have had for some years and continues to become cheaper. Little appears to have made a different. Even the COVID blip is small compared the cumulative totals of carbon in the atmosphere. We run towards the cliff blindfolded so that rich white males and their shareholders make a few more dollars.

When you match the temperature story to the other science stories – increased bushfires and heatwaves, rising seas, failed crops, melted glaciers, water starved ecosystems, it starts to read as tragedy. Add to that human loss of life, massive displacement, the screams of burning wildlife, it reads like a horror story. A few bars of colour on a scarf. 

To be honest, I do not think about it every day. Writing this brings it to my mind, and a sigh to my lips. Books enough on my shelf tell stories to bring a tear to my eye. 

While I believe in an interventionist God, I have thought long and hard over three years about what that same God requires of us. Thinking about the chaos of the world, and how Sabbath is meant to keep it back, Sabbath for the earth, means there are some things still within our grasp. The people of the Messiah have a calling to be holy. For Israel, giving Sabbath rest to the land was part of that holiness (Lev 26:34–35). And so, it is for us. One way of giving the earth rest is to stop choking it on our emissions.

These scarves tell the story of greed, ignorance, and wilful destructiveness. Now is a time to change the story.


TAKE ACTION Join us on June 21 #ShowYourStripes Day and call on our nation's leaders to take bold, urgent action on climate change. Find out how you can take action through social media.

FIND OUT MORE about Common Grace's Knit for Climate Action campaign and how you can take part. 

READ about the data Mick Pope helped develop to visually illustrate the temperature changes over the last 101 years in our Knit for Climate Action scarves. 

Dr Mick Pope is a lecturer in meteorology, Professor of Environmental Mission at Missional University, and a member of the Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy at the University of Divinity.

Creation & Climate Justice