Friday, Sept 14, 2018
Tags: Audio, Hurricane Florence
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Friday, September 14, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is the Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Hurricane Florence and the limits of meteorological projection: Why it’s an exercise in human hubris to think we would ever fully understand a storm
For the last several days and likely for the next several days, it is Hurricane Florence that is front and center in the American mind, on the American heart and also in the American headlines. That is true for just about any major weather event. It is particularly so when it comes to hurricanes.
The reason for that might not at first be so obvious. Why? It's not just the scale and immensity of the storms, it is that now, given modern technologies, we can see them coming. In the pre-modern era, they had nothing to deal with but a set of generalized weather observations. There was no way to know exactly where the storm might hit, when the storm might hit, how powerfully the storm might hit until the storm did hit. There was no understanding from whence it had come and there was no ability to do any kind of tracking or forecasting about the storm.
All that began to change in the space age, when satellites were put into geosynchronous orbit, which allows eyes in the skies, actually eyes above the skies. Eyes able to observe the skies and even to predict the skies.
In the United States, the modern age after Second World War saw the establishment of the National Hurricane Center, an entire army of observers and an entire networks of weather systems analysts.
When it comes to Hurricane Florence, there are some particularly humbling realizations. First of all, the sheer size of this storm. It's size is so large that it already, before it even hit the Carolina coast, was larger than the states of Florida and Georgia and South Carolina put together. The storm is actually so large, it's circularity, east and west, north and south, so large that it dominates any satellite image of the continental United States.
It is one of those visuals from which you simply cannot turn and even as Florence is now releasing so much weather, and that means right now, not just wind, but so much water. But, the big threat is not that Florence was once a category four storm, but the fact that even as it was reduced before it hit land to a category two storm, it is a storm that had slowed down to such an extent that it is threatening to unleash inches and feet of water on much of the eastern coast, particularly the southeastern coast of the United States of America.
As the storm hit last night and as it continues to move inland, the conversation amongst meteorologists was the fact that the Carolina coastline and then the interior of the two states, and then other effected states to the north and the south, and especially to the west, they could receive eight months of average rain in the span of two to three days.
Now, obviously, our hearts and our prayers are with the people who are in the path of Florence, will be in the path of Florence or have sought to escape Florence by evacuating to another area. Our hopes and prayers are with the gospel churches in the region, knowing that many of them are already there poised for ministry in Christ’s name and other Christians will be soon coming into area in the immediate aftermath of the storm. This too is a powerful witness, not only to Christian compassion, but to the example of Jesus Christ.
Also, even before Hurricane Florence hit land, it had become something of a great question mark, a great puzzle to those who have been watching and observing, not only meteorology and weather, but specifically hurricanes for a very long time. One of the most interesting articles about Hurricane Florence was published before it hit the United States. It was written by Marshall Shepherd, it was published at Forbes. Shepherd himself is the director of atmospheric studies and that program and also, distinguished professor at the University of Georgia. He is well known as affiliated with the Weather Channel and in 2013, he was president of the American Meteorological Society.
The headline of his article is this, the Meteorological Strangeness of Hurricane Florence. Strange. The point being made by Shepherd is that when you look at this hurricane, it defies much of the conventional wisdom about how hurricanes should operate. Shepherd wrote, quote "In my 27 years of professional experience, I have never seen some of the projected characteristics or behavior of Hurricane Florence."
He went on to say that part of its uniqueness is the sheer size. It's not just a large storm, roughly 500 miles in diameter, but it is a storm that is so large that it's slowness now threatens to inundate much of the affected areas with unprecedented levels of rain. At its peak, Shepherd tells us, Hurricane Florence was unusually strong for a hurricane at that particular latitude. But there's more to the strangeness. As he mentions, Florence has the potential to be, here are his words, "a life altering rainfall event."
That's kind of interesting to look at the scientific language there. A life altering rainfall event. Those who deal in insurance and have to deal with the kind of threats that might come from such sources as weather, they have to predict on the basis of analyzing risk, just how often or how likely a certain event is potentially to happen. As you're looking at hurricanes, obviously if you're on the eastern coast of the United States, hurricanes are not unprecedented. What is the particular specific risk?
When it comes to this kind of rainfall, what Shepherd is telling us is that it is so unprecedented as a threat that the rainfall could be, again I think these words are very significant, a life altering rainfall event. Shepherd also pointed to the fact that there was uncertainly about Hurricane Florence all the way to the brink of the hurricane achieving landfall. And furthermore, there's uncertainty about it now.
This is where his article gets really interesting as we think in worldview analysis. Shepherd writes, quote, "it is important to understand that the late uncertainty associated with the weather models and Florence is not an indictment on our skill.” Now, I don't know about you, but to me that seems to be a very strange line. Here, you have someone very well respected at the very center of this expertise of meteorology, this is someone who holds a distinguished position, a distinguished professorship and has been president of the American Meteorological Society, but now he tells us that the failure to be able to predict Florence is not an indictment of the skill of his peers.
Later in that same paragraph he writes, quote, "At the end of the day, the ‘uncertainty’” ... That's put in quotation marks, interestingly ... “is more about the strangeness of Hurricane Florence and its future environment, rather than deficiencies in our meteorological knowledge." Now, why am I pointing to this statement? It's not so much because of Shepherd's insights concerning this storm. It's because of his defense of the skill of meteorologists in dealing with this storm and with others. He is arguing that the lack of certainty and predictability on the human equation about Hurricane Florence is not an indictment of scientific skill, nor is it, he says, explained by, quote, "deficiencies in our meteorological knowledge."
Well, I think it's just fair to say, yes it is. It does point to gaps in our knowledge and it points to the fact that science can explain only so much and it can go only so far. The reality is that the hurricane, like Hurricane Florence is not just humbling to the meteorologists, it's humbling to every conscious human being thinking of the scale of this kind of storm. There is simply no way that any single individual human being can come to any adequate intellectual understanding of a storm of this magnitude, but the reality is, if you put all human beings together, even considering all available forms of human expertise, the fact is that if you accumulate it all together, we will still fall short of having an absolute explanation, an absolutely extensive knowledge of the reality of the weather, much less, even just a part of the weather like a major hurricane.
Now, I have to be clear, I hope for meteorologists and other scientists to be able to come up with ever more accurate understandings of these storms and ever more accurate means of predicting them, but we simply have to understand that even then, we will have no total understanding and we will have no means of mitigating them. I'm old enough to remember as a native of Florida, that decades ago, the United States government actually wanted to consider whether or not it might be able to chemically cede hurricanes in order to weaken them. The answer was no.
The Christian worldview also reminds us that is an exercise in human hubris to believe that we ever could control such a storm, much less even fully understand it, be able to accurately and absolutely exactly predict it. It's also interesting to understand that even if we did have this power of prediction, a second major issue is the fact that we might not act upon what we would then know. The fact is, we don't adequately act upon what we know now.
Gregory Corte writing in Thursday's edition of USA Today in a front page story, wrote about why hurricanes are doing more damage. The subhead in the article, "It's us, not the storms." What does he mean by that? The storms aren't doing the damage? No, he means we keep setting ourselves up for this damage. Here is a very interesting assessment for us to keep in mind. There has been for the last several decades and there is even now, a flight of capital and wealth to the coastlines. That's particularly true in the United States. The concentrations of wealth along the coastlines are now a pattern that is extremely well documented. Just consider real estate prices, land prices along the coastlines.
But, then also understand just how vulnerable it is to sit at the edge of an ocean or a sea. That's precarious in any condition, it's especially precarious in certain places, whereas it turns out, hurricanes are more likely and simultaneously more people seem to wan to move. Every time there is a major catastrophic hurricane along the coast, there is immediate advice that what this indicates is that human beings shouldn't go back and build these very expensive structures and concentrate populations in such a vulnerable area, but that's exactly what human beings do, over and over again. It's exactly what will happen even after Hurricane Florence. That is safer to predict than the actual storm and its course and effect.
The reality is that the coastline will continue to call people and there will continually be building in these areas and a continued accumulation of wealth, which means and here's no surprise, this will cut through at least some of the headlines, every single major storm will be more expensive than the storm before, and of course, even as the storm was forming over the Atlantic and as its course made clear it could be a major threat to the United States, there were worldview, ideological arguments that immediately sprang to life having to do with whether or not to what degree or not climate change, formally referred to as global warming, might have something to do with this. And then, the argument about whether or not or to what degree or not, a human contribution to this problem or to what is suggested as its solution might be a part of the equation.
Eric Holthaus, another meteorologist, writing in this case, an opinion piece for the Washington Post, claims straightforwardly, quote, "Climate change wrought this freak of nature." That was the headline on his article. Climate change brought about Hurricane Florence we're told and this hurricane is a freak of nature. Of course, there's some serious questions to ask here. Now, I am not denying the reality of climate change. Frankly, climate change just measurably in our experience is something that can be documented.
There are serious questions to ask about the degree to which human beings might actually be contributing to it. I'm not denying that there is a human contribution to this kind of climate change. I am saying that is not so simple as the ideologues would have us to think. Furthermore, there is no adequate human understanding of exactly how the climate works. It is interesting to note that when this storm reached category four, the explanation was made by many, that this all due to climate change. When it slowed, there did not appear to be an adequate explanation of how that system of causality would explain what happened over the next couple of days.
But, give them time. There will be an argument coming from those who look at this ideologically who will come back and say we can explain all of this, ex post facto.
Are hurricanes acts of God or signs of climate change? Your answer will depend on your worldview
In worldview analysis, the most important contribution to the conversation about Hurricane Florence has come in the magazine, the Week, and is by Damon Linker. Linker is a veteran observer of American politics, and though he writes mostly for what has to be described as the political left, he often writes with an amazing candor, a very deep honesty about the issues that are at stake.
The article that appeared in the Week is entitled, "The Polarization of Hurricane Florence". As Linker writes, quote, "With Hurricane Florence bearing down on the eastern seaboard, it's as good a time as any to take stock of the wondrous, warping powers of partisanship, which now touches and transforms absolutely everything in our public life, even the weather. Now, I will simply interject at this point that there is a partisan angle to this, but Linker is pushing that argument too hard. More basically, it is a worldview distinction, a divide that isn't simply nor simplistically partisan, but is none the less real. Linker does understand how real it is.
He writes about this polarization, even on the weather, as he says, quote, "Listen for it as the storm approaches, strikes and then dissipates. The ways that competing ideologies and increasingly tribal conservatism on the right", he says, "statist progressivism on the left", he says, "shape differing reactions to the event and expose the deepening political and cultural fissures in our profoundly divided country."
Now, just in the last several days, we have looked at how this deep worldview divide separates Americans as we think of economics, as we think of brands and companies, as we think about popular culture, and now yes, as we think about the weather. Now, let me remind you that I think Damon Linker over torques the partisan issue here, but he doesn't under estimate the worldview issues at stake. I'm going to read it exactly as he writes his argument.
Quote, "For a Republican, a hurricane is an act of God. Storms happen, they kill people. If you live on the coast, it's part of the baseline risk of life. Just as tornadoes regularly strike the Great Plains states and everything from hellfire to mudslides to earthquakes plague the state of California. If you live in these places, you know what can happen", he summarizes. "You can hope for luck or pray for divine protection, but in the end, it's out of your hands. There are no guarantees." He continues to describe what he identifies as this worldview. Quote, "When people get hurt by forces outside their control, the government can and should step into help with evacuations, with rescues during and after the event, with rebuilding infrastructure that was destroyed. But that's all. There need to be limits on how much public aid people receive. That's the only way to avoid moral hazard. If there are no consequences to bad decisions, people will keep making them."
Finally, is he summarizing what he describes as this position, this worldview perspective. He writes, "In the end, government can't protect people from fate. Bad things happen, that's life. The effort to insulate us entirely from such harmful events is not only futile, it also empowers the state which ends up oppressing us."
That's a pretty brilliant exposition of one worldview analysis, one worldview perspective as it comes to weather, even disastrous weather and the role of government or the non-role of government. Then he goes on to describe the other ideology, the other worldview, he describes this one as democratic. He says, quote, "For a Democrat, the impending storm looks very different. Yes, bad things happen but we need to mobilize the full power of the government to protect people before it hits and to help them recover after it's gone. We're a wealthy country. It's the least we can do, but beyond that generosity, we need to look for evidence that the number and severity of storms is increasing over time. If so, that would be a sign that climate change is having detrimental effects that are harming us in personal, economic and fiscal terms.
Continuing to describe this worldview perspective he identifies as Democratic, he continues with these words, quote, "Put differently, no ‘act of God’” ... Those words are put in quotation marks ... “is a given. Climate science," he says, "teaches us that some of these acts are potentially a product of human will, none of course in the sense that a human being with bad intentions set a particular storm in motion, but in the sense that our actions, our pollutants are inadvertently changing the climate and making major storms more frequent and more destructive and deadly."
But then after describing rather insightfully these two different worldview perspectives on weather and the role of government, he goes on to describe these ideological differences as, quote, "rooted in conflicting views of the proper relation between God, nature, reason, science, government and the individual." That's massive. Don't miss this. Here you have this political analyst, writing about the political divisions over a storm like Hurricane Florence, pointing out that in this partisan age, even a hurricane becomes a political debate and a political event.
What's most important is that he recognizes what we need to see, that there are fundamental worldview issues here at stake. Fundamentally different ways we look at the entire world and then, he is so specific as to say that those differences are, again, I'm quoting him, "rooted in conflicting views of the proper relation between God, nature, reason, science, government, and the individual."
Now, if this doesn't prompt you to think about anything else, then at least think about this. Here you have a political observer, writing in a news magazine that Hurricane Florence is exposing different ways that Americans engage the questions of God, nature, reason, science, government and the individual. It's hard to imagine a list of bigger concerns, bigger realities, bigger questions than these. After all, the very first word in that series is God. I think Damon Linker is largely right as he delineates these two different worldviews and I don't think he's wrong to say that in some sense they are more generalized, on the one hand, amongst Republicans and on the other hand, amongst Democrats.
I think what's missing here is something Damon Linker has recognized in some of his previous writings and research, and that is that the fundamental distinction between those two ideological perspectives, those two partisan identities is turning out over time to be theological. It is turning out to be a more secular and a less secular worldview that increasingly also corresponds to the designations of more Republican and more Democratic.
The Damon Linker's list, I would simply add the big issue of human responsibility, both the reality of human responsibility and the limitations of human responsibility. The reality of human responsibility means we really are responsible for what we do. That would include everything we might consider, including where we buy land, where we build, how we respond, whether or not we evacuate in a threat of a storm like this, there is real human responsibility here. Human responsibility that eventually reaches to the highest office in the land. There's no denying that.
There is also exposed here the limitations of human responsibility. There is only so much responsibility we can take. There's a certain dismissal on the part of many that there is any reality known as an act of God. That's not just a secular dismissal of theism, it is also the seeming refusal to accept that there are and ever will be realities outside of human control.
Rebranding the pro-abortion movement: Why it’s significant that Planned Parenthood named a doctor as its new president
Finally, as we go into the weekend, I want to talk about a news development to which we will return next week at greater length. The most important thing to understand is that there is a great deal behind the headline, for example, that came in Thursday's edition of the New York Times. Here's the headline, quote, "Planned Parenthood names Leanna Win, a doctor, its new president."
Now, as we will see at greater depth, what's going on here is the attempt to argue that there is now a leader at Planned Parenthood whose expertise and authority is medical. Now, this is a huge development because it tells us just how the pro-abortion movement thinks its going to have to redirect its argument. Increasingly as we have tracked, there is the effort to stop talking about abortion as abortion and instead to try to redefine abortion as part of reproductive health. There is no better or perhaps more sinister way to rebrand Planned Parenthood or at least to attempt to do so than by naming a doctor as the head of Planned Parenthood in order to try to say over and over again, this really isn't about killing babies, this about reproductive health.
There is a lot more to this story as we shall see, but it's going to be very interesting to observe over the next several days and especially perhaps over the next weekend, exactly how mainstream media respond to this story. But, you can count on the fact that this headline in the New York Times is a very clear indication. An indication of a strategy to say this isn't about morality, it's really only about medicine.
We'll continue to pray for all those lives affected by Hurricane Florence as that story continues to unfold.
Thanks for listening to the Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again on Monday for the Briefing.