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Why Joe Barton's biblical flood comment is so illogical

It's not that Texas congressman Joe Barton cited the Biblical great flood as an example of natural climate change. It's that he misrepresented the arguments of those who say that human activity is changing the climate. 

By Staff / April 11, 2013

Spotted by BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski, this video shows Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) committing a flagrant straw man fallacy during a hearing on the Keystone pipeline.

One hesitates to leap into a story on this, out of concern that the very act of reading the following quote, uttered by Rep. Joe Barton Wednesday during the Subcommittee on Energy and Power hearing on the Keystone XL pipeline, might actually make our readers less informed.

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But the Texas Republican is expressing a misperception about climate science that, though ludicrous, is widespread in political debates around global warming. So, it's at least worth correcting. 

Ready? Here's the quote

"I would point out that if you're a believer in the Bible, one would have to say the Great Flood is an example of climate change and that certainly wasn't because mankind had overdeveloped hydrocarbon energy."

OK. Deep breaths. 

It's worth noting that Representative Barton isn't actually saying anything false here. If, as a literal reading of the book of Genesis indicates, the world's tallest mountains were once submerged beneath 15 cubits of floodwater, then, yes, that would most definitely had been an example of climate change. And, if such an event actually occurred, you can't blame fossil fuels.

The preposterousness of Barton's statement stems from his basic fallacy, flagrant even by Congressional standards, in which he refutes an obviously silly claim held by nobody, and then acts as though he had just refuted a not-obviously-silly claim held by almost every climate scientist in the world. 

Among those climate scientists, you won't find a single one who thinks that our planet's climate has remained perfectly stable right up until the dawn of the hydrocarbon economy. Not one.

In fact, natural climate change in the distant past offers the most precise evidence there is for man-made climate change today. That's why climate scientists spend so much time and effort trying to extract ancient gasses trapped in Arctic ice bubbles or in the calcium carbonate shells of fossilized amoebas on the ocean floor, so that they can better understand the relationship between the composition of the atmosphere and the temperature of the globe. 

It turns out that lots of things – not just fossil fuels – can make our planet go warm or cold, or wet or dry. These include volcanic activity, plate tectonics, meteor impacts, the wobble of our planet as it spins on its axis, magnetic activity on the sun, and even the location of our solar system as it circles the Milky Way. 

And ever since the Earth formed from the solar nebular dust some 4.5 billion years ago, it's been a wild ride. Some 700 million years or so ago, for instance, our planet was a giant snowball, covered in ice. Any liquid water on the surface would have existed only as a thin band around the equator. Much later, about 55 million years ago, it was so warm that the Arctic supported deciduous forests. In the past 650,000 years alone, we've had seven cycles of glaciers advancing and retreating, with the last ice age ending about 7,000 years ago, just as we humans were getting down to the business of creating civilizations for ourselves.  

So this isn't really about Rep. Barton's views on the Bible. He could have said, "I would point out that if you're a believer in the paleoclimatological record, one would have to say the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum was an example of climate change, and that certainly wasn't because mankind had overdeveloped hydrocarbon energy," and it would have been equally irrational. No climate scientist is suggesting that the Earth hasn't experienced dramatic climactic swings in the past, or that trilobites were driving SUVs and using incandescent bulbs. 

What they are saying is that surface temperatures are rising rapidly, and that they have ruled out every known cause except one: human activity.  

Is it possible that they are all wrong? Of course. Science is never settled. But demonstrating that the most climate scientists are wrong about global warming would require refuting their actual arguments, and not knocking down parodies of their arguments. 

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