global warming

What do lightning conductors and Global Warming have in common?

Recently when covering Static Electricity we looked at how lightning conductors work, but we also discussed why they took so long to catch on.

Try answering the following questions without looking at the answers (I know you’re not actually going to do this, but it gives you a sense how the conversation went in class).

Me: Give me some examples of what you can NOT insure your house against.
Students: Floods, hurricanes, earthquakes

Me: What are these collectively known as?
Students: Acts of God

Me: Why are they referred to as Acts of God?
Students: Because you can’t predict when or if they’re going to happen.

Me: But why would you call those events ‘Acts of God’?
Students: Because you can’t predict when or if they’re going to happen.

Repeat three times.

Finally
Me: But why would you call those things ‘Acts of God’?
Student: Because God must have wanted those things to happen – or at least that’s what the people believed back then.

Me: Exactly. And before you all laugh at how ridiculous that sounds remember that it’s not that they were any less intelligent than we are now, it’s just that life in the 16th and 17th century was incomparably different to today. We live in a so-called age of reason. We know you can’t say ‘well that’s obviously what God wanted’ every time something bad happens. And I’m pretty sure that if our civilisation survives another century or two the people who are around then will look back at some of the rather bizarre belief systems that we subscribe to. The United States contains approximately 5% of the world’s population yet in incarcerates 25% of the world’s prison population. Enlightened?

Even Newton himself fell into this way of thinking. When he found out that the orbits of the planets didn’t quite match his mathematical equations his response was to say that God obviously needs to step in and give them a nudge every so often. It took Einstein to explain that the problem was that Newton’s equations weren’t exact enough and it needed his (Einstein’s) Theory of Relativity to sort out the anomaly.

The point is that, as with so much of the Church’s teachings, its beliefs can be traced back to either St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas. In this case both believed that the air was filled with seriously questionable characters. Aquinas wrote that “Rain and winds, and whatsoever occurs by local impulse alone, can be caused by demons. It is a dogma of faith that the demons can produce winds, storms, and rain of fire from heaven.”
And so, presumably, can God.

So when Franklin suggested that his lightning rod could save  church buildings he naturally thought that this would be well received (in fact he considered it to be one of his greatest accomplishments, which is no mean feat when one considers that he was also one of the founding fathers of the United States.) It turns out that his suggestion went down like the proverbial lead balloon.

If a building struck by lightning was an Act of God, then interfering with this process was akin to thwarting God’s plan. And that, in the eyes of the Church authorities at least, couldn’t be a good thing. So they simply refused to put them in.

But there was one small problem. The church building was invariably the tallest structure in every village and town. So it was also the most likely to get hit. Now as you can imagine this confused people greatly. Not only that but the bell-ringers whose job it was to alert the townsfolk about the impending storm also tended to become the first victims of any lightning strike. In Germany alone approximately 300 bell-ringers lost their lives in the last 30 years of the 19th century.

So slowly but surely Church authorities began to relent and accept that maybe it was time to accept that there was something to be said for these so-called ‘blasphemous devices’ after all. Lucky for them it wasn’t too late.

So what’s all this got to do with Global Warming?
According to one 2006 study, 76 percent of Republican citizens profess a belief in the Second Coming (the so-called ‘Apocalypse’). They also represent one of the largest groups who oppose scientific teaching on Global Warming. They simply refuse to accept that Global Warming has the potential to change the world irrevocably. Why? Because the end of the world will come at a time of God’s choosing, not ours, so whatever mankind is doing right now, it’s certainly not going to bring about the destruction of civilisation.

These religious conservatives have become a very powerful force in American politics in recent decades (how that came to be is an equally fascinating story, but not for today).

Add to this the lobby group for oil and other fossil fuels and you have a voice that is both loud and very difficult to dislodge.

Now for fun throw in optimism bias which is evolutionary hardwired into all of us. Optimism Bias is the belief that the future will be better than the past. So for example 10% of Americans expect to live to be 100 when in fact only 0.02% are likely to live that long.We all experience optimism bias. It’s why none of us mention Global Warming when political canvassers call to our door. We all just assume that it will get sorted somehow. It may even explain why we are all so reluctant to engage with the concept of our own mortality; deep down we all think we’re going to live forever.

So you can see why Global Warming remains low on everybody’s radar.

And it will most likely remain that way – until it’s too late.

Unlike lightning conductors.

This is a link to resources I use when teaching about Global Warming and The Apocalypse in Transition Year.

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