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Weather Meeting Last Week Combined Science, Spirituality

January 13, 2013

By Juan Castillo, The Austin American-Statesman

Jan. 13--As ashen skies began soaking Central Texas last week, meteorologists from across the country and beyond met in Austin to ponder something not heard on the nightly weather forecasts: spirituality.

In a meeting room at the Austin Convention Center, about a hundred atmospheric scientists contemplated questions about the roles of science and faith in their lives. In the lively dialogue, they asked how they could help educate people of faith about global warming and the environment.

"Do we check our spirituality at the door at scientific conferences?" asked Timothy Miner, who led the discussion at the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society.

Over four days, more than 3,000 participants attended scores of panels and town hall-style meetings addressing weighty topics one would expect atmospheric scientists to sink their teeth into. But Tuesday`s session stood out like snow in Austin. Miner, a former weather officer and pilot for the Air Force, joked that it surely was one of the few times spirituality and atmospheric science were discussed in the same setting.

The American Meteorological Society`s official statement on climate change is that Earth`s lower atmosphere, ocean and land surface are warming; the sea level is rising; and snow cover, mountain glaciers and Arctic sea ice are shrinking. It cites the dominant cause of warming since the 1950s as human activity and says that avoiding future warming will require a large, rapid reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2011, a U.N. committee called for faith-based initiatives to promote stewardship of the Earth, and it urged scientists to help educate religious communities and organizations about the future of the planet.

In an interview after Tuesday`s discussion, Miner, now a commercial airline pilot and a chaplain who lives in Virginia, said scientists have a responsibility to share their knowledge with the world so that Earth can be preserved for future generations.

"It`s not just my personal faith to God, but my responsibilities to the greater body, to all of us together," Miner said.

In a show of hands, the vast majority of participants at the meeting said they belong to religious faiths. But some said they sometimes struggle sharing science with people of faith who have doubts about global warming or who believe that God created Earth and humans can do little to influence it.

Barry Goldsmith, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Brownsville, said he`s often asked if he believes in global warming.

"I tell them data is data," Goldsmith said. "It really is not a belief system. A belief system is something that would be about faith and spirituality."

Jonathan Smith, a postdoctoral fellow at Howard University in Washington who specializes in atmospheric chemistry, said that in practicing his Christian faith he sometimes encounters uncomfortable situations in which nonscientist friends ask him about global warming and environmental concerns.

Because some might find the answers difficult to comprehend, "sometimes I don`t know how to answer them," Smith said during the discussion.

But afterward, Smith said the dialogue had helped him reconcile his feelings.

"We believe in a God that is all powerful," Smith said, "but we are studying this science, and we see that the climate is changing, the Earth is warming, there are more storms."

Smith said that in his answers to difficult questions he could begin incorporating his knowledge about recent natural disasters to make a point. But he said he was undecided about whether scientists have an obligation to share their knowledge about the environment.

"My professional views as a scientist shouldn`t override my belief in God or my Christian principles or anyone else`s principles," Smith said.

Miner said scientists must also deal with the challenges of disinformation spread by those with a political agenda. Others will make an economic argument -- that "we`re taking away from somebody`s rice bowl if we ask them to pay more for cleaning the air coming out of their smokestacks," Miner said. He said it`s the responsibility of scientists to point out that all actions and economic decisions have an effect. "It`s all connected together," he said.

Goldsmith, the meteorologist, said the scientific data that humans are influencing the climate is overwhelming.

"The only question now is how much," Goldsmith said. "Is it enough to cause things to go very bad very quickly, or can we turn it around in time to not be so bad?"


(c)2013 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

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