• sunset

    FAITH ... And God saw all that he had made ....

  • glacier

    SCIENCE ... and behold, it was very good.

  • girl-holding-hand

    JUSTICE ... As you did for the least of these brothers of mine...

  • people-holding-buckets

    ACTION ... you did it for me.

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    RESOURCES ... books, videos and online tools for earthkeepers

We’ve Found Who’s to Blame for Iraq’s Unfolding Genocide

Iraq and Syria seem to have fallen into a flaming abyss. The world is watching in horror as the “Islamic State” militants are alleged to have massacred religious minorities, including unarmed Chaldean Christians and Yezidis.

We pray; we lament; we give to relief agencies. But we also struggle to understand why this is happening and who’s to blame. And the TV news channels are quick to serve up all kinds of plausible-sounding answers:

  • If only President Obama hadn’t withdrawn American forces from Iraq…
  • If only President Bush and Cheney hadn’t invaded Iraq in the first place…
  • If only Prime Minister Maliki hadn’t persecuted Iraq’s Sunni minority…
  • If only Obama had armed the “moderate Syrian rebels” …
  • If only Congress had given Obama the authority he requested to use force in Syria…
  • If only the Gulf States hadn’t armed the jihadists to fight against Syria’s Assad regime…
  • If only Assad hadn’t fired chemical weapons on Syria’s majority Sunni population…

It looks like there is plenty of blame to go around. But have these pundits really gotten to the heart of the matter? Could this conflagration really be blamed on one prime minister, one congress or one president? Or are these charges – plus many others – contributing factors in some larger narrative?

Come back with me to February 2011, when the Syrian uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad first burst into the global news. Syrian security forces in the agricultural hub of Dara’a arrested a group of children for scrawling anti-government slogans on a school wall. Dara’a exploded in protest when its people discovered that Syrian soldiers had tortured the children. And then,  Assad’s forces massacred scores (or hundreds) of protesters, plunging Syria into what would become a civil war displacing six million refugees and claiming more than 100,000 lives — so far.

Dara'a protests were brutally suppressed by Assad

Dara’a protests were brutally suppressed by Assad. Photo: CNN.com

The rest – of course – is history. In the wake of the Dara’a massacre, Aleppo and Baghdad erupted in angry protests, leading to violent crackdowns by the regime; crackdowns radicalized the opposition, with increasing elements of jihadist fighters joining the fray; the moderate Free Syrian Army soon became eclipsed by Al-Qaeda-allied forces, including the hated Islamic State in Iraq & Syria (ISIS), which soon controlled Syria’s eastern provinces and much of its border with Iraq. Meanwhile in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki established a Shiite-dominated regime, oppressing Sunni communities in the north, and driving many into the waiting arms of the ISIS jihadists.

A tragic story, of course. But why did Syria blow up in the first place? Civil wars don’t just materialize out of thin air, do they?

Well, it turns out that Syria was ripe for conflict in 2011, and initially, it didn’t have anything to do with politics, religion or jihad. Syria faced a devastating drought between 2006 and 2010, affecting its most fertile lands. The four years of drought turned almost 60 percent of the nation into a desert. The country could no longer support cattle trading and herding, as the drought killed about 80 percent of Syria’s cattle by 2009. In 2008, 90 percent of the barley crop failed. Food prices skyrocketed, forcing more than 80 percent of rural Syrians below the poverty line.

Syria's 4-year drought set 1.5 million climate refugees on the move. Photo: VOA News.

Syria’s 4-year drought set 1.5 million climate refugees on the move. Photo: VOA News.

Syria had seen droughts before – six of them over the 105 years before 2006, most lasting only one year. But the World Bank had been warning that today’s extreme climate conditions now threatened Syria with recurring drought conditions. And, sure enough, each of the four consecutive years of drought beginning in 2006 was worse than any of the droughts of the preceding century. As the drought destroyed Syria’s farm economy – 75 percent of Syria’s farmers suffered complete crop losses – it transformed over 1.5 million Sunni farmers into climate refugees looking for work in Alawite/Shiite-dominated cities, aggravating sectarian tensions there.

With water in short supply, the Assad regime began awarding licenses to drill wells to Alawite Muslims on a sectarian basis, so desperate Sunnis began drilling illegal wells for their survival. And by the time the children of Dara’a began scribbling anti-Assad slogans on their school walls, the whole country had become a sectarian tinderbox.

So what caused this mess? Are we arguing that climate change triggered the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS, and by extension, the persecution of Arab Christians and other religious minorities? Well, it’s never quite that simple, is it? To begin with, scientists almost never explicitly link any single storm or drought solely to climate change. But in some cases, the patterns are so clear that the dots are easily connected. In a 2011 report, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) attributed at least half of the Syrian drying over the last century to manmade climate change.

“The magnitude and frequency of the drying that has occurred is too great to be explained by natural variability alone,” said Martin Hoerling, lead author of the report. “This is not encouraging news for a region that already experiences water stress, because it implies natural variability alone is unlikely to return the region’s climate to normal.”

NOAA map: Syria and Jordan are ground zero for climate drying.

NOAA map: Syria and Jordan are ground zero for climate drying.

If NOAA is right, then this is a classic example of climate change aggravating existing tensions. The U.S. Armed Forces warned earlier this year: “The effects of [climate change] are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad, such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tensions — conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence” (2014 Quadrennial Defense Review).

And if this is so, it fundamentally impacts the assessment of who is to blame for the devastation being suffered by millions of innocent people in the region. Sure, Republicans can blame Democrats (& v.v.), Christians can blame Muslims (& v.v.), Sunnis can blame Shiites (& v.v.), and Americans can blame the Iraqi government (& v.v.).

But to them all, we’ve now got to add John Elwood, whose rambling New Jersey farmhouse consumes far more heating oil than the world’s ecosystems can afford to absorb. John Elwood, contributor to genocide in Iraq? Is that even possible? I never meant to! I was only living a normal American life. You know: with my 17 tons of CO2 emissions every year – just like the average American.

But now you know who to blame for the unfolding ISIS catastrophe in Iraq and Syria. There’s Obama, of course, plus Boehner, Bush and Cheney. There’s Maliki, and Assad. And now, tragically, there’s Elwood. We need to hold these people accountable.

Any other names you care to add to that list? Because once we identify them, justice demands that they make their full contribution to the restoration and reconciliation for which this tortured region is groaning.

How Civilization Will Collapse

Okay, the title is a bit provocative. It calls to mind a movie from a few years back: “The Day After Tomorrow.” You remember? It was an environmental thriller depicting a cataclysm where climate warming stopped the global “ocean conveyor belt,” a climate-stabilizing current that connects the world’s oceans. Almost overnight, all of Europe and the U.S. simultaneously flood and freeze, arguably eclipsing Noah’s flood in its devastating impact. It’s quite a story. Civilization — we are left to surmise — teeters on the precipice.

The scientific premise of the film was arguably sound. The main problem was, you had to compress events potentially occurring over centuries into a few short hours in order to make it much fun to watch. Since then, I’ve mostly steered clear of warnings about end-of-the-world scenarios, like the runaway collapse of ice sheets or jamming the gears of the ocean conveyor.

Oh yes: and one more – the Global Burp. That’s another civilization-terminator, in which enormous methane deposits are released from Arctic seas and tundra by warming conditions, bubbling or belching to the surface and choking the atmosphere with methane – a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than CO2.

Here’s why the “burp” scenario gives researchers apocalyptic nightmares. Today, there are about 5 gigatons (billion tons) of methane in Earth’s atmosphere. But under the Arctic water and tundra, there are thousands of gigatons of methane hydrates, trapped by little more than the icy water and frozen soils. That’s maybe 100 times more than everything in the air today. And the ice which holds it below the surface is melting fast, as the Arctic heats 3-4 times faster than the rest of the warming world. Release just 1% of those methane hydrates, and you’ve doubled the atmospheric methane.

But as I said, we’ve stayed away from doomsday scenarios, like the Global Burp.

But last week, the news featured this incredible image from the tundra of an uninhabited Siberian peninsula:

Image source: Moscow Times

Image source: Moscow Times

Initially, some thought that it might be the work of a meteorite. Others suspected human mischief. Whatever, it is more than 200 feet across, freshly created, and deeper than the eye can see. And scientists have now measured methane concentrations in its depths thousands of times greater than background levels. So the prevailing theory today is that these are burp craters – the result of explosions from methane destabilized under the warming tundra, to the point that they are ejected in a massive Burp. Some researchers are calling it “Dragon’s Breath.”

This hypothesis is bolstered by atmospheric methane readings in the Arctic recently, that have measured huge methane concentrations in short bursts, only to return to more normal readings. Here’s a chart highlighting the last three years of methane readings in Siberia, with one notable outlier:

Methane readings from Siberian greenhouse gas sampling station

Methane readings from Siberian greenhouse gas sampling station over last three years

What’s worse, multiple Dragon’s Breath craters have been discovered. And it’s notable that a longer time series gathered in Canada shows many instances of crazy methane readings. Here’s a look:

Could each of these methane spikes be linked to the craters?

Could each of these methane spikes be linked to the craters?

If the Dragon’s Breath craters are what they seem to be, then it’s time to remove the Global Burp from the “unmentionable” file. Its arrival would suggest that the distant apocalyptic event is now upon us. Why? Because Arctic methane release is one of those feedback loops that only builds on itself. Melting Arctic tundra (or sea ice) releases methane hydrates, which add to greenhouse gas concentrations, which melt more of the Arctic, which releases more methane, and so on…. And like a microphone placed in front of a loudspeaker, the runaway effect of the feedback loop can be terrifying.

So click on this short video, and let’s consider whether it’s possible that our climate-warming carbon binge has awakened the dragon – the one that we hoped would long remain fast asleep beneath the Arctic tundra. 

Does the Earth Have AIDS?

If it’s ever fallen to your lot to care for someone with advanced AIDS, you know this feeling: It’s not fair.

It’s really not fair. With a weakened immune system, the illnesses just line up to attack. No sooner do you fight off pneumonia, then mycobacterium avium attacks. And right behind it comes a wave of candidiasis or wasting syndrome. Eventually, you just can’t fight anymore. It’s just not fair.

Together with my brothers, Chris and Rob, I saw this first-hand some twenty-five years ago. We survived the last attack after weeks of treatment and struggle, but what’s next? Sure enough, something with an unpronounceable name – cytomegalovirus or something – was waiting to pounce.

I will admit, I thought those days were behind me. But I’m having an eerie sense of déjà vu as I watch the almost daily developments in the natural world. Something’s happening, and it looks like the earth’s immune systems are failing. We just came off a winter of brutal extremes: Alaska was broiling, while the East was locked in a deep freeze from the once-unknown “polar vortex.” California is now in the grip of the worst drought ever to hit the state, hard on the heels of the record multi-year drought in Texas. Thousands of square miles of American forests have fallen to the now-rabid pine bark beetle. Washington’s governor is sounding the alarm that rising ocean acidity is destroying the state’s oyster industry as the seas soak up so much atmospheric carbon. Flood insurance rates nationwide have skyrocketed with rising sea levels and increased storm intensity.

And that’s just here in the U.S.  Globally, last month was the hottest June on record for land, following the same record for May; and it was the hottest of any month ever for oceans. We’ve now had 352 consecutive months of global heat exceeding the 20th Century average. Massive droughts have hit exports of Russian and Australian wheat and American corn in the last two years. Global food prices have spiked repeatedly, stoking food riots and conflict throughout the Arab world. Central America’s devastating storms have undermined social structures to a point where hundreds of thousands are migrating in a desperate search for food and safety.

I wonder if the young among us even know that it wasn’t always this way. Maybe plagues of biblical proportions have always been the stuff of ordinary life, no?

Well just this week, a new plague has appeared on the scene, in a place where I wasn’t expecting it. We heard in yesterday’s news that the city of Toledo has just lost its drinking water. About 400,000 Ohioans have been warned not to drink their tap water because of a dangerous toxin called microcystis that’s spread all over Lake Erie and other Great Lakes.

Courtesy Circle of Blue

Courtesy Circle of Blue

Microcystis is a type of algae that’s been going wild in recent years. If consumed, it affects liver function and causes diarrhea or worse. You can’t get rid of it by boiling; that even makes it more toxic. Even skin contact can be harmful, causing burning and rashes. Some people are even warned not to wash their hands under the tap.

And that’s just the people. The algae-choked water can also kill livestock and pets, not to mention the thousands of species of animals that rely on the lake habitat. And in the lake, the algal blooms result in enormous “dead zones,” where bacteria, feeding on dying algae, deplete all the oxygen in the water, killing all fish and other marine life.

Oh goodness! Another random freak event besetting the good American people?

Cytocystis algae make water toxic

Microcystis algae makes water toxic. Courtesy Tom Archer

Almost certainly not. Experts tell us that this is caused by two principal factors. The first is runoff of chemical fertilizers from Midwest corn and soybean fields, and wastewater from sewage treatment plants. But climate change is making it much worse, according to scientists from Oregon and North Carolina: Microcystis bacteria thrive in warm weather and high CO2 concentrations; and today’s increasingly torrential rainstorms wash more farm fertilizers and city sewer runoff into the lake, fueling the algae’s growth.

So in our impaired natural systems, microcystis water poisoning looks to be the plague-du-jour. Sure, it’s only a half million people losing their clean water, and by sometime in September or October, the algae should be gone for the season. But these almost-daily plagues could well be the groaning of a global immune system that has been severely damaged by our abuse and neglect.

We’ve heard that word – groaning – before, haven’t we? St. Paul wrote it almost two thousand years ago: “The whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). I don’t know how things sounded like in Paul’s day, but the groaning is getting pretty loud in ours. Isn’t it maybe time to ask whether we need to change the way we’re treating the Creation?

Because what we’re doing to it is not fair.

The Prophet Nathan and the EPA Carbon Limits

“The Lord sent Nathan to David.”

That’s how the story begins – the familiar Bible account of royal corruption, conspiracy, sexual abuse and murder. The prophet began by telling the king a simple story of two neighbors: one rich, and one poor; one with vast herds of sheep and cattle, and one with nothing but a beloved pet lamb who slept in his arms.

We remember the storyline, don’t we? The rich man entertained a visitor, but was unwilling to use any of his abundant livestock to feed his houseguest. Instead, he seized his poor neighbor’s pet to be slaughtered for dinner. King David seethed with anger over such pitiless injustice, and pronounced the death penalty without even asking the rich villain’s identity.

Nathan didn’t waste a moment: “You are the man!” he declared (2 Samuel 12).

That was then. Three thousand years later, the poor still suffer abuse at the hands of the powerful, just like in King David’s time. The themes of speaking prophetic truth to power are also timeless. But neighbors with cattle, sheep and pet lambs are not, are they? So how does Nathan’s story translate into the struggles for justice in the 21st Century?

At its core, Nathan’s story is about a transaction – enjoyed by one party, but paid for by another. There is a rich man, and he has a houseguest. Maybe they’re both rich; maybe they’re relatives; maybe they’re together for a business deal – the prophet doesn’t say. But cultural norms require hospitality, and part of the deal is a good dinner. Whatever their business, they need meat for the traveler and his host. They could bear those costs themselves; in fact, any thinking person would demand it. But instead, they impose the costs on a neighbor. What’s worse, they dump them on someone who is already dirt-poor. If you’re at all like King David, you’re hot under the collar just thinking about it.

Lisa Sharon Harper, of New York Faith & Justice, praying with religious leaders at the EPA hearings.

Lisa Sharon Harper, of New York Faith & Justice, praying with religious leaders at the EPA hearings.

And this brings us to a debate that’s been raging in major American cities this week. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed standards under the Clean Air Act, to cut carbon pollution from electric power plants. It’s sparked an intense debate, with pastors and conservationists among the supporters, and coal and utility executives arguing against it. Twelve coal-mining states even filed suit  yesterday to block the EPA from issuing its carbon standards.

Whatever you’ve heard about the debate, a bit of background on the Clean Air Act would be helpful. With overwhelming bipartisan support, Congress passed the Clean Air Act under President Richard Nixon in 1970, and expanded it under George H.W. Bush in 1990. The Act required the EPA to establish air quality standards to protect public health and welfare, and to regulate emissions of hazardous substances. Over the years, the EPA has responded by setting standards for harmful pollution contaminating the country’s atmosphere. Forty years later, few of us can remember the days when cities like Pittsburgh were shrouded in a permanent toxic fog, when rivers like the Cuyahoga in Cleveland actually caught fire, or when less than half of Americans were served by wastewater treatment facilities.

In recent years, the EPA’s duty to also regulate climate-warming gases under the Clean Air Act has been confirmed by landmark legal cases beginning in 2007 and culminating with a Supreme Court ruling in 2014. And in response, the agency has proposed regulations designed to cut carbon emissions from electric power plants – the largest single source of greenhouse gases – to levels 30% below current levels by the year 2030.

Rivers aren't supposed to burn: the Cuyahoga in 1969

Rivers aren’t supposed to burn: the Cuyahoga in 1969

This week marks the end of a lengthy period of public comment on the EPA’s proposals. In Washington, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Denver, hundreds of stakeholders came out to speak their minds on the proposals, including coal industry lobbyists, politicians and conservationists. In Washington on Wednesday, about two dozen religious leaders took to the podium to add their voices in support of the EPA’s proposed plan.

“We are responding to the reality of climate change,” said Sojourners’ Liz Schmitt, “not just because of what the science says, not just because we know ethically we need to, but first and foremost because the Word tells us to.”

Schmitt was joined by Evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Protestants and Jewish leaders, among others, in invoking biblical faith as the basis for fighting climate pollution. “The creation speaks to us of God’s steadfast love for us,’ said Schmitt. “And the Bible speaks to us of our first responsibility, the task God gives to humanity in Genesis – to steward the creation.”

Two days later, evangelical environmental leader Rev. Mitch Hescox told the EPA delegates in Pittsburgh: “For years, we have subsidized the cost of coal-generated electricity in the brains, lungs, and bodies of our children, and privatized the profits. Asthma, cancers, autism, birth defects, and brain damage have a direct link to the use of fossil fuels and petrochemicals.”

For Rev. Hescox, the coal companies make the profits, and the children bear the costs of diseases and climate disruption.

And that brings us back to the prophet Nathan, and his story about little a lamb and a rich man. Who should bear the cost of dinner? Not the poor neighbor, of course! In our day, who should bear the costs of electric power production? When those plants burn coal, oil and gas, who should bear the costs – the external costs – of the pollutants that find their way into the air, water and land? Not the poor, of course! Right?

But that’s the way external costs almost always work. Buyers and sellers get all the advantages of the fossil fuel production. But people downwind pay the price in asthma and elevated mercury levels, and in droughts, floods and crop failures that have become the routine calling card of climate disruption. And study after study  shows that the poor are much more likely than the rich to be found among the victims.

Although they would never come out and say it that way, that’s just the way the coal companies and their backers want it to remain. Every state attorney general filing suit against the EPA, and every coal executive has the same message: “We can’t afford it.”

However, they seldom complete the argument with much candor. “We can’t afford it – unless people like you continue to subsidize our profits by paying for the external costs of our pollutants” – that’s the actual heart of the argument. It’s a startling admission that the fossil-fuel business model is essentially bankrupt, unless our neighbors bear the external costs for us.

Until recently, we didn’t really know the scale of the external costs of coal burning. But in 2010, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences quantified these costs in their study titled The Hidden Cost of Energy. Its findings were shocking. Coal burned in a single year by U.S. power plants costs everyone else on the planet another $200 to 300 billion in unpriced external costs – the costs of respiratory diseases, ecosystem damages, and climate impacts like drought, flooding and rising food costs.  That’s a tax of about $40 levied on every single human on Earth. Only for U.S. coal. Only for one single year. Borne by men and women, by adults and children. Borne by the rich. And borne by the roughly one billion humans earning less than $1 per day.

So maybe it’s time to “remix” the story of the prophet Nathan for our day. If we’re among those who benefit from “the right” to freely pollute the world’s air, forcing the world’s billions to subsidize our use of cheap energy, maybe Nathan is speaking to us: “Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? … Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house….”

Yes, perhaps the sword. Or perhaps the chaos from disrupted climate systems, rising sea levels, drought and wildfires, flooding and hunger. This planet is the only one God has provided for its seven billion human souls. Can we continue to abuse it without incurring the judgment of its Creator?

Governor, the Scientists and Theologians Want to Talk to You

Imagine a press conference in Washington.

  • Q: “Governor, do you advocate drinking toxic sludge?”
  • A: “I don’t know, I’m not a scientist.”
  • Q: “Well Governor, is jumping off the north rim of the Grand Canyon safe?  And is it a good idea to place my head in the jaws of a lion?”
  • A: “I told you, I’m not a scientist.”

Silly, right? No one talks like that. We take firm positions on all kinds of things in reliance on the expertise of others. And that’s why it’s been so strange to hear “I’m not a scientist” from politicians dodging questions about climate change.

Consider Florida Governor Rick Scott. On May 27th at a campaign stop in Miami, the Miami Herald reported this interchange:

  • Q: “Do you believe man-made climate change is significantly affecting the weather, the climate?”
  • A: “Well, I’m not a scientist. But let’s talk about what we’ve done…. But I’m not a scientist.”
  • Q: “In 2011 or 2010, you were much more doubtful about climate change. Now you’re sounding less doubtful about man-made climate change….”
  • A: “Well, I’m not a scientist. But I can tell you what we’ve accomplished….”
  • Q: “So do you believe in the man-made influence on climate change?”
  • A: “Nice seeing you guys.”
Florida Gov. Scott, not a scientist

Florida Gov. Scott, not a scientist

Or consider House Speaker John Boehner. On May 29th, he took the podium to criticize the EPA’s proposed power-plant carbon standards, which aim to reduce climate-warming emissions.

“Listen, I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change,” Boehner said. “But I am astute to understand that every proposal that has come out of this administration to deal with climate change involves hurting our economy and killing American jobs. That can’t be the prescription for dealing with changes to our climate.”

Boehner protests that he’s not qualified to debate climate science, but he’s pretty sure about the economics. For the record, he is neither a scientist nor an economist.

And then there’s a second Floridian, Senator Marco Rubio. “Denial is a loaded term,” he told ABC News on May 11th. “I’ve never denied that there is a climate change. The question is: Is man-made activity causing the changes in the climate?”

If you’re waiting for Rubio’s answer, I’m so sorry. Rubio isn’t a scientist. He’s not going to venture a position.

Of course, people who aren’t scientists usually have a way of getting to the bottom of scientific issues: For the most part, they listen to the actual scientists. In this case, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (among scores of other authorities) has found that 97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field of climatology support the scientific consensus on manmade climate change. Further, they report that the 2-3 percent who don’t agree possess comparatively low expertise and prominence in the field.

In fact, not being a scientist is almost always a reason to seek out and heed the advice of those who are. We can all appreciate skepticism about medicine, or physics, or biology. But none of us respects it from someone who is totally unlearned in the field being debated. “I’m skeptical, but I’m not a scientist?”  That doesn’t carry much weight in virtually any arena.

Except maybe politics, it would appear.

But there is a risk to this approach. What if actual scientists offer to sit down with you, and explain the facts in easily understood layman’s terms? You might just have to listen, right?

And that’s what’s just happened to Florida’s Governor Scott. Last week, ten prominent Florida climate scientists offered to give him a crash course in climate change science.

“We are scientists,” they said in a letter to the governor, contrasting themselves with Scott’s not-a-scientist narrative.

“Those of us signing this letter have spent hundreds of years combined studying this problem, not from any partisan political perspective, but as scientists — seekers of evidence and explanations. As a result, we feel uniquely qualified to assist you in understanding what’s already happening in the climate system so you may make the most effective decisions about what must be done to protect the state, including reducing emissions from fossil-fuel-burning power plants.”

Of course, this is Scott’s worst nightmare. “I’m not a scientist” somehow seems much more forgivable than “I understand the problem but don’t want to run afoul of my oil company donors.” Or even: “Okay, it’s a problem, but let’s let the kids deal with it.”

Flooding without rain: Miami Beach streets at high tide

Flooding without rain: Miami Beach streets at high tide

The scientists said that they could bring the governor up to speed in about a half an hour. “It’s not rocket science,” said their spokesman, Jeff Chandon of Florida State University. Chandon plans to walk the governor through millions of years of temperature data, which has risen whenever the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased, and fallen when it decreased. But those concentrations also never ranged outside of 180 to 280 parts per million (ppm). Today, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stands at 400 ppm, and is rising fast.

This is not good for the unknowing Scott, currently locked in a tight reelection race for the votes of Floridians, two-thirds of whom are convinced of the near-term peril to their state from the changing climate, according to a Yale University study. So he initially agreed to send a staffer to meet with the scientists. But when his rival, former Governor Charlie Crist agreed to sit down with the scientists in person, Scott relented, and the crash course is now on.

But another group of experts is also trying to meet with the governor, with less success so far. Reverend Mitchell Hescox, the head of the Evangelical Environmental Network, has asked for a meeting with Scott, a professing Christian, to discuss the moral and spiritual implications of climate change on the vulnerable people of Florida.

“Florida, your home, literally represents ground zero,” wrote Hescox in a letter to the governor last week. “Sea level rise, more extreme weather, saltwater contaminated wells, loss of farm land and increased air pollution all pose significant threats to the health and well-being of Floridians.”

Hescox, an outspoken conservative, assured the governor that this has nothing to do with politics. “It’s a moral challenge to all Americans. It is a call to follow our Risen Lord and act to prepare for the impacts, many of which are already happening, and to work to reduce our carbon pollution to help our children, now and in the future.”

So far, Hescox hasn’t gotten too far. He’s collected more than 57,000 signatures from Floridians urging Scott to develop a plan to address climate change. But the governor isn’t planning on meeting him. Lots of Hescox’s fellow Christians have begun to pray, and next Tuesday, Hescox is planning to knock on Scott’s door with his 57,000 signatures, his Bible, and his plea for justice for “the least of these,” who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Who knows? Maybe the scientists will help Scott understand things well enough to realize that his state faces a crisis. And maybe Hescox’s boldness will get him in the door, for a few prophetic words to a fellow believer.

For me, I’m joining those who are praying for both meetings. Florida is indeed ground zero. But it’s not too late for its leaders to take action to reduce the harm, especially for those leaders who believe that “the earth (including Florida) is the Lord’s, and all its fullness” Psalm 24:1.


Child Immigration & Extreme Weather: Have We Missed the Connection?

You’ve watched – perhaps with horror, or perhaps with approval – at American protesters blocking buses filled with Central American children from reaching immigration processing centers around the country.

In Murrieta, California two weeks ago, 150 of them chanted “USA! USA!” and waved American flags. The scared children on board – some as young as six years old – didn’t understand the words: “Go home! We don’t want you here!” But in the end, the buses turned around and took them elsewhere.

If you’ve been reading the news, then no doubt you’ve heard the debate: Who’s to blame for letting those children in? What laws do we need to change to keep them from coming? How quickly can we schedule court hearings to decide their fate? What signals did we send that brought them here in the first place? Which political party would handle this mess better?

Protesters at immigration processing centers

Protesters at immigration processing centers

Less often, however, do we hear about conditions that drove their desperate flight. Think about it: What would ever have possessed your mother to pay someone to cram you onto a freight train and send you on a perilous journey among total strangers – possibly forever?

Since last October, there have been 52,000 of them: children walking across the U.S. border, all the way from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Clearly, something is going on here. That many parents don’t just float their vulnerable children among the bulrushes for no good reason. Now and then, we hear about conditions back home: gang violence, child murders, rape, poverty. Are these just evil countries?

Well, perhaps you haven’t heard about one condition back home. As far as I know, it hasn’t found its way into the public debate at all. Here it is: Honduras and Guatemala are among the top ten countries in the entire world most seriously hurt by global climate change. Honduras, in fact ranks #1 worldwide on this scale. And El Salvador just misses the top ten, with a #13 ranking. Continue reading

Canada’s High Court Hands First Nations Keys to the Tar Sands

One hundred and fifty years ago, five leaders of the indigenous Tsilhqot’in Nation in British Columbia were lured into peace talks with the British Crown, and then promptly arrested and hanged.

That brought to an end the Chilcotin War of 1864, which had broken out in response to a flood of gold-rush settlers in the Canadian west.  Like most other native nations in British Columbia, the Tsilhqot’in (or Chilcotin) did not surrender their land under a treaty, but were slowly marginalized under the pressure of settlement and development. Their lands were exploited for gold, minerals and timber, and they were recognized as having title to only a small fraction of their historical range.

But two weeks ago, much of that changed overnight. In a 25-year-old legal case, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously on June 26th in favor of the Chilcotin Nation’s claim to some 675 square miles of land that had previously been contested. The court found that aboriginal title does not just apply to land where First Nations live, but to the lands they have historically used for hunting, trapping and fishing.

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak leading Healing Walk in the tar sands

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak leading Healing Walk in the tar sands

The day after the decision was handed down, I arrived in northern Alberta for a gathering of First Nations leaders and their friends, in the heart of tar sands mining country. And despite the flood of terrible news facing native people from the tar sands pollution, the mood that day was happy – even jubilant.

That’s because the Chilcotin decision for the first time provides a clear basis to establish First Nations’ title to un-surrendered lands, and strengthens the hand of indigenous people in dealing with companies seeking to exploit mining, logging and fossil fuel development on those lands.

“This decision . . . will be a game-changer in terms of the landscape in B.C. and throughout the rest of the country where there is unextinguished aboriginal title,” said First Nations Regional Chief of British Columbia Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Others would go even further, claiming that it gives indigenous people “a veto” over resource development proposals on their now-expanded lands. And while that’s probably an overstatement, the court’s ruling certainly increases the amount of Canadian land over which the First Nations will now exercise significant control. Now, timber companies, miners, and pipeline operators will have to solicit consent from indigenous peoples before pushing ahead.

Ah, pipeline operators. Now there’s a timely topic. Continue reading