• 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

Climate Change: Who Speaks for Christianity?

The global Christian church is by far the world’s largest religious family. Among its various denominations, it accounts for more than 31 percent of the earth’s population – almost one out of every three people in the world.

For the casual observer, it’s hard to know exactly what the global church thinks about the topic of climate change. Here in the US, some Christian activists stand with he late-great Rev. John Stott, who warned that “of all the global threats that face our planet, climate change is the most serious.” But others go with Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, claiming that global warming is “the greatest hoax” ever sold to mankind.  Still others see the effect of climate change, but believe it to be a sign of the “end times.”

When you have 2.1 billion people in your church – and tens of thousands of denominations – it’s not so easy figuring out the “official position,” is it? But it’s not impossible either. And that’s because within global Christianity, there are major segments whose adherents follow and respect specific authorities and governing bodies. Here’s a brief tally:christian-traditions-chart-1

Roman Catholic Church: The largest entity in global Christianity is the Catholic Church, representing 1.2 billion adherents, or 53% of global Christianity. And just this month, Catholic Bishops from around the world assembled to issue a call to “overcome the climate challenge and to set us on new sustainable pathways.”

Their spokesman, Monsignor Salvador Piñeiro García-Calderón, president of the Peruvian Bishops’ Conference, said: “We bishops from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe have engaged in intense dialogue on the issue of climate change, because we can see it’s the poorest people who are impacted the most, despite the fact they’ve contributed the least to causing it.”

The U.S. Bishops, it turns out, are in full agreement, having issued many calls to address climate pollution. “At its core, global climate change is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures,” they wrote in 2001. “It is about the future of God’s creation and the one human family.”

Earlier this year, Pope Francis asked his fellow Catholics to acknowledge the truth of climate change and to protect the planet: “… if we destroy Creation,” he said, “Creation will destroy us!” Next summer, the Pope plans to release an encyclical specifically addressing climate change. But until he does, let’s stick with the Bishops, and put the first 53% of the global church in the climate-change-believer column.

Orthodox Church: And for simplicity, let’s turn next to the Eastern Orthodox Church. At 210 million adherents, they’re a somewhat-smaller 9.3% of global Christianity. But the Orthodox Church also has a linear authority structure, so it’s comparatively simple to know where they stand. And where they stand is no secret. Patriarch Bartholomew, sometimes called the “Green Patriarch,” has frequently spoken about climate change:

“In our efforts to contain global warming, we are ultimately admitting just how prepared we are to sacrifice some of our selfish and greedy lifestyles. When will we learn to say: ‘Enough!’ When will we understand how important it is to leave as light a footprint as possible on this planet for the sake of future generations?”

Protestants: So that’s the low-hanging fruit: Catholics and Orthodox constituting 62% of world Christianity, on record as serious about climate change as a matter of faith. But the rest is a little more fragmented. For example, 750 million people identify themselves as Protestants, but there are thousands of denominations. Fortunately, most have affiliated themselves with ecumenical bodies that speak out on vital issues of the day. For Protestants, there are some prominent ones: The Lausanne Movement on World Evangelism, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), the World Council of Churches (WCC), and the Anglican Communion. Together, they cover the bases for most Protestants: evangelicals, charismatics and mainline church members. So where do these bodies stand?

Lausanne Conference on World Evangelism in Cape Town, 2010

Lausanne Conference on World Evangelism in Cape Town called the church to address climate change

  • Lausanne Cape Town: Representing evangelicals from more than 200 countries, more than 4,000 Lausanne conferees met in Cape Town, South Africa in 2010 to adopt this statement: “We lament over the widespread abuse and destruction of the earth’s resources, including its biodiversity. Probably the most serious and urgent challenge faced by the physical world now is the threat of climate change.”
  • Lausanne Jamaica: The Cape Town declaration called for subsequent meetings to further develop evangelical action plans. In 2012, a global creation-care working group met in Jamaica to affirm this statement: “Many of the world’s poorest people … are being devastated by violence against the environment in many ways, of which global climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, water stress and pollution are but a part. We can no longer afford complacency and endless debate.”
  • World Evangelical Alliance: Claiming to represent 600 million evangelical Christians from 129 nations, the WEA co-sponsored the 2012 Jamaica conference with the Lausanne Movement, and contributed to its declaration, summarized above.
  • World Council of Churches: The mainline-Protestant WCC is deeply engaged in matters related to climate change, and has issued the following statement, among many others: “Human-induced climate change is being precipitated primarily by the high-consumption lifestyles of the richer industrialized nations and wealthy elites throughout the world, while the consequences will be experienced disproportionately by impoverished nations, low-lying island states, and future generations. Climate change is thus a matter of international and inter-generational justice.”
  • Anglican Communion: 85 million people in 165 countries identify themselves as Anglican or Episcopalian. The Archbishop of Canterbury has been unequivocal about the threat of global warming. Among many statements on the topic, in 2009 he said: “We all have to do more to face the challenges of climate change.  Faith communities have a crucial role to play…. We must do our bit and encourage others to do theirs. Together we can and we will make a difference”.

No doubt, there are Protestant churches which are not affiliated with any of these entities. But they represent a small fraction of the 750 million Protestant believers around the world. So for all intents and purposes, we can add most of another 33% – the world’s Protestants – to the movement of Christians whose churches affirm the need to address climate change as a matter relevant to their faith. And that brings us to the range of 90-95%.

And what about the churches that have gone on record denying the importance of climate action? Well, we’ve looked and looked. And while we’ve found scattered instances of climate deniers who cite faith as a basis for their disbelief, none (so far) actually represent any Christian churches or denominations.

In your church, you might have thought that climate change was a controversial topic, something to avoid so as to steer clear of a nasty spat. But unless we’ve made some unlikely math errors, the overwhelming majority of your brothers and sisters – or perhaps all of them – belong to movements on record as committed to climate stewardship as a core matter of faith.

And that’s good news! Now, you don’t have to be a “crazy prophet”   to speak out about caring for God’s creation in a world beset by drought, flood, famine and extinction.

China-US Collaboration on Climate Pollution

Much has been made of the historic agreement between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping – representing the world’s two largest carbon polluters – to finally begin cooperating on cutting CO2 emissions. After an initial deluge of sniping from US politicians, the world seems to have concluded that this could be the breakthrough that the Creation has been groaning for.

Ms. Elwood's indoor clothesline

Ms. Elwood’s indoor clothesline

We are thankful for the progress, and hopeful that India will come along next, leading to a global agreement in Paris next summer. But not all cooperation in caring for God’s Creation is between governments. Citizens can make a difference too.

Consider Barbara Elwood, American grandmother and keeper of laying hens. Ms. Elwood has just installed a new indoor clothesline, offering a little more comfort to the wintertime clothes-drying at her home in New Jersey. The grandkids like to pretend that the drying laundry is a jungle, and happily take their afternoon naps beneath the colorful assortment of tee-shirts and boxers.

In a matching gesture of East-West cooperation, Mei Lin Wong of Hong Kong has installed window clothes-drying racks outside her 24th story apartment windows, together with two-thirds of her fellow tenants. On a breezy day, Ms. Wong’s building flutters gaily with the wash hung out to dry, sparing the world thousands of pounds of CO2 pollution every year.

Ms. Wong's laundry hanging form the 24th floor in Hong Kong

Ms. Wong’s laundry hanging from the 24th floor in Hong Kong

In Nearby Guangzhou, Kue Ching Zhao hangs the week’s laundry from the wrought iron of her 4th story balcony, joining virtually all her neighbors in drying the laundry without drawing on China’s coal-choked power grid.

And some thirty miles to the southwest in Macau, Lifen Huang dries the wash for her three daughters on an impressive latticework of iron bars and improvised closet hardware, all suspended three stories above the narrow street below. Ms. Huang reports that, despite the copious loads of laundry drying in the breezes of the South China Sea, she has never lost even a single handkerchief to the winds.

Ms. Zhao's laundry drying on the 4th floor in Guangzhou (l.); Ms. Huang's in Macau.

Ms. Zhao’s laundry drying on the 4th floor in Guangzhou (left, upper balcony); Ms. Huang’s in Macau.

Together, Ms. Elwood and her Chinese collaborators are saving amazing amounts of carbon pollution. In the US alone, some 88 million electric dryers consume 106 billion kilowatt hours of electricity every year, and account for an incredible 109 million tons of annual CO2 pollution. Half of that pollution is absorbed into the oceans, raising acidity, killing off coral reefs and threatening entire marine ecosystems.

“Year by year,” said Ms. Elwood, “people I know are becoming more aware of the impact of climate disruption and carbon pollution. Clotheslines almost disappeared from our households for a time, but they’re making a much-needed comeback. Kudos to my Chinese partners for their remarkable achievements!”

We were unable to reach Ms. Wong, Zhao and Huang for comment. But given the intense pollution of China’s air and water, we’re confident that they feel the pretty much the same.

Note: A 40-foot retractable clothesline of the type used by Ms. Elwood can be had for less than $10 by clicking here.71gPg9RugzL._SL1500_

The Parable of the Corals

“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Romans 12:3-5)

On the evening of June 11, 1770, Captain James Cook and his fellow explorers aboard His Majesty’s bark Endeavour sailed cautiously under a full moon along Australia’s east coast – a wild terra incognita never before seen by Western eyes. The calm of the tropical night was broken only by the sighing of the wind in the sails, and call of the “leadsman” in the ship’s bow, throwing his lead-weighted line into the black water ahead to measure its depth beneath the ship’s keel. For days now, the passage between the massive landmass to the west and the Great Barrier Reef to the east had been narrowing, and vigilance was required to assure the safety of the ship’s 94 living souls, now almost two years into an epic journey of discovery.

Austrialian replica of HMS Endevour

Austrialian replica of HMS Endevour

“Fourteen fathoms,” came the call from the leadsman – 84 feet, a comfortable depth for any ship. “Sixteen fathoms.” No worries disturbed the quiet evening. “Seventeen fathoms.” More than one hundred feet of blessed, deep water.

The leadsman prepared to cast his line again, but the throw was never made. With a sickening, splintering jolt, the Endeavour came to a jarring halt, the sea grinding the ship’s broken timbers on sharp corals with every swell, pouring into the hull beneath the gunwales.

Stricken and alone in the remotest corner of the world, the wreck and subsequent rescue of the Endeavour offers an inspiring story of courage, leadership and resourcefulness on the part of a desperate ship’s crew. But years later, the wreck left Captain Cook wholly perplexed by the “wall of Coral Rock rising almost perpendicular out of the unfathomable Ocean.”  He knew that coral reefs were biological in origin. But if so, how had it come to be so massive a wall – to be “thrown up to such a height?”

Corals turn out to be among the world’s most amazing creatures, capable of building structures that dwarf the Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, or even the monstrous tar sands pits of Canada. The Great Barrier Reef, where Captain Cook nearly met his end, stretches for 1,500 miles, and is as thick as 500 feet from top to bottom.  And coral reefs range throughout tropical waters around the globe, from Australia, to Belize, to the Red Sea, and thousands of places in-between.

As any reader of the gospels knows, Jesus Christ had a habit of calling on familiar natural objects to illustrate his teaching. “Consider the lilies,” he would tell us in our worries about food and clothing. “My sheep hear my voice,” he said, comforting his anxious followers. “Foxes have dens, and birds of the heaven have nests,” in contrast to his own enduring homelessness.

But if Jesus were teaching the Christian church in North America today, I think he might point us to the corals. “Consider the corals,” he might begin.

Why corals? Because, of all God’s creatures, corals display the beauty of unified community, nurturing an explosion of life in otherwise barren places. And whatever else might be said about the Church today, surely we need someone – or something – to help us to nurture unity and life-affirming patterns.

Unity Amidst Diversity: The New Testament is packed with pleas for – and shining examples of – unity among Jesus’ disciples. In his only recorded prayer for the Church that would follow him, Jesus asks the Father “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you …” (John 17:21). St. Paul carries on the theme, calling us one body with many vital parts – the Body of Christ, drinking of one cup, partaking of one Spirit, serving one Lord and Father of all. And perhaps most coral-like, St. Peter calls us “living stones” being built together as a single house of worship.

Hundreds of species of coral polyps at work

Hundreds of species of coral polyps at work

All these scriptures speak of the Church. But perhaps they also could describe those amazing corals. Let me explain.

At the heart of every coral reef are millions of tiny animals that we call polyps. Coral polyps are invertebrates related to anemones or jellyfish, only a few millimeters in diameter. Despite their soft bodies, they’ve been endowed with the ability to build exoskeletons – rock-like shells, made from the building blocks of the ocean’s chemistry – through the process of calcification. And as they multiply, those exoskeletons build upon one another to create massive formations, rich in calcium, and home to complex ecosystems.

They are, quite literally, “living stones.” A coral polyp on its own is practically nothing. But on a reef, billions of polyps belonging to as many as a hundred different species are all devoting themselves to the same basic task. Building together, sharing nutrients with one another, and providing mutual protection, they form what appears to be a single rock formation, strong enough to sink ships of wood or steel, and tame the fiercest ocean waves.

I’m afraid we have much to learn from the corals. In Western culture, we have developed a once-unimaginably individualistic world-view – possibly the most inhospitable to real community in human memory. Our technology, our wealth, our rampant consumption and our national myths all conspire toward individual comfort and isolation, in ways never before possible. We often drive our cars alone. One in four of us lives entirely alone. In Los Angeles, more than 75% of us have our own solitary home, cutting off the beautiful messiness on which community thrives. Our long commutes guarantee plenty of “elbow room,” safe from intrusion by meddling neighbors. We shop with the click of a finger. And even when we’re with others, our ear buds and smart phones block out the messy community around us, as we tune in our private play-lists and videos.

So it’s not surprising that our Western brand of Christianity tends to reflect this hyper-individual mindset. God has a plan for my life…. I come to the garden alone…. My Redeemer waits for me at gates of gold…. I change churches frequently, rather than reconciling personal conflicts, or seeking common ground amidst divergent perspectives, beliefs and tastes. Ultimately, perhaps, I drop the whole church thing entirely, while insisting that I remain deeply “spiritual” – in some individualized conception.

But I wonder if we can imagine Jesus speaking to us: “Consider the corals….”

If lilies of the field and birds of the air can be our teachers, then why can’t they? The tiny polyps are distinct individuals; real animals with their own God-given value, representing many distinct species. Each one builds a small bit of calcified shell during its life. But those shells are fused together with the entire coral community, eventually yielding massive rocks of every color, shape and size. Not only that, but each polyp extends its tissues to link with its neighbor, so that each can share nutrients with all the rest. No coral polyp hungers – or prospers – alone.

But the communitarian enterprise does much more than unite coral to coral. In fact, none of world’s reefs would be possible if corals did not also welcome and shelter other species into their homes. Although corals are animals, each polyp harbors tiny plants known as zooxanthellae. Protected by the coral structures, these plants produce carbohydrates via photosynthesis, and polyps harvest the carbohydrates to support their growth. As long as ocean conditions are stable, this symbiotic relationship drives the growth and health of all reefs.

Father, may they all be one…. Like corals, perhaps? Wouldn’t that be remarkable!

Nurturing Life in a Barren Place: I love the sapphire blue of tropical waters, don’t you? But appearances can be deceiving. In fact, tropical waters are clear and bright precisely because they are low in nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, the marine equivalents of deserts. Paradoxically, however, it’s these waters that spawn an explosion of sea life without which the ocean ecosystems would collapse.

The reason? Of course, it’s the corals. They are perfectly suited to thrive in these waters. The reefs are natural construction projects that displace no creatures, but rather support thousands or millions of species with nutrients and shelter.

"Nurseries of the ocean: Reefs support incredible biodiversity

“Nurseries of the ocean”: Reefs support incredible biodiversity

Thousands of species? Consider: Author Elizabeth Kolbert interviewed an Australian researcher who broke apart a volleyball-sized chunk of coral, and found, living inside it, more than 1,400 polychaete worms belonging to 103 different species. She found an American researcher who collected corals from a one square meter of reef coral, and discovered more than 100 species of crustaceans. And in another square meter, a researcher discovered more than 120 species.

Corals work together to fulfill their singular purpose, and entire ecosystems spring to life. Indeed, the corals feed their guests in a more sacrificial manner as well. The corals are constantly being eaten away at by fish, sea urchins and burrowing worms. And yet, if ocean conditions are healthy, they grow fast enough to feed their guests while maintaining the health of their own community.

The Church after Pentecost comes to mind doesn’t it? No one claimed his possessions as his own; there were no needy persons among them; much grace was upon them all. “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:46-47). Doesn’t it sound a bit like a spectacular coral reef community, built and maintained by those tiny polyps and their tinier zooxanthellae partners?

In Danger of Collapse:  The Acts 2 passage above goes on: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” It’s funny, but the more they gave away, the richer they became in brothers, sisters, and acts of grace. And in fits and starts, the Church of Jesus Christ has grown over the years to include 2.2 billion self-identified Christians, the largest faith community on Earth, and by far the most culturally diverse.

And once again, the corals reflect this picture of growth and global diversity. An enormous band of tropical waters stretching around the Earth has been filled and enriched by them. In temperate zones, our limestone quarries and fertile fields point to the presence of their ancient predecessors.

Can we imagine the Lord directing us to model our faith on the lives of corals? If so, we should pause to consider a dire warning. The Earth’s corals are dying.

This is not hyperbole. Take it from the chief scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, J.E.N. Veron: “Here I am today, humbled to have spent my life around the rich wonders of the underwater world, and utterly convinced that they will not be there for our children’s children to enjoy.”

Veron has plenty of company in his lament over dying oceanic ecosystems. In 2012, more than 2,600 of the world’s top marine scientists warned that coral reefs around the world are in rapid decline due to human impacts. The warning signs are everywhere. Virtually all reefs now suffer frequent “bleaching,” when the coral polyps expel their vital zooxanthellae guests in a desperate effort to survive the warming water temperatures. In the Caribbean, approximately 80 percent of coral reef cover is now dead, victim to the warmer waters of a changing climate, overfishing, pollution, and ocean acidification (climate change’s equally “evil twin”).

That last one – ocean acidification – might be a sleeper, but it’s absolutely devastating. Over the last 200 years, mankind has dug up and burned into the air fossil fuels containing more than 500 billion tons of CO2.  About half of all that carbon – roughly 250 billion tons – has been absorbed by the oceans. If not for all that ocean carbon uptake, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would easily be twice as thick as before the Industrial Revolution, and the Earth would be uninhabitable for many thousands of species.

But the oceans’ services have come at a cost: When CO2 dissolves in water, it forms carbonic acid – H2CO3 – which effectively “eats” carbonate ions, the key chemical ingredient in calcification for creatures like corals, crustaceans and shellfish. Today, carbonic acid has raised the acidity of the oceans by thirty percent over pre-industrial times. And in these acidic waters, corals struggle to grow, or even begin to dissolve. Meanwhile, fish, sea urchins and other creature continue to nibble away at reefs, and humans continue to pump more carbon emissions into the atmosphere, further acidifying the waters that we all depend on.

No one knows for sure how long God’s generous corals can hold out against the onslaught of acids in our day. But many scientists give them no more than 25 years, or perhaps until mid-century, unless we make major changes in the way we consume and produce energy.

Christians believe that their Lord loves the things he made. Not one sparrow falls without God’s loving knowledge, Jesus told us. To him, the lilies of the field were far more beautiful than the most glorious royal wardrobes. And after every day of the Creation story, we hear the voice of Divine Pleasure: “And God saw that it was good.”

I’m convinced that God loves his coral reefs too. If only his Church could come together to nurture life the way they do! Indeed, if the corals are to survive – and the entire ocean ecosystem with them – they may need the Church to unite now in defense of its Master’s beloved Creation.

Keystone: Don’t Like This Senate? Buy Yourself a Better One

Two notable facts come into focus as the U.S. Senate today came within a whisker of forcing through the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline – linking the Alberta tar sands petro-moonscape with warm-water U.S. export terminals in Texas. First, the Koch Brothers are revealed to be the largest non-Canadian owner of tar sands mineral rights, holding acreage the size of the state of Delaware. Second, those same Koch Brothers are estimated to have spent roughly $300 million to influence U.S. Congressional elections this year.

That’s roughly $300 in political spending for every acre of tar sands oil they own.

When you think about it, that’s a pretty small investment for so much oil.

The Washington Post reports today: “You might expect the biggest foreign lease owner in Canada’s oil sands, or tar sands, to be one of the international oil giants, like Exxon Mobil or Royal Dutch Shell. But that isn’t the case. The biggest non-Canadian lease holder in the northern Alberta oil sands is a subsidiary of Koch Industries, the privately-owned cornerstone of the fortune of conservative Koch brothers Charles and David. The Koch Industries subsidiary holds leases on 1.1 million acres — an area nearly the size of Delaware — in the oil sands region of Alberta, Canada.”

And during the election season, The Huffington Post reported: “The billionaire Koch brothers and their political network are planning to spend almost $300 million during the 2014 election cycle, some of which will go toward a renewed effort to combat unprecedented carbon regulations unveiled by the Obama administration last month.” Of course, the exact amount can’t be known, because U.S. law permits the Kochs and others to keep most of their spending secret.

Tar sand petro-moonscape. Courtesy of Sierra Club Canada

Tar sand petro-moonscape. Courtesy of Sierra Club Canada

If your business plan called for the destruction of more than a million acres of boreal forests, digging out vast mountains of tar-soaked soil, wringing out a killing in oily bitumen, and leaving behind indigenous peoples  awash in enormous lakes of toxic sludge, wouldn’t $300 per acre seem like a small price to pay? Especially if the Congress you purchased was willing to force its farmers and ranchers to give you a pipeline right-of-way through the heart of its breadbasket?

We continue to pray for justice for the victims of tar sands oppression. Today, those prayers test our faith in new ways, as the rich and powerful flex their muscles in Congress. Lord, open our eyes to see the true Sovereign of this world, with eyes unclouded by the many pretenders who claim it as their own.

“Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations…. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.” (Isaiah 42:1, 4)

Why We Are Praying: NO KEYSTONE XL

The news today is grim.

We hear that Democrat Mary Landrieu, fighting for her political life in oil-dominated Louisiana, is joining with Senate Republicans in a bid to force the Obama Administration to approve the massive Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, linking Canada’s toxic petro-moonscape in Alberta to export refineries on the Gulf Coast. Harry Reid, the lame-duck Majority Leader, will do her the favor of letting the vote come to the floor. In the House, Speaker Boehner will easily roll over the opposition. Before you know it, legislation will almost certainly land on President Obama’s desk, demanding that he approve the pipeline now.

But for months now, a prayer-band of Christians has regularly raised its voice to God, begging Him to stop the powerful forces seeking to enrich the wealthy at the expense of His Creation, and especially the poor and vulnerable. Today, we recall the many who have prayed in the face of overwhelming power. We recall Judah’s King Jehoshaphat, who looked from Jerusalem’s walls at an overwhelming swarm of invaders, and prayed: “We are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you…” (1 Chron. 20:12). We remember the apostles Peter and John, facing threats from the Sanhedrin that had just murdered the Son of Man: “Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness…” (Acts 4:29).

It has looked grim for God’s people many times before. But we continue to pray: Lord, stretch out your hand to protect the poor, the powerless, the Creation that you love, from the hand of the powerful, the greedy, and the willfully ignorant. God has not always answered the way we have hoped. But He always invites us – even more, He commands us – into His presence to pray.

But most Americans – many Christians included – seem not to understand why we’re on our knees. Isn’t this pipeline a major source of jobs? Isn’t this our ticket to “energy independence?” Shouldn’t we believe the hundreds of TV commercials we’ve seen promising huge economic benefits and a pristine environment – if only we’ll give the multinational oil companies an easy pathway through our agricultural heartland to the sea?

Well, in a word, No. And no. And no.

But we can do better than that. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people have taken to the streets in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. And their reasons vary depending on their home community, their tribe, or their particular interests. But for brevity, let me pick four key reasons why we wish that all people of faith would join us in praying to stop the Keystone XL pipeline:

  • Tar sands expansion harms native Canadian nations, already being poisoned by tar sands mining.
  • Just when the world’s two largest carbon polluters have finally agreed to act on climate change, the Keystone XL will open the floodgates on some of the world’s most carbon-polluting oil.
  • Big-money oil exporters will profit, but ordinary people will suffer.
  • The world is desperate for climate leadership from America.

Tar sands mining harms Canadian native people: The First Nations, especially the Cree and Dene people, have lived sustainably in the Alberta tar sands region for thousands of years, long before Europeans arrived. They rely on the water, the fish, and the game to sustain their communities and their lives. But the tar sand mining of the last two decades has irreversibly polluted much of their land and water, spawning an epidemic of cancers, and other ills. Indigenous communities like Fort Chipewyan – so remote and pristine as to be accessible only over frozen rivers – are now reduced to buying bottled water and importing all their food. We now hear the disturbing word “genocide” in connection with some of these nations. And if we’re offended by the word, perhaps we should try to imagine the offense taken by its victims.

I spent a week among the tar sands nations earlier this year, and can attest that these concerns are not exaggerated. In fact, the cultural gentleness of these people tends, in my opinion, to mask the full extent of the harm that the carbon-industrial complex is wreaking on them and their children.

But you don’t have to make the long trip to Fort McMurray yourself. Just watch any of a number of easily accessible videos. It’s worth hearing from the principal doctor serving some of these cancer clusters. Here’s one that’s worth the three minutes of run time:

Keystone XL will open the floodgates on some of the world’s most carbon-polluting oil: It’s not for nothing that TransCanada, Exxon, Shell, Valero, Total and others are desperate to force Obama and Kerry to approve the pipeline. Alberta has unimaginable petroleum resources, and these giant companies have bet billions that they can get their hands on it and sell it on world markets.

The problem is, Alberta’s tar sands possess enough carbon to cook the planet several times over – almost certainly enough to drive a mass extinction to rival the end of the Cretaceous Period (goodbye, T-Rex!). The world’s climate science community has told us that we are on a strict global carbon budget now: a total of no more than one trillion tons of CO2 may be emitted into the atmosphere if we are to have a serious chance of keeping the world’s temperature increase below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above historical averages.

The problem is, we’ve already burned more than half that amount, and on our current pace, we’ll cross the trillion-ton threshold by 2030. It’s important, therefore, as we transition from fossil fuels, not to double down on the most polluting ones. But tar sands are much more polluting than conventional oils. The extraction and refining of Alberta tar sands generates about three times more CO2 than conventional extraction.

And there’s so much of it in Alberta. If the living species that God has created are to survive in His world, then most of the tar sands simply must stay in the ground.Picture1

From a planetary perspective, the good news is that Alberta’s heavy crude is landlocked, far from refining and export infrastructure, and largely impeded by lands controlled by indigenous First Nations, many of which are hostile to polluting industries. Without the Keystone XL, the industry uses smaller pipelines, trucks and trains, all of which add to costs. In fact, most analysts agree that tar sands production is a money-loser at world prices below $75. Today, the world price is about $74.

So anything that we do to increase the flow and lower the cost of tar sands oil will inevitably add to the flood of carbon that is endangering the world and its many threatened species, including the billions of humans most vulnerable to flood, drought, sea level rise and ocean acidification, all linked to carbon pollution.

Ordinary people will suffer: To hear the oil company commercials – and their politicians – you’d think just the opposite. Mainly, they promise jobs. And sure enough, the State Department has concluded that constructing the pipeline will produce about 1,950 temporary jobs over two years. But the total of permanent jobs (excluding environmental clean-up jobs from pipeline leaks) is now estimated at a total of less than fifty. Actually, it’s only 35 operators and inspectors, to be precise. For perspective, the US economy generated 142,000 new jobs last month, or about 5,000 jobs per day.

So whatever numbers you buy into, can anyone imagine scores of Congressmen scrambling to push through a pipeline project as a jobs program, if it generates less than one day’s worth of job creation?

But if ordinary people won’t benefit, the flip side of this reality is much darker. We now know that climate change always harms the poor first. Environmental degradation of every sort has been shown in study after study to affect minority and low-income communities disproportionately. And what’s true for pollution of all sorts is especially acute for climate pollution, where all the most climate vulnerable countries are low emitters, and all the highest polluting countries are rich.

The world is desperate for climate leadership from America: Together with China, the US accounts for 40 percent of global carbon omissions. Worse, we are among the very worst offenders on a per capita basis, at more than 19 tons of CO2 per American each year, more than double the world average.

In the past, the US actively undermined international efforts to address catastrophic climate disruption. Our refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol – alone among all the nations on earth – contributed significantly to the failure of that effort. On this site, we’ve quoted Rev. Peter Karanja, Kenya’s leading Protestant church leader, who begged us to send this message to our country:

“We are very concerned, especially about America. They are the most obstinate country when it comes to climate change. We don’t know where it comes from. Maybe it comes from industry money, or maybe people just don’t know about climate change. They are not willing to reduce anything, and they’re not at all willing to finance the cost of adaptation….  

“The message needs to get to the American people. You need to tell your leaders: ‘We are the ones who put you in office. You have a responsibility to reduce your greenhouse gases which are harming the rest of the world.’

“We have these international conferences on climate change. But at the end of the day, the U.S. always comes up with something to make them collapse. We come away with nothing, and no hope. Because Christians are one family, they must be the ones to pressure their governments to act responsibly.”

Well, as of yesterday, the US (and China) could hold their heads a bit higher, and ask other countries to join us in fighting climate change. The spillover effect on other countries is cited by virtually all observers as the most important effect of the Obama-Xi agreement on reducing carbon emissions. But in a single stroke, Congress could negate this advantage entirely, declaring loudly that whatever we may say, we have no intention of actually doing anything to relieve global suffering from climate disruption.

So there you have it. For me, those are the big reasons we’re asking God daily to stop this one pipeline project. And today, it looks like we’re pretty seriously outgunned. We have been from the outset, of course. But now, they seem to have the votes.

But Christians believe that the world is fundamentally broken, and that Christ’s plan is to fix “all things,” and to reconcile them to Himself. We’ve never believed that this requires a Senate majority, or a friendly President.

And so we pray, even today.

Climate Peril: Denmark Leads, the US Retreats

Two articles in today’s paper cast in sharp relief the major crisis facing God’s Creation today, as we struggle with the unfolding threat of global climate change. One tiny country – Denmark – has made so much progress in developing sustainable energy that they are facing complexities such as excessively cheap electricity. In the other, a newly-elected American congressional majority is swearing to kill the only significant national climate initiatives underway in the country.

Denmark emits 9.8 tons of CO2 per person every year. But the average American more than doubles that level, with a whopping 19.7 tons of CO2 emissions per year. The overall difference, however, is enormous: there are only 5.6 million Danes, compared to some 310 million Americans. Whatever leadership the Danes exhibit, it is overwhelmed by American negligence and gluttony.

Wind provides 28% of Denmark’s electricity (Danish Wind Industry Association)

So what’s going on in Denmark? Well, they have already achieved 40 percent renewable power on their electric grid, and plan to be at 50 percent in six years. More amazingly, they plan to use no fossil fuels whatsoever by 2050: none for the electric grid, none for transportation, none for heating and cooling. None.

And the US? Our wind, solar and geothermal power accounts for a modest 6 percent of our consumption (with another 7 percent coming from legacy hydroelectric dams). It seems that our policy is now driven by worries about the plight of the tiny handful of coal miners living in the state represented by the new Senate Majority Leader. Even if it kills the planet’s natural systems, those Kentuckian miners, and – much more importantly – their bosses and lobbyists, are not going to lose a single job. No mention of the fact that there are four times as many American solar, wind and geothermal workers today as there are coal miners.

In Denmark, they’re developing smart appliances that talk to the power grid and cut back when electricity is expensive, but run full blast when there is abundant wind or sunshine; and they’re adjusting electricity prices by the hour to provide incentives to consume power when sustainable sources are most available.

In the US, all the talk is about ramming through approval of the massive Keystone XL pipeline which will carry carbon–heavy Canadian tar sands oil to export refineries in Texas. Canadian oil companies will profit; unspeakably wealthy multinational oil exporters will profit; but American Midwesterners will watch nervously as nearly a million barrels of highly pressurized, corrosive tar sands oil course through their precious aquifers every day – all while the cynical claims of pipeline jobs are repeated by politicians, despite having been debunked repeatedly.

In Denmark, they have a Climate czar, who coordinates their response to the defining global crisis of our century. In the US, we have an Ebola czar, after one person died of the disease.

In Denmark, they worry about electricity becoming so cheap that gas-fired plants will go out of business, even if they might be needed for standby power on windless nights.

In the US, Congress is vowing to prevent the EPA from enforcing the Clean Air Act carbon standards on coal-fired power plants. If they prevail, then the American skies will continue to be used as an unlimited, free dumping ground for coal and gas soot and smog, as though the air belongs to the drillers and refiners, and not to every human and other creature on God’s earth.

Creation-care advocates in the Christian church surely wonder what judgment awaits these two countries, as global climate systems spiral out of control, as oceans become dangerously acidic, as growing seasons in poor countries suffer waves of drought and flooding, and as extinctions of threatened species run at thousands of times historical levels.

Two-thirds of Americans stayed home on Election Day last week. And perhaps many of those non-voters might have agreed that Denmark’s play-book looks smarter – and possibly more Christian – than ours. But that’s a largely academic question, now, isn’t it?

“O let the nations be glad and sing for joy: for you judge the peoples with equity, and govern the nations upon earth.” (Psalm 67:4)

Mountains of the Moon: The Melting Rwenzoris

In 1906, the Duke of Abruzzi – an Italian nobleman known for his expeditions to the world’s most forbidding destinations – trekked into the Mountains of the Moon, the glacier-bound peaks of Uganda’s Rwenzori range, whose snows feed the mighty Nile River.

Vittorio Sella's 1906 shot of Mt. Stanley

Vittorio Sella’s 1906 shot of Mt. Stanley

Abruzzi brought with him Vittorio Sella, a photographer whose prints unveiled one of the most other-worldly places on earth. Among them was this picture of Mt. Stanley, one of the highest peaks in Africa.

A century later, biologists Nate Dappen and Neil Losin have retraced Abruzzi’s steps, on a quest to replicate Sella’s picture of Mt. Stanley – from the exact same position under identical circumstances. In the process, they’ve produced “Snows of the Nile,” a breathtaking short video documentary of the Rwenzoris, with a run time of only 11 minutes. It’s beautiful, engaging, and worth every second.

And in the end – SPOILER ALERT! – they discover that they simply can’t take Sella’s picture today. That’s because in 1906, the Italian photographer had perched his camera on ice hundreds of feet higher in the air than the bare rock that remains today. The shots that they succeed in taking tell the story of virtually every glacier in the world: land ice is melting rapidly; 80% of the Rwenzori glacier mass is already gone; the residual ice won’t last another 20 years — with untold consequences for the Rwenzori ecosystem and the Nile basin.

[We have a personal connection to these beautiful mountains. Missionary doctors Scott and Jennifer Myhre have labored in their shadow for decades, with water engineers Michael and Karen Masso, and even our kids Nathan and Sarah Elwood, currently in medical residency state-side. The Rwenzoris pose a formidable obstacle for any visitors to their home in Bundibugyo, Uganda’s remotest district.]

Spend a few moments, and treat yourself to some amazing footage from a corner of the Creation you’ll almost certainly never see for yourself. And in the bargain, you can’t miss the changes being wrought in these mountains by decisions being made thousands of miles away, as industrial nations continue to use our shared atmosphere as a free and unlimited dumping ground for the soot and smog of the carbon-industrial complex.