• 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

Carbon Offsetting for Air Travel Pollution

It takes me the whole week to get over the jet lag. Just in time to get back on the plane to New York. Farewell to my dear, new Himalayan friends. And back home at my little farm in New Jersey, I’m once again beset with the sleepless state that comes with being on the wrong side of the world.

It’s a 5,000-mile roundtrip between New York and Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu – over Labrador, Greenland, the Arctic ice cap, Siberia, Mongolia and China. My destination is a meeting of Christian church and mission leaders from South Asia, to encourage and plan national movements to care for God’s injured creation – in ecological hotspots like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka.

For years now, I have been dying to get to Bangladesh and Pakistan – two enormous countries facing existential threats from the effects of climate change. Rising sea levels, receding Himalayan glaciers, catastrophic droughts and flooding, salinization and severe water stress have made it difficult to see much of a future for tens of millions of my fellow humans in parts of these countries. At the Lausanne South Asia Creation Care Consultation, I would have access to co-laborers from these and other places, and maybe even find ways to help with their efforts.

Source: Foreign Policy

Source: Foreign Policy

But here’s the irony: If climate change is draining the life-blood of these communities, isn’t my carbon-heavy globe-hopping only making things worse? My share of carbon emissions from the flight, tucked back in the economy cabin, comes to 3,362 kilos of CO2, or 7,412 lbs. The average American generates 17.1 tons of CO2 every year. My 3.2-ton flight exceeds a couple of months’ worth of living for most Americans. Worse yet, it’s almost exactly the annual emissions of the average citizen of the Maldives, an island nation facing near-term inundation from rising seas. And it’s close to the average CO2 emissions for all people on earth, about 4.9 tons.

All for one single flight.

And while Nepal is admittedly a long trip, shorter ones are serious polluters too. New York to Paris will spew 1.6 tons of CO2 for an economy seat; a roundtrip to Los Angeles will add 1.1 tons; a drive to the family in Ohio accounts for 109 kilos, or 0.1 tons.

So, what am I supposed to do? Stop traveling?

Well, maybe. Or at least, I might travel with a bit more thought about the consequences. Even if airfare seems affordable, someone else pays the unpriced costs of climate pollution. Whatever our politics, I’m pretty sure we agree that that’s not right.

But some travel is clearly worth it, or simply unavoidable. If so, we’re going to have to get used to offsetting our carbon emissions.

Offsetting? Sure. It’s not hard to make a modest contribution to projects around the world that sequester carbon, in amounts equal to the emissions from our air travel. For me, I use Climate Stewards, an affiliate of A Rocha – the global Christian conservation organization. Climate Stewards directs my carbon offset payments to projects in Ghana, Mexico and Kenya, restoring forests and replacing inefficient cookstoves with new ones. The trees I’m helping to plant and the reduction in kitchen charcoal burning sequester about the same amount of CO2 as my share of the flight emissions.

And it doesn’t break the bank. Climate Stewards’ offsets run about $20 per ton of CO2. Offsetting my flight to Nepal costs me about $65, or around 2 percent of the total cost of my trip. For a flight to Paris, you’d pay $32; Los Angeles would set you back $21. And the drive to Ohio is scarcely more than a bit of pocket change.

Flooding in low-lying Bangladesh

Flooding in low-lying Bangladesh

It’s not difficult at all. Try it at Climate Stewards’ website. You’ll be done in a couple of minutes.

Listen, we know that offsetting is not a panacea. It certainly isn’t a way for people of means to indulge in wasteful and lavish lifestyles without any guilt. But while we look for ways to reduce our carbon footprints, why not offset the effects of pollution that can’t yet be avoided?

Eventually, of course, everyone will do this. The cost of carbon pollution will be baked into transactions for goods and services throughout the global economy. Pollution will no longer be free to polluters and costly to poor and vulnerable communities. But until then, you and I can pay our own little share when we travel simply out of a sense of fairness and decency.

I’m pretty sure you’ll stand a little taller once you start this. And you can know that you’re part of something that God’s people are doing in the world: acting a little more justly, loving a little more kindly, and maybe even walking a little more humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Thanks, and God bless you.

Imagining a World With No Future

I remember a couple of years back seeing the trailer for Interstellar, an earth-exodus sci-fi thriller. The film starred Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and a host of other luminaries. But it was the 21st century setting of the film – a dying world facing the extinction of all plant life from an unnamed blight – that intrigued me most.

Like almost all people who take today’s environmental crisis seriously, the specter of ecosystem collapse – and even of existential threats to our own species – constantly haunts the shadowy margins of my consciousness. The spectral appeal of the film was strong, but still no match for the drone of daily routines that normally crowd out interesting films. Interstellar came and went, without me.

Well, I finally got around to seeing it a couple of nights ago. To break up day/night-long flight to Nepal – where I am currently attending a conference of South Asian Christian church leaders engaged in ecological ministry – I finally took the time. And sure enough, the movie’s story-line confronted me with an imponderable challenge: How could anyone manage life in a world with almost no plausible future beyond one’s own lifetime or maybe their children’s’?

Last night at the opening dinner of the Nepal conference, I was confronted with a dystopian nightmare eerily similar to Interstellar’s fictional crisis. And it wasn’t a movie. With my plate filled with rice, dahl and curry, I took a seat across from a Bangladeshi man named Manna (I’ll skip his full name for this post). Manna works with an international faith-based NGO in Southeast Asia.

Eventually, the conversation turned to Manna’s home in coastal Bangladesh. Yes, he confirmed, the sea levels are rising at an alarming pace. Farms in his home are becoming too salty to produce food. Fish farms are suffering mass die-offs as freshwater ponds turn to sea-water, until the monsoon flushes them fresh again. Groundwater tables are falling rapidly as communities drill for fresh, clean water. Coastal mangrove forests are succumbing to rapid climatic changes, leaving the low-lying Ganges River delta defenseless against storm surges from tropical cyclones.

Bangladeshi communities caught between flooding rivers and rising seas

Bangladeshi communities caught between flooding rivers and rising seas

“You cannot invest for the future under such conditions,” Manna told me. “Everyone knows what is coming.” But still, he told me, many people cannot afford to think even several years ahead.

Manna is not saying anything more than what countless scientific studies have already established: Bangladesh and its 160 million human souls are facing the irresistible advance of the sea over large expanses of their country. The culprit? Thermal ocean expansion and melting land ice in a world choking on the exhaust from the global industrial behemoth.

Scientists are still working on the expected pace of the rising seas, with new studies raising the prospect of rapid coastal inundation far more severe than previously thought. But Bangladesh illustrates the maddening complexity of the problem: Long before the dry land slips beneath the waves, freshwater sources are fouled; farmland is poisoned by salt; and capital investment moves to higher ground.

But there’s a personal word in what I hear from Manna: There is a clouded future for my hometown, my family, my people. You can’t plan for the long haul here. There is little to leave our children in this place. In effect, we have to find somewhere else to start over.

So, what stories do you tell yourself in Manna’s Bangladesh to hang onto hope? What do you say to the mother of a newborn child, nursing the hope of a new generation? What do you tell your young people about the value of industry and honest work? What do you tell investors looking to create value in their communities?

The movie, Interstellar, is just a story. For those of us who feel relatively secure in our brief time and place, it offers the thrill of an existential peril that we don’t actually have to  face ourselves. It’s entertaining, in a way, isn’t it?

But what if that were the world we really lived in? What if there simply was no reliable future in our cities, counties and states? What if broad swaths of our entire country saw little option but eventual flight?

And to flee – where? In a world increasingly absorbed with fear and hatred of The Other, where could we hope to find welcome and shalom?

And since most of my readers are from North America, let me ask one more question: If we were Manna’s Bangladeshi countrymen, what would we want to say to people in the consumerist world of the West?

That’s what I’m here in Nepal to listen for. If I can, I will bring you their voices over the next couple of weeks. I hope you will find the time – and the human compassion – to hear their voices.

An Appeal for Climate Realism to Candidate Trump

Sir, this will not end well for you. Or us, I’m afraid.

You may not even realize what you’re saying, but when the public figures it out – and many surely will – you will have lost all but the small fraction who still deny the most obvious facts — facts acknowledged by every country in the world.

Calling climate change “a hoax” in an even minimally-educated country is no way to become president.

We remember that last year you said that climate change was invented by the Chinese to make us non-competitive. It was silly, of course. But during the primary, who could keep track of all the silliness? We assumed you’d tack to something more credible if you ever became the actual nominee. But then last week you reiterated your view of climate science on Fox News. Sure, it was a little murky, but we got the gist. Here’s the transcript:

  • BILL O’REILLY: Did you ever call climate change a hoax?
  • DONALD TRUMP: Well, I might have because when I look at some of the things that are going on, in fact if you look at Europe where they had their big summit a couple of years ago, where people were sending out emails, scientists practically calling it a hoax and they were laughing at it. So, yeah, I probably did. I see what’s going on and you see what’s going on.

Bill O’Reilly, Donald Trump and the climate “hoax”

Hmm. Let me see: You say it’s a hoax, because of, um, a summit, Europe, emails, scientists, and laughing. That can only refer to the “ClimateGate” conspiracy theory, right? It wasn’t a summit, and it wasn’t a couple of years ago (seven years, actually). But nothing else remotely captures the litany of other references. It’s not China anymore, but the lying scientists of “ClimateGate.”

Of course, the ClimateGate conspiracy theory has been thoroughly debunked (see FactCheck.org , Union of Concerned Scientists, and Politifact). Every investigation — from the National Science Foundation Inspector General, NOAA’s Inspector General, Penn State University, and the UK Parliament — reached the same conclusion: the hacked emails revealed nothing to compromise the overwhelming consensus of climate science.

But whatever you were referring to, one thing is clear: You have doubled down on accusing researchers of defrauding the whole world. Yes – you have confirmed – climate change IS a hoax. It means nothing that tens of thousands of scientists conduct peer-reviewed research — normally worthy of our trust. The planet is NOT warming; oceans are NOT acidifying; sea levels are NOT rising; and the rise in greenhouse gases is NOT coming from fossil fuel emissions. All a hoax.

This is no longer “I am not a scientist.” And it’s not “I’m still not convinced as to the causes.” It’s a full-throated charge: “They are all lying to us!” Like you said: “Scientists practically calling it a hoax” and “laughing at it.” It’s a massive fraud on the whole world.

Okay. We’ve heard enough to expect some pretty outlandish charges from you by now. But have you considered the electoral implications of this line of attack? Let me cite a few that might concern you:

  • Some of your supporters may doubt the truthfulness of climate scientists in particular. But none of them think ALL scientists are liars. Did you know that 31 scientific societies got together last month to write a letter to every U.S. legislator, telling them that “climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research concludes that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver…”? They spoke on behalf of every discipline, from geophysics and chemistry to geology and meteorology. Taken together, they represent essentially all of science, and we Americans are pretty proud of our sciences.
  • Gallup now tells us that 64% of Americans are worried about climate change. 59% believe its impacts are already visible. 65% percent of us agree that its causes are mainly pollution from human activities. Only one in ten of us thinks that it’s not real, and that its effects will never hit us.
  • And Yale University reports that 67% of Americans think global warming is happening, while only 16% think it’s not.

So, sir, you want to become our president, right? You want to make American great again? Well, how are you going to do that while vilifying the smartest American researchers from every field of science? By dismissing as a hoax what two-thirds of us are already worried about? And by standing with a tiny minority of Americans who dismiss this global threat?

Source: The Gallup Organization

Source: Gallup: US Concern About Global Warming at Eight-Year High

And how do you propose to be a world leader, when you have promised to kill the global climate agreement endorsed in Paris last year by virtually every country in the world?

Mr. Trump, there must be a smarter way to land American votes. Here’s an idea: You’ve bucked party orthodoxy in the past. Why not do it again regarding climate action? The days when anti-science front groups managed to paralyze us with doubt have come and gone. You’ve got the nomination. Party leaders are afraid to touch you no matter what you say. Why not use your power to improve your odds of winning with all of us climate realists?

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Source: Gallup: US Concern About Global Warming at Eight-Year High

Like every potential occupant of the Oval Office, you are faced with choices for great good or great evil. If you would just drop this hoax thing, and listen to the huge majority of your countrymen (and the scientists who inform us) you might have the chance to do something really good.

Think about it, sir. You could do something good.

I know, I know. Donald Trump once claimed that climate change was a hoax developed by the Chinese to scam American manufacturers. But come on. He recently argued that his Scottish golf course needed a sea wall to protect it from rising seas due to climate change. In the end, we assumed, he’s not insane, and would not sacrifice our children’s future on the altar of climate denial.

But Wow! Have you seen all the nutso climate stuff he’s put out for years now? I’m beginning to think he actually believes what he says. The League of Conservation Voters has assembled a list of his climate pronouncements and Tweets, and it’s terrifying reading from someone who is that close to the Oval Office.

Consider this little one: On New Year’s Day 2014, Trump tweeted: “This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop. Our planet is freezing, record low temps, and our GW scientists are stuck in ice.”

So, according to Trump. global warming was “bullshit.” Where did he get that? Well, for the record, 2014 turns out to have been an all-time record hot year for the planet, a record broken only 12 months later by 2015.

2013, which is probably what Trump was thinking of, was among the top five hottest years on the global record. But it was downright chilly in New York on that New Year’s Day. It’s cold! Right here. Right now. So global warming science must be “bullshit.” Who needs the scientists when you can take the escalator down, step out onto 5th Avenue and see for yourself?

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Trump has sworn to cancel the Paris Climate Agreement endorsed by all the world’s nations. He would renegotiate it “at a minimum,” even though the entire thing was made voluntary so that the U.S. Congress couldn’t kill it. American military planners should not be allowed to plan for climate threats, even though all naval bases are threatened by rising sea levels.

In the waning days of 2015, he told a campaign rally: “It’s a hoax. I mean, it’s a money-making industry, okay? It’s a hoax.” Three months earlier he told the Wall Street Journal “I don’t believe in climate change.” He criticized Pope Francis for warning the world about climate risks. “Where the hell is GLOBAL WARMING?” he tweeted on a cold winter day in 2015.

The U.S. Senate is about half full of people so addicted to oil money that they block climate action at every opportunity. What if they had someone with this mindset in the White House?

Reader’s Poll: What January’s Record NYC Snowstorm Tells Us

During the three days from January 22nd to the 24th, a mammoth blizzard paralyzed New York City with 27.5 inches of snowfall – the city’s biggest snowstorm since record-keeping began in 1869.1171676_630x354

Beloved Planet wants to know what you think about this. Please choose the answer that most closely reflects your response to this news:

  • Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe and his Congressional allies are right in dismissing climate change as “a massive hoax” perpetrated by greedy scientists getting richer and richer.
  • NASA, NOAA and the EPA are right in stating that “as temperatures rise and the air becomes warmer, more moisture evaporates  into the atmosphere. More moisture in the air means we can expect more rain and snow.”
  • Yet another example of President Obama’s feckless leadership. Thanks Obama!
  • The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.
  • It’s mainly Elsa’s fault, with all that stuff about “I don’t care what they’re going to say. Let the storm rage on ….”

Coal is Bankrupt: Who’s Left Holding the Bag?

The American coal industry has collapsed. This is not hyperbole.

In the last few years, at least 28 coal companies have gone bankrupt and 264 mines have closed. The suffering extends from the smallest companies to the behemoths. Those that haven’t gone bankrupt are trading at small fractions of their values of just five years ago, when the U.S. Coal Sector Index stood at $481. On Friday, the index closed below $32, a loss of more than 93 percent in value.

Peabody lost almost all its value over five years before bankruptcy

Peabody lost almost all its value over five years before filing bankruptcy

And last week, the largest US coal producer joined the march into bankruptcy court. Peabody Energy, the St. Louis-based coal giant cited “a dramatic drop in the price of metallurgical coal, weakness in the Chinese economy, overproduction of domestic shale gas and ongoing regulatory challenges,” as the reasons for its bankruptcy filing. Peabody joins Arch CoalAlpha Natural Resources, Walter Energy and Patriot Coal among American coal giants that have filed for bankruptcy in recent months.

In 2009, Peabody’s stock traded at $718 per share. Today, you can pick up a share for 73 cents – a loss of 99.9 percent. Too bad for shareholders. Looks like they’ve lost a bundle. But who else is losing? And how did this all happen?

It isn’t the “war on coal”

Did you notice Peabody’s bankruptcy statement? They blamed the drop in coal prices, weakness in the Chinese economy and too much cheap natural gas. Oh, and yes, they threw in “ongoing regulatory challenges” as a fourth culprit – but only after citing the massive structural changes affecting the coal industry. Here’s the most obvious fact: Natural gas, a cleaner substitute for coal, is very, very cheap. Back in 2008, natural gas ticked above $12 per thousand Btu’s (MMBtu). But in Chicago last week, traders bought and sold gas at $1.92 per MMBtu, a small fraction of the price seven years ago. At these prices, almost nobody is building new coal plants when they could generate electricity with gas, solar or wind.

Coal Moratorium

Bankrupt coal companies have left behind enormous reclamation and cleanup liabilities

Sure, you’ll hear candidates for Congress complaining about Obama’s climate initiatives, or EPA regulations. True enough, in the long run, everyone knows that coal will have to start paying its health and environmental costs.

But the politicians seldom mention this fact: The industry is going belly-up BEFORE any of the Administration’s regulatory actions have taken place. The EPA enacted rules a few years ago to make sure coal plants didn’t emit too much mercury pollution that poisons children; but the Supreme Court blocked the rules last year. And the hotly-debated Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of Obama’s climate program, is also on ice, thanks again to the Supreme Court. Even if the EPA gets the green light, no state will have to submit any plans before 2018.

And yet, the coal industry has already fled en masse to the safety of bankruptcy, long before government action will force them to clean up their act.

Then what happened to these guys?

We don’t minimize the collapse of coal and gas prices worldwide, and the virtual disappearance of Chinese demand. But there’s so much more. First, virtually all the big coal miners layered on mountains of debt to finance enormous acquisitions in recent years. Alpha Natural Resources bought rival Massey Energy for $7 billion. Arch Coal bought International Coal for $3.4 billion. Peabody paid $5.1 billion for MacArthur Coal. And Walter Energy bought Western Coal for $3.3 billion. And what did they get from the feeding frenzy? Lots of coal reserves that few people really want these days. But the debts are coming due, and they simply can’t pay.

Second, the coal industry faces structural changes that have sent bankers and investors packing. The sustained glut of natural gas has encouraged utilities to build gas-fired power plants, a move that locks in the natural gas advantage over coal. In 2013, for example, natural gas represented more than 50 percent of new power generating capacity in the United States. Coal accounted for just 11 percent, putting it a distant third, behind solar (22 percent) and only slightly ahead of wind (8 percent).

Natural gas prices continue to fall, undermining coal markets

Natural gas prices continue to fall, undermining coal markets

And even though coal still has the lion’s share of overall electric generating capacity, U.S. coal-fired power plants are aging, and many are nearing the end of their useful lives. Without new plants, coal demand is destined to plummet. And there are very few new plants.

Third, these changes pale in comparison to the sea change in public thinking. Whether it’s mercury, or greenhouse gases, or sulfur oxides or acid runoff, the American public is waking up to the reality that coal pollution is too expensive for the public to bear in the name of private profits. Whether or not the Clean Power Plan or EPA mercury regulations survive in their current form, no serious observer can imagine a future in which coal plants pollute the world and jeopardize its climate systems, all for the sake of their own profits. In fact, the whole world has confirmed this reality by agreeing to the terms of the Paris Treaty, under which every country will make substantial cuts in climate-warming emissions. Coal, everywhere, will have to remain in the ground.

Uber-financier Goldman Sachs sums up these changes in a brilliant nutshell. They declared in January that it’s time to slowly ease coal out of the energy mix, with a friendly pat on the head for all the good it did for the U.S. economy. “Just as a worker celebrating their 65th birthday can settle into a more sedate lifestyle while they look back on past achievements,” the report noted, “we argue that thermal coal has reached its retirement age.”

So, who picks up the tab?

Bankruptcy is not death. Companies don’t file under Chapter 11 as some sort of final act before breathing their last. They use the courts to gain relief from their obligations to shareholders, creditors, employees, retirees and the public. They can’t afford to pay everything they owe, so the court determines who loses, and by how much. In theory, the rehabilitated companies emerge with a new lease on life. They can’t pay, so others absorb the cost.

In the case of bankrupt coal, who pays?

Well, for starters, you do. Not you alone, mind you. In West Virginia, 120,000 retired miners and their families could lose their pensions and health care – for many their only source of income. But you’re caught in the mix as well. That’s because it costs enormous amounts to clean up the toxic mess that coal mining leaves behind. You’d think that Federal and state governments would compel coal companies to reclaim their strip mines and shattered mountains as they go, but it doesn’t happen that way. In Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming, there are 450 square miles of land torn up by mining; but only 10 percent has been reclaimed.

This means that the coal companies have put off for another day the cost of reclamation. For bankrupt Peabody, the cost is estimated at $1.4 billion. For bankrupt Arch and Alpha, it’s $485 million and $640 million, respectively. And in bankruptcy, they will shed these liabilities for pennies on the dollar. These abandoned wastes cannot be left alone. They’re ugly, yes. But they’re also perpetual sources of water pollution, slowly leaking acidic and otherwise toxic wastes into streams and groundwater supplies.

Moonscapes left behind by mountaintop removal cost billions to reclaim

Moonscapes left behind by mountaintop removal coal mining cost billions to clean up

And so you will pay, as a federal and state taxpayer. For these three companies alone, your share is about $7. Another $7 for your spouse, your mom, each of your kids, your neighbors. Everyone in the country gets to chip in $7 to clean up the mess left behind by just three coal companies. Did I mention that 28 of them are in bankruptcy?

Now, you and I may think that this is scandalous. But actually, this is standard operating procedure for the coal industry. In the best of times, the U.S. coal industry leaves enormous costs for everyone else to pick up – sometimes called “external costs.” These include things like respiratory diseases, toxic mercury levels, ocean acidification, climate-altering greenhouse gas concentrations, and the effects of drought and flooding.

Until 2010, we didn’t really know the scale of these costs. That’s when the U.S. National Academy of Sciences produced a study called The Hidden Cost of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use. 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 “external costs.” That’s billions, with a “B”. And it amounts to a tax of about $30-40 levied on every human on Earth. Only for U.S. coal. Only for one single year.

So if you’re following the news, watch carefully in the year ahead as the American coal industry winds its way through bankruptcy. When it’s over, you and I will be a bit poorer. But until we summon the resolve to leave coal unburned, all of us will continue to bear enormous external costs, arising not only from coal’s nominal “failure,” but from their normal levels of success.

Isn’t it time we get to work on ways to leave it in the ground?

February Smashed Global Heat Records: But What Does That Mean?

You’ve already seen the news. February was a record month for global heat. It followed the hottest January on record. Which followed the hottest year (2015) on record. Which follow the previous hottest year (2014) on record. Etc. Etc. Etc.

So, maybe we think: A bunch of scientists are sifting through data from all over the world, and we’re supposed to be alarmed at a few more degrees of heat? Seriously, what does this mean to us? Well, let’s see if we can distill this down to a few key points.

First, these records are not flukes or outliers. Global data has been kept for 137 years. Of all the Februaries over that time, this one ranked #1, unseating last February, the former hot-weather champion.

Picture2Worse, it wasn’t just the hottest February. It was the hottest month ever, compared to 20th century averages. And the prior record had just been set only two months earlier, in December.

Worse yet, it continued a ten-month string of record-hot months. Yes, February was the hottest of all 137 Februaries. But January was also #1 for all Januaries. And they were preceded by #1 records in December, November, October, September – and all the way back to May 2015. Something like that has never happened before. Doubters will tell us “The climate always changes!” Not like this. Not always in one direction. Not in lockstep. We’re seeing something frighteningly new.

Second, did you notice the amount of warming? For all land and ocean surfaces, the earth was 1.21oC (or 2.18oF) above the 20th century averages. You may recall that the nations of the world just agreed in Paris on efforts to limit global warming this century to no more than 2.0oC, and to make every effort to keep it below 1.5oC, to spare our fellow humans from the Philippines, Bangladesh and island nations from being inundated by rising seas. Well, already, we’ve experienced a month within a whisker of breaking that 1.5oC threshold.

Worse, if we look at land surfaces alone (where most of us live) the average global temperature was 2.31°C above the 20th century average. Two-point-three degrees. That’s territory we’re not supposed to see in our lifetimes, or even our children’s. But it just happened.

Third, the heat was just about everywhere. Record heat took hold across much of South America and southern Africa, southern and eastern Europe, around the Urals of Russia, and most of Southeast Asia stretching to northern Australia. Here are some examples:

  • New Zealand had its second warmest February and second warmest month of any month since national records began in 1909, at 2.2°C above long-term averages.
  • In Venezuela and Colombia, the heat was about 3.0°C higher than average.
  • Germany ran 3.0°C above average and Austria was a whopping 4.1°C hotter than average.
  • Speaking of whopping, Alaska reported its warmest February in its 92-year period of record, at 6.9°C higher than the 20th century average. That’s not a typo. Six-point-nine degrees Celsius, or 12.4° Fahrenheit. That’s more than the difference between the last Ice Age and today’s world.

Fourth, all this heat is destabilizing the Polar regions dangerously. For starters, this winter marks the lowest sea ice coverage ever measured in the Arctic. It’s way less icy than 2012, the previous record year for summer Arctic ice melt. That means that this summer and fall there will be less ice to start with, and the seasonal warmth will have an easier time melting what remains there. Not only that, but less winter ice mean less bright, reflective snow surface, and more deep blue, heat-absorbing water to soak up the sun’s heat, which will warm the region even further.

Sea IceBut an even greater concern is now emerging in the southern Pole, with new warnings about the instability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. About the size of Mexico, the ice sheet could raise sea levels by 12 feet or more if it becomes destabilized. Many of us took some comfort in believing that while this will occur in a warmer world, humanity and the rest of creation would probably have hundreds of years to adapt. But new research from scientists at Penn State and UMass now projects that continued greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting heat could disintegrate the West Antarctic sheet in only decades. That would mean that coastal cities like New York, Boston, Miami and New Orleans would be largely inundated during the lifetimes of children born today, with further sea-level rises of one foot per decade thereafter.

But it’s not hotter EVERYWHERE. And that’s actually alarming. There’s one spot on earth where it’s not getting warmer. It’s Iceland, and the North Atlantic Ocean. See that spot of blue on the map? In a warming world, it was cooler there all last year, and in each of several years before that. That region has always been warmed by tropical ocean currents (called thermohaline, or the Gulf Stream) carrying equatorial waters northward along the US East Coast to Iceland, before they dive to the ocean depths and return southward. Scientists have long believed that fresh meltwater from Greenland could slow down the Gulf Stream, trapping hot water off the US coast, and chilling the northern seas.Picture1

So what’s the big deal? A little warmer here, and little cooler there? Actually, it’s a very big deal. Warm coastal waters off the American East Coast are what gave us Super-Storm Sandy, but that storm happened when the oceans were cooler than they are today. And warm Icelandic waters have given Northern Europe the benign climate it has enjoyed for millennia. Tinker with the Greenland Ice Sheet too much, and we’ve got something much worse than a few more feet of sea-water on our hands.

Final thoughts from a Christian thinker: So before we hand these climatic records off to the statisticians for filing, maybe we could take a minute to consider where we stand in history. Two centuries after the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve pumped eons’ worth of carbon – long hidden deep within the earth – back into the atmosphere. As a result, we’re seeing the early results of our planetary carbon experiment: a consistent record of global warming; heat growing at an ever-faster pace; not just here and there, but spread all over the map; and destabilizing the Polar ice sheets, which are raising sea levels and threatening coastal communities. And we’re even seeing signs of disruption in planet-regulating systems like the Gulf Stream.

“Where is God in all this?” asks Christian author Rev. Edward Brown, in his landmark book, Our Father’s World. “God would not allow us to destroy his creation, would he?”

Well, yes he might, concludes Brown, noting that within his sovereignty, God allows us humans a shocking amount of latitude in what we do with our lives – including what we do with his creation. “If we choose to destroy our home,” says Brown, “God will not stop us. Unless, that is, God were to step into history the way he usually does, through human beings who have aligned their lives with him and who are committed to accomplishing his purposes in their own small histories.”

Brown reminds us of God’s answer to Israelite prayers from the misery of slavery in Egypt: “I have heard them crying out…. So I have come down to rescue them” (Exodus 3:7-8).

Phew! So maybe God will rescue our injured planet, just like he did in Exodus! But Brown demands that we read on: “So now, go” he tells Moses, “I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

Go? Who, me? How? What can I do? “I will be with you,” says God to Moses, words taken up again by the resurrected Christ more than a thousand years later: “Go…. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Do you think maybe it’s time for God’s people to hear that call once again?