• 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.

  • banana-leaf

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

Cool Summer? Record Hot Summer? You Might be Surprised

Most people I know don’t really doubt the reality of global climate change. The daily news of nasty weather – including deadly droughts, flooding and wildfires in remote places – makes this hard to do without seeming callous. California is burning, and running out of water; Phoenix is flooding in freak monsoons; more than 150,000 Kashmiris are trapped in record floods, and water-borne diseases now threaten many more; the multi-year drought in Syria and Iraq has given rise to a wave of climate migration and the resulting ethnic tensions.

But around here, the weather seems remarkably cool and pleasant. Everyone says that this was the coolest August they can remember in New Jersey.

So we might be surprised to learn that for the entire Earth, August broke all records for global heat. No fooling. NASA has reported that last month was the hottest August since record-keeping began in 1880.nmaps

It was hotter than average almost everywhere:

  • Eastern Europe and western/central Asia were 3.6-7.2 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the 1951-1980 average, as were Siberia, central South America and East Africa.
  • The American West Coast and Alaska were 1.8-3.6 degrees F hotter, just like Brazil, India, Greenland and Scandinavia.
  • And West Antarctica was so hot (up to 14.4 degrees F above average!) that NASA had to re-code its temperature map colors (the old maps had no category for that much heat).

Really? But it felt so nice here!

Well that’s true. For much of the central and eastern U.S., and especially the Northeast, it was nicer than most Augusts in recent memory. But memory can be tricky. Actually, for most of the country, this August was just about exactly the way August used to be back when JFK was in the White House. When your parents were kids (or when us Boomers were), August was normally pretty nice. We played outside. We slept without A/C. And even in the breezy Northeast, this August was less than one degree cooler than the thirty-year average temperature before 1980.

And of course, that’s the big problem with runaway climate change. Even when our pollution is changing the global systems at breakneck speed, it’s pretty hard to notice within the timescales of human generations and memory.

So if August seemed cool to you, then I suspect you lived in pretty near me. And like the rest of us, perhaps you’re having a hard time remembering what a normal summer is supposed to feel like.

“Nothing from the past is remembered. Even in the future, nothing will be remembered by those who come after us.” Ecclesiastes 1:11 (GOD”S WORD translation)

Cheery Energy Ads? Look Out!

I force myself to listen. Believe me, it’s not easy. The mute button is right there, and I could spare myself the indignity. And yet I grit my teeth, and listen to the peppy music, watch the smiling faces, and follow the actors portraying happy American energy workers telling us how good it all is.

Of course, we’re talking about those oil, gas and coal ads that permeate the news-hour airwaves. First, it was the “Clean Coal” people touting a carbon-capture technology (that actually didn’t exist at operational scale). Then it was ExxonMobil telling us how clean their Canadian tar sands operations were (I’ve been there, and the scale of pollution is terrifying). Next came the natural gas people telling us how smart and safe it is for America to inject toxic chemicals below our aquifers in the current fracking boom. And permeating them all, that lovely promise of jobs, jobs and more jobs.

And finally, there is BP.

BP, those wonderful people who brought us the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. They’re still not finished blanketing the airwaves with those “Look! All better!” ads. “Today the beaches and Gulf are open for business,” says the narrator, “and many areas are reporting the best tourism season in years!”

Maybe we’ll forget that in May 2010, BP fouled much of the immense Gulf of Mexico, in the worst oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blew up, killing eleven workers and opening a deep-water oil gusher that flowed unabated for 87 days. An estimated 219 million gallons of oil escaped into the Gulf waters, followed by 1.84 million gallons of chemical dispersants which may have been even more damaging. Crude oil from the blowout has been found as far away as Tampa Bay.

In the wake of the disaster, BP pled guilty to criminal charges, and to two felony counts of lying to Congress. The company was fined a record-setting $4.52 billion in fines. And the company was forced to set aside a total of $42.2 billion for cleanup and damages to people and businesses.

But you’d never know it from the ad campaign, would you? “Two years ago, the people of BP made a commitment to the Gulf, and every day since we’ve worked hard to keep that,” says one ad. “I want you to know that there’s another commitment that BP takes just as seriously – our commitment to America.”

It all sounded so nice.

But the U.S. District judge presiding over a suit under the Clean Water Act apparently wasn’t swayed by the ads. Yesterday, Judge Carl J. Barbier found BP guilty of gross negligence and willful misconduct in the blowout, exposing BP to as much as $18 billion more in civil penalties on behalf of victims. In a 153-page decision, Judge Barbier recounted “a chain of failures” – including skimping on safety tests and dishonest analysis of results – resulting in the explosion and spill.

There is still much that remains unknown about the effects of BP’s actions in the Gulf. Some cite evidence that the well is still leaking. Others point to mortality of baby dolphins, which increased by a factor of ten after the spill. Oil-related carcinogens in the Gulf have increased by a factor of 40, with unknown impacts on humans and marine life. Deep coral reefs have suffered significant damage, with largely unknown impacts on ocean ecosystems. Many of us have been to the Mississippi Delta to witness first-hand the damage to local fishing communities. It may be many years before we really know the true cost of the BP Gulf spill.

But one thing that we can know beyond doubt it this: All those cheery fossil-fuel ads have had only one purpose—to mask the extent of the damage and the ongoing risks of tar sands mining, fracking and mountaintop removal coal. And now, ever more clearly – of deep-water oil drilling.

It’s up to you whether you hit the mute button on those commercials or not. But I suspect that, whatever they’re saying this time around, we should take it with a huge grain of salt.

What Would Jesus Invest In?

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 13:44)

Twelve years ago, Rev. Jim Ball and Evangelical Environmental Network launched a campaign with a clever catch-phrase: “What would Jesus drive?” A few months later, he climbed into his blue Prius hybrid for a tour of the Bible-belt, speaking to churches in 14 cities, and winding up on Diane Sawyer’s Good Morning America.

“We wanted to have people start to think of their transportation choices as moral choices,” said Ball, “and to a certain extent we succeeded.”

Rev. Ball and his hybrid. NY Times photo

Rev. Ball and his hybrid. NY Times photo

Today, efficient vehicles are widely seen as a component of ethical living, and the U.S. is on the way toward implementing a 54.5 mpg vehicle efficiency standard.

And additionally, people all over the country are also beginning to ask a related question: “What moral choices are reflected by the investment of our savings?” For Christians, perhaps, “What would Jesus invest in?”

Of course, the Bible provides abundant guidance on matters of money. But for a moment let’s focus on Jesus’ one-sentence parable often called “The Hidden Treasure,” about gold discovered buried in a field. Yes, the treasure is hidden, but not hidden from you. You know it’s there, and you’re willing to sell your heirlooms, real estate, livestock or anything else of recognized value in order to capture the hidden riches.

Now maybe you’ve always thought of this parable in purely spiritual terms. If so, you were probably right. But the parables of Jesus make sense because they call upon tangible everyday realities to illustrate transcendent truths. And the tangible reality of investing is that most buyers and sellers don’t know how to properly value things. They miss the hidden value – or the hidden liability. They might know the value of a farm field, but they don’t know about the gold buried there. And sometimes what’s hidden is not treasure, but toxic liabilities.

It turns out that Jesus’ investment thesis has taken center stage in today’s very largest companies – the huge fossil fuel giants that dominate our stock markets these days – ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron and the like. And that’s because these companies derive their value mainly from their “proven reserves” of oil, gas and coal. The idea is this: An investor who buys shares in these companies is really buying a tiny slice of the value of the fossil fuels they’ve discovered and locked down under leases. The investor will make a profit if what he or she pays for the stock is reasonably in line with the income that the fuel reserves will generate when produced, refined and delivered to market over the next decade or two.

And these companies have huge reserves. The 200 largest fossil fuel companies control proven reserves containing 2,795 gigatons of CO2 locked inside them from millions of years of natural processes – and that’s not counting unconventional fuels like Canada’s tar sands or America’s shale oil. 2,795 gigatons. Now here’s the problem: climate scientists have concluded that we can’t afford to burn any more than 652 gigatons of CO2 between now and 2050, if we want to leave our children a fighting chance of having a world no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than it was in the last century.

Now, 3.6 degrees hotter will be terrible, but if we want it to be no worse than that, then 652 gigatons of CO2 is all that the whole world can burn.

So whatever a gigaton of CO2 might look like, you do the math: The world’s oil companies have enough proven reserves on their balance sheets to burn 2,795 gigatons into the atmosphere. But the world can only afford to let them produce 652 gigatons’ worth, or we cook our children’s future. That means that 77 percent of proven, controlled, leased reserves of oil, gas and coal of these companies have to stay in the ground. The International Energy Agency puts the leave-it-in-the-ground percentage slightly lower, at two-thirds. The World Bank now calls these reserves “stranded assets,” and frets about pensions invested in those companies.

Bill McKibbon of 350.org "Do the Math." Photo grist.com

Bill McKibbon of 350.org “Do the Math.” Photo grist.com

And, oh by the way, it follows that all current exploration and development for new fossil-fuel reserves is nothing but wasted money. Unless, of course, the oil companies are willing and able to somehow fundamentally destabilize the world our children will inherit, and if we let them use their enormous wealth to purchase the support of politicians who will permit it.

But whatever you think of human nature, you probably don’t think that the world will actually condemn its children – and all the world’s other species – to a future of increasingly prevalent hunger, drought, ocean acidification, flooding and species extinction. With each passing year, rising CO2 concentrations accompanied by rising temperatures and increasingly extreme weather will surely make climate denial less and less tenable.

So just how much longer can we imagine that the world’s nations will permit fossil fuel companies to continue producing the thing that threatens the viability of life on our planet? Perhaps we will blow through the scientific carbon budget and make the world a terrifying 3.6 degrees hotter. But do we really think that we’ll do that three or four times over, by producing all the the proven reserves of these companies?

And that brings us to a very practical investment question: Since it simply must be that the people of the world will eventually fight back against fossil-fuel carbon pollution, who would invest in a company whose investment model calls for producing roughly three times more carbon pollutants than the world can possibly permit?

I think that Jesus’ parable of “The Hidden Treasure” is speaking more clearly than ever today. Investors are looking for hidden value; and are increasingly wary of hidden liabilities. In the case of oil, gas and coal companies, the hidden truth is becoming clearer day by day: Investors are being asked to pay for reserves that are indeed in the ground, but simply cannot be produced without dire consequences to the world and its creatures, including humans. And the more this reality sinks in, the further their values must plummet.

So if you’ve wondered about those people demanding divestment from fossil fuels in their portfolios, perhaps this is one instance where ethical investing and profitable investing line up nicely.

What would Jesus invest in? I can’t say I know for sure, but I don’t think it would be ExxonMobil.

Note: Bill McKibbon and 350.org have launched a nationwide campaign called Do the Math, which highlights in clear terms the necessity of leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

A World Where Pollution is No Longer Free?

It’s hard to imagine isn’t it?

We’ve treated so much of our Father’s world as a virtually inexhaustible dumping ground, that actually having to pay for the privilege might seem somehow radical. And even if most of us no longer think it ethical to pour raw sewage into our neighbor’s drinking water, we hardly think twice about what we put into the air that God has given to sustain us and all living things.

But for Christians, our church fathers would never have tolerated such an approach to God’s creation. Almost five hundred years ago, long before Galileo and much of modern science, the great Reformation theologian John Calvin gave us these words in his Commentary on Genesis:

“Let him who possesses a field, so partake of its yearly fruits, that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence; but let him endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated…. Moreover, that this economy, and this diligence, with respect to those good things which God has given us to enjoy may flourish among us, let everyone regard himself as the steward of God in all things which he possesses.”

If we expect God’s creation to flourish for us and our children, says Calvin, then we must be its stewards, handing it down better, more fertile, cleaner and better ordered than we found it.

Of course, those of us who take these words seriously have watched with dismay as the earth’s atmosphere has become more and more choked with earth-warming gases, while powerful companies spare no effort to assure that nothing is done to stop the abuse.Picture4

But despite the almost daily litany of terrible news from a groaning creation, the people of the world may be finally waking up. It may be that the era of free and unfettered carbon pollution is at long last coming to an end. Here’s why:

Remember back in 2008, when it looked like “cap & trade” might be approved by the U.S. Congress? It was a system under which major carbon emitters – utilities, manufacturers and the like – were given permits to emit CO2 in amounts that gradually decreased over time. Permit holders could then buy and sell their permits, providing market incentives to reduce pollution. It had been done on a global scale with great success to cut emissions from CFC’s, a chemical compound that harms the earth’s ozone layer. And the carbon bill looked like it was headed the same direction. It actually made it through the House of Representatives, before dying in the Senate.

After that, opponents successfully labelled the idea as “cap & tax.” And with an electorate staggering under the weight of a terrible recession, the U.S. lost interest in just about anything other than near-term economic recovery.

But in case you haven’t been watching, the world has been moving ahead – with or without us. As of today, countries and states that are home to one in three people across the globe have implemented CO2 cap & trade regimes, or are in the process of doing so right now.

Of course, you knew that the European Union had a system in place. But did you know about South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam or New Zealand (among others)? And more important by far, had you heard that the massive coal-burning economy in China is getting set to implement its own cap and trade system?

Here’s a look at the major players that we’ve been able to find:

Picture3

Don’t miss your fellow Americans on the list. California’s system costs carbon polluters almost $12 per ton of CO2 emissions. And another nine states in the Northeast, including New York, have been selling carbon permits to utilities for the last six years.

Gradually, it would appear, the people of the world are coming to terms with the essence of Calvin’s teaching: “With respect to the good things that God has given us to enjoy,” including the air that we depend on, “let everyone regard himself as the steward of God.”

When our parents were kids, many Americans threw their litter out the car window. Today, almost no one does that. Almost no one now objects to recycling, once seen as the province of tree-huggers. Almost all of us are glad for pollution controls on our cars and factories. And increasingly, we’ve accepted that it’s not cool – nor just – to pour carbon pollution into the air that belongs to all people, and to future generations.

I think John Calvin would be encouraged, don’t you?

2014 Will be Remembered for … Dragon’s Breath?

Quick! Pick one.  The worst thing to happen on earth in 2014 was:

  1. ISIS overwhelmed Iraqi and Syrian forces and unleashed unspeakable violence on innocent victims.
  2. Russian President Putin launched an invasion of neighboring Ukraine, reigniting the Cold War.
  3. Atmospheric CO2 passed 400 parts per million, thawing the Arctic and releasing “Dragon’s Breath” blow holes of methane into the atmosphere.

Okay. It’s not fair asking you to rank horrors. ISIS is obscene. Putin’s grab for Ukrainian territory recalls fascist conduct prior to the worst war the world has ever known.  But a century from now, few people will likely remember them. What they will remember, however, is the generation that fundamentally destabilized the planet onto which they were born (see option “3”). And likely as not, 2014 is the year that will show up in the history books, if there are any more history books.

Why 2014? Well, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its 5th set of reports on behalf of the global climate science community, warning that the world needed to adhere to a strict carbon budget, which has already been more than half spent, if we want to avoid planetary calamity. And runaway atmospheric carbon concentrations also broke through the 400 ppm threshold, disrupting the Earth’s thermal equilibrium enjoyed for millions of years (at around 280 ppm), while many politicians and oil companies took all measures to prevent us from doing anything to stop the rise.

Image source: Moscow Times

A methane blow hole in eastern Siberia

But then in the early summer, we discovered the first of a series of ominous signs in the Arctic tundra of eastern Siberia. Cavernous, seemingly bottomless craters began to appear in the deserted northern landscape, looking like the stuff of sci-fi movies. In the end, they turned out to be what many have been predicting: Enormous releases of heat-trapping methane sealed for eons beneath the frozen tundra and Arctic sea ice, now melted due to global warming.

We wrote about these “dragon’s breath” holes when they first made the news, and warned that this could be the beginning of something very serious. Since then, we found a remarkable video by some prominent scientists, addressing the trends in Arctic melting and the threat of catastrophic methane release upon the global climate system. Its nineteen-odd minutes is definitely worth watching, and you don’t have to be a climate geek to understand it.

The commentators are Dr. Peter Wadhams, Head of Polar Ocean Physics Group at Cambridge University; Dr. Natalia Shakhova, head of the Russian & US Methane Study at the International Arctic Research Centre; Rev. David Wasdell, Director of the Apollo-Gaia Project; and Dr. James Hansen, Head Scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute. Take a moment and listen to what these brilliant folks are desperate for you to understand.

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NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies Dr James Hansen

Hansen: If we burn all of the fossil fuels, then we certainly will cause all the methane hydrates eventually to come out (of the Arctic) and cause several degrees more warming. It’s not clear that civilization can survive that extreme climate change. (16:50)

I think that the concept of adapting to climate change is dangerous. Because there is the potential for climate change that humanity cannot adapt to. If the ice sheets become unstable and sea levels go up multiple meters, well, you’re going to put all of the cities on coasts all around the world under water, and you will destroy all of that heritage. (16:00)

david_wasdell

Wasdell: The danger of moving into a runaway climate change scenario is now clear, and beginning to be quantified for the first time in the last few months. It’s probably the greatest threat that we face as a planet. The rate of change that we’re generating in the current situation is between 200 and 300 time faster than that experienced in any of the extinction events, apart from the asteroidal impact (linked to the extinction of the dinosaurs).

It takes about 10,000 years to change the concentration of CO2 by about 100 parts per million. We’re doing it in 30 years. So the rate of change in the climate is phenomenal compared to previous extinction events. We’re already in a mass extinction event.  It isn’t something that’s going to happen. We’ve lost about 40 percent of the phytoplankton in the ocean, which is the base of the food chain, simply because of acidification and temperature change in the climate. (12:00)

peter-wadhams

Wadhams: You tend to think you’re going to gain from global warming: you can grow more crops further north. And that’s true, but the instability means that at critical times, these crops are going to be affected by frosts, floods or rains. The estimates are that you won’t gain much from the warming in the Northern Hemisphere, and you lose a lot from all the warming in the tropical regions. It’s going to be very difficult to see how to support even the present world population. (14:00)

Dr-Natalia-Shakhova-University-Alaska-Fairbanks

Shakhova: The amount of carbon preserved in the methane of the Arctic Shelf is from hundreds to thousands of gigatons. The release of only one percent of that amount would double the atmospheric methane. To destabilize one percent of this carbon pool – it’s not much effort needed, considering the state of the permafrost. The weakening permafrost is losing its ability to serve as a seal.

We do not like what we see there. Absolutely DO NOT LIKE. (14:00)

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. Continue reading

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.” Continue reading