Andy Revkin writes the Dot Earth blog for the New York Times. He’s not, as far as I know, well known for his musical accomplishments. But this song, dubbed as “a brief history of fossil fuels,” is fun, singable, and perceptive. Enjoy!
Ho hum. Another global heat record.
So, September was the hottest September ever recorded. That’s what NASA told us this week. And August was also a record-busting high, according to NOAA. And in fact, the three months June-August were also the hottest for the planet on record. Of course, we can now extend that to June-September. And NOAA tells us that the chances are very strong that the whole of 2014 will now break all global records for surface heat.
Let’s look at some heat maps, and maybe a couple of charts (yawn).
Doesn’t this make your blood boil?
No, in fact it doesn’t. More statistics, more science, more record-keeping – B.O.R.I.N.G.
Meanwhile, one out of every 165,000,000 Americans has been infected with Ebola in our country, and we can’t talk about anything else. If only we had people in hazmat suits cleaning up the effects of climate change on national TV. If only it threatened our lives, not just our children’s….
Well, I’ve just watched some amazing footage that goes a long way to unmasking the often-invisible hand of manmade climate change. Acclaimed nature photographer James Balog has made a career of hanging off of cliffs and giant redwoods, camera in hand, to bring us face to face with the marvels of creation. And a few years back, he figured that the polar ice could be a tangible way for you and me to witness our impact on the world around us. So Balog launched the Extreme Ice Survey, planting scores of cameras in some of the world’s coldest and most unhospitable places.
The results are amazing, not to mention terrifying. Take a look at this short clip, from Greenland’s enormous Ilulissant Glacier. In less than five minutes, you’ll see a mass of ice equivalent in size to a lower Manhattan, filled on every block with Empire State Buildings, collapsing and washing away in a span of just over one hour.
Like much of Greenland’s ice sheet, Ilulissant is melting and collapsing at breakneck speeds. And for a breathtaking view of Balog’s work in the Arctic, set aside an hour this evening, and watch “Chasing Ice,” his full-length documentary. It’s free, and you can watch it here.
Balog captures the astounding scale of changes occurring in the creation, which are driven by those boring statistics we keep citing. And when you catch your breath, you may find yourself asking, as I did: When I consider the work of your fingers, what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? (Adapted from Psalm 8:4)
We’ve learned that global action to preserve our children’s future won’t be driven by ever more compelling statistics. But when we who call the Creator “our Father” take a hard look with our own eyes at what we’re doing to His gifts, maybe then we’ll find the motivation to take action.
On a recent Sunday morning, September 21, we were packing up with about forty students from Christian colleges as far away as Indiana and North Carolina, headed into New York City for the People’s Climate March. As usual, I bellowed out to everyone as we were walking to the vans: “Make sure you go to the bathroom! Anyone need anything? It’s going to be a long day!”
Sure enough, several of the students did indeed need something. “May I please have a water bottle?”
Oh…. Ah, yes, water bottles.
Let’s be clear. These are absolutely fantastic earth-keeping college students. Many of them are studying environmental biology, or peace and reconciliation issues. Some are just back from studies in post-genocide Rwanda, or are planning organic farming internships for next summer. All of them care enough about God’s creation to have traveled for hours to sleep on the floor for a weekend of climate action. But water bottles?
“You know,” I stammered after an awkward moment, “plastic bottles are something we just don’t use much around here. Um, could we lend you an aluminum canteen?”
Thank God, awareness of plastic pollution is growing among young people. Many have read about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” They’ve seen images of decomposed sea birds whose stomachs were filled with brightly-colored plastic bottle caps. They’ve seen photos of Midway Island or the Maldives, beset by an unending sea-borne plastic tsunami. These are the remotest places on earth, and our plastic is all over them.
In our family, we kicked the plastic bottle habit years ago. It’s not always easy, but we manage.
And some major jurisdictions are already taking action. California has now banned single-use plastic bags, following the lead of Mexico City, Dehli, Mumbia, Bangladesh and Rwanda. Here in the U.S., Portland and coastal North Carolina also restrict the use of plastic bags.
But for real change to happen, average Americans like us are going to have to change our attitudes toward packaging – bags, bottles, boxes, and all, and especially plastics. Maybe our hearts need to change, and that might happen if you take a moment to watch a trailer for the Midway film about albatrosses and plastic pollution. Or take three minutes and watch the little film below about where our plastic ends up.
“People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.” Luke 17:27
A few weeks ago, a friend sent me news of an amazing transaction. In Miami, a waterfront downtown 1.25-acre lot had sold for the amazing price of $125,000,000. That’s one-hundred twenty-five MILLION dollars. For a little over an acre of land.
Now, if you’re in London, New York or Hong Kong, you’re used to this kind of thing. You know: location, location, location. But Miami is different. Yes, it’s the Magic City, and awash with money from all over the Americas and Europe, fueling enormous real estate, banking and (sadly) drug transactions. But increasingly, people are coming to terms with the fact that that Miami is living on borrowed time. And the time is beginning to look really, really short.
Oh, no. Not another doomsday scenario! Has this thought crossed your mind?
Well, we’ve been talking about Miami’s last days for several years now. But with the passing of time, the most serious doubts have been removed. We’ve learned that Miami is the world’s #1 loser to sea-level rise over the balance of this century, with more than $400 billion of assets exposed to projected sea levels at present. But recently, the evidence has mounted that Miami will succumb long before the tides inundate the city.
Here’s why Miami is headed the way of Atlantis:
- Global sea levels are rising faster than anyone expected, and will, within decades, inundate much of south Florida.
- More severe storms are projected for the region, with higher and higher storm surges, aggravating the impact of sea-level rise.
- Miami suffers from fatal geology: a porous limestone ridge beneath the city permits salt water to bubble up through “swiss cheese” rock formations beneath the ground, making dikes and levees useless.
- The topography is flat and low, with much of the most expensive infrastructure right on the waterfront. Even Miami’s enormous nuclear power plant is vulnerable to storm surges today.
- And the city’s freshwater supply is protected by flood gates that are also just barely above high tide at today’s levels, let alone in coming decades as polar ice continues to melt.
These factors make Miami “ground zero” for climate change. That’s why Harold Wanless, chairman of University of Miami’s department of geological sciences has said flatly: “Miami, as we know it today, is doomed. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.” Continue reading
What an amazing weekend! Barbara, Peter and I had the privilege of hosting more than forty students from Christian colleges who traveled to New York for the People’s Climate March. On Sunday, we joined with other Christians for a morning prayer service in Central Park, and then squeezed in with an estimated 311,000 people in what is hands-down the biggest climate demonstration ever.
We had our choice of groupings on the march. Leading the way were those already affected by climate disruption, followed by students, youth and elders. Fifteen blocks back stood those working for solutions, such as renewable energy and environmental justice advocates. Another ten blocks and the scientists and faith groups stood shoulder to shoulder. And in the rear was an assortment of cities, states and countries from virtually everywhere.
We chose the Science and Faith section. There we were, beneath an enormous blackboard prepared by scientists declaring “The ‘Debate’ is Over!” Its chalk markings depicted the trends in atmospheric CO2 concentrations over the last 400,000 years, with the unprecedented and terrifying spike in the last half-century; a pie-chart of the 97% of climate scientists who agree on the consensus science of manmade global warming; a line-graph showing the precipitous decline in Arctic sea ice cover; and the Keeling Curve demonstrating the inexorable growth in greenhouse gases every single year. Around us stood technicians in white lab coats, research scientists of every stripe, Christian college students, university professors, grandmothers demanding climate action, and young parents pushing strollers, including our own kids Lindsey and Brad, with our beautiful granddaughters.
The debate is over. Right?
One scientist carried a sign depicting several politicians with their now-infamous escape clause: “I am not a scientist.” On the flip side, his own declaration: “I AM a scientist!”
Eleven-thirty arrived, and we expected the march to begin. But there we stood. One hour. Two hours. Finally, at 2:00, our cohort began to slowly inch forward. It seems the entire protest route was crammed full, with at least double the expected turnout.
And so, by the time we made it down to 42nd Street, it was suppertime, our feet were blistered and our joints aching. Eventually, we yielded to temptation, ducked underneath the police cordon, and slipped into a Starbucks for some sustenance.
And there, on the Starbucks news rack, was Rupert Murdoch’s weekend Wall Street Journal, declaring on the front page: “Climate Science Is Not Settled.”
Ugh. Oh, please.
We were exhausted, and put off reading it for the following day. But now that I have, I’m surprised to find that the author admitted much that’s not remotely hinted at in the headline, and contradicted most of what we’ve heard on the climate-denial news outlets. The climate IS changing. The world IS getting hotter. CO2 IS an earth-warming gas. Fossil-fuel burning IS contributing to the problem. There is NO hoax.
So why, then, is “the science not settled?”
Well, because projections for the future cover a wide range of outcomes, the article says. Is this true? Well, yes. But the range runs from really awful to downright apocalyptic. Of course, the WSJ doesn’t mention this.
Anything else? Sure, but the Journal here reverts to silliness. There’s the implication that scientific uncertainty has been covered up. That’s simply false. There’s the idea that while humans are in fact changing the climate, it’s probably no more influential than natural variation. In fact, almost all the heating of the last several decades can be only explained by human influence. There’s the claim that the UN IPCC report should have focused on all the uncertainties that exist, rather than the facts that have been uncovered by research. That’s also silly. And of course, there’s the “pause” — the last ten years in which global surface temperatures have stayed right around the record high, rather than continuing to shoot higher and higher still. That’s a fact, which means something to you mainly if you ignore heating of the deep oceans, or or take comfort in a decade of merely-record surface heat while CO2 concentrations have jumped from 380 to 401 parts per million — faster than any decade known to science.
Rather than attempting to debunk the WSJ “lets-do-nothing” article myself, let me recommend a succinct analysis written for Climate Science Watch. In it, Penn State’s Dr. Michael Mann sums up his response to the WSJ’s weekend bomb this way:
“It is the RATE of warming that presents such risk to human civilization and our environment. There is no doubt that there were geological periods that were warmer than today due to long-term changes in greenhouse gas concentrations driven by natural factors like plate tectonics. But consider the early Cretaceous 100 million years ago when CO2 concentrations were even higher than today, and there were dinosaurs roaming the ice-free poles. Over the last 100 million years, nature slowly buried all of that additional CO2 beneath Earth’s surface in the form of fossil fuels. We are now unburying that carbon a *MILLION* times faster than it was buried, leading to unprecedented rates of increase in greenhouse concentrations and resulting climate changes.
“To claim that this is just part of a natural cycle is to be either deeply naive or disingenuous.”
Whatever the facts may be, the WSJ has done its damage. In the climate debate, just like the tobacco debate of an earlier generation, you don’t need to win anything. You only need to be able to suggest that there’s enough doubt so that it’s okay to do nothing, while the “debate” rages on. The “merchants of doubt” proved this over decades, while tobacco cancer deaths piled up.
And so this morning, I was not remotely surprised to receive links to the WSJ article from perfectly intelligent friends of mine not deeply engaged in the climate discussion. Hundreds of thousands of people taking to New York’s streets to demand climate action? But wait! The country’s biggest business journal says that the debate is not over! Maybe we can wait for a while longer, and continue to burn tobacco oil just like we’ve always done. Maybe? After all, there’s a debate…. Right?
During our prayer service before the march, the Christians gathered for worship in Central Park sang these beautiful words: “This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears all nature sings….” I love that verse, but only now notice the adjective: Listening. Listening ears.
The Creation is speaking. It’s researchers are helping us to understand what it’s saying. We have ears. But are we listening?
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.
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)
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.