• 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

Who Owns the Air?

In 1960, my father stopped in Paris on his way home to Washington, DC, and for less than $1,000, bought himself a shiny new Renault Dauphine compact car. A few weeks later, it rolled onto a dock in New York harbor, on its way to our suburban Virginia driveway.

In an age of tail fins and chrome baubles, the Dauphine must have been the strangest sight in the neighborhood. Never a thing of beauty, the cartoonish little Dauphine was about half the size of everyone else’s car. And by the standards of JFK’s America, this car was about as ugly as they came.

Renault Dauphine 1960: An oddity in my childhood driveway

Renault Dauphine 1960: An oddity in my childhood driveway

But for this American first-grader, the memory of my dad’s Dauphine brings back an entirely different memory. I can still virtually taste it – the suffocating, acrid smell of my father’s cigarette smoke and ash tray. It permeated everything about the car. It coated the vinyl seats, and hung heavy in the air we breathed. Before the advent of seat belts and car seats, I would sometimes ride with my head out the window to escape the nauseating fumes. But it never occurred to either my father or me that something fundamentally wrong was going on.

This was America in 1960. It would be another four years before the Surgeon General would release his report on the health consequences of smoking, and three decades before the EPA would issue its findings on the hazards of second-hand smoke. The tobacco industry had already ramped up its disinformation campaign, which would go on for decades. To me, my dad was the embodiment of integrity and reason, but somehow it never occurred to any of us that he was making us sick.

Today, this would be unthinkable for most families. We recognize this simple truth: the cigarette may be yours, but the air is OURS. We all have to breathe – and the car, or the house, or the restaurant is not big enough to absorb your smoke without harming all of us. A revolution has occurred, whether or not we’ve noticed. We think differently now. The air is not yours or mine; it’s ours.

Last week, the revolution took two more big steps forward. First, the leader of the world’s largest religious group – the 1.3 billion-strong Roman Catholic Church – cast planet-warming greenhouse gases in the same light as my father’s cigarette smoke: harmful to all of us. And second, a sovereign state, the Netherlands, was ordered by one of its highest courts to make deep cuts in emissions of those same gases for the same reason.

This looks to me like the start of something big.

Pope Francis’ Ecological Encyclical

Of course, you haven’t missed Pope Francis’ authoritative encyclical, titled “Laudato Si” after St. Francis’ prayer beginning with the words: “Praise be to you, my Lord.” From the outset, Pope Francis linked his letter to our common reliance on the blessings of the created world. “Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone,” he wrote. “For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone.”

As a child in the backseat of the smoky Dauphine, I would have grasped this truth intuitively – you can’t burn all those cigarettes – or all those fossil fuels – without someone else bearing the cost from pollution – of water, land and atmosphere.

At 180 pages in length, Laudato Si can’t be realistically summarized here. But Pope Francis warned of a global ecological crisis that summons Christians and all people to nothing less than a profound conversion.

“It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism,” he wrote, “tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an ‘ecological conversion’, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”

And because the injured ecological systems were created by God as gifts to us all, the gospel calls us to protect every “common good” – including the earth’s climate system. “The climate is a common good,” Francis wrote, “belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.”150618115850-pope-encyclical-1-exlarge-169

Christianity is by far the largest religion on earth today, and the Roman Catholic Church is by far the largest among us. You’d think that such an appeal would have a meaningful impact on the way our seven billion humans begin to deal with the ecological crisis, wouldn’t you?

(Note: The Pope is not remotely the first Christian to blaze this trail: in 2010, the worldwide evangelical Lausanne Movement declared that care for the creation is “a core element of the gospel,” and warned of the impact of manmade climate change on the poor. And the Christian Reformed Church in 2012 adopted an exhaustive report finding that “human-induced climate change is an ethical, social justice, and religious issue,” and that climate pollution “poses a significant threat to future generations, the poor, and the vulnerable.” Scores of other Christian declarations have echoed these messages; see a partial list here.)

But last week’s news featured something revolutionary in the secular world as well.

Dutch Court Orders Emissions Cuts

With their exposure to rising sea levels and progressive attitudes, I thought that the Netherlands would be a virtual poster child for climate protection, but I was mistaken. On average, the Dutch emit 10.2 tons of CO2 per person every year, a little more than half of the 17.2 tons emitted by Americans, but much worse than fellow Europeans in Germany, France and Britain. Leading up to the global climate negotiations in Paris this December, the Dutch government has announced plans to reduce emissions by 14-17% from 1990 levels by 2020. But last week, a Dutch judicial panel ruled that that wasn’t enough – because of the scale of the global threat from climate change.

Like the Pope, the judges recognized that the global ecosystem belongs to us all, and any state’s actions affect everyone, for better or worse. The Netherlands recognizes principles forbidding states from polluting to the extent that they damage other states, and the EU’s ‘precautionary principle’ which prohibits actions that carry unknown but potentially severe risks.

“The state should not hide behind the argument that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend solely on Dutch efforts,” the judges’ ruling said. “Any reduction of emissions contributes to the prevention of dangerous climate change and as a developed country the Netherlands should take the lead in this.”

Could the Netherlands’ ruling impact other countries as well? I think so. There is a parallel case working its way through Belgian courts right now. So, what if Germany, France or the UK were next? At some point, might jurists in Brazil, India, Australia and Japan begin to mandate action as well? And Canada? And – just imagine! – the US?

The world is changing. Only fifty years ago, a good, loving father may have unquestioningly polluted the air his family breathed with cigarette smoke. Today, we pollute the atmosphere that governs climate systems in Bangladesh, Malawi and the Philippines – as well as here at home. But maybe it’s beginning to dawn on us that the air belongs to everyone.

The world’s largest church has recognized it. Christians all over the world have gone on record. Now, European courts are doing the same. Is it possible that carbon pollution is now headed the way of indoor tobacco smoke?

With hope that this has begun in earnest, we join St. Francis in his prayer Laudato Si – “Praise be to you, my Lord!” Amen!

J. Elwood

How We Judge Dennis Hastert

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of salvation to everyone who believes.”

The visiting pastor at our church last Sunday preached on this text from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. EVERYONE, he stressed. The gospel is for everyone. It’s for criminals, for drug abusers, for people you and I probably don’t think are worthy of it. And fresh off of reading the morning news, I made a mental addition to the list: The gospel is for accused sexual predators, like the disgraced former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert.

Once second in line to the American Presidency, Hastert is now an outcast. The longest-serving Republican Speaker ever to hold that position is now set to become little more than a punchline on late-night TV comedies. The indictment against him outlines a lurid tale of millions of dollars allegedly promised – and partially delivered – to the alleged victim of Hastert’s molestation, from long ago when he was a high school teacher and wrestling coach in Illinois – hush money to keep his misdeeds from ever seeing the light of day.

And to sweeten the irony for millions of voyeurs, Hastert (called Denny by all his powerful friends), was a poster child for evangelical Christian politics. His name was emblazoned on a building at Wheaton College, arguably America’s premier Evangelical school of higher learning. He enjoyed the prestige of a seat on one of Wheaton’s boards. He sported a 100% political rating from the Christian Coalition, with all the expected stances on gays, abortion and sex education.

And Wheaton College’s Hastert Center (officially the J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government & Public Policy) listed as its core mission the advancement of “the redeeming effects of the Christian worldview on the practice of business, government and politics.”

The former J. Dennis Hastert Center at Wheaton College

The former J. Dennis Hastert Center at Wheaton College

So you can imagine the conundrum faced by Wheaton’s administrators when the dreadful news exploded into the headlines last week. How could a name symbolizing homosexual abuse adorn a college building dedicated to the “Christian worldview” of government?

Not surprisingly, Wheaton announced that it was “saddened and shocked.” The language in their press release was pious and measured, including promises “to pray for all involved” who may have been “harmed by any inappropriate behavior.” But if their words were polite, their actions were much more decisive: Hastert was summarily removed from the Hastert Center’s Board of Advisors, and his name was scrubbed from the center as well. It’s now called the Wheaton College Center for Economics, Government, & Public Policy.

So, goodbye Denny. It’s like we never knew you. One day, you’re an Evangelical titan. The next, you’re invisible, forgotten – anathema.

Now, Wheaton and the white American Evangelical world didn’t have much of a choice, did they? But I find it more interesting that nothing else about Hastert’s legacy bothered us, up until now. We were perfectly happy forging alliances with this powerful rainmaker until something salacious hit the newsstands. So, why weren’t we at all troubled at the litany of well-known practices that served as hallmarks of the ex-Speaker’s career? Consider:

The Speaker of Earmarks: As House Speaker, Hastert presided over the era of uncontrolled “earmarks” during the George W. Bush administration, the process by which lawmakers inserted unrelated subsidies and appropriations into important bills, mainly to deliver pork-barrel perks back home, or to reward political donors. The military appropriations bill for the 2000 fiscal year contained 997 earmarks. Under Hastert’s speakership, by 2005, that number had grown to 2,506 earmarks. In 2000, the largest domestic spending bill, which funded labor, health and education programs, had 491 pet projects. By 2005, it had 3,014.

Publicly, everyone hated earmarks. But under Denny, they ran rampant until the $450 million “Bridge to Nowhere” scandal brought down Alaska’s senior senator and (together with a related bribery conviction) shocked the nation into taking action against them.

Corrupt Self-Dealing: One of Hastert’s own earmarks was for $207 million in Federal money to build a new highway in Kendall Country, Illinois. It happened that the new road ran right past about 90 acres of farmland owned by the Speaker himself. Overnight, the land became suitable for a 1,600-home residential development project, netting Hastert an estimated profit of about $4 million within a few months of the earmark’s passage.

Merchants of Death: It’s common for powerful lawmakers to cash in on their influence when out of office by moving a few blocks from the Capitol to join the legion of lobbyists on Washington’s K Street. Hastert became a top player at the firm of Dickstein Schapiro, which showered him with compensation dwarfing his congressional salary for the sake of his connections to those in power. His largest client was Lorillard Tobacco, which was convicted of fraud and racketeering for denying and concealing the links between smoking and cancer, for funding front groups designed to raise doubts about the consensus of medical science, and for handing out free cigarettes to black children to breed a lifetime of addiction.

For Lorillard, Hastert’s job was to get his friends in Congress to expedite approval of candy-flavored tobacco products. Candy-flavored? Oh my goodness.

Merchants of Doubt: At Dickstein Schapiro, Hastert’s other big client was Peabody Coal. The largest privately-owned coal company in the world, Peabody relied on Hastert to persuade Congress that climate change is nothing to worry about. He was dramatically successful. In the Senate, as recently as January 2015, 49 GOP Senators (all but five of them) voted against a nonbinding bill affirming the scientific consensus that human emissions are significant contributors to climate change.

Still, in all this, America’s flagship Evangelical college apparently had no qualms. Presiding over a grab-what-you-can culture of earmarks, including those that fatten your own bank account? Not our business. Rake in consulting fees on behalf of companies that prey on children and the poor? Who are we to judge? Help to block the entire world from acting on a massive environmental problem of global scope? Let’s not touch that controversial topic.

But, fall prey to accusations that you’ve done something sexually immoral? Well that’s easy. Sayonara Denny! We can’t deal with a sinner like you.

Now, it’s not that Christians must never call out immorality, injustice, and every other type of sin. The New Testament prophet John the Baptist screamed at his hearers: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Terrified and convicted, they begged him: “What then shall we do?”

We might think he would say something about sexual promiscuity, or profanity, or religious observance, but that would be a mistake. Whoever has two shirts, he said, share one with the person who has none. The same goes for food. And you in power, don’t take money from those under your control, even if you have the power.

Is that it? Actually, yes. That’s it.

If John the Baptist (or Jeremiah or Isaiah or Micah) is watching the Hastert saga play out, he might well be upset about lots of things. Of course, if the life of a high-school student in Illinois has been traumatized, the prophet will likely have some choice words for the ex-Speaker. But he’s almost certainly not ignoring all those dollars & cents either. Hastert’s kids may inherit the millions he’s made trading influence for wealth. Your kids will inherit the national debts piled up through all those unsavory appropriations bills. Your kids will subsidize the health costs from his tobacco clients. And your kids will inherit a broken climate system from our persistent inaction on global climate change, the key goal of Hastert’s coal client.

Fellow Christians, I’m not asking that we appoint ourselves to be the judges of men and women. But when we do make judgments, as Wheaton College has been forced to do, maybe we could look hard to assure that those judgments are the same ones we find in sacred scripture.

What shall we do? Maybe the Bible has answers long ignored.

California: Time to Stop Soaking the Rich?

Compton, CA is a working-class town midway between LA and Long Beach. Daily water use in Compton comes to 63.6 gallons per person. That’s a lot more than in Sudan, or even Uganda. But a 45-minute drive to the east brings you to the wealthy community of Cowan Heights, where daily water use is a whopping 572.4 gallons per person. That’s nine times higher than Compton. Water is getting expensive in California, and the folks in Compton are feeling the pinch. Median household income is $42,335, about one-third of Cowan Heights, which clocks in at $125,556.

sprinkler1So here’s the question: Should a wealthy community making three times as much as its neighbors be allocated nine times as much water? Or clean air? Are there any things that should be allocated as God-given rights, not subject to market pricing?

Drought-parched California is making both towns cut back. Water-guzzling Cowan Heights residents will have to reduce by 36%, down to 366 gallons per day. Compton must cut back by 8%, to 59 gallons. Wow. Then the wealthy Cowan Heights will have 6 times as much water as its poorer neighbors.

Market economics have undoubtedly done wonders for many people in our country. But there was a time when conservatives and progressives alike agreed that some things should be allocated equitably to our world, not based on what the richest could pay. With California’s drought beginning to look something like the “new normal” in the American West, I’m not sure that “soaking the rich” is the best way to allocate life-giving water.

California's 4-year drought is likely to subside over time, but it is consistent with climate warnings for the  American West.

California’s 4-year drought is likely to subside over time, but it is consistent with climate warnings for the American West.

Are you?

And have you spent much time asking and praying about what your sacred scriptures teach about such matters?

 J. Elwood

Why We Doubt Science: Maybe We Know Enough Without It!

As anyone knows, climate change – or global warming – has become an amazingly controversial topic in America. This is especially true, it turns out, among communities that identify with Evangelical Christianity. It seems to matter little that almost all climate researchers agree that it’s happening, as a result of human activities; or that only an infinitesimal fraction of science journal papers question manmade climate change (one out of 2,258 in 2013); or that virtually all of the science academies of the Developed World have warned of the need for urgent climate action; or that a solid majority of Americans also accept these conclusions.

Despite all of this, only 49% of white American Evangelicals accept the scientific consensus that the Earth is warming due to human activities, according to a Public Religion Research Institute survey conducted in 2014. Indeed, of all religious categories surveyed, white Evangelicals were the least concerned about climate change. Not surprisingly, we Evangelicals help vote into office politicians who also ignore all warnings about climate change, effectively blocking global action to address the problem.

In the face of overwhelming evidence, why do we continue to doubt? And with the cacophony of cries from the global victims of drought, flooding and sea-level rise, why do we resist compassionate action? For years, this question has been repeated as a matter of rhetoric, or anguished outbursts from activists. But recently, behavioral scientists have turned the tools of science toward the phenomenon of climate denial. Yes, old science v. faith narratives may play a role; and yes, corporate-funded “think tanks” and politicians may sow doubt as they did during the Tobacco Wars.

But it’s beginning to look like there is much, much more going on in human minds, which makes climate inaction – from Evangelicals or anyone else – much more likely. Today, we address a surprisingly overlooked truism: We all feel like experts about weather.

We Feel Like We know

You’d think that dire warnings from experts would catch our attention, wouldn’t you? If more than 97 percent of structural engineers warned that a bridge was unsafe to cross, we’d find another way around, wouldn’t we? If a similar majority of oncologists told us we had cancer, we’d almost all seek treatment.

So, why do we doubt the warnings of climate science? There may be parallels between structural engineering and cancer diagnosis, on the one hand, and climate science on the other; but there are also differences. And one key difference is this: In a field normally dominated by technical specialists, weather events appear to be well within the range of laypeople’s personal expertise. We might be in no position to judge the levels of trace greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, or sea levels, or the extent of glaciers, but we all think we know about the weather.[i]

In February, the East was frozen, while the West sweltered

In February, the East was frozen, while the West sweltered

And what we know about the weather is informed by what we’re experiencing, right here, and right now. In June 2013, President Obama took to an outdoor stage at Georgetown University in a brutal summer heat wave to announce his climate change plans. Virtually everyone who sweltered with him seemed to agree with his perspective. On the other side, early this year, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) tossed a snowball onto the Senate floor in an unseasonably cold winter, ostensibly as justification for his unrelenting opposition to climate action. Again, to some, the severe weather seemed to justify the senator’s conclusion.

Of course, when we stand back to examine these episodes, we can agree that the local weather on any particular day has little or no bearing on global climate trends. But research shows that we seldom actually think that way. In 2013, researchers at the University of New Hampshire proved it. In a survey of 5,000 voters, they found that on especially warm days, 70% of Independents in New Hampshire affirmed belief in human-caused climate change. On unseasonably cold days, the number dropped to 40%.[ii]

So whatever we think about Sen. Inhofe’s snowball antics, the research shows that his reaction may be closer to home than we might like to admit. For many of us, whether we take climate change as a serious concern may depend on whether it’s hot or cold outside, right here, right now.

If this is true – and it seems to be – the planet’s weather systems have played a cruel joke on humanity in the past year. Global politics are dominated by the one remaining superpower – the U.S. – and the U.S. is heavily influenced by its densely populated Eastern states, with major cities like New York, Washington, Boston and Atlanta. And the East has spent all winter and spring in the grip of unrelenting cold – a consequence of the chaotic “polar vortex” that has attracted so much attention in recent years. Virtually the whole world is seeing abnormal heat, but we’re still very chilly.Picture2

And the data suggests that if we’re feeling chilly, then we’re likely to ignore the heat that’s becoming the norm everywhere else. Because, after all, we all feel like we understand the weather pretty well. It’s not rocket science, or cancer research or anything. Or maybe it is. Or at least, maybe we should consciously remind ourselves that there are better ways to learn about what we’re doing to our Father’s world than looking out the window.

Of course, it’s vital that we do so. Because by the time our local weather leaves no more doubt in our complex minds, it may be too late to save many people and other creatures from the ravages that science is warning us about.

J. Elwood

[i] From Marshall, George; Don’t Even Think About It; p. 13; Bloomsbury Press

[ii] Hamilton, L.C., Stampone, M.D. Blowin’ in the wind: Short-term weather and belief in anthropogenic climate change. (2013) Weather, Climate, and Society, 5 (2), pp. 112-119.

Oh, Canada! An Earth Day Lament

Today is Earth Day. I’m not marching, or celebrating, or even planting a tree (my latest dozen hazelnuts haven’t arrived yet). But I am sending you a sobering article from Sojourners Magazine on abusive and unjust mining practices worldwide by Canadian companies.

Last year, I spent a week in Fort McMurray, the heart of Canada’s tar sands petro-state of Alberta. I reported the horrors I saw there in several posts (see here, here, here, and especially here.) And while I lamented the poisoning and cultural genocide of peaceable First Nations in Alberta, I also mourned the apparent transformation of Canada from a relatively peaceable steward of its land and people, to a cynical state committed to the destruction of God’s most precious gifts for the enrichment of the powerful. I felt like I was watching the movie “Avatar,” but in real life — with real children, parents and elders as the real victims.

downloadNow, Rev. Emilie Teresa Smith, a Canadian Anglican priest, has detailed horrifying accounts of Canadian mining companies exploiting and poisoning the poor in less-developed countries. “What? Canadians?” she asks. “We’re supposed to be the good guys in the story. Well, not anymore.”

Please, read Rev. Smith’s article (and consider subscribing to Sojourners while you’re at it!). And for meditation and thought on this Earth Day, here’s the way she concludes her article:

“The Earth is not a thing to be bought, sold, used and destroyed. Our eternal connection to the dust is that we are dust. We are not the Creator, but frail creatures, utterly dependent on the care of the Earth, her mountains, her water, streams and deepness underground. As the psalmist reminds us, the Earth is not ours, but God’s; we live with tender mercy and grace upon her abundant belly.”

I pray that you are blessed this Earth Day, and are looking for new ways to tend and keep the garden in which God has placed you.

J. Elwood

Fossil Fuel Divestment: Good Ethics & Good Earnings

Socially responsible investors today face a paradox: They are setting aside savings today for a brighter, more secure future for themselves and their children. But some of the companies in their 401k’s or mutual funds actually present a dire threat to that future and those children. If they attempt to divest, investment managers will normally warn that they can expect lower returns, or greater risks. So how much does an investor have to give up for the sake of a livable future?

When it comes to fossil-fuel divestment, the answer seems to be – nothing at all. A new study has shown that there is no significant difference whatsoever in long term risks and returns between comparable portfolios which include fossil fuels, and those which don’t. And if that’s true, it’s great news for ethical investors, university boards and foundation managers.

The movement for fossil-fuel divestment has been sweeping the country in recent months. Foundations like the Rockefeller Brothers have divested. So have sovereign wealth funds like Norway; cities like San Francisco, Portland and Seattle; and universities like Syracuse, Stanford and the University of Maine. Last year, Union Theological Seminary in New York also divested, leading the way among Christian and religious institutions.

Placekeeper

Carbon emissions threaten to break 2-degree threshold

Their logic is simple: To avoid major ecological collapse around the world, we need to take serious steps to keep planetary warming to within 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or bear the impact of major ice-sheet collapse and sea-level rise, and climatic disruptions resulting in widespread hunger and accelerated species extinctions. Worse, passing the 2-degree threshold exposes the world to the risk of positive feedback loops, which could drive runaway warming beyond 4 degrees, with imponderable consequences. And virtually everyone agrees that the poor will be hit first and hardest.

The scientific consensus tells us that to remain within the 2-degree threshold, we must limit total additional global carbon dioxide emissions to 565 gigatons from here forward. However, major coal, oil and gas companies today own fossil-fuel reserves which – when burned – would produce 2,860 gigatons of carbon emissions – or more than five times the maximum that can be permitted globally. Furthermore, fossil-fuel companies invested $674 billion last year to discover even more carbon reserves, none of which can be produced without further severe harm to the Earth and its living creatures, including mankind.

So, if the scientific consensus is correct, fossil fuels would be a terrible thing for an ethical investor to put money into. Perhaps it’s obvious: An investor in these companies can only hope that these carbon reserves will in fact be sold and burned, and that those billions invested in further exploration will uncover even more reserves which will also be burned. By extension, this investor can only hope that the global carbon budget will be blown through many times over — an outcome that will assure that his or her children will inherit a world facing runaway climate disruption. From this perspective, there is virtually no better or worse fossil-fuel company: their fundamental business model requires them to do something that will bring calamity on others and on the entire creation.

If investors place any credence in science, if they think about the known facts, if they have any concern for the earth and for others, they won’t want to invest in these companies.

Okay then. But how much will it cost us to be ethical? Well, if you’ve been following the debate, you’ve seen some confusing numbers. The fossil-fuel proponents have produced reports going back 50 years which show that you’ll make more money if you stick with them. Climate activists have relied on numbers over the last ten years showing that you’ll do better if you divest from carbon-polluting energy. I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of either of these studies, but they’ve carefully chosen their timeframes. The former group places a lot of stock in the golden age of oil, back when I was a kid. The enviros like to focus on the new era where we all know what carbon pollution can do.

So I was delighted to find a report issued by Advisor Partners, a research firm that provides portfolio design information to investment professionals. The report traced investment performance for the Standard & Poors 500, which includes fossil fuels, and compared them with a fossil-free version of the same portfolio over a 25-year period, from 1989 to 2014. Twenty-five years is long enough to span several cycles – including oil booms and busts – but not so long as to include largely irrelevant ancient financial history. And they are clearly not trying to prove a point for anyone.

But the findings are striking: over twenty-five years, both the S&P 500 and the fossil-free alternative generated virtually identical returns in aggregate. There is no difference. If you had divested from fossil fuel stocks in 1989, by 2014 you wouldn’t have been richer, and you wouldn’t have been poorer. Period.

Over shorter timeframes, the report found that the fossil-free investment portfolio varied from the S&P 500, but these variances canceled each other out over time. In the 1990’s the fossil-free portfolio did better. In the first decade of this century, the S&P 500 did better, as oil prices skyrocketed. Since 2010, the fossil-free index did better again, as oil prices fell again. In aggregate, there’s been no difference.

But investors also care about volatility – how much an investment rises and falls from day to day compared to broad market averages. Surprisingly, here again the fossil-free index held up remarkably well. On average, the “divestment portfolio” moved around 1.07% more than the S&P 500. For every dollar of fluctuation (up or down) in the S&P index, the fossil-free portfolio moved an extra penny. I never would have imagined this small a difference. If an investor has a very short time horizon, then maybe all volatility is bad. But the difference is so little that most investors should hardly ever notice.

So, ethical investors, doing the right thing may be easier than you imagined. Your 401K, your alma mater, you church or your city may be able to divest from fossil fuels with the confidence that their morals and their prudence are not in conflict, as they might have feared.

It’s often costly to do the right thing. In this case, the numbers tell a different story. You don’t have to choose between your retirement and your kids’ world. You can hold fast to your good ethics, and still make good money.

That’s good news, no?

Action: For more on fossil-free investment resources, please see our recent post on available options; or visit 350.org’s divestment website for a wealth of useful information.

Climate Disruption in Kenya: Go and See!

In November 2013, the Philippines’ climate delegate, Jeb Sano, issued an appeal heard in capitals around the world. As his island nation staggered in the wake of the second “once-in-a-lifetime” storm to strike in the span of a single year, Sano begged the world: “To anyone who continues to deny the reality that is climate change, I dare you to get off your ivory tower and away from the comfort of your armchair. I dare you to go to the islands of the Pacific, the islands of the Caribbean and the islands of the Indian Ocean and see the impacts of rising sea levels….”

Go and see, he begged us. Go to the Himalayas and Andes, where poor people are being flooded by melting glaciers. Go to the deltas of the Ganges, the Amazon and the Nile, where livelihoods and hopes are being drowned. Go to the parched savannahs of Africa. Go and see what we are doing to our global neighbors.

And that’s exactly what a North American evangelical denomination has committed itself to do. In the summer of 2012, the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA) overwhelmingly endorsed a declaration that “human-induced climate change is an ethical, social justice, and religious issue,” and that climate pollution “poses a significant threat to future generations, the poor, and the vulnerable.” And the church committed itself to “go and see” the impact of climate change on poor communities, and to tell others what they saw.

CRC leaders Albert Hamstra and Peter Vander Meulen listening to Kenyan farmers

CRC’s Albert Hamstra and Peter Vander Meulen listen to Kenyan farmers

And so, in April 2013, the CRCNA’s team of church leaders, missionaries and scientists set out for Kenya, to witness first-hand the impacts of climate change in East Africa. What we discovered was absolutely staggering. In farms, village churches and government offices, Kenyans from all walks of life told us a familiar story: Climate patterns were changing radically, destroying food supplies and family farms, spreading hunger, and driving migration into squalid urban slums.

We recounted much of what we discovered in a newly-released video series titled “Climate Conversation: Kenya.” The series was designed for use in churches, to help Christians understand the impact of our actions on people in distant lands. And we knew that – unlike Kenya – back home in the U.S. and Canada, much of what we saw with unmistakable clarity would be considered controversial, and even political. And so we weren’t surprised to find in the the Christian Post an article by Calvin Beisner, a spokesman for the libertarian Cornwall Alliance, to rebut what we reported from our visit.

“The relevant facts in Kenya don’t support these claims,” Beisner said. And to support his rebuttal, he presented data from a World Bank website indicating that for Kenya as a whole, neither average monthly temperature nor rainfall had changed materially over the last century. “Are poor Kenyans suffering from water shortages?” asked Beisner.  “Yes. Is that because of global warming—manmade or natural? No. Is fighting global warming the solution? No.”

We suspect that Beisner’s article might have sounded persuasive and pragmatic to many readers, but not to us. And that’s because he cited country-wide data to invalidate the experience of people living in microclimates which are experiencing massive changes – obvious to us when we went to look for ourselves.

Kenya consists of at least four climatic regions, with only one-quarter of its land accounting for virtually all of its agricultural output. Even within that region, we encountered epic floods in some quarters, and epic droughts in others. A few hours’ drive from the capital city of Nairobi, we arrived in a small town only days after an average-year’s worth of rainfall had deluged the area in the span of several weeks, driving floods and mudslides that swept four little girls to their death and threatened an important regional hospital. But just two hours’ drive to the southeast, farmers recounted the impacts of crushing droughts that are becoming routine.

Freak rains drove catastrophic mudslides in hospital town of Kijabe, killed four girls.

Freak rains drove catastrophic mudslides in hospital town of Kijabe, killing four little girls, damaging hospital.

Of course, when record droughts occur alongside record floods, nation-wide average data can be thoroughly useless. In Kenya, it is useless indeed, as the biggest problem facing farmers is the increasingly erratic and unpredictable nature of rainfall in today’s more extreme climate. Kenyan farmers told us, without exception, that nobody now knows when to plant, as once-predictable rainy seasons have succumbed to chaos. Nation-wide rainfall data misses the point entirely, both in Kenya and elsewhere.

Consider the World Bank data for the United States. During the last two decades, they show that country-wide average rainfall has increased 3.9% compared to twentieth-century averages. Now imagine the reaction you’d get from farmers in California’s Central Valley, or firefighters in Texas, or city planners in Arizona, if you cited the World Bank to tell them there must be plenty of water.

People on the ground in Kenya just can’t miss the effects of extreme weather afflicting the country:  desperate farmers turning to conservation agriculture and agroforestry to deal with the onslaught of droughts; slum dwellers in Nairobi’s enormous Kibera shanty-town arriving daily from failed and parched farms; engineers attempting to conserve what water they can; agroforesters planting drought-tolerant trees to slow the advance of deserts and scrub-lands.

CRC scientist Cal DeWitt listens to Kenyan agroforestry expert

CRC scientist Calvin DeWitt listens to Kenyan agroforestry expert

And while it’s not addressed by the World Bank’s country-wide figures, Kenya’s drought cycle has intensified decade by decade over the last forty years. In the 1970s, a reported  40,000 people were affected by droughts; in the 1980s the number rose to 200,000 people; then 3.0 million in the 1990s; and since 2000, roughly 19 million people have suffered the impact of four separate mega-droughts. Right now, Northern Kenya is in the grip of another crippling drought, with more than two million hungry people, and large losses of livestock.

Kenya’s church leaders are among those most frustrated by climate denial and inaction back here in North America. Our CRCNA team met with Canon Peter Karanja, General Secretary of the Kenyan National Council of Churches – a prominent evangelical leader in the country. We asked him simply: “What should we tell our churches back in North America?”

“We are very concerned,” replied Karanja, “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…. Long after your life is over, your actions will have consequences on us. Many of them will be harmful consequences.”

In Beisner’s article, he proposed an alternative solution, which I confess that none of us had ever heard before: Dig up and burn millions of tons of Kenyan coal, and use the resulting electricity to pump rivers of water 250 miles uphill from Lake Victoria to farmlands in the Kenyan Central Highlands, some 2,000 feet higher in elevation. None of us has much expertise in the hydrological, ecological and economic obstacles that would confront such a feat of engineering – let alone the impact that all that diverted water would have on the Nile River, and the millions of downstream Ugandans, Sudanese and Egyptians.

But our Kenyan friends are incredulous at the idea. Over the last 25 years, they have watched lake levels falling sharply, and the shore line has steadily retreated. As a result, the outflow into the Nile River has been reduced, with serious consequences for Uganda’s numerous hydroelectric power plants, not to mention lake fisheries on which millions depend. Syphon off more water for an improbable scheme to cure distant Kenyan droughts? They tell us this begs for a dose of on-the-ground reality – and a serious conversation with 175 million non-Kenyan  Africans who depend on the Nile’s life-giving waters.

The Kenyan communities we visited knew that their future depends on finding alternatives to ever-increasing levels of greenhouse gases, not burning more of the dirtiest fuel. And yet, as we read Beisner’s rebuttal, we could only conclude that he believes they are desperate to solve an imaginary problem. The climate is not changing in Kenya, his article tells them; just look at the World Bank data.

Well, we take the World Bank seriously, including their own assessment of their climate change data. Last November, the bank issued a report warning that without concerted action to reduce carbon emissions from things like coal-fired power plants, the world is on pace for 2° Celsius in warming by mid-century, and 4°C or more by the time today’s teenagers are in their 80s. “The task of promoting human development, ending poverty, increasing global prosperity, and reducing global inequality will be very challenging in a 2°C world,” concluded the World Bank. “But in a 4°C world there is serious doubt whether this can be achieved at all.”

The World Bank, we believe, is right about climate change, just like the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and every major scientific society on record, home and abroad. Kenya, like much of God’s creation, is seriously threatened by the pollution that we continue to pump into the atmosphere. Much of this can be known from the comfort of our offices and studies – our “ivory towers.”

But the Filipino delegate, Jeb Sano, is also right: We must leave our comfortable cloisters, and go and see for ourselves. That’s what the Christian Reformed Church did in Kenya. Out of reverence for Christ and his world, these Christians will continue to go and see. And they will bear witness to what they see, whatever reception they encounter back home.

If Mr. Beisner would like to go and see for himself, we know many Kenyan Christians who would welcome the opportunity to show him what they are dealing with.

This article was first published in the Christian Post on March 30, 2015.