Monthly Archives: April 2013

Hope and Crisis: Climate Losses & Perseverence in Kenya

When we witness the relentless onslaught of extreme weather in Kenya, we’re tempted to wonder about how to hang on to hope. The deck looks impossibly stacked against Kenyans for whom drought, flooding and changing disease and pest vectors are spreading hunger and poverty.

But in the last few days, we’ve seen some examples of amazing resiliency and initiative. Community self-help organizations are terracing hillside fields to conserve water and prevent erosion. They are adopting Farming God’s Way, a gospel-based form of conservation agriculture that enhances soil health and conserves moisture. They are planting indigenous trees in many places to restore ecosystems and resist desertification. They are building remarkable sand dams, which turn seasonally-dry rivers into year-round water sources, and raise the water table. Continue reading

A Message to America from Kenya’s Church Leaders

Friends with A Rocha and World Renew (both excellent Christian NGOs) managed to get us an extensive meeting yesterday with top leaders of the Kenyan National Council of Churches. It’s hard to say what a privilege it is to meet with Peter Karanja, General Secretary, and Chris Kamau, Sr. Officer for Social Services. These men are top leaders representing the biggest church denominations in Kenya.

At the end of a wide-ranging discussion about creation care and environmental challenges, one of our fellow North Americans asked our Kenyan hosts: “We want you to be totally candid with us. Please don’t pull any punches. What should we tell our churches back in North America?”

They paused for a brief moment. I had the sense that they were torn between Christian hospitality and the Christian honesty we were asking for. But they chose – I think – the route of candor. I wasn’t taping their narrative, but scribbled in my notebook like mad. Here’s a smattering of what they said:  Continue reading

Why EPA Gave the Keystone XL a Failing Grade

As you may know, I’m far away listening to harrowing accounts from East Africans whose families and lives are being threatened right now by the impact of climate change. We are stunned at what we’re hearing. But this morning at breakfast, all the buzz among my fellow creation care advocates was about news from 7,500 miles away. In Washington, the EPA had just released their environmental report card on the Keystone XL pipeline. They gave the project a failing grade.

The way the law works, the State Department first has to produce an environmental impact statement (EIS) on this pipeline. The EPA is then required to review the EIS, and give it the expert thumbs up, or a failing grade. 95% of the time, the EPA has only minor comments on EIS reports produced by other agencies. But this one flunked: “Environmental Objection,” was the grade; they called the EIS “insufficient.”

But we also learned something new about what democracy looks like. More than one million messages to the President and Secretary of State were submitted from members of various organizations concerned about environmental protection and climate change. And that doesn’t count messages directly sent by private citizens like the readers of Beloved Planet. I wonder how many issues have drawn one million objections from Americans. Not many, I’d bet.  Continue reading

We’re Disrupting Creation? How Do You Know?

We creation care advocates, we’re pretty sure of ourselves, aren’t we? Let’s face it. We’ve listened to the National Academy of Sciences. We’ve read the research on global changes. We know all the “parts-per-million” data. We’ve seen the melting glaciers, and the shrinking ice cover. We know about sea levels, ocean acidification, and runaway species extinctions.

But let’s face it: most people out there aren’t nearly as alarmed as we’re pretty sure they ought to be. After all, some say, scientists have been wrong before, no?

Then we talk to field workers on the ground, as we did yesterday in Nairobi. World Renew leaders in Kenya told us story after story of escalating climate shocks and related human suffering. It’s pretty credible stuff, and deeply alarming. But still, NGOs are in the crisis business, aren’t they? Maybe they’re dressing things up a bit for the visitors from North America?

So today, we got a totally different perspective, and I hope you’ll stick around to hear it. We took a long, muddy bus ride to one of the 300 churches in the Mount Kenya South Diocese of the Anglican Church here. Where I come from, Anglican churches are all granite and stained glass. This one, home to a rural Kikuyu congregation, let the daylight shine in through plastic panels in a rusted tin roof. It was pretty humble, to my Western eyes. But I thought it was a perfectly lovely place.  Continue reading

Climate Change in Kenya: It Didn’t Used to Be This Way

We enjoyed generous hospitality this morning from the staff of World Renew in Nairobi, an NGO affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church. At their offices this morning, we listened to leading authorities on agriculture, forest management, food security, development and disaster relief tell us the new reality of life in Kenya: Things are changing, and mostly not for the better.

I’m traveling with new friends from Canada, the U.S. and Uganda who share a deep commitment to caring for God’s creation. Some of us focus our efforts on the ravages of human-induced climate change. But our Kenyan friends are dealing with the facts on the ground, serving the victims of drought, flooding and soil degradation. They’re not fighting for a cause; they’re fighting for people.
The stories they tell all have a common theme: The systems people once relied upon to sustain their communities are increasingly unreliable. Droughts are increasing in frequency; so are floods, such as the ones ravaging Kenyan crops at present; and increasingly degraded soils are undermining the ability of farmers to rebound after severe weather shocks.  The result is increasing hunger, poverty and insecurity.
“Climate events are forcing us to fundamentally rethink how we work,” said Jacqueline Koster, World Renew’s director of disaster response for large swaths of the African continent.
For my part, I’m looking for the data: Prove to me that extreme weather is worse now than it once was; show me the data beyond any dispute. It happens that there is good data, but it only goes back a few decades – not long enough to persuade the most skeptical observers. But skeptics should have heard what we heard today from these experts on the ground. Here are some examples:
  • World Renew program consultant Stephan Lutz traced the trajectory of East African drought over the last forty years. There was one major drought in the mid-1970s that captured the world’s attention. Another came along a decade later. In the 90’s the pace increased to two. Two more hit in the 2000’s. And already, there have been two more crippling droughts since 2010, only 3 years into the new decade. Today, Lutz speaks of nearly “perpetual drought” conditions. It didn’t used to be this way.
  • World Renew formerly viewed its development work in terms of periodic interventions to help communities recover from occasional setbacks on the road to greater stability. But Koster doesn’t talk that way anymore. Climate shocks come so frequently that she speaks instead of helping communities to “build resiliency” in light of the inevitably frequent climate shocks. It didn’t used to be this way.
  • Disaster Response Manager Chris Shiundu told us that farm planning has become much more difficult. Kenyans recall that in the past, on Christmas, they would feast; the following day, they would eat the leftovers; and the next day they would plant crops. You could count on the rains within a day or two. Now, no one knows when the rains will come, and planters must watch and wait for erratic rains.
  • Team leader Davis Omanyo put the routine planting date at February 15 in another region, now abandoned because of erratic rains. And he reported that many farmers must purchase twice the normal amount of seed, so that the crop can be replanted after erratic rains cause the first planting to fail. You used to be able to plan your farming calendar. No more.
  • And while drought conditions have taken their toll on food production, Shiundu told us that excess moisture from erratic rains has also caused maize (field corn) to rot on the stalk, resulting in the total loss of crops in some regions.
  • Project Manager Geoffrey manages disaster relief in Mbeere district, where the maize and cowpea harvests have been reduced by 70% this year due to flooding from extremely heavy rains, and the arrival of a pest caterpillar never known before in that region. “People who are 70 years old tell us that this never happened before in their lives,” said Geoffrey, “nor in the prior generation.”
For those of us from carbon-heavy North America, these accounts prompt some serious soul-searching. We know what our greenhouse gases are doing to the climate in general, global terms. We know it’s driving extreme weather, melting ice caps, raising sea levels and acidifying the oceans. Now we’re listening to our fellow Christians tell us of the impact on God’s beloved in Kenya.
Thank you for your accounts Chris, Davis and Geoffrey. Thank you Jacqueline, Stephan and your many co-workers. We will do our best in the coming weeks to tell your story to our fellow North Americans, and especially those in our churches. At a minimum, we are one body with those who suffer in the harsh new world faced by many Kenyans today. And if our life patterns back home are responsible for suffering in this distant land, we will do everything we can to bring about the changes you deserve.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood

Tar Sands Pipeline: Don’t Worry, It’s Safe!

It’s been more than a year since I visited the People’s Republic of China. Among many things that struck me was this: It appears as though people don’t expect to be told the truth by officials. Remember the dead pigs in the Shanghai River last month?  16,000 bloated corpses rotting in the drinking water for Shanghai’s 23 million citizens.  But the government assured the people that their tap water was safe to drink

Or how about the toxic smog in Beijing? Government officials insisted that there were 286 “blue sky” days in 2011, until private citizens (and the U.S. embassy) began measuring air quality on their own and posting the results. It turns out that nine of China’s 13 largest cities failed more than half the time to meet even the lowest WHO standards for air pollution.
But who expected to be told the truth?

Perhaps things are different, however, here in the U.S. For the most part, we expect our officials to level with us, don’t we?  Two months ago, the State Department produced its environmental impact statement (EIS) on TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposal, and gave it a clean bill of health. I admit, this shook my faith in our officials a bit, especially since I come from a State Department family. I have already reviewed the EIS briefly, focusing on its highly-suspect treatment of the pipeline’s risks related to climate change. But I hardly looked at what they said about contamination from oil spills. I figured that was the least of our worries.
Then came the tar sands pipeline spill last week in Arkansas, releasing 84,000 gallons of Canadian heavy tar sands crude laced with toxic benzene into the small town of Mayflower. You’ve seen the pictures on the news, and it’s a remarkable sight. But it turns out that it’s not nearly as rare as we might have imagined:
  • Oil Change International reports that there were 364 pipeline spills in the U.S. last year, releasing 54,000 barrels of crude into our soils and waterways. That’s 2.3 million gallons of oil spilled from pipelines in America in a single year.
  • Just last week, a train carrying tar sands crude derailed in Minnesota, spilling 15,000 gallons.
  • A week before that, a Chevron pipeline leaked more than 25,000 gallons of diesel fuel into a Utah wetlands area about 50 miles from Salt Lake City. That followed two other Chevron spills totaling of 54,000 gallons of crude near Salt Lake City in 2010 and 2011. (Note: Chevron was fined less than $13 per gallon.)
  • In 2011, Exxon fouled the once-pristine Yellowstone River, leaking 1,500 barrels – that’s 63,000 gallons – of tar sands crude from a pipeline in Montana.  (Note: Exxon ultimately paid a token fine equal to $26 per gallon spilled into the Yellowstone.)
  • In 2010, another Canadian pipeline operator spilled whopping 819,000 gallons of tar sands crude into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, polluting it over a 39-mile stretch and into Lake Michigan.
But the Keystone XL folks are totally unfazed. Their website pronounces all oil pipelines to be “safe and environmentally favorable.”  Moreover, theirs is the best, newest and most technologically advanced. They have even voluntarily – voluntarily, mind you – agreed to 57 special conditions to enhance safety even more.
We’d expect a rosy picture like this from them, of course. No point in advertising all those dirty spills on the website they’re paying for. But what about the U.S. State Department – our country’s protector in all this? 
Well, I’m afraid that the Chinese would know just how we feel. First the EIS tells us that only 4% of all pipeline spills release more than 42,000 gallons into the surrounding habitat.  And sure enough, TransCanada has agreed to those 57 special conditions that result in a “reduction in the likelihood of a release occurring.”
So cheer up, American friends: there are 96% odds your Canadian tar sands pipeline spill will be less than 42,000 gallons of crude. And just like the website tells you, there are 57 items in their operating manual that will reduce your risks even further.  So don’t worry!
Sometimes, it does a world of good to see things with your own eyes. Our Chinese friends watch those pigs floating slowly by, and they’ll stick with bottled water for the present. And now you’ve seen what tar sands oil looks like when it’s flowing through the back yard.
I suspect that our Chinese brothers and sisters don’t have an easy time telling President Xi Jinping just exactly how they feel about rotting pigs and toxic air. But for you, it’s easy to tell President Obama what you think about the tar sands pipeline. Why not do it? Just click here.  In sixty seconds, you can make a real difference.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood