Monthly Archives: July 2013

Shocker: U.S. Politicians Dare to Mention Climate Change!

My, what a difference a year makes.

Remember? This time last year, the mere mention of climate change was taboo in virtually any American political circles. All GOP presidential contenders renounced any admissions they might have once ventured regarding climate science. Mitt Romney used rising sea levels as a laugh line at the GOP convention, the height of irony given Tampa’s extreme vulnerability to the rising seas. And for his part, Obama wouldn’t mention the “C-word.” Energy policy was “all-of-the-above,” all the time.

Climate activist Ben Lowe and Young Evangelicals for Climate Action actually went to one of the televised debates to demand that Romney and Obama at least address the matter of climate change — what they called a moral and spiritual issue. Sorry, Ben. No such luck.

So you can be excused if shifting political winds have you confused. Of course, there was the President’s hallmark climate change speech at Georgetown University two weeks ago, giving renewed hope to environmentally-conscious Americans. And newly-confirmed EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy then named climate policy as the number-one priority of her agency. But speeches by just-reelected presidents and appointed cabinet officials may not mean all that much. How about people who have to face the voters in the near future?

Well, that’s the amazing thing. Virginia’s race for governor pits climate-denier Ken Cucinelli against former Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe. Unsurprisingly, Cucinelli wears his climate denial proudly. But – and here’s the shocker – McAuliffe wants to be sure every Virginian knows that. He has campaigned with climate scientist Michael Mann, once the target of Cucinelli’s legal harassment. And McAuliffe even runs campaign ads highlighting Cucinelli’s staunch climate-change denial. Take a look:

Continue reading

Creation Care: Will the Calvinists Lead Us Out of the Wilderness?

Written by Rev. Charles Redfern
Rev. Charles Redfern

Rev. Charles Redfern

Think of this as a shout-out to the custodians of Protestantism’s brains: Arise and rescue us, oh Calvinists.  This is your hour.  An invisible behemoth has wielded scissors and snipped our mentalities.  Our thoughts lie like scraps on the floor:  Thinking is severed from doing; spirituality has been sliced from its heritage and theological reflection has deflated like a hissing pool toy.  You once bequeathed us a sophisticated cultural theology that anchored itself in Heaven while summoning us to this-worldly relevance: God inserted us at this time and this place to do his will – now. 

You can do it again.  We’ll even listen as you invoke your favorite words: “responsibility,” “duty,” “obligation.”  Go for it.  Continue reading

Arctic Methane Alarms: A Closer Look at the Debate

Every creation-care advocate knows that climate denial is rampant in the anti-scientific atmosphere that currently shrouds much of American evangelicalism. With so much nonsense circulating among us, it’s painful to admit our own mistakes. We’ve been called alarmists (or worse) so often that it’s particularly awkward coming clean when it’s possibly true.

But whatever the consequences, here goes. Several days ago, I wrote a piece about Arctic methane release, based on an article found in the science journal Nature. The gist of the story was that recent research had calculated a $60 trillion price tag on the effect of a major methane “burp” likely to be released from melting ice and permafrost in or near eastern Siberia. The burp would do most harm to poor people in poor countries, and would accelerate the threshold for global warming of 2 degrees Celsius to 2035, only 22 years from now.

This would be very bad news – perhaps apocalyptic bad new – and we said so.

NASA's Gavin Schmidt questioned methane projections

NASA’s Gavin Schmidt questioned methane projections

But what the Nature article didn’t say is that many respected researchers regard this scenario, in this timeframe, to be unlikely. Not that the Arctic isn’t melting; not that the methane deposits under the permafrost aren’t absolutely enormous; not that the methane released won’t create a huge positive feedback loop capable of driving sudden, catastrophic climate change. Just this: that few researchers view Nature’s timeframe to be realistic.

I picked up the Nature story, and reported to you the worrisome conclusion: that as early as 22 years from now, you are likely to be dealing with a world whose methane-heated climate is completely unrecognizable by – and possibly inhospitable to – the creatures that currently thrive on Earth, including humankind. In so doing, I relied on the prestige of Nature, without much further inquiry.  Continue reading

Arctic Methane Warnings: Too Dire to Think About?

Sometimes, the news is so bad that we just refuse to think about it.

Isn’t that true? Few of us are really willing to seriously contemplate our own death, for example. Fewer yet will meditate on the possibility of standing before divine justice. Anything else will do for distraction: the royal baby, Congress threatening to shut down the government, or even the prospects of a postseason without the Yankees.

So I don’t expect that many readers will have latched on to the recent article in the research journal Nature, sounding the alarm about methane gas bubbling out of the Earth’s melting Arctic permafrost. And that’s a pity, because the consequences could well be at our doorstep within twenty years’ time.

[Author’s note: This article has been qualified and revised by a subsequent post. Please find it here.]

In a nutshell, here’s the story. The Arctic holds unimaginable quantities of methane gas – the result of countless centuries of dead plant residues preserved by the northern cold – all trapped under the permafrost and ice sheets. As the Arctic has warmed and the permafrost has melted in recent decades, more and more methane has escaped its ancient prison, bubbling up through warming lakes and melting ice floes.

Methane fire warms researcher on frozen lake. Courtesy K. Walter Anthony, NASA

Methane fire warms researcher on frozen lake. Courtesy K. Walter Anthony, NASA

Researchers have long known that frozen methane deposits were the potential Doomsday Machine of a warming planet. The amount of methane stored beneath the Arctic is greater than the total amount of carbon locked up in global coal reserves. But there’s one major difference: you have to dig up and burn the coal; the methane just seeps into the atmosphere on its own, once the surface thaws.  The warmer it gets, the faster the methane is released, speeding further warming and yet faster methane releases.

But, until now, no one has attempted to put a price tag on near-term methane releases, which are increasingly evident in Siberia, Alaska, and Canada. The costs – from rising sea levels, to intensified storm activity, to disruptions in rainfall and water supplies, to crop failures and rising food prices, to human migration and resource conflicts – have only been speculated. But this week, researchers writing in Nature have come up with a price tag from the projected “methane pulse” in store with a business-as-usual approach to climate change: 60 trillion dollars.  Continue reading

How the West Was Burnt

“Probably most catastrophes end this way without an ending, the dead not even knowing how they died…, those who loved them forever questioning “this unnecessary death,” and the rest of us tiring of this inconsolable catastrophe and turning to the next one.”   ― Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

Darrell Willis prayed desperately. He called his wife, and then the head of the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department. They prayed too.

In the background, the radio crackled pleadingly: “Are you there Granite Mountain? Are you there Granite Mountain?” Over and over, but there came no answer.

Courtesy, Terry Tomkins, U.S. Forest Service

Courtesy Terry Tomkins, U.S. Forest Service

Minutes before, one of nineteen young Granite Mountain Hotshots working a fire on nearby Yarnell Hill had radioed Willis, the Prescott Wildlands Fire Chief, to report that they were being overrun by flames, and were deploying their emergency fire shelters, lightweight cocoons used as a last resort by wildlands fire fighters.

Almost instantly, the eyes of the entire country were riveted on Prescott, now the scene of the most deadly wildfire disaster in several generations. What had begun the day as a routine 15-acre fire had grown to 200 hundred acres. By late afternoon, a sudden thunderstorm had shifted the winds nearly 180 degrees, sending a wall of flame into Yarnell, and over the thin line of exhausted men fighting to contain it.

Over the three weeks since the tragedy, we have mourned and prayed for the fallen, and for the nineteen families left to wipe away their tears and carry on without fathers, brothers and sons.  And finally, we have begun to ask: Why did this happen? Why were these nineteen precious lives cut short in their youth?

Helmets and boots of 19 who died on Yarnell Hill

Helmets and gear of the nineteen who died on Yarnell Hill

Of course, there are the proximate answers. Firefighting is an inherently dangerous calling. Freak storms can always cause fires to behave erratically. Maybe this-or-that measure could have reduced the danger. But what about the spike in wildfires engulfing the West these days? What could explain the almost-daily incidence of forest fires on the national news? Isn’t it time to take a serious look at the reasons for these events?  Continue reading

Climate Change and Extinction: Noah’s Ark in Reverse?

Some of us Christians prefer not to openly ask too many questions about the story of Noah’s Ark.

Noah – you know, the pre-Bronze Age 500-year-old guy with his three sons building a boat about half the size of the Titanic, capable of handling a catastrophic torrent for a year; with a cargo consisting of at least one pair of each of the roughly 31,000 non-marine mammal, bird, reptile and amphibian species; plus the roughly one million invertebrate species; plus enough food and habitat to sustain them during their year-long voyage. Not to mention the geological, hydrological and zoological complications….

Of course, such speculation – long the favored realm of one particular slice of the theological pantheon – tends to distract us from some of the more amazing implications of the story. Think about it: When God pronounces judgment on all of mankind for its pervasive violence and corruption, his plan for justice considers first the preservation of animals, insects, and all sorts of living things. The vessel described in sacred scripture was almost completely designed to save non-human creatures. Noah’s labors, as a God-fearing man, were overwhelmingly to preserve the rich biodiversity of God’s creation.

Today, that biodiversity is under assault as never before. Actually, that’s probably not quite right. Paleo-science tells us that five times before, the Earth has suffered “mass extinction events.” The most recent brought down the curtain on the Cretaceous Period – dooming the dinosaurs and virtually all large land animals – some 65 million years ago. That would make our age the Sixth Mass Extinction.

Bengal tiger, one of

Bengal Tiger, one of almost 17,000 species threatened with extinction. Courtesy: IUCN

Already, before our fossil-fuel-emissions began seriously altering the planet’s climate, alarming numbers of species were becoming threatened with extinction. 869 species are known to have vanished entirely in recent times. Another 16,928 species are threatened with extinction and 3,796 more are on the bubble, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).  Together, the threatened or near-threatened species comprise more than 46 percent of all plants and animals assessed by the IUCN. Continue reading

How Fast is the Planet Warming? One Picture Tells the Story

Unless you’ve been curled up like Rip Van Winkle this last decade,  you’ve heard the cacophony of voices clamoring about global warming. It’s hotter than ever! Global ice is melting, sea levels are rising! And today’s extreme weather is the first small glimpse of the chaos ahead! No, no, no! Don’t believe those self-serving scientists!  It’s all a massive hoax! Actually, it’s been cooling recently!

Since most of us don’t do our own global climate monitoring, we have to believe someone. But whom?

Even for those of us who are inclined to trust the consistent findings of national and international scientific academies, the countervailing claims can give us pause. How can we be sure that the world is really warming, or that the trends are all that alarming?

Well, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has just helped us out in a big way. The WMO is the world’s most authoritative voice on the state and behavior of the Earth’s atmosphere, its interaction with the oceans, the climate it produces and the resulting distribution of water resources.  It’s been around for more than six decades, and has 191 member nations. And it’s just released a climatic review of the decade 2001-2010, and compared it to prior decades.

The report is chock full of fascinating and alarming findings about global heat, precipitation, ice cover trends, droughts and floods. But a single picture – actually, a single graph – tells you most of what you really need to know if you’re wondering how serious anthropogenic warming of the planet really is. Have a look:

Picture1

The WMO has taken the planetary surface temperature records from all the most authoritative US and UK climate research institutions – including NASA and NOAA – and averaged them. Then, they’ve bunched them together by decades, to eliminate the inevitable ups and downs that happen from year to year. What emerges is a clear picture of what’s happening to our world – decade by decade. And when you consider the trajectory, it’s no wonder that scientists are so alarmed.

It’s why last week, more than 200 evangelical Christian scientists wrote to Congress with these words of warning: “Average global temperatures are at their highest level within the measurement record, and we are beginning to see indications of increasingly disturbed weather. For example, 2012 was the hottest year ever recorded for the contiguous United States, and it will go down as one of the most destructive and disruptive years in U.S. history: wildfires, drought, superstorms, and public health outbreaks.”

You’ve heard the words of warning, no doubt. Now you’ve seen the picture.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood