Monthly Archives: April 2014

Climate Change Denial and the Tobacco/Cancer Cover-up

A few of days ago, I exchanged text messages with a former Sunday school student of mine, who was asking about a barrage of climate change denial arguments he was getting from an auto mechanic he knows. I referred him to the National Academy of Sciences which has excellent resources, all very accessible, and to the Science tab on this website (somewhat less authoritative, I admit).

Academy of Sciences Climate booklet

Academy of Sciences Climate booklet

As an offhand comment, I told him that climate denial was essentially a rerun of the tobacco/cancer cover-up that ended up sacrificing thousands of innocent lives for company profits – but with much more harm at stake this time.

A day later, this week’s issue of Science Magazine arrived, published by the world’s largest scientific academy. In it, an article comparing the current climate denial campaign to the tobacco/cancer fraud of the last century struck me as really worth passing along. Much more has been written about the tobacco/climate nexus, and many of the same scientists, corporate funders and politicians show up in both. But this short article provides a good, succinct summary.

Climate Discussion Echoes Tobacco Debate

In 1962, Luther Terry, the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service, established the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health. On 11 January 1964, he released the committee’s report, “Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the United States” (1), which reviewed the existing science and concluded that lung cancer and chronic bronchitis are causally linked to cigarette smoking.

AAAS landmark climate report

AAAS landmark climate report

This landmark report marked a critical pivot in our national response to tobacco products, leading to packet warning labels, restrictions on cigarette advertising, and anti-tobacco campaigns. But it by no means ended the debate about what we now know to be horrifically negative public health impacts of tobacco use. Instead, it galvanized the tobacco companies, through their industry-funded Tobacco Institute, to publish a large number of “white papers” to rebut scientific reports critical of tobacco (2).

The demise of the Tobacco Institute came in 1998, as part of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, where 46 state attorneys general obtained $206 billion dollars over 25 years from the tobacco industry for its culpability in creating a public health crisis (3).

This bit of history has important parallels to our national discussion of climate change. On 18 March, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a report produced by a panel of 13 prominent experts chaired by the Nobel prize–winning scientist Mario Molina, titled “What We Know: The Reality, Risks and Response to Climate Change”.

As was the case when Luther Terry issued his tobacco report in 1964, no new science is being offered in the climate report. Instead, it presents a brief review of the key relevant scientific conclusions. Just as the 1964 report included discussion of the possibility that tobacco caused cardiovascular disease, the “What We Know” paper speaks to the possibility of abrupt climate change risks. Another important parallel is that the 1964 report was issued under the imprimatur of a highly trusted and authoritative source. AAAS, as the largest general membership society of scientists in the world, holds a similar position of trust.

Yet another important parallel between the AAAS “What We Know” report and the 1964 Surgeon General’s report is the political and social context into which it is launched. As historians Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway depict in their book Merchants of Doubt (4), the tobacco issue created an industry playbook for running misinformation campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific conclusions. As the authors document, the industry misinformation campaign on climate change is in high gear and achieving results: Many Americans think that climate experts still have much disagreement about whether human-caused climate change is happening (5).

Today it’s inconceivable that an American decision-maker would risk the public opprobrium that would result from expressing skepticism that tobacco causes cancer. We believe that it is an obligation of all scientists to hasten the day when the same is true for climate change, where the stakes are even higher.

ROBERT J. GOULD AND EDWARD MAIBACH

To download the complete AAAS “What We Know” report, please follow this link.

Also, a recent short film linking the main actors in the tobacco cover-up to the current climate denial is worth a look:

References

1. L. Terry et al., “Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the United States” (U-23 Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Public Health Service Publication No. 1103, 1964).

2. Tobacco Smoke and the Nonsmoker: Scientific Integrity at the Crossroads (Tobacco Institute, Washington, DC, 1986); http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/documentStore/w/ a/l/wal03e00/Swal03e00.pdf.

3. Master Settlement Agreement (National Association of Attorneys General, 1998).

4. N. Oreskes, E. M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt(Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2010).

5. A. Leiserowitz et al., “Climate change in the American mind: Americans’ global warming beliefs” (Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, 2013); http://environment.yale.edu/climatecommunication/fi les/Climate-Beliefs-April-2013.pdf.

Warm Winter? But it Felt So Cold!

Here, that is – where I live.

It turns out that last month was the fourth hottest March for the entire planet on record, according to NASA. In fact, it’s been 29 years – 349 consecutive months, to be precise – since we’ve seen a month that was actually cooler than the historical average. And it also turns out that the changing weather is making a lot of people very hungry.

The data is now in, and for the whole world, our frigid March – shivering in the path of a wobbly “polar vortex” – was actually 1.2°F hotter than the average global temperature for the last 30 years. A look at the global temperature map tells a remarkable story:

assets-climatecentral-org-images-uploads-news-3_19_14_Andrea_LandTempAnom2014Winter-500x386Notice how there are just two or three cool spots (in blue) on the planet. Midwest and Eastern North America were wicked cold, and some places in western Siberia and Uzbekistan were too. But now look at the rest of the world: all of South America, Africa, China, and Australia were warm (in red). And Europe, Alaska and eastern Siberia were downright hot, compared to the historical average.

A bad month perhaps? No such luck. The whole winter – freezing for us – was very warm for the Earth as a whole. It was cold here under the wobbly winter vortex, and warm just about everywhere else. In fact, the whole world was 1.57°F hotter than average.

Maybe all of last year was better? Well, you decide: It was the fourth hottest year on record according to NOAA. And three of the four hottest years have all occurred since the year 2000. And as we noted, it’s been almost three decades since we’ve seen one single month that was actually cooler than the 20th Century average.

The world is warming, and maybe it’s time to take note. The UN’s climate panel, which convenes the world’s climate scientists to issue an advisory report every 5-6 years, has warned that climate change will mean more hunger and rising food prices, falling hardest on the hungry poor.

And almost on cue, our food prices shot up last month, largely because of persistent drought in the West and extreme weather in the Midwest. Wholesale beef prices increased 23% over last year, and pork soared by an amazing 56%. Globally, food prices increased 2.4% in March, and they’re more than double what they averaged in 2002-2004. If you spend most of your income feeding your family – as the world’s poor do – this is a really big deal.

And maybe that’s why more and more Christians are beginning see global climate disruption as having a lot to do with their faith. The Christian Reformed Church has passed a call to action to confront climate change, which they call a core gospel issue.  “Climate change,” they say, “poses a significant threat to future generations, the poor, and the vulnerable.”

In this, the CRC has followed in the footsteps of the 190-nation Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization, which in 2012 issued a comprehensive call to action for climate justice. “The world is in crisis,” they said, “brought on by global climate change, deforestation, pollution, loss of species to extinction and water stress. These threats place a heavy burden on the poor….”

Meanwhile, here at Good Hand Farm, we’re still wrapped in extra sweaters, as we watch in vain for our first asparagus and pea shoots to push through the frigid ground. But around the world, it’s unusually hot, food’s getting scarcer, and unless ordinary people take action, it’s hard to see how hunger won’t keep getting worse.

Clean Solar Electricity for Your Home

“A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children…” (Proverbs 13:22).

Our neighbor Mary lives in a small house bordering our produce field.  She’s retired, and lives modestly on a fixed income. Like many of us, she’s watched as utility costs have gone up year by year. A few years ago, we replaced her drafty single-pane windows. Last summer, we blew in insulation to make her attic and walls more weather-tight. And in the last few months we’ve insulated her basement ceiling to warm up her floors in winter.

All these efforts have had amazing results. Her daily electric usage has fallen a long way – by 20 percent in the last year alone. And her heating oil usage has come down by about one-third. But despite all these efforts at efficiency, electric costs just keep going up. Over the past decade, average electric charges in this country went up about 4% per year. With almost all its customers affected by back-to-back hurricanes Irene and Sandy, our local New Jersey utility – JCP&L – has repeatedly been granted rate hikes. Mary now pays 18.4 cents for every kilowatt-hour she uses.

Sungevity arrived at Mary's house a few days ago

Solar installers arrived at Mary’s house a few days ago

But all that’s about to change. Just a few days ago, a work crew from Sungevity, a solar power developer, arrived to install solar panels on Mary’s south-facing roof. The system will provide 94 percent of Mary’s electric needs. She’ll be left with a monthly electric bill of about $4.00. So she can relax about ongoing spikes in utility rates.

How much did all this cost? Well, up front, nothing at all. Mary is leasing her solar system over 20 years. The lease payments are just about the same as her current electric bills. In fact, Sungevity projects that she will save $24,866 in utility payments over the life of the lease, but it could be worse as rates keep rising. Her lease payments, which are fixed up front, will total $23,259 – $1,607 less than the utility cost she’s saving.

Panels going up: the roof array at about 50%

Panels going up: the roof array at about 50%

So Mary’s got totally renewable, clean electricity at a savings of $1,600 or more over the life of the lease.

Of course, money isn’t all Mary’s saving. She has two sons and a granddaughter, so the world she leaves them makes a big difference. And with her system, she will reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next 20 years by 144,548 lbs. That’s more than 65 tons less CO2 for the next generation to deal with.

What does that actually mean? Well, here at Good Hand Farm, we plant a lot of trees. Just two days ago we added eight more peach trees to our backyard orchard. But Mary’s system will have the same effect on atmospheric CO2 as planting 1,685 trees, according to EPA equivalency tables. That’s 1,685 trees! You may not see that many all week.

But there are other useful comparisons as well. According to the EPA, the greenhouse gas savings from Mary’s new rooftop savings will have the same effect as:

  • Taking 13.8 cars off the road for a year.
  • Cutting 23.5 tons of garbage going to the landfill.
  • Driving a car 156,012 fewer miles.
  • Recycling three full garbage trucks, rather than dumping them in the landfill.

And all this comes at no up-front cost to Mary. In fact, she eliminates uncertainty about future utility prices, and saves real money over the term of the lease.

Almost finished! It will provide 94% of Mary's electricity

Almost finished! It will provide 94% of Mary’s electricity

Solarizing your home won’t work for everybody. State incentive programs play a major role in determining whether or not it makes economic sense. You’ll also need a sunny rooftop or an open patch of lawn. And if you rent, your landlord will have to make the final call.

But if it could make sense to you, why not look into a no-cost leased PV system for your home, business or church? If you contact us, we can provide a referral which will reduce your electric costs even further. Do it for yourself. And, of course, do it for your kids.

“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.”  Ancient Indian Proverb

Steven Cohen to Earth-Keepers: Don’t Get Hysterical!

One of the world’s most intelligent and accomplished policy researchers has just urged us all not to get hysterical about climate change. I’m not so sure.

Steven Cohen is the Executive Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, which deals with some of the world’s most intractable problems – climate change and environmental degradation, poverty, disease and the sustainable use of resources. In that capacity, he has doubtless done immeasurable good, and we give thanks for his contribution to a better world.

But I admit to scratching my head in bewilderment at his column in yesterday’s Huffington Post, liberally quoted in today’s New York Times. It’s a short piece, and I encourage everyone to read it. There’s a lot to like here, of course. For example, he lends his well-deserved authority to those confronting the assault of oil-funded climate denial:

“I know that both the global academic community and the science media find it frustrating that the facts of climate change are still subject to question. The ongoing attacks on proven science are beyond absurd.”

And he also points to the complexity of non-linear impacts of climate disruption as it interacts with social, economic and cultural factors. In effect, no one can predict with certainty what wars, famines, and human displacement will occur from changing climate in the century ahead: climate change tends to aggravate the ills we already face, rather than creating them from nothing.

But two disturbing themes jump out at me, as they might well at many people of faith. First, Cohen largely ignores the profound issues of injustice related to climate pollution, as adaption technologies will certainly favor the polluting rich, beyond the reach of the vulnerable poor. And second, Cohen’s narrative suggests that Earth itself has little intrinsic value as belonging to its Creator; its principal value rests on its ability to sustain our species, or some technologically-advanced remnant of it.

And somehow, earth-keepers of all faiths are not supposed to get too riled up about the carbon binge that threatens God’s Earth and the innocent victims of our excess consumption. Here’s a representative snippet:

“I think the questioning of science by the American right wing and the political assaults funded by their rich benefactors are proving to be a distraction to those interested in moving the planet to a path of sustainable economic growth. It is turning analysts into advocates and advocates into hysterics. The IPCC report focused a great deal of attention on solutions, but the media accounts of the report focused on the possibility of food shortages. Here we go again: Chicken Little’s sky is falling in.”

We Need Food: Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, the strongest storm on record

We Need Food: Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, the strongest storm on record, killed more than 6,000.

So, settle down. Be reasonable. Don’t get hysterical.

Unless, of course, you’re one of 18 million Bangladeshis who will be forced to flee inundation from rising sea levels within 35 years. Or one of the millions of East African subsistence farmers whose growing seasons are already wholly disrupted by permanent drought conditions brought on by climate change. Or any of the world’s millions of island dwellers facing the loss of freshwater resources, coupled with the prospect of seeing their homelands slip below the waves. Or the billions who rely on marine ecosystems for their livelihood, facing the impact of ocean acidification and destruction of reef habitats.

We’ve got to stop somewhere, but the list could go on and on. To them, Cohen has this to say: “Maybe we can’t stop the sea waters from rising, but we can place our utility rooms on the second floor instead of the basement.”

Hmm. The next massive storm in Cohen’s ultra-rich Manhattan won’t do nearly as much harm if we spend millions to move our utilities up a little higher. That’s a hopeful sign, no doubt. But what about the global South? What about Bangladesh? Technology will surely offer some protections from climate change, but does anyone think that it will protect the poor the way it may help the rich?

There are fundamental issues of justice raised by the IPCC’s report, including a finding that rich countries need to transfer $100 billion to the poor every year to help them adapt to the climate conditions our consumption has created. Really? Does anyone think the U.S. and others like it are going to come up with those sums every year in the name of justice for poor nations? Just imagine the invective in Congress if the idea was ever seriously floated.

But Cohen’s don’t-get-hysterical narrative doesn’t merely ignore injustice to the poor. It also gives short shrift to injustice toward all other things God has created. “Currently,” writes Cohen, “we do not have the technology to supplant nature. For that reason, and possibly others, the IPCC’s projections do not consider the possibility that natural systems could be replaced by artificial ones.”

Hmm, again. If you read Cohen’s piece for yourself, you’ll see that this isn’t all black and white. He wonders whether we’d really want to supplant nature with technology if we could, and recalls the pitiful holographic garden in the Star Trek series – all that was left of a despoiled Earth.

But in all this, he can’t help himself from seeing humanity as the arbiter of Earth’s survival: “Because we do not have the technology to survive without functioning ecosystems, we need to manage the planet and its resources in order to survive.”

Against this, the biblical account makes clear that “the Earth is the Lord’s, together with all its fullness.” We sing that “this is my Father’s world,” not my own. The Bible tells us that we are merely “sojourners and tenants” with Him, exercising our created purpose of “tending and keeping” His good Creation – or refusing to, at our dire peril.

Lest you think that we’re arguing here about obscure theology, I think this is a seriously practical matter. On the one hand, you have a feeble narrative that will mobilize just about nobody. It’s rallying cry – Protect the Earth, because we haven’t yet found a way to do without it! – is nearly laughable.

But what if the billions of humans who worship the Creator of heaven and Earth could reimagine a world worthy of protection because it is the cherished possession of their Father? Because the brothers and sisters of their Savior are under dire threat from the destruction of their farm ecosystems and homes? Because the judge of all men will render justice upon those who foment and then ignore the hunger, thirst, and oppression that results from manmade climate disruption?

Dr. Cohen, forgive me if I’m getting too hysterical. You continue to do abundant good in your leadership of the Earth Institute. But in this case, your own faith tradition has much more to offer than you’ve given us today.

Climate Denial: Have Christians Become Irrelevant?

I’ve just gotten back from a beautiful spring day in Boston, where I took in a brilliant theatre performance of “The Whale,” Samuel Hunter’s moving story of the perpetual struggle between the sanctity and beauty of people, and the standards and rules by which we make sense of the world. The characters in the play were all deeply flawed. But notable among them was an archetypical religious person – a Mormon teenager on “mission.”

Of course, the teen is the perfect religious foil for people wrestling with profound human concerns: He exudes blind certainty with respect to irrelevant and implausible doctrines, and relentless sincerity in “saving” others from being different from himself. For me, as a public adherent to the Christian faith, I sat in the audience torn between relief that the playwright had plucked the low-hanging fruit of a Mormon door-knocker, and the discomfort of knowing that the role could have been filled almost as easily by many of my co-religionists – or perhaps even by me.

At home again this morning, the news served up a fresh reminder of why our culture sees religion the way it so often does. As we all know, the world’s climate scientists meeting in Yokohama had just released their most dire warnings ever about the impact of manmade climate change. Last September, their science report had finally put to rest any serious scientific debate over the basic facts of global climate change and its principal causes. Today, they’re telling us that the crisis is not one we’re leaving for the grandkids: it’s landed already, and it’s threatening to starve the poorest and most vulnerable humans right now, with worse to come. And while some Christians leapt to the defense of the world’s climate victims, others again dusted off their nearly incomprehensible claims that they know more than the scientists, and that it’s all an alarmist conspiracy.

September’s IPCC science report was the fifth in a three-decade series of global assessments of the state of climate science – each one more certain than its predecessor. The science is now 95% sure that the planet is dangerously warming due to human greenhouse gas emissions and human changes in land use. We’re using way too much coal (for electricity), oil and gas; and we’re destroying way too many forests and wetlands. We’re as sure of this as we are that smoking causes cancer. Never 100% sure, of course. That would be doctrine, not science. But 95%. Denying this is like betting the kids’ college fund on a 20-to-1 hunch.

This week’s impact report tells us more about what the climate science conclusions actually mean to people, other creatures and their habitats. And it’s not pretty. With high or very-high confidence, the world’s climate researchers now agree that during the current century, our disruption of the climate will mean:

  • Lower crop yields, increasing hunger, and higher food costs, all of which will land hardest on the poor and on poor countries.
  • Failure of rural communities due the drying up of fresh water systems on farms.
  • Collapse of fishing communities due to the failure of marine ecosystems in warmer and more acidic oceans.
  • Flooding or inundation of coastal communities as melting ice sheets and thermal expansion accelerate sea-level rise.
  • Increase in human migration as climate-change refugees look for new places to support themselves and their families.
  • Acceleration in the extinction of species of plants and animals, which is already at historic highs.

Among Christians, the Evangelical Environmental Network was first out of the blocks. More hunger? More thirst? More destroyed communities? Harm to the poor? This isn’t all that hard for Christians, as you would assume. EEN released the following statement:

“The current Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report provides even more evidence for what we have known for some time: climate impacts have and will continue to hit the poor the hardest, those least able to cope with the consequences, especially children and the elderly.”

Ben Lowe, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action

Ben Lowe, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action

And then came Young Evangelicals for Climate Action: “We can now see the impacts of climate disruption growing in our country and all over the world,” said Ben Lowe, the group’s spokesperson. “This is a moral issue that requires our church and political leaders to wake up and step up. The decisions they make today affect not just the present, but also the rest of my generation’s future.”

Of course. This is what you would expect from people whose Bible sets forth explicit commands for feeding the hungry and thirsty, and caring for the poor and the sojourner. Indeed, the consensus of evangelical Christians declarations calling for urgent moral action on climate change is consistent and overwhelming.

But it wouldn’t be long before a much more sinister voice would speak up. The Cornwall Alliance, a group that claims to be both scientific and evangelical, managed to convince The Christian Post that it had produced a “scientific report” that found key evidence that the world’s scientists had ignored.

“The human impact on global climate is small,” they claimed, “and any warming that may occur as a result of human carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions is likely to have little effect on global temperatures, the cryosphere (ice-covered areas), hydrosphere (oceans, lakes, and rivers), or weather.”

In effect, they say, you can believe the world’s climate scientists, and the broad consensus of research that they have conducted, or you can believe us – us Christians (maybe?) who know better. Never mind that we don’t conduct any of the climate research ourselves. Never mind that we don’t represent a single Christian denomination. Never mind that the world’s actual climate researchers warn of profound injustices perpetrated upon the poor of the earth – starvation, inundation, displacement and the wars and atrocities that generally accompany such traumas – even though they’ve contributed little to the problem.

In 2012, the Christian Reformed Church and its 1,300 congregations in North America specifically analyzed the Cornwall group’s claims and publications. “Considering the limited number of authors and their lack of religious credentials,” they wrote in a 130-page report, “it is somewhat disingenuous to label these as evangelical documents.” They continued: “Because of the absence of biblical references, presence of other ideologies commingled in its theological background, and outright denial of science on the issue of climate change, we do not discuss further the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship or recommend it for study.”

And finally, said the Christian Reformed Church, “The positions expressed in the Cornwall Declaration are in general inconsistent with our perception of biblical stewardship and with our observations of what is occurring in our world today.”

But … somehow, they persuaded The Christian Post to give them equal time, and to buy their flimsy claims to legitimacy – long since debunked by both scientists and churchmen.

And so the secular culture has yet another reason to dismiss and to revile those who cling to faith in the Creator of Heaven and Earth. The global community is struggling with existential threats, among them the collapse of ecosystems under the weight of climate change. Do Christians have something real to offer? Or are we no more relevant than that Mormon teenager on Mission?