Monthly Archives: May 2014

Can the GOP Survive the Aftermath of Climate Denial?

I am an evangelical American Christian. And a white baby-boomer, to boot.

That means, of course, that many of my closest friends and fellow believers usually support Republican political candidates. Maybe not as enthusiastically as they used to, what with the GOP’s stance on unlimited money in politics, opposition to immigration reform, Medicaid cuts, suppression of voting rights, the death penalty, reckless preemptive wars and austerity for the poor.

But let’s face it: We evangelicals still lean pretty heavily toward the GOP. I’m afraid, however, that the tide of history is about to ebb, and when it does, I suspect Christians will desert the Republicans in droves.

Here’s why: The GOP has made a hopelessly losing bet. They’ve bet that we’ll never wake up to the lethal consequences of what our fossil fuel addiction is doing to the world’s polluted and disrupted natural systems. Particularly the global climate system. Almost unanimously, Republicans in Congress have committed themselves to the denial and suppression of the increasingly alarming findings of climate science.

Thursday’s news brought us a fresh incarnation of this commitment. The House of Representatives voted to prohibit the U.S. Armed Services from considering climate change in their defense planning. Imagine FDR strictly forbidding naval commanders at Pearl Harbor from EVER planning for carrier-borne aircraft attacks. It’s about like that.

Here’s what happened. Congress is currently debating the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015, which will fund our nation’s military services. Of course, we’re investing more money into the military than the next nine largest militaries in the world combined. So we should be way ahead of them all, shouldn’t we?

One thing we’ve done since the year 2000 is to plan for the effects on national defense from global climate change — under presidents from both parties. Rising sea levels are threatening our naval infrastructure; the melting Artic is opening up a whole new ocean to patrol; extreme drought and flooding are destabilizing marginal nation-states – like Syria, Sudan, Libya and Somalia – and driving mass migration and resource conflicts.

In 2007, President George W. Bush appointed a Military Advisory Board to “help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change.” In response, the Armed Services issued a report finding that “climate change acts as a ‘threat multiplier’ in already fragile regions of the world, creating the breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism.”

Republican Bob Inglis, ousted from Congress for agreeing with climate science

Bob Inglis (R-SC), lone GOP voice for climate action, ousted from Congress by the party.

We haven’t forgotten, have we? Bush was a Republican. But back then, the GOP hadn’t figured out that they could frame climate science as something invented by Barack Obama – rather than a 200-year-old discipline now affirmed all over the world.

Fast forward to 2014. The House Thursday passed a measure that would bar the Department of Defense from using any government funds to assess climate change and its implications for national security. The amendment, from Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), passed with the support of 227 Republicans. Only 3 GOP congressmen joined the 189 Democrats in voting against the amendment. That’s more than 98% of GOP congressmen trying to forbid the military from thinking about how to defend our country in light of climate trends, as they did actively under Presidents Clinton and Bush. Continue reading

How Do We Pray When It’s Too Late?

We have been praying.

We have prayed for Kenyan farmers and Sudanese pastoralists beset by the onslaught of advancing deserts and permanent drought. We have prayed for Bangladeshi delta dwellers facing encroachment from rising seas. We have prayed for Filipinos in the path of the most destructive coastal storm ever to make landfall in recorded history. We have prayed for Texans and Californians locked in the grip of the worst fire seasons in memory. We have prayed for Gulf Coast survivors of repeated 100-year storms and devastating oil spills. We have been praying and praying.

And some of us have gone beyond praying for victims, but for the causes of their suffering. Some have prayed for a global awakening to the peril of our abuse of the Creation; for resolve to limit our use of fossil fuels; for a change of heart from powerful people who resist climate action. And some have prayed for specific struggles, like resistance to toxic mountaintop-removal coal mining, mercury poisoning from power-plant smokestack emissions, or the newest carbon menace currently being developed in the Canadian tar-sands fields.

Some of us pray because we believe that the Creation that we love has a chance to recover, if only we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by cutting our use of fossil fuels.

But today, our prayers have been met head-on with a crushing blow. We read of the “collapse” of one of Earth’s three massive ice sheets. In this case, “collapse” means the now-irreversible slide toward certain disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which will add 4 more feet to the inevitable rise in sea levels in a warming world.

“This is really happening,” said Thomas Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research. “There’s nothing to stop it now.”

And evangelical climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe added in comments today in an interview with Alexei Laushkin of Evangelical Environmental Network: “These glaciers are melting from the bottom now. It will take time, but these glaciers will now melt. We can’t stop them.”

Unstoppable. Add those 4 feet to the approximately 3 feet of sea level rise widely believed to be “baked in” to the balance of this century, plus the alarming trends in the Greenland ice sheet, and there’s no longer any question about the inevitable result for millions of human souls.

Miami: the world's #1 economic loser to sea-level rise

Miami: the world’s #1 economic loser to sea-level rise

New York, Boston, Miami, Norfolk and New Orleans – all significantly flooded or scarcely recognizable. Kolkata and Mumbai, Guangzhou and Shanghai, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, London and Amsterdam, Lagos and Alexandria, Dhaka and virtually all of Bangladesh – with exposed populations of more than 100 million people, not counting the additional billions who will likely be forced to migrate because of related failures of infrastructure.

So now, how do we pray? God, don’t let this happen? We’ve enjoyed our consumption-fueling carbon binge, but now, please stop its effects on us and our children?

I don’t find this narrative in the Bible, or anywhere in the history of redemption for that matter. I can’t recall God altering the laws of nature on a global scale because you or I don’t like the consequences of what we’ve done – or what our parents have done. People prayed all over the world in the 1600’s for safety and sustenance, but global climate chaos (cooling, in that time) still wiped out as much as one-third of humanity. I can’t believe that it’s unfaithful to doubt whether the laws of physics will be rewritten simply because of my really earnest prayers.

Perhaps it’s time for praying people to begin to recover the prayer of lament. More than one-third of the Psalms cry out in lament. Psalm 42 is a familiar one, among many: “My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all day long, Where is your God?”

And then there’s the book of Lamentations. If you’re at all like me, you might even have difficulty finding it. But if our church hymns or worship songs are mainly of the “Victory-in-Jesus” variety, it may do us good to find it more often: “For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my spirit; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed” (Lamentations 1:16).

What’s the point of lament? If you’re wondering this, it’s little wonder: Our prevailing theology today is rooted in the idea that God’s kingdom is progressing everywhere, as is our sanctification. The gospel working in us has made us better, somehow. If we’re Americans, our exceptionalist mythology adds to it the remarkable notion that we can overcome virtually anything because we’re special. And if we’re Evangelicals, perhaps we add to these notions the call that we should take all this triumphalist energy to some poor corner of the world that desperately needs us and our message, and then all will be well – or at least better.

But as we read the Gospels, this illusion is rudely interrupted by Jesus the Christ himself. St. Mark’s gospel gives us this synopsis of his very first sermon: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe….” Repent?  The first thing the Bearer of “good news” has to tell us is that we need to repent? Little wonder that these words don’t mean much to us: We haven’t been weeping. We can handle it. All things are possible. It’s never too late.

But now, we’re confronted with those dreaded words: Too late. We can’t make it all better. Whatever prayer we pray, whatever new laws we pass, whatever votes we cast – West Antarctica is collapsing, and the seas will rise in an unstoppable tide.

How to pray? How to pray when it’s too late?

Perhaps our prayers can be informed by this modest proposition: Yes, it’s too late for West Antarctica, and for the children of people living on today’s low-lying coastal regions. But it’s not too late for anything. Sure, West Antarctica’s collapsing glaciers hold enough ice to raise sea levels by 4 feet. But the rest of Antarctica holds enough ice to raise sea levels by more than 180 feet. And the world’s most imperiled ice sheet on Greenland could account for another 23 feet.

Perhaps it’s obvious to us all. Our prayers of lament will only lead us to repentance, and real repentance is always active. Pray. Pour out grief for what is lost. And then do everything we can to salvage what can still be protected.

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’” Psalm 137:1-3.

For a thoughtful meditation on the role of lament in God’s kingdom, please visit Sojourners website for a powerful article by Soong-Chan Rah. 

Why Good Dads Need to Hear About Climate from Their Kids

I was always puzzled at the historical acclaim given among Jews and Christians to Hezekiah, King of Judah in the time of the prophet Isaiah. The Bible tells us that “he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” and that “he was highly regarded by all nations.” I doubt my dad could have claimed as much. How about yours?

But even such a good man was willing, as hard as this may be to believe, to subject his children to misery, so long as it happened after his lifetime. When Isaiah foretold the coming ruin of his nation, and the slavery of his children in Babylon, Hezekiah accepted it without a whimper. “Why not,” he said, “if there will be peace and security in my days?”

Genocide, ethnic cleansing, slavery and exile are nasty things. But if they happen after I’m gone, maybe I can somehow make my peace with that.

Now, if you ask me whether such a thought could possibly lurk in some corner of my heart, I would take great offense. So would every parent I know. But, in fact, we older people seem to have some difficulty mustering up concern about future generations. Note for example, how older people view climate change: 49% of all Americans below the age of 50 agree that humans are changing the global climate, according to the Pew Research Center. But if you ask the 50-plus crowd, that percentage takes a 9-point drop to only 40%.

Now age alone can’t explain such a huge shift in views of science. Could it be that we older folks just have less of a future to worry about? Good King Hezekiah wasn’t immune to this temptation. Are we?

One person who’s willing to ask the question is Evangelical climate activist Anna Jane Joyner. Her father is a leading Christian pastor, and highly respected in many countries. But Ms. Joyner took the risk of taking their inter-generational conversation into the public sphere, in an open letter published last week in the Huffington Post. Maybe this will trigger some useful discussions with your parents, or anyone who is older than you. I pray that it will.

An Open Letter to My Daddy Who Doesn’t Accept Climate Change

This poignant letter is to my father, who is among the most powerful evangelical ministers in the world. Pastor Rick Joyner heads MorningStar Ministries, a global group with over 100 churches and partners in dozens of countries. My father won’t accept that climate change is human-caused. In this Sunday night’s episode of Years of Living Dangerously, Showtime at 10 p.m., I take him to meet scientists and see the situation on the ground. I wrote this open appeal to him. Anna Jane Joyner

Dear Daddy,

As you know, combating climate change is my life’s work. I believe it is the greatest challenge of our time. I feel a deep duty, to both my faith and my generation, to spread this message. We are the first generation that knows how serious the stakes are, as well as the last to be able to do something about it in time.

Anna Jane Joyner and father at recent film opening

Anna Jane Joyner and father, Rev. Rick Joyner, at recent film opening

I learned from you that we are called on to protect God’s creation and to love our neighbors. I write you today because we need your leadership to achieve a bright future for all of us – and our children.

Fossil fuels have brought the world many wonderful things, but now we know they come with a high price – an unimaginably high price if we don’t act soon to start transitioning off of them. We need to create a world where our energy needs are met without depending on fossil fuels that make us sick and heat up our planet. We can only do this together.

Daddy, I know you are someone who takes stewardship of creation as a moral mandate. I believe ignoring climate change is inconsistent with our faith. The risks are massive, and the science is clear. If we do nothing, our planet will face severe impacts, and billions of people will be hurt, most of whom contributed little or nothing to the problem. How is that just? How is that loving our neighbors?

Many people are already being negatively impacted, such as our friends, the oystermen, in Apalachicola, along with people from Texas to Bangladesh, from Syria to Staten Island — whose powerful stories are told in the Showtime series you and I appear in, “Years of Living Dangerously.”

It’s not just livelihoods at stake; it is our lives, God’s greatest gift to us. Daddy, will you use your voice to be a part of the solution? Christians are believers in resurrection, renewal, and salvation – even against all odds. We can help bring much needed light and healing to this situation, or we can allow misinformation and myopia to continue to be a hurdle to hope.

You are right, we do need truth. And now, more than ever, we also need action. I hope you’ll join me in working to overcome this great challenge, maybe the greatest our planet has ever faced. You and I both know our faith has risen to the occasion before and overcome great injustice and incredible obstacles. I hope we can come together, and do it now. For our planet and for each other.

Love you,

Anna Jane

Reprinted by permission of the author.


Actually, make that 401.33.

An average of 401.33 parts per million CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere for the month of April. The first time (in millions of years, if the science is to be believed) that the world has seen this much planet-warming gases in the atmosphere.

When I first started Beloved Planet, I feared that this day might eventually come. But I had no idea it would be here so soon. It was May 2008 and global CO2 concentrations had reached an alarming 385.97. That was more than 100 ppm higher than the levels enjoyed by the creation throughout human civilization. The US National Academy of Sciences – together with the academies of all of the world’s largest and industrialized countries – was warning that these trends were dangerous and had to change.

But year by year, carbon emissions increased at ever-higher rates of growth. Last year, we had one or two days of readings over 400 ppm. But last month, we spent the entire month on the wrong side of that dreaded threshold. And last week, we were above 402 ppm.

So let’s be clear: Greenhouse gases warm the Earth. We have more of them now than ever before in human history. When we drive our cars, fly on airplanes, charge our cellphones – or any number of activities that burn fossil fuels, we add to that blanket of warming gases around the Earth.

And we’re piling on blankets at a faster pace every year. Those blankets are producing weather disruptions – drought, flooding, intense storms and sea level rise – that are harming the poorest, and those who have contributed least to the global problem.

If you’re like most of us, you don’t spend much time thinking about the chemistry of the global atmosphere, and what current greenhouse gas levels might be. Today, it easy: 400+, and counting. What to do? Talk. Vote. Insulate. Retire (that old fridge). Write (your congressman). Visit our “Act!” page and pick an idea. And above all, please pray.

It’s late but not too late. It’s never too late to do what is right.


Climate Change in American Politics and Religion


People all over the world are beginning to take manmade climate disruption very seriously. The Pew Research Center found last year that three out of four Brazilians and Koreans say that climate change is “a major threat” their countries. More than 70 percent of Japanese and Argentinians agree. So do two-thirds of Italians and Spaniards, plus a solid majority of Germans, French, Australians, Canadians and Mexicans. And that’s only the developed world. We’ve found that developing countries are generally much more highly alarmed at the unfolding consequences of climate change as they experience them.

Americans? Not so much. The same Pew study found that only 4 in 10 of us felt that climate change is a major threat. So what’s up with that? What do we know that the rest of the world doesn’t? Or vice versa?

Well, the Pew organization has completed another study that gives us new insights into American attitudes toward climate change. The bottom line is this: political affiliation makes all the difference about what you think about climate in America. I recognize that Beloved Planet readers come from across the political spectrum, but Pew has detailed some fundamental realities that should be interesting to people of all persuasions.

When it comes to climate change, Democrats and Independents generally believe just about the same things that people from the rest of the developed world believe. Republicans, on the other hand, are mostly unconcerned, and many of them don’t even think it’s happening at all. And within the GOP, Tea Party adherents overwhelmingly deny the existence or importance of climate change, while non-Tea Party Republicans are a bit closer to everyone else.

How could this be, you ask? Political philosophy can’t determine my views on scientific topics, can it? We’ll get to that, but first, let’s look at what Pew discovered.

For starters, only 25 percent of self-identified Republicans said they considered global climate change to be a major threat. The only countries in the world who expressed that little concern are Egypt and Pakistan. But on a much more basic scientific question – “is there solid evidence that the earth is warming?” – only 46% of Republicans said Yes. More importantly, of those 46%, just less than half (19%) said that it’s happening because of “natural patterns.” A person who takes this position will never favor policies to mitigate human climate pollution, because according to this narrative, we’re not the reason it’s happening.


Wide gap on climate science between GOP and Democrats

So practically speaking, those 19% (“it’s-happening-but-we’re-not-to-blame”) should be added to the other 46% of self-identified Republicans who say that there’s “no solid evidence” of climate change in the first place. That makes 65% of GOP voters who will oppose climate action, either because it’s not real, or because it’s the result of natural factors beyond our control.

Continue reading

Climate Change Alarmism: Lessons from the Little Ice Age

It’s really pretty easy to end a conversation about climate change. Just refer to climate researchers as “alarmists” and you’re pretty much done. You don’t have to prove anything: you’ve just tainted them as hysterical prophets of doom, and the discussion is pretty much over.

Nobody wants to be an “alarmist.”

Of course, there are exceptions. Like when the Korean ferry Sewol was listing in heavy seas two weeks ago. The crew decided not to be alarmists, and repeatedly instructed the high school children to remain calm and in their seats – before they themselves abandoned ship. But a little alarmism might have saved many of the 302 souls who were lost.

So maybe it’s time to ask whether or not climate change alarmism is warranted today. We know that greenhouse gases are at their highest levels in at least 800,000 years; we know that nine of the ten warmest years since measurements began in the 1800s occurred since 2000; we know that the Earth has warmed almost one degree Celsius since 1880; we know that climate-warming emissions are accelerating every year; and that the U.S. and Canada have stymied all global efforts on binding agreements to reverse course. Wherever we’re headed, we’re heading there faster and faster all the time.

Okay, we know all that. But so what? Who says this is anything to be alarmed about? Computer models can’t prove anything, can they?

If only we could look back from the future on 21st Century climate change, and see what’s actually going to happen! But who’s got that crystal ball?

Well, actually, we might have something almost as good. We have the 17th Century, when the global climate changed dramatically. It cooled. It’s usually called the Little Ice Age. A series of massive volcanoes generated atmospheric aerosols which shaded the Earth from the solar radiation. And that combined with a very rare disappearance of sunspot activity for much of the century to cool virtually every region on Earth. As a result, the Earth’s temperature fell by 1.5oC within a single century.

That’s not as dramatic as almost everyone agrees we’re warming at present, but it was faster than any other climate swing in recorded history.

So how, you ask, did the Earth fare the last time this happened? And what lessons might there be for our coming century of rapid climate change? Well, I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but the 17th Century was positively awful. An award-winning account written by historian Geoffrey Parker of Ohio State University has documented the links between worldwide suffering and climatic swings lasting most of that century. It’s also been summarized in a very readable article in the New York Times.

17th Century life: "poor, nasty, brutish & short." S. Vrancx

17th Century life: “poor, nasty, brutish & short.” S. Vrancx

Here’s the nickel version. Longer winters and cooler summers destroyed harvests across Europe. Droughts, floods and harvest failures set entire populations on the move as far away as China, and Japan, resulting in wars and revolutions in virtually every corner of civilization. Estimates at the time were that the human population fell by one-third. In 1651, Thomas Hobbes, wrote in his book, Leviathan, the most famous summary of the human condition during that turbulent age:

“There is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

How brutish? How short? Well, as hard as it is to summarize a century of suffering, here’s a start: Rebellions paralyzed the world’s largest state, Russia, and Europe’s most populous, France. Civil wars ravaged England, Scotland, and Ukraine. In Europe’s largest city, Istanbul, the Sultan was strangled by his starving subjects. A severe cold spell in Ireland aggravated tensions that killed thousands of Protestants, fueling sectarian repression and hatred that lasts to this day. The English executed their king. The German states fell into sectarian chaos in the Thirty Years’ War. Farms in Scandinavia and the Alps disappeared under advancing glaciers.

But that was just Europe. What about the rest of the world? Well, in China, drought and famine drove starving Manchu clansmen from the north into a conquest that led to the suicide of the last Ming emperor and seven decades of warfare. Japan endured mass rebellion following several years of poor harvests, resulting in famine that killed an estimated 500,000 souls. In India, droughts and floods killed over a million people in a three-year span. West Africa and even North American endured severe famines.

All this suffering and death, without a single nuclear weapon, missile, or biological toxin.

Two flawed reactions will inevitably arise in response to the global tragedy of the 17th Century. The first is the denialist’s “you-can’t-prove-any-linkage” response – sectarian hatred, national ambitions, technological advances, and many other factors no doubt factored into each of the many ills that plagued that century. But the American intelligence and defense community has long since addressed this willful blindness in today’s world. They have concluded that “climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national security challenges for the United States.” Wars aren’t fought over climate change. But climate change provides the background conditions for tribal, national, sectarian, racial and other existing conflicts to explode into violence, instability and famine.

The second fallacy is the layman’s assumption that linear patterns will prevail in climate forecasts. If 1.5oC of cooling drove conditions that eradicated as much as a third of humanity in the 17th Century – the logic goes – then warming of more than 2.0oC in our century can be expected to do something similar. In fact, climate disruption works together with every other ill in ways that are largely unpredictable – for better or for worse.

Consider, for example, the Indus River watershed. It is fed by Himalayan glaciers that are receding rapidly as the climate warms. It flows out of Hindu Indian Kashmir, into Muslim Pakistan, for which it is almost the sole source of water. As the Indus glaciers shrivel, India feels the need to keep more of the precious Indus for itself, posing an existential threat to Pakistan. These mortal enemies both possess nuclear arsenals, targeting each other, and sectarian extremists are eager to settle old scores. On its eastern borders, India is further pressured by tens of millions of Muslim Bangladeshi refugees expected by 2050 to flee rising sea levels and salinization of water supplies in the Ganges/Brahmaputra Delta. With almost two billion desperate people armed to the teeth, where could this possibly lead us?

Apocalyptic fantasies? More climate alarmism? I know of no one who disputes these underlying trends.  In fact, recent history tells us many similar stories that would be eerily familiar to 17th Century scholars. The catastrophic 2011-12 droughts in the Russian, Australian and American breadbaskets drove global spikes in grain prices that resulted in intense food riots in North Africa, later known as the Arab Spring. The multi-year drought in Syria drove a tide of small farmers off their land into urban slums, intensifying pressures that led to the bloody civil war that still rages there. The Darfur genocide of the last decade has been widely called the first climate change war, as Muslim pastoralists fleeing persistent drought clashed with Christian agrarian villagers.

So call climate scientists alarmists, if it suits your politics. But at least, take a closer look at what happened around the globe in the 17th Century. Because no one wants to be the voice – now excruciatingly re-broadcast on Korean airwaves – telling the children not to be alarmed, and remain “safely” in their seats.