Monthly Archives: July 2014

Governor, the Scientists and Theologians Want to Talk to You

Imagine a press conference in Washington.

  • Q: “Governor, do you advocate drinking toxic sludge?”
  • A: “I don’t know, I’m not a scientist.”
  • Q: “Well Governor, is jumping off the north rim of the Grand Canyon safe?  And is it a good idea to place my head in the jaws of a lion?”
  • A: “I told you, I’m not a scientist.”

Silly, right? No one talks like that. We take firm positions on all kinds of things in reliance on the expertise of others. And that’s why it’s been so strange to hear “I’m not a scientist” from politicians dodging questions about climate change.

Consider Florida Governor Rick Scott. On May 27th at a campaign stop in Miami, the Miami Herald reported this interchange:

  • Q: “Do you believe man-made climate change is significantly affecting the weather, the climate?”
  • A: “Well, I’m not a scientist. But let’s talk about what we’ve done…. But I’m not a scientist.”
  • Q: “In 2011 or 2010, you were much more doubtful about climate change. Now you’re sounding less doubtful about man-made climate change….”
  • A: “Well, I’m not a scientist. But I can tell you what we’ve accomplished….”
  • Q: “So do you believe in the man-made influence on climate change?”
  • A: “Nice seeing you guys.”
Florida Gov. Scott, not a scientist

Florida Gov. Scott, not a scientist

Or consider House Speaker John Boehner. On May 29th, he took the podium to criticize the EPA’s proposed power-plant carbon standards, which aim to reduce climate-warming emissions.

“Listen, I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change,” Boehner said. “But I am astute to understand that every proposal that has come out of this administration to deal with climate change involves hurting our economy and killing American jobs. That can’t be the prescription for dealing with changes to our climate.”

Boehner protests that he’s not qualified to debate climate science, but he’s pretty sure about the economics. For the record, he is neither a scientist nor an economist.

And then there’s a second Floridian, Senator Marco Rubio. “Denial is a loaded term,” he told ABC News on May 11th. “I’ve never denied that there is a climate change. The question is: Is man-made activity causing the changes in the climate?”

If you’re waiting for Rubio’s answer, I’m so sorry. Rubio isn’t a scientist. He’s not going to venture a position.

Of course, people who aren’t scientists usually have a way of getting to the bottom of scientific issues: For the most part, they listen to the actual scientists. In this case, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (among scores of other authorities) has found that 97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field of climatology support the scientific consensus on manmade climate change. Further, they report that the 2-3 percent who don’t agree possess comparatively low expertise and prominence in the field.

In fact, not being a scientist is almost always a reason to seek out and heed the advice of those who are. We can all appreciate skepticism about medicine, or physics, or biology. But none of us respects it from someone who is totally unlearned in the field being debated. “I’m skeptical, but I’m not a scientist?”  That doesn’t carry much weight in virtually any arena.

Except maybe politics, it would appear.

But there is a risk to this approach. What if actual scientists offer to sit down with you, and explain the facts in easily understood layman’s terms? You might just have to listen, right?

And that’s what’s just happened to Florida’s Governor Scott. Last week, ten prominent Florida climate scientists offered to give him a crash course in climate change science.

“We are scientists,” they said in a letter to the governor, contrasting themselves with Scott’s not-a-scientist narrative.

“Those of us signing this letter have spent hundreds of years combined studying this problem, not from any partisan political perspective, but as scientists — seekers of evidence and explanations. As a result, we feel uniquely qualified to assist you in understanding what’s already happening in the climate system so you may make the most effective decisions about what must be done to protect the state, including reducing emissions from fossil-fuel-burning power plants.”

Of course, this is Scott’s worst nightmare. “I’m not a scientist” somehow seems much more forgivable than “I understand the problem but don’t want to run afoul of my oil company donors.” Or even: “Okay, it’s a problem, but let’s let the kids deal with it.”

Flooding without rain: Miami Beach streets at high tide

Flooding without rain: Miami Beach streets at high tide

The scientists said that they could bring the governor up to speed in about a half an hour. “It’s not rocket science,” said their spokesman, Jeff Chandon of Florida State University. Chandon plans to walk the governor through millions of years of temperature data, which has risen whenever the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased, and fallen when it decreased. But those concentrations also never ranged outside of 180 to 280 parts per million (ppm). Today, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stands at 400 ppm, and is rising fast.

This is not good for the unknowing Scott, currently locked in a tight reelection race for the votes of Floridians, two-thirds of whom are convinced of the near-term peril to their state from the changing climate, according to a Yale University study. So he initially agreed to send a staffer to meet with the scientists. But when his rival, former Governor Charlie Crist agreed to sit down with the scientists in person, Scott relented, and the crash course is now on.

But another group of experts is also trying to meet with the governor, with less success so far. Reverend Mitchell Hescox, the head of the Evangelical Environmental Network, has asked for a meeting with Scott, a professing Christian, to discuss the moral and spiritual implications of climate change on the vulnerable people of Florida.

“Florida, your home, literally represents ground zero,” wrote Hescox in a letter to the governor last week. “Sea level rise, more extreme weather, saltwater contaminated wells, loss of farm land and increased air pollution all pose significant threats to the health and well-being of Floridians.”

Hescox, an outspoken conservative, assured the governor that this has nothing to do with politics. “It’s a moral challenge to all Americans. It is a call to follow our Risen Lord and act to prepare for the impacts, many of which are already happening, and to work to reduce our carbon pollution to help our children, now and in the future.”

So far, Hescox hasn’t gotten too far. He’s collected more than 57,000 signatures from Floridians urging Scott to develop a plan to address climate change. But the governor isn’t planning on meeting him. Lots of Hescox’s fellow Christians have begun to pray, and next Tuesday, Hescox is planning to knock on Scott’s door with his 57,000 signatures, his Bible, and his plea for justice for “the least of these,” who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Who knows? Maybe the scientists will help Scott understand things well enough to realize that his state faces a crisis. And maybe Hescox’s boldness will get him in the door, for a few prophetic words to a fellow believer.

For me, I’m joining those who are praying for both meetings. Florida is indeed ground zero. But it’s not too late for its leaders to take action to reduce the harm, especially for those leaders who believe that “the earth (including Florida) is the Lord’s, and all its fullness” Psalm 24:1.


Child Immigration & Extreme Weather: Have We Missed the Connection?

You’ve watched – perhaps with horror, or perhaps with approval – at American protesters blocking buses filled with Central American children from reaching immigration processing centers around the country.

In Murrieta, California two weeks ago, 150 of them chanted “USA! USA!” and waved American flags. The scared children on board – some as young as six years old – didn’t understand the words: “Go home! We don’t want you here!” But in the end, the buses turned around and took them elsewhere.

If you’ve been reading the news, then no doubt you’ve heard the debate: Who’s to blame for letting those children in? What laws do we need to change to keep them from coming? How quickly can we schedule court hearings to decide their fate? What signals did we send that brought them here in the first place? Which political party would handle this mess better?

Protesters at immigration processing centers

Protesters at immigration processing centers

Less often, however, do we hear about conditions that drove their desperate flight. Think about it: What would ever have possessed your mother to pay someone to cram you onto a freight train and send you on a perilous journey among total strangers – possibly forever?

Since last October, there have been 52,000 of them: children walking across the U.S. border, all the way from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Clearly, something is going on here. That many parents don’t just float their vulnerable children among the bulrushes for no good reason. Now and then, we hear about conditions back home: gang violence, child murders, rape, poverty. Are these just evil countries?

Well, perhaps you haven’t heard about one condition back home. As far as I know, it hasn’t found its way into the public debate at all. Here it is: Honduras and Guatemala are among the top ten countries in the entire world most seriously hurt by global climate change. Honduras, in fact ranks #1 worldwide on this scale. And El Salvador just misses the top ten, with a #13 ranking. Continue reading

Canada’s High Court Hands First Nations Keys to the Tar Sands

One hundred and fifty years ago, five leaders of the indigenous Tsilhqot’in Nation in British Columbia were lured into peace talks with the British Crown, and then promptly arrested and hanged.

That brought to an end the Chilcotin War of 1864, which had broken out in response to a flood of gold-rush settlers in the Canadian west.  Like most other native nations in British Columbia, the Tsilhqot’in (or Chilcotin) did not surrender their land under a treaty, but were slowly marginalized under the pressure of settlement and development. Their lands were exploited for gold, minerals and timber, and they were recognized as having title to only a small fraction of their historical range.

But two weeks ago, much of that changed overnight. In a 25-year-old legal case, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously on June 26th in favor of the Chilcotin Nation’s claim to some 675 square miles of land that had previously been contested. The court found that aboriginal title does not just apply to land where First Nations live, but to the lands they have historically used for hunting, trapping and fishing.

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak leading Healing Walk in the tar sands

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak leading Healing Walk in the tar sands

The day after the decision was handed down, I arrived in northern Alberta for a gathering of First Nations leaders and their friends, in the heart of tar sands mining country. And despite the flood of terrible news facing native people from the tar sands pollution, the mood that day was happy – even jubilant.

That’s because the Chilcotin decision for the first time provides a clear basis to establish First Nations’ title to un-surrendered lands, and strengthens the hand of indigenous people in dealing with companies seeking to exploit mining, logging and fossil fuel development on those lands.

“This decision . . . will be a game-changer in terms of the landscape in B.C. and throughout the rest of the country where there is unextinguished aboriginal title,” said First Nations Regional Chief of British Columbia Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Others would go even further, claiming that it gives indigenous people “a veto” over resource development proposals on their now-expanded lands. And while that’s probably an overstatement, the court’s ruling certainly increases the amount of Canadian land over which the First Nations will now exercise significant control. Now, timber companies, miners, and pipeline operators will have to solicit consent from indigenous peoples before pushing ahead.

Ah, pipeline operators. Now there’s a timely topic. Continue reading

Canada’s Petro-State: Fox Guarding the Henhouse?

We Americans don’t have all that much regard for foreigners, do we? Some countries seem to be brimming with jihadists. Others might bring to mind illegal immigrants. Perhaps others are stealing our jobs with their cheap labor. But Canada is different. For many Americans, Canada is almost like us. We may demand secure borders, but we don’t really mean that border.

And that’s why it would be so surprising if we were to find Canada behaving like a petro-state dictatorship.

But that’s just about what I found during my recent visit to the tar sands region of Alberta last week. It looks as though the federal and provincial governments have become so dependent on oil money that basic elements of just governance now seem like quaint throwbacks to a more innocent era.

I began to suspect this at last week’s Healing Walk in Fort McMurray, Alberta, when First Nations leaders repeated again and again the nearly identical chorus: Our land and water is being destroyed by industrial contamination, our native people are faced with de facto genocide, and the government refuses even to acknowledge our peril. In fact, the government actively suppresses evidence of our suffering.

It sounded bad. But then I heard from a doctor named John O’Connor, and his story removed all doubt.

Dr. O’Connor is a family practice physician from Fort McMurray, in the heart of the tar sands district of Alberta. In 2006, he began treating patients in the tiny indigenous community of Fort Chipewyan, 150 miles downstream from “Fort Mac” and the tar sands operations. No sooner did he arrive than he began to hear stories from the community elders of ominous changes in the environment. In stark contrast to what they grew up with, they could no longer drink the water; fish and wildlife routinely showed grotesque deformities; game and fish were becoming scarce; their own people were suffering from  mysterious illnesses.

Dr. John O'Connor, Fort Chipewyan

Dr. John O’Connor, Fort Chipewyan

In no time, O’Connor began to see alarming patterns in those illnesses. Relatively rare cancers were appearing regularly – blood and lymphatic cancers, bile duct cancer, biliary tract and thyroid cancers. Added to those were auto-immune diseases – Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, skin disorders and intestinal disorders. Continue reading

Tar Sands: When it’s Hard to Pray in Jesus’ Name

How do you proclaim your faith, when that faith is culturally aligned with injustice?

American Christians who are actively seeking to care for the creation routinely face this conundrum, as our religious heritage is so often used to provide moral cover for systems of power that despoil the earth and harm the poor. We know, of course, that our own scriptures tell us to “subdue the earth;” we are granted “dominion” over the works of God’s hand; and the gospel confers almost infinite value on the individual person. Taken together, these notions can be used to provide the ideological underpinnings of the exploitative economy and the hyper-individualism that often prevents us from acting for the common good.

Nothing really new here. Thoughtful Christians can rebut the errors that flow from these notions, of course. But the last two months have confronted me with another arena of injustice where we Americans – and our dominant cultural faith – are generally on the wrong side of God’s justice. I’ve seen it because I’ve been invited twice to participate with indigenous North Americans in their struggle for the most basic elements of justice. In this brief span, I’ve been confronted with two wonders: the amazing level of hospitality and inclusion extended to Christians like me by these communities; and the extent of my religion’s historical participation in oppression and genocide, together with our ongoing disregard for its still-surviving victims.

Native elders led the Healing Walk through the tar sands pollution

Native elders led the Healing Walk through the tar sands pollution

Last month, I was among a group of Evangelicals invited to participate with the Cowboy Indian Alliance in their Reject & Protect action in Washington. They were there to demand a voice in the decision whether to permit a Canadian pipeline company to seize indigenous and rancher lands in the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas for the Keystone XL pipeline. And today, I’m on my way home from the Healing Walk in Alberta, Canada, where native peoples are struggling for their very survival in the face of rampant oil-industry pollution of their supposedly treaty-protected lands and waters.

In each case, I came to pray, intending to bring with me the gracious name of the Lord Jesus Christ. I recalled the story of Peter and John speaking to the lame beggar at Jerusalem’s gate: “Silver and gold have I none. But what I have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk.” It’s a pretty triumphant story, isn’t it? Continue reading