Monthly Archives: August 2014

2014 Will be Remembered for … Dragon’s Breath?

Quick! Pick one.  The worst thing to happen on earth in 2014 was:

  1. ISIS overwhelmed Iraqi and Syrian forces and unleashed unspeakable violence on innocent victims.
  2. Russian President Putin launched an invasion of neighboring Ukraine, reigniting the Cold War.
  3. Atmospheric CO2 passed 400 parts per million, thawing the Arctic and releasing “Dragon’s Breath” blow holes of methane into the atmosphere.

Okay. It’s not fair asking you to rank horrors. ISIS is obscene. Putin’s grab for Ukrainian territory recalls fascist conduct prior to the worst war the world has ever known.  But a century from now, few people will likely remember them. What they will remember, however, is the generation that fundamentally destabilized the planet onto which they were born (see option “3”). And likely as not, 2014 is the year that will show up in the history books, if there are any more history books.

Why 2014? Well, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its 5th set of reports on behalf of the global climate science community, warning that the world needed to adhere to a strict carbon budget, which has already been more than half spent, if we want to avoid planetary calamity. And runaway atmospheric carbon concentrations also broke through the 400 ppm threshold, disrupting the Earth’s thermal equilibrium enjoyed for millions of years (at around 280 ppm), while many politicians and oil companies took all measures to prevent us from doing anything to stop the rise.

Image source: Moscow Times

A methane blow hole in eastern Siberia

But then in the early summer, we discovered the first of a series of ominous signs in the Arctic tundra of eastern Siberia. Cavernous, seemingly bottomless craters began to appear in the deserted northern landscape, looking like the stuff of sci-fi movies. In the end, they turned out to be what many have been predicting: Enormous releases of heat-trapping methane sealed for eons beneath the frozen tundra and Arctic sea ice, now melted due to global warming.

We wrote about these “dragon’s breath” holes when they first made the news, and warned that this could be the beginning of something very serious. Since then, we found a remarkable video by some prominent scientists, addressing the trends in Arctic melting and the threat of catastrophic methane release upon the global climate system. Its nineteen-odd minutes is definitely worth watching, and you don’t have to be a climate geek to understand it.

The commentators are Dr. Peter Wadhams, Head of Polar Ocean Physics Group at Cambridge University; Dr. Natalia Shakhova, head of the Russian & US Methane Study at the International Arctic Research Centre; Rev. David Wasdell, Director of the Apollo-Gaia Project; and Dr. James Hansen, Head Scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute. Take a moment and listen to what these brilliant folks are desperate for you to understand.

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NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies Dr James Hansen

Hansen: If we burn all of the fossil fuels, then we certainly will cause all the methane hydrates eventually to come out (of the Arctic) and cause several degrees more warming. It’s not clear that civilization can survive that extreme climate change. (16:50)

I think that the concept of adapting to climate change is dangerous. Because there is the potential for climate change that humanity cannot adapt to. If the ice sheets become unstable and sea levels go up multiple meters, well, you’re going to put all of the cities on coasts all around the world under water, and you will destroy all of that heritage. (16:00)


Wasdell: The danger of moving into a runaway climate change scenario is now clear, and beginning to be quantified for the first time in the last few months. It’s probably the greatest threat that we face as a planet. The rate of change that we’re generating in the current situation is between 200 and 300 time faster than that experienced in any of the extinction events, apart from the asteroidal impact (linked to the extinction of the dinosaurs).

It takes about 10,000 years to change the concentration of CO2 by about 100 parts per million. We’re doing it in 30 years. So the rate of change in the climate is phenomenal compared to previous extinction events. We’re already in a mass extinction event.  It isn’t something that’s going to happen. We’ve lost about 40 percent of the phytoplankton in the ocean, which is the base of the food chain, simply because of acidification and temperature change in the climate. (12:00)


Wadhams: You tend to think you’re going to gain from global warming: you can grow more crops further north. And that’s true, but the instability means that at critical times, these crops are going to be affected by frosts, floods or rains. The estimates are that you won’t gain much from the warming in the Northern Hemisphere, and you lose a lot from all the warming in the tropical regions. It’s going to be very difficult to see how to support even the present world population. (14:00)


Shakhova: The amount of carbon preserved in the methane of the Arctic Shelf is from hundreds to thousands of gigatons. The release of only one percent of that amount would double the atmospheric methane. To destabilize one percent of this carbon pool – it’s not much effort needed, considering the state of the permafrost. The weakening permafrost is losing its ability to serve as a seal.

We do not like what we see there. Absolutely DO NOT LIKE. (14:00)

We’ve Found Who’s to Blame for Iraq’s Unfolding Genocide

Iraq and Syria seem to have fallen into a flaming abyss. The world is watching in horror as the “Islamic State” militants are alleged to have massacred religious minorities, including unarmed Chaldean Christians and Yezidis.

We pray; we lament; we give to relief agencies. But we also struggle to understand why this is happening and who’s to blame. And the TV news channels are quick to serve up all kinds of plausible-sounding answers:

  • If only President Obama hadn’t withdrawn American forces from Iraq…
  • If only President Bush and Cheney hadn’t invaded Iraq in the first place…
  • If only Prime Minister Maliki hadn’t persecuted Iraq’s Sunni minority…
  • If only Obama had armed the “moderate Syrian rebels” …
  • If only Congress had given Obama the authority he requested to use force in Syria…
  • If only the Gulf States hadn’t armed the jihadists to fight against Syria’s Assad regime…
  • If only Assad hadn’t fired chemical weapons on Syria’s majority Sunni population…

It looks like there is plenty of blame to go around. But have these pundits really gotten to the heart of the matter? Could this conflagration really be blamed on one prime minister, one congress or one president? Or are these charges – plus many others – contributing factors in some larger narrative?

Come back with me to February 2011, when the Syrian uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad first burst into the global news. Syrian security forces in the agricultural hub of Dara’a arrested a group of children for scrawling anti-government slogans on a school wall. Dara’a exploded in protest when its people discovered that Syrian soldiers had tortured the children. And then,  Assad’s forces massacred scores (or hundreds) of protesters, plunging Syria into what would become a civil war displacing six million refugees and claiming more than 100,000 lives — so far.

Dara'a protests were brutally suppressed by Assad

Dara’a protests were brutally suppressed by Assad. Photo:

The rest – of course – is history. In the wake of the Dara’a massacre, Aleppo and Baghdad erupted in angry protests, leading to violent crackdowns by the regime; crackdowns radicalized the opposition, with increasing elements of jihadist fighters joining the fray; the moderate Free Syrian Army soon became eclipsed by Al-Qaeda-allied forces, including the hated Islamic State in Iraq & Syria (ISIS), which soon controlled Syria’s eastern provinces and much of its border with Iraq. Meanwhile in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki established a Shiite-dominated regime, oppressing Sunni communities in the north, and driving many into the waiting arms of the ISIS jihadists.

A tragic story, of course. But why did Syria blow up in the first place? Civil wars don’t just materialize out of thin air, do they?

Well, it turns out that Syria was ripe for conflict in 2011, and initially, it didn’t have anything to do with politics, religion or jihad. Syria faced a devastating drought between 2006 and 2010, affecting its most fertile lands. The four years of drought turned almost 60 percent of the nation into a desert. The country could no longer support cattle trading and herding, as the drought killed about 80 percent of Syria’s cattle by 2009. In 2008, 90 percent of the barley crop failed. Food prices skyrocketed, forcing more than 80 percent of rural Syrians below the poverty line. Continue reading

How Civilization Will Collapse

Okay, the title is a bit provocative. It calls to mind a movie from a few years back: “The Day After Tomorrow.” You remember? It was an environmental thriller depicting a cataclysm where climate warming stopped the global “ocean conveyor belt,” a climate-stabilizing current that connects the world’s oceans. Almost overnight, all of Europe and the U.S. simultaneously flood and freeze, arguably eclipsing Noah’s flood in its devastating impact. It’s quite a story. Civilization — we are left to surmise — teeters on the precipice.

The scientific premise of the film was arguably sound. The main problem was, you had to compress events potentially occurring over centuries into a few short hours in order to make it much fun to watch. Since then, I’ve mostly steered clear of warnings about end-of-the-world scenarios, like the runaway collapse of ice sheets or jamming the gears of the ocean conveyor.

Oh yes: and one more – the Global Burp. That’s another civilization-terminator, in which enormous methane deposits are released from Arctic seas and tundra by warming conditions, bubbling or belching to the surface and choking the atmosphere with methane – a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than CO2.

Here’s why the “burp” scenario gives researchers apocalyptic nightmares. Today, there are about 5 gigatons (billion tons) of methane in Earth’s atmosphere. But under the Arctic water and tundra, there are thousands of gigatons of methane hydrates, trapped by little more than the icy water and frozen soils. That’s maybe 100 times more than everything in the air today. And the ice which holds it below the surface is melting fast, as the Arctic heats 3-4 times faster than the rest of the warming world. Release just 1% of those methane hydrates, and you’ve doubled the atmospheric methane.

But as I said, we’ve stayed away from doomsday scenarios, like the Global Burp.

But last week, the news featured this incredible image from the tundra of an uninhabited Siberian peninsula:

Image source: Moscow Times

Image source: Moscow Times

Initially, some thought that it might be the work of a meteorite. Others suspected human mischief. Whatever, it is more than 200 feet across, freshly created, and deeper than the eye can see. And scientists have now measured methane concentrations in its depths thousands of times greater than background levels. So the prevailing theory today is that these are burp craters – the result of explosions from methane destabilized under the warming tundra, to the point that they are ejected in a massive Burp. Some researchers are calling it “Dragon’s Breath.” Continue reading

Does the Earth Have AIDS?

If it’s ever fallen to your lot to care for someone with advanced AIDS, you know this feeling: It’s not fair.

It’s really not fair. With a weakened immune system, the illnesses just line up to attack. No sooner do you fight off pneumonia, then mycobacterium avium attacks. And right behind it comes a wave of candidiasis or wasting syndrome. Eventually, you just can’t fight anymore. It’s just not fair.

Together with my brothers, Chris and Rob, I saw this first-hand some twenty-five years ago. We survived the last attack after weeks of treatment and struggle, but what’s next? Sure enough, something with an unpronounceable name – cytomegalovirus or something – was waiting to pounce.

I will admit, I thought those days were behind me. But I’m having an eerie sense of déjà vu as I watch the almost daily developments in the natural world. Something’s happening, and it looks like the earth’s immune systems are failing. We just came off a winter of brutal extremes: Alaska was broiling, while the East was locked in a deep freeze from the once-unknown “polar vortex.” California is now in the grip of the worst drought ever to hit the state, hard on the heels of the record multi-year drought in Texas. Thousands of square miles of American forests have fallen to the now-rabid pine bark beetle. Washington’s governor is sounding the alarm that rising ocean acidity is destroying the state’s oyster industry as the seas soak up so much atmospheric carbon. Flood insurance rates nationwide have skyrocketed with rising sea levels and increased storm intensity.

And that’s just here in the U.S.  Globally, last month was the hottest June on record for land, following the same record for May; and it was the hottest of any month ever for oceans. We’ve now had 352 consecutive months of global heat exceeding the 20th Century average. Massive droughts have hit exports of Russian and Australian wheat and American corn in the last two years. Global food prices have spiked repeatedly, stoking food riots and conflict throughout the Arab world. Central America’s devastating storms have undermined social structures to a point where hundreds of thousands are migrating in a desperate search for food and safety.

I wonder if the young among us even know that it wasn’t always this way. Maybe plagues of biblical proportions have always been the stuff of ordinary life, no?

Well just this week, a new plague has appeared on the scene, in a place where I wasn’t expecting it. We heard in yesterday’s news that the city of Toledo has just lost its drinking water. About 400,000 Ohioans have been warned not to drink their tap water because of a dangerous toxin called microcystis that’s spread all over Lake Erie and other Great Lakes.

Courtesy Circle of Blue

Courtesy Circle of Blue

Microcystis is a type of algae that’s been going wild in recent years. If consumed, it affects liver function and causes diarrhea or worse. You can’t get rid of it by boiling; that even makes it more toxic. Even skin contact can be harmful, causing burning and rashes. Some people are even warned not to wash their hands under the tap.

And that’s just the people. The algae-choked water can also kill livestock and pets, not to mention the thousands of species of animals that rely on the lake habitat. And in the lake, the algal blooms result in enormous “dead zones,” where bacteria, feeding on dying algae, deplete all the oxygen in the water, killing all fish and other marine life.

Oh goodness! Another random freak event besetting the good American people?

Cytocystis algae make water toxic

Microcystis algae makes water toxic. Courtesy Tom Archer

Almost certainly not. Experts tell us that this is caused by two principal factors. The first is runoff of chemical fertilizers from Midwest corn and soybean fields, and wastewater from sewage treatment plants. But climate change is making it much worse, according to scientists from Oregon and North Carolina: Microcystis bacteria thrive in warm weather and high CO2 concentrations; and today’s increasingly torrential rainstorms wash more farm fertilizers and city sewer runoff into the lake, fueling the algae’s growth.

So in our impaired natural systems, microcystis water poisoning looks to be the plague-du-jour. Sure, it’s only a half million people losing their clean water, and by sometime in September or October, the algae should be gone for the season. But these almost-daily plagues could well be the groaning of a global immune system that has been severely damaged by our abuse and neglect.

We’ve heard that word – groaning – before, haven’t we? St. Paul wrote it almost two thousand years ago: “The whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). I don’t know how things sounded like in Paul’s day, but the groaning is getting pretty loud in ours. Isn’t it maybe time to ask whether we need to change the way we’re treating the Creation?

Because what we’re doing to it is not fair.

The Prophet Nathan and the EPA Carbon Limits

“The Lord sent Nathan to David.”

That’s how the story begins – the familiar Bible account of royal corruption, conspiracy, sexual abuse and murder. The prophet began by telling the king a simple story of two neighbors: one rich, and one poor; one with vast herds of sheep and cattle, and one with nothing but a beloved pet lamb who slept in his arms.

We remember the storyline, don’t we? The rich man entertained a visitor, but was unwilling to use any of his abundant livestock to feed his houseguest. Instead, he seized his poor neighbor’s pet to be slaughtered for dinner. King David seethed with anger over such pitiless injustice, and pronounced the death penalty without even asking the rich villain’s identity.

Nathan didn’t waste a moment: “You are the man!” he declared (2 Samuel 12).

That was then. Three thousand years later, the poor still suffer abuse at the hands of the powerful, just like in King David’s time. The themes of speaking prophetic truth to power are also timeless. But neighbors with cattle, sheep and pet lambs are not, are they? So how does Nathan’s story translate into the struggles for justice in the 21st Century?

At its core, Nathan’s story is about a transaction – enjoyed by one party, but paid for by another. There is a rich man, and he has a houseguest. Maybe they’re both rich; maybe they’re relatives; maybe they’re together for a business deal – the prophet doesn’t say. But cultural norms require hospitality, and part of the deal is a good dinner. Whatever their business, they need meat for the traveler and his host. They could bear those costs themselves; in fact, any thinking person would demand it. But instead, they impose the costs on a neighbor. What’s worse, they dump them on someone who is already dirt-poor. If you’re at all like King David, you’re hot under the collar just thinking about it.

Lisa Sharon Harper, of New York Faith & Justice, praying with religious leaders at the EPA hearings.

Lisa Sharon Harper, of New York Faith & Justice, praying with religious leaders at the EPA hearings.

And this brings us to a debate that’s been raging in major American cities this week. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed standards under the Clean Air Act, to cut carbon pollution from electric power plants. It’s sparked an intense debate, with pastors and conservationists among the supporters, and coal and utility executives arguing against it. Twelve coal-mining states even filed suit  yesterday to block the EPA from issuing its carbon standards.

Whatever you’ve heard about the debate, a bit of background on the Clean Air Act would be helpful. With overwhelming bipartisan support, Congress passed the Clean Air Act under President Richard Nixon in 1970, and expanded it under George H.W. Bush in 1990. The Act required the EPA to establish air quality standards to protect public health and welfare, and to regulate emissions of hazardous substances. Over the years, the EPA has responded by setting standards for harmful pollution contaminating the country’s atmosphere. Forty years later, few of us can remember the days when cities like Pittsburgh were shrouded in a permanent toxic fog, when rivers like the Cuyahoga in Cleveland actually caught fire, or when less than half of Americans were served by wastewater treatment facilities.

In recent years, the EPA’s duty to also regulate climate-warming gases under the Clean Air Act has been confirmed by landmark legal cases beginning in 2007 and culminating with a Supreme Court ruling in 2014. And in response, the agency has proposed regulations designed to cut carbon emissions from electric power plants – the largest single source of greenhouse gases – to levels 30% below current levels by the year 2030.

Rivers aren't supposed to burn: the Cuyahoga in 1969

Rivers aren’t supposed to burn: the Cuyahoga in 1969

This week marks the end of a lengthy period of public comment on the EPA’s proposals. In Washington, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Denver, hundreds of stakeholders came out to speak their minds on the proposals, including coal industry lobbyists, politicians and conservationists. In Washington on Wednesday, about two dozen religious leaders took to the podium to add their voices in support of the EPA’s proposed plan.

“We are responding to the reality of climate change,” said Sojourners’ Liz Schmitt, “not just because of what the science says, not just because we know ethically we need to, but first and foremost because the Word tells us to.”

Schmitt was joined by Evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Protestants and Jewish leaders, among others, in invoking biblical faith as the basis for fighting climate pollution. “The creation speaks to us of God’s steadfast love for us,’ said Schmitt. “And the Bible speaks to us of our first responsibility, the task God gives to humanity in Genesis – to steward the creation.”

Two days later, evangelical environmental leader Rev. Mitch Hescox told the EPA delegates in Pittsburgh: “For years, we have subsidized the cost of coal-generated electricity in the brains, lungs, and bodies of our children, and privatized the profits. Asthma, cancers, autism, birth defects, and brain damage have a direct link to the use of fossil fuels and petrochemicals.”

For Rev. Hescox, the coal companies make the profits, and the children bear the costs of diseases and climate disruption.

And that brings us back to the prophet Nathan, and his story about little a lamb and a rich man. Who should bear the cost of dinner? Not the poor neighbor, of course! In our day, who should bear the costs of electric power production? When those plants burn coal, oil and gas, who should bear the costs – the external costs – of the pollutants that find their way into the air, water and land? Not the poor, of course! Right?

But that’s the way external costs almost always work. Buyers and sellers get all the advantages of the fossil fuel production. But people downwind pay the price in asthma and elevated mercury levels, and in droughts, floods and crop failures that have become the routine calling card of climate disruption. And study after study  shows that the poor are much more likely than the rich to be found among the victims.

Although they would never come out and say it that way, that’s just the way the coal companies and their backers want it to remain. Every state attorney general filing suit against the EPA, and every coal executive has the same message: “We can’t afford it.”

However, they seldom complete the argument with much candor. “We can’t afford it – unless people like you continue to subsidize our profits by paying for the external costs of our pollutants” – that’s the actual heart of the argument. It’s a startling admission that the fossil-fuel business model is essentially bankrupt, unless our neighbors bear the external costs for us.

Until recently, we didn’t really know the scale of the external costs of coal burning. But in 2010, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences quantified these costs in their study titled The Hidden Cost of Energy. Its findings were shocking. Coal burned in a single year by U.S. power plants costs everyone else on the planet another $200 to 300 billion in unpriced external costs – the costs of respiratory diseases, ecosystem damages, and climate impacts like drought, flooding and rising food costs.  That’s a tax of about $40 levied on every single human on Earth. Only for U.S. coal. Only for one single year. Borne by men and women, by adults and children. Borne by the rich. And borne by the roughly one billion humans earning less than $1 per day.

So maybe it’s time to “remix” the story of the prophet Nathan for our day. If we’re among those who benefit from “the right” to freely pollute the world’s air, forcing the world’s billions to subsidize our use of cheap energy, maybe Nathan is speaking to us: “Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? … Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house….”

Yes, perhaps the sword. Or perhaps the chaos from disrupted climate systems, rising sea levels, drought and wildfires, flooding and hunger. This planet is the only one God has provided for its seven billion human souls. Can we continue to abuse it without incurring the judgment of its Creator?