Monthly Archives: October 2014

Climate Change: Looking Back at an Alarming Future

“The best qualification of a prophet is to have a good memory.”  George Savile, Marquis of Halifax

A slender volume arrived in the mail yesterday: Naomi Oreske’s fictional history of the late 21st Century, recounted in the words of a 24th Century Chinese historian. Just before midnight, I turned the last page.

You might remember Oreskes. She’s the Harvard geologist and science historian who first showed that almost all climatologists – 97 percent of them – agreed that the Earth is warming, due in large measure to human causes: the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. After suffering a withering backlash from industry-funded “think tanks,” she discovered that many of the leading “denial experts” were the same characters who were once on the payroll of the tobacco industry, lending a fig leaf of scientific cover to their arguments against the links between smoking and lung cancer. In the case of climate change denial, the strategy turns out to have been the same, and provided the title for Oreskes’ earlier book: Merchants of Doubt.

appOreskes’ new book is a bit less ambitious. Written with Cal Tech historian Erik Conway, it bears a dreary title: The Collapse of Western Civilization. And unlike most fictional dystopias, it is completely devoid of personal drama, thrilling action or heroes. It is simply written as history, recorded far off in the future. It chronicles the Penumbral Age, that dark time beginning in the late 20th Century when the looming shadow (or “penumbra”) of ignorance and denial spread over Western civilization, preventing it from acting on the discoveries of environmental science, and leading to the Great Collapse and Mass Migration of 2073-2093.

Like most science fiction, the value of “Collapse” is that it actually permits us to envision a better world, and identify those forces that might prevent it from happening. Sadly, in this case, almost all those forces in fact prevail, and the world of our grandchildren ends up looking dismal indeed.

How dismal? Well, here’s a short list. Before the end of the 21st Century:

  • Global temperatures rise almost 4oC by 2040, as catastrophic volumes of methane escape from the melting Arctic permafrost in a positive feedback loop long predicted by scientists;
  • Desperate geo-engineering solutions backfire, disrupting the monsoons vital to India’s survival, and the resulting cessation causes a sling-shot effect raising temperatures another 6oC;
  • 60 percent of all known species of animals and plants perish in a Sixth Great Extinction event;
  • The West Antarctic ice sheet disintegrates and melts, raising sea levels five meters, followed by the breakup of the Greenland ice sheet which adds another two meters.;
  • The Netherlands, Bangladesh and Florida slip almost entirely beneath the waves, as do coastal regions everywhere, driving the forced migration of 1.5 billion souls;
  • Only authoritarian governments survive in the face of pressures that demand rapid forced migration of millions of humans; and …
  • … one last thing: Humanity becomes entirely extinct on its two most vulnerable continents, Australia and Africa.

So! I’ve had my horror story a couple of days before Halloween, right? Thank God it’s only fiction! And anyway, who can actually look back on a future threatened by climate change?

Well, actually, in fact, we can. No, I’m not talking about computer models that look forward with increasing accuracy. We can look BACK at climate change. That’s because it has already happened in modern human history. The 17th Century coincided with the peak of the global event called The Little Ice Age. Brought on by a century-long hiatus in sunspot activity, coupled with a rash of mid-century volcanoes and a run of extremely weak El Niño events, the Little Ice Age ushered in more than a century of global cooling, with average surface temperatures falling about 1oC below historical averages.

And so a serious look at the 17th Century – with its one-degree cooling record – might just tell us something about what could be in store for the 21st Century, as we debate whether warming can be kept close to 2oC, or run to 4oC or even worse.

17th Century cold in contrast with today's runaway warming

17th Century cold in contrast with today’s runaway warming

A few months ago, we summarized the global chaos of the 17th Century, as set forth in Geoffrrey Parker’s magnum opus, Global Crisis. Droughts, floods and harvest failures set entire populations on the move in virtually every corner of civilization. Estimates at the time were that the human population fell by roughly one-third. Rebellions and civil wars ravaged Russia, France, England, Scotland, Ireland and Ukraine. Starving Ottomans strangled their Sultan. The English executed their king. The German states fell into the sectarian chaos of the Thirty Years’ War.

But the non-European world suffered at least as badly. So let’s take a quick look at the world’s largest empire, where the Ming dynasty ruled in China. For it’s there where we see how drought and famine drove starving Manchu clansmen from the north into a conquest that led to the suicide of the last Ming emperor, seven decades of warfare, and the death of an estimated 50% of the population. Here are a few notable events from that time:

  • Drought brought on by the weakest monsoons in 2,000 years destroyed Chinese agriculture in the 1620s, giving farmers no choice but to resort to mass banditry.
  • Heavy snowfall blanketed tropical Guangdong Province in the 1630s, further depressing crop yields.
  • Cannibalism ran rampant in the 1640s in numerous provinces, with China’s daughters at particular risk.
  • In 1642, a Ming official reported that “the human price of a peck of rice” – barely enough to feed one person for a week – “was two children.” He reported watching a woman eat her own child outside of the government office.
  • In Manchuria, 1643 brought on the coldest winter in a thousand years, forcing starving Manchus to mobilize a desperate effort to breach the Great Wall and conquer the warmer empire to the south.
  • Total cultivated land fell more than two-thirds by mid-century, and tax rolls declined by as much as 90 percent in some provinces.

In the end, stresses aggravated by climate change in the 17th Century cost about half of Chinese souls their lives, and as many as one in three humans on earth. It was a time we’d much rather not repeat.

And so, whatever we think about the progress we’ve made over the last four centuries – for better (global institutions and scientific advances), or worse (nuclear weapons and extreme environmental degradation) – Oreskes’ fictional “history” just might warrant our attention. We’re often called “alarmists” when we look seriously at the future of a world in which we have disregarded the laws woven by the Creator into his work. But to me, the ACTUAL history of climate change makes Oreskes’ fictional account look plausible, or perhaps worse.

Do you think that maybe it’s time to join the alarmists, and start talking about what we’re doing to our children’s world? It’s not really that far off.

Climate Conversation: Kenya

The Christian Reformed Church sent a dozen North Americans to Kenya last year — including me — to witness first-hand the impacts of climate change on farmers and on the poor in East Africa. Out of that venture came five short videos, each less than five minutes in length, that bring a cry for justice and action to North American churches and Christians.

On the CRC’s website, the video series is introduced with this invitation:

“For millions of subsistence farmers in Kenya, climate change is not a political debate. It is a reality in which adaptation can mean the difference between life and death. The Climate Conversation: Kenya video series is a chance to move past the white noise and to get up close and personal with the issues of climate change and environmental stewardship. It is a chance to meet people, not statistics; to hear stories, not arguments. It is an invitation to a conversation.”

 

I hope you’ll watch them all, at the CRC site or on YouTube. And then, please, join the conversation.

 

Melting Arctic: Pictures v. Thousands of Words

Ho hum. Another global heat record.

So, September was the hottest September ever recorded. That’s what NASA told us this week. And August was also a record-busting high, according to NOAA. And in fact, the three months June-August were also the hottest for the planet on record. Of course, we can now extend that to June-September. And NOAA tells us that the chances are very strong that the whole of 2014 will now break all global records for surface heat.

Let’s look at some heat maps, and maybe a couple of charts (yawn).

Global heat anomaly August map (left); June-August long term trends (right).

Global heat anomaly August map (left); June-August long term trends (right).

Doesn’t this make your blood boil?

No, in fact it doesn’t. More statistics, more science, more record-keeping – B.O.R.I.N.G.

Meanwhile, one out of every 165,000,000 Americans has been infected with Ebola in our country, and we can’t talk about anything else. If only we had people in hazmat suits cleaning up the effects of climate change on national TV. If only it threatened our lives, not just our children’s….

Well, I’ve just watched some amazing footage that goes a long way to unmasking the often-invisible hand of manmade climate change. Acclaimed nature photographer James Balog has made a career of hanging off of cliffs and giant redwoods, camera in hand, to bring us face to face with the marvels of creation. And a few years back, he figured that the polar ice could be a tangible way for you and me to witness our impact on the world around us. So Balog launched the Extreme Ice Survey, planting scores of cameras in some of the world’s coldest and most unhospitable places.

The results are amazing, not to mention terrifying. Take a look at this short clip, from Greenland’s enormous Ilulissant Glacier. In less than five minutes, you’ll see a mass of ice equivalent in size to a lower Manhattan, filled on every block with Empire State Buildings, collapsing and washing away in a span of just over one hour.

Like much of Greenland’s ice sheet, Ilulissant is melting and collapsing at breakneck speeds. And for a breathtaking view of Balog’s work in the Arctic, set aside an hour this evening, and watch “Chasing Ice,” his full-length documentary. It’s free, and you can watch it here.

Balog captures the astounding scale of changes occurring in the creation, which are driven by those boring statistics we keep citing. And when you catch your breath, you may find yourself asking, as I did: When I consider the work of your fingers, what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? (Adapted from Psalm 8:4)

We’ve learned that global action to preserve our children’s future won’t be driven by ever more compelling statistics. But when we who call the Creator “our Father” take a hard look with our own eyes at what we’re doing to His gifts, maybe then we’ll find the motivation to take action.

May I Please Have a Water Bottle?

On a recent Sunday morning, September 21, we were packing up with about forty students from Christian colleges as far away as Indiana and North Carolina, headed into New York City for the People’s Climate March. As usual, I bellowed out to everyone as we were walking to the vans: “Make sure you go to the bathroom! Anyone need anything? It’s going to be a long day!”

Sure enough, several of the students did indeed need something. “May I please have a water bottle?”

Oh…. Ah, yes, water bottles.

Let’s be clear. These are absolutely fantastic earth-keeping college students. Many of them are studying environmental biology, or peace and reconciliation issues. Some are just back from studies in post-genocide Rwanda, or are planning organic farming internships for next summer. All of them care enough about God’s creation to have traveled for hours to sleep on the floor for a weekend of climate action. But water bottles?

“You know,” I stammered after an awkward moment, “plastic bottles are something we just don’t use much around here. Um, could we lend you an aluminum canteen?”

Photo by Chris Jordan and The Midway Film Project, who are raising funds to launch a film on Midway plastic pollution.

Photo by Chris Jordan and The Midway Film Project, who are raising funds to launch a film on Midway plastic pollution.

Thank God, awareness of plastic pollution is growing among young people. Many have read about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” They’ve seen images of decomposed sea birds whose stomachs were filled with brightly-colored plastic bottle caps. They’ve seen photos of Midway Island or the Maldives, beset by an unending sea-borne plastic tsunami. These are the remotest places on earth, and our plastic is all over them.

In our family, we kicked the plastic bottle habit years ago. It’s not always easy, but we manage.

And some major jurisdictions are already taking action. California has now banned single-use plastic bags, following the lead of Mexico City, Dehli, Mumbia, Bangladesh and Rwanda. Here in the U.S., Portland and coastal North Carolina also restrict the use of plastic bags.

But for real change to happen, average Americans like us are going to have to change our attitudes toward packaging – bags, bottles, boxes, and all, and especially plastics. Maybe our hearts need to change, and that might happen if you take a moment to watch a trailer for the Midway film about albatrosses and plastic pollution. Or take three minutes and watch the little film below about where our plastic ends up.

Because your plastic water bottle will still be here for your great-great-great grandchild to deal with. Please watch.

Why Miami is Doomed

“People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.” Luke 17:27

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me news of an amazing transaction. In Miami, a waterfront downtown 1.25-acre lot had sold for the amazing price of $125,000,000. That’s one-hundred twenty-five MILLION dollars. For a little over an acre of land.

Miami 1.25 acres sold for $125 million

Miami 1.25 acres sold for $125 million

Now, if you’re in London, New York or Hong Kong, you’re used to this kind of thing. You know: location, location, location. But Miami is different. Yes, it’s the Magic City, and awash with money from all over the Americas and Europe, fueling enormous real estate, banking and (sadly) drug transactions. But increasingly, people are coming to terms with the fact that that Miami is living on borrowed time. And the time is beginning to look really, really short.

Oh, no. Not another doomsday scenario! Has this thought crossed your mind?

Well, we’ve been talking about Miami’s last days for several years now. But with the passing of time, the most serious doubts have been removed. We’ve learned that Miami is the world’s #1 loser to sea-level rise over the balance of this century, with more than $400 billion of assets exposed to projected sea levels at present. But recently, the evidence has mounted that Miami will succumb long before the tides inundate the city.

Here’s why Miami is headed the way of Atlantis:

  • Global sea levels are rising faster than anyone expected, and will, within decades, inundate much of south Florida.
  • More severe storms are projected for the region, with higher and higher storm surges, aggravating the impact of sea-level rise.
  • Miami suffers from fatal geology: a porous limestone ridge beneath the city permits salt water to bubble up through “swiss cheese” rock formations beneath the ground, making dikes and levees useless.
  • The topography is flat and low, with much of the most expensive infrastructure right on the waterfront. Even Miami’s enormous nuclear power plant is vulnerable to storm surges today.
  • And the city’s freshwater supply is protected by flood gates that are also just barely above high tide at today’s levels, let alone in coming decades as polar ice continues to melt.

These factors make Miami “ground zero” for climate change. That’s why Harold Wanless, chairman of University of Miami’s department of geological sciences has said flatly: “Miami, as we know it today, is doomed. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.” Continue reading