Monthly Archives: March 2015

Climate Disruption in Kenya: Go and See!

In November 2013, the Philippines’ climate delegate, Jeb Sano, issued an appeal heard in capitals around the world. As his island nation staggered in the wake of the second “once-in-a-lifetime” storm to strike in the span of a single year, Sano begged the world: “To anyone who continues to deny the reality that is climate change, I dare you to get off your ivory tower and away from the comfort of your armchair. I dare you to go to the islands of the Pacific, the islands of the Caribbean and the islands of the Indian Ocean and see the impacts of rising sea levels….”

Go and see, he begged us. Go to the Himalayas and Andes, where poor people are being flooded by melting glaciers. Go to the deltas of the Ganges, the Amazon and the Nile, where livelihoods and hopes are being drowned. Go to the parched savannahs of Africa. Go and see what we are doing to our global neighbors.

And that’s exactly what a North American evangelical denomination has committed itself to do. In the summer of 2012, the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA) overwhelmingly endorsed a declaration that “human-induced climate change is an ethical, social justice, and religious issue,” and that climate pollution “poses a significant threat to future generations, the poor, and the vulnerable.” And the church committed itself to “go and see” the impact of climate change on poor communities, and to tell others what they saw.

CRC leaders Albert Hamstra and Peter Vander Meulen listening to Kenyan farmers

CRC’s Albert Hamstra and Peter Vander Meulen listen to Kenyan farmers

And so, in April 2013, the CRCNA’s team of church leaders, missionaries and scientists set out for Kenya, to witness first-hand the impacts of climate change in East Africa. What we discovered was absolutely staggering. In farms, village churches and government offices, Kenyans from all walks of life told us a familiar story: Climate patterns were changing radically, destroying food supplies and family farms, spreading hunger, and driving migration into squalid urban slums.

We recounted much of what we discovered in a newly-released video series titled “Climate Conversation: Kenya.” The series was designed for use in churches, to help Christians understand the impact of our actions on people in distant lands. And we knew that – unlike Kenya – back home in the U.S. and Canada, much of what we saw with unmistakable clarity would be considered controversial, and even political. And so we weren’t surprised to find in the the Christian Post an article by Calvin Beisner, a spokesman for the libertarian Cornwall Alliance, to rebut what we reported from our visit.

“The relevant facts in Kenya don’t support these claims,” Beisner said. And to support his rebuttal, he presented data from a World Bank website indicating that for Kenya as a whole, neither average monthly temperature nor rainfall had changed materially over the last century. “Are poor Kenyans suffering from water shortages?” asked Beisner.  “Yes. Is that because of global warming—manmade or natural? No. Is fighting global warming the solution? No.”

We suspect that Beisner’s article might have sounded persuasive and pragmatic to many readers, but not to us. And that’s because he cited country-wide data to invalidate the experience of people living in microclimates which are experiencing massive changes – obvious to us when we went to look for ourselves.

Kenya consists of at least four climatic regions, with only one-quarter of its land accounting for virtually all of its agricultural output. Even within that region, we encountered epic floods in some quarters, and epic droughts in others. A few hours’ drive from the capital city of Nairobi, we arrived in a small town only days after an average-year’s worth of rainfall had deluged the area in the span of several weeks, driving floods and mudslides that swept four little girls to their death and threatened an important regional hospital. But just two hours’ drive to the southeast, farmers recounted the impacts of crushing droughts that are becoming routine.

Freak rains drove catastrophic mudslides in hospital town of Kijabe, killed four girls.

Freak rains drove catastrophic mudslides in hospital town of Kijabe, killing four little girls, damaging hospital.

Of course, when record droughts occur alongside record floods, nation-wide average data can be thoroughly useless. In Kenya, it is useless indeed, as the biggest problem facing farmers is the increasingly erratic and unpredictable nature of rainfall in today’s more extreme climate. Kenyan farmers told us, without exception, that nobody now knows when to plant, as once-predictable rainy seasons have succumbed to chaos. Nation-wide rainfall data misses the point entirely, both in Kenya and elsewhere.

Consider the World Bank data for the United States. During the last two decades, they show that country-wide average rainfall has increased 3.9% compared to twentieth-century averages. Now imagine the reaction you’d get from farmers in California’s Central Valley, or firefighters in Texas, or city planners in Arizona, if you cited the World Bank to tell them there must be plenty of water.

People on the ground in Kenya just can’t miss the effects of extreme weather afflicting the country:  desperate farmers turning to conservation agriculture and agroforestry to deal with the onslaught of droughts; slum dwellers in Nairobi’s enormous Kibera shanty-town arriving daily from failed and parched farms; engineers attempting to conserve what water they can; agroforesters planting drought-tolerant trees to slow the advance of deserts and scrub-lands.

CRC scientist Cal DeWitt listens to Kenyan agroforestry expert

CRC scientist Calvin DeWitt listens to Kenyan agroforestry expert

And while it’s not addressed by the World Bank’s country-wide figures, Kenya’s drought cycle has intensified decade by decade over the last forty years. In the 1970s, a reported  40,000 people were affected by droughts; in the 1980s the number rose to 200,000 people; then 3.0 million in the 1990s; and since 2000, roughly 19 million people have suffered the impact of four separate mega-droughts. Right now, Northern Kenya is in the grip of another crippling drought, with more than two million hungry people, and large losses of livestock.

Kenya’s church leaders are among those most frustrated by climate denial and inaction back here in North America. Our CRCNA team met with Canon Peter Karanja, General Secretary of the Kenyan National Council of Churches – a prominent evangelical leader in the country. We asked him simply: “What should we tell our churches back in North America?”

“We are very concerned,” replied Karanja, “especially about America. They are the most obstinate country when it comes to climate change. We don’t know where it comes from. Maybe it comes from industry money, or maybe people just don’t know about climate change…. Long after your life is over, your actions will have consequences on us. Many of them will be harmful consequences.”

In Beisner’s article, he proposed an alternative solution, which I confess that none of us had ever heard before: Dig up and burn millions of tons of Kenyan coal, and use the resulting electricity to pump rivers of water 250 miles uphill from Lake Victoria to farmlands in the Kenyan Central Highlands, some 2,000 feet higher in elevation. None of us has much expertise in the hydrological, ecological and economic obstacles that would confront such a feat of engineering – let alone the impact that all that diverted water would have on the Nile River, and the millions of downstream Ugandans, Sudanese and Egyptians.

But our Kenyan friends are incredulous at the idea. Over the last 25 years, they have watched lake levels falling sharply, and the shore line has steadily retreated. As a result, the outflow into the Nile River has been reduced, with serious consequences for Uganda’s numerous hydroelectric power plants, not to mention lake fisheries on which millions depend. Syphon off more water for an improbable scheme to cure distant Kenyan droughts? They tell us this begs for a dose of on-the-ground reality – and a serious conversation with 175 million non-Kenyan  Africans who depend on the Nile’s life-giving waters.

The Kenyan communities we visited knew that their future depends on finding alternatives to ever-increasing levels of greenhouse gases, not burning more of the dirtiest fuel. And yet, as we read Beisner’s rebuttal, we could only conclude that he believes they are desperate to solve an imaginary problem. The climate is not changing in Kenya, his article tells them; just look at the World Bank data.

Well, we take the World Bank seriously, including their own assessment of their climate change data. Last November, the bank issued a report warning that without concerted action to reduce carbon emissions from things like coal-fired power plants, the world is on pace for 2° Celsius in warming by mid-century, and 4°C or more by the time today’s teenagers are in their 80s. “The task of promoting human development, ending poverty, increasing global prosperity, and reducing global inequality will be very challenging in a 2°C world,” concluded the World Bank. “But in a 4°C world there is serious doubt whether this can be achieved at all.”

The World Bank, we believe, is right about climate change, just like the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and every major scientific society on record, home and abroad. Kenya, like much of God’s creation, is seriously threatened by the pollution that we continue to pump into the atmosphere. Much of this can be known from the comfort of our offices and studies – our “ivory towers.”

But the Filipino delegate, Jeb Sano, is also right: We must leave our comfortable cloisters, and go and see for ourselves. That’s what the Christian Reformed Church did in Kenya. Out of reverence for Christ and his world, these Christians will continue to go and see. And they will bear witness to what they see, whatever reception they encounter back home.

If Mr. Beisner would like to go and see for himself, we know many Kenyan Christians who would welcome the opportunity to show him what they are dealing with.

This article was first published in the Christian Post on March 30, 2015.

The Climate Gods Must Be Crazy

I am so cold! I just gave up doing fence work in the central produce field, and beat a hasty retreat to the shelter of the farmhouse. It’s 30 degrees and blustery on this spring day. The wind cuts right through my hoodie. The fence can wait.

And so can just about everything else. I’m freezing! The asparagus field isn’t even mowed yet, let alone disked. The subsoil is still frozen, so I can’t dig post holes. Peas aren’t in the ground, ten days after the traditional planting date of St. Patrick’s, and there’s no sign that we’ll get them planted any time soon.

It's cold here in Jersey!

It’s cold here in Jersey!

Meanwhile, in Anchorage, Alaska, it’s ten degrees warmer than here at Good Hand Farm in New Jersey. There, in the frozen North, it’s  44 degrees, headed to 46 tomorrow. In fact, for all of 2014, Anchorage never once fell below zero. Not once. The average? 29 days with readings below zero. Last winter? None. We could have fled New Jersey for winter relief by going to Alaska? Yup. That’s right, Alaska.

But wait, it gets weirder.  It’s colder on our farm, WAY colder than – wait for it – ANTARCTICA! And not just barely. This week, the mercury on the Antarctic Peninsula hit an all-time record of 63.5 degrees! A day earlier, 63.3 degrees! And no, it’s not summer there. This is our spring, and their autumn. And it’s more than 30 degrees warmer in Walrus Land than here in the Garden State.

For us here in the American East, it’s hard to understand how global records for heat are being broken month by month. 2014 broke the all-time record for global average heat. Then came January: second warmest ever. And then February: new record for heat.


NOAA data: Record hot month, and only the U.S. East is colder. Way colder.

But here on the farm, I’m shivering cold, and can hardly get into the fields. To highlight what’s going on, here’s a map prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that portrays the reality of climate chaos. See that blue blob? That’s us in the East, way colder than normal. And almost everywhere else, it’s hotter than normal.

Well, I’m glad I sat down to write this in my comfy office. I’ve managed to warm up. Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. Oh, how I pray for warming weather! But I know that all over the earth, God’s children are praying for just the opposite.

God has not gone crazy. But our climate systems sure have.

Stanford Faculty Demand: Divest from Fossil Fuels to Avoid Cataclysm 

Stanford University, one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world, took a courageous stand in May 2014. The board of trustees announced that they were divesting their $21 billion endowment from 100 coal companies.

Hundreds of faculty signed Stanford divestment appeal

Hundreds of faculty signed Stanford divestment appeal

“Stanford has a responsibility as a global citizen to promote sustainability for our planet,” said Stanford President John Hennessy at the time. “The university’s review has concluded that coal is one of the most carbon-intensive methods of energy generation and that other sources can be readily substituted for it.”

The Stanford community celebrated this important step. But many weren’t satisfied that the university had stopped with only coal, since virtually every fossil-fuel company investment decision must assume catastrophic levels of global carbon emissions. And so, on January 11, 2014, 447 members of the Stanford faculty signed a letter asking their institution to come completely clean. It’s concise, well-reasoned, and civil. We think it’s worth a moment to read.

Stanford Faculty Fossil-Fuel Divestment Letter

Dear President Hennessy and the Stanford Board of Trustees,

We the undersigned, faculty of Stanford University, acknowledge the urgency of the scientific community’s warning that the burning of fossil fuels puts our world at risk. To prevent wide-spread ecological and ice sheet collapse we must limit global warming to 2 degrees. Scientific consensus indicates that to stay within this 2-degree margin, we must cap carbon dioxide emissions at 565 gigatons. Because companies currently own fossil-fuel holdings sufficient to produce 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide, the risk is clear: 2,795 gigatons is five times the scientifically designated limit. In short, for companies to exploit these holdings – as they must, to turn a profit – would mean raising atmospheric carbon dioxide to cataclysmic levels.

Many of these fossil-fuel companies are publicly traded and investor-owned, supported in large part by institutional investors like Stanford. Professor James Engell of Harvard writes: “The fossil fuel companies are decent investments only under two assumptions: first, the oil and gas and coal they own in the ground shall be sold and burned; second, they shall continue to find more oil and gas and coal and shall sell that to be burned, too. Any investor in them must want this to happen, and any investor is putting up money to make this happen with all deliberate speed.”

We honor the May 2014 decision of the Stanford Board of Trustees to divest from coal, setting a precedent of responsibility and integrity commensurate with the University’s role in the world. Sixty-five percent of all carbon holdings are in coal reserves, and this significant act of divestment is proof of the university’s resolve to act to counter climate disruption. This resolve must now encompass the reality that, once coal is taken out of the equation, the remaining 35% reserves in oil and gas holdings still represent 978 gigatons of carbon, or nearly double the 565-gigaton cap. The urgency and magnitude of climate change call not for partial solutions, however admirable; they demand the more profound and thorough commitment embodied in divestment from all fossil fuel companies.

The alternative—for Stanford to remain invested in oil and gas companies—presents us with a paradox: If a university seeks to educate extraordinary youth so they may achieve the brightest possible future, what does it mean for that university simultaneously to invest in the destruction of that future? Given that the university has signaled its awareness of the dangers posed by fossil fuels, what are the implications of Stanford’s making only a partial confrontation with this danger?  In working with our students we encourage the clarity necessary to confront complex realities and the drive to carry projects through to completion. For Stanford’s investment policies to be congruent with the clarity and drive in its classrooms, the university must divest from all fossil fuel companies. To this end we respectfully ask President Hennessy and the Board of Trustees to recognize the need for comprehensive divestment from fossil fuels. When it comes to the future our students will live to see, there is a scientifically documented, morally clear, technologically innovative right thing to do: divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in a sustainable future.

Sincerely yours…

Signed by 447 members of the Stanford University faculty, including the President emeritus of the university, winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry and physics, and the (Nobel-equivalent) Fields Medal for mathematics.

Monster Storms: Deniable Culpability

No one knows for sure who killed Ronnie Lee Gardner.

Shortly after midnight on June 18th, 2010, Gardner was strapped into a massive chair in a Utah state prison block, and a bull’s-eye was pinned over his heart. Twenty feet away in the shadows stood five marksmen with rifles issued by the State of Utah. On command, they fired in one deafening volley. Five rifles recoiled together. But only four lead bullets slammed into Gardner’s chest.

No one on the firing squad will ever know for sure if he fired a lethal shot. One gun was loaded with a dummy – probably wax – bullet, which is said to deliver the same recoil as a live round.

The dummy bullet – or blank cartridge – is a time-honored device to assuage the conscience of those pressed into duty as executioners by the archaic means of a firing squad. There’s always the possibility, anyone can tell himself, that I only fired a harmless ball of wax. Call me a killer? Who knows? You can’t blame me with any certainty.

And that’s the comfort that a country in denial can take as we watch reports of utter devastation coming out of the island nation of Vanuatu in the wake of Cyclone Pam, one of the strongest tropical storms to visit the world since record-keeping began. Pam, a Category 5 cyclone, slammed into this Pacific nation of 252,000 souls spread across 80 islands last Friday, destroying virtually everything in its path.

Boy on Vanuatu salvages a deflated football from his home's wreckage

Boy on Vanuatu salvages a deflated football from his home’s wreckage

According to an estimate by the University of Wisconsin, the central atmospheric pressure of Cyclone Pam was a near-record-low 879 millibars. That would make Pam stronger than any Atlantic hurricane in recorded history, except the two most powerful. Early reports indicate that 80-90 percent of structures in Vanuatu have been destroyed or damaged. How do you rebuild a nation after almost all the human structures are in ruins?  For this archipelago, a direct hit by a world-record mega-storm likely spells the beginning of irreversible decline.

Climate science uniformly links increased tropical storm intensity to manmade climate change. Last year, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences summed it up like this: “Basic physical understanding and model results suggest that the strongest hurricanes (when they occur) are likely to become more intense and possibly larger in a warmer, moister atmosphere over the oceans.”

But responsible scientists almost never blame any particular event on global warming trends. Does manmade global warming lead to stronger storms and floods? Sure. Did climate change turn Cyclone Pam into a monster? Well, that’s complicated. How long do you have?

And so, to the climate-change deniers, who currently control the legislative agenda in the US Congress, you can breathe easy for a bit. Cyclone Pam may have rendered the homeland of a quarter-million Pacific islanders functionally uninhabitable, but who can say for certain whether you bear any blame? This should bring immense relief to politicians like Boehner, McConnell and Inhofe (the Oklahoma senator who invented the “greatest hoax” narrative).

With scores of outlying islands, Cyclone Pam's damage will take

Early reports: 80-90% of Vanuatu structures destroyed or damaged.

And why pick on these poor guys? In fact, 49 of 54 GOP Senators just voted against a non-binding Senate resolution simply affirming the global consensus that “human activity significantly contributes to climate change.” Ever since the Supreme Court tilted the electoral playing field in favor of unlimited moneyed interests, Republican politicians who admit that we need an alternative to oil, gas and coal have been tossed out one by one, or have “evolved” in their views.

So, American politicians, maybe you look silly to most voters today. Maybe the average European, African or Asian is aghast that you’re still professing climate ignorance in the face of overwhelming evidence. Maybe future generations will beg to know how you could possibly have ignored their chances of survival with your last-ditch stand on behalf of polluters. But you can take comfort in this: No scientist will ever blame you specifically for Cyclone Pam, and the destruction of a Pacific nation.

Thousands on Vanuatu – and millions more around the world – may be permanently homeless. But who can say that you’re to blame?

Maybe, after all, you only fired the dummy bullet.

Suppressing the Truth in Florida

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” The Wizard of Oz

Generally, history has not been kind to authorities who knowingly suppress the truth. If suppression results in oppression or injustice, we feel anger. But in nearly every case, we react with scorn.

That’s why last week’s revelation that Florida’s GOP Governor Rick Scott has forbidden state agencies to use the words “climate change” and “global warming” has attracted more ridicule than indignation. Scott’s “I-am-not-a-scientist” approach to climate science has provided ample fodder for the country’s comedians. The Twitter hash-tag #Scottaway has gone viral. But now we have the words of his General Counsel Larry Morgan, warning state employees to suppress established science: “Beware of the words ‘global warming, climate change and sea-level rise’….”

Small-minded officials, in the service of powerful polluters, who sacrifice their children’s futures for the benefit of wealthy donors?

Oooo. Yuck.

Governor Scott’s gag order on science burst into the news this week, when a number of Florida news outlets tracked down Florida scientists and officials whose reports were censored to redact virtually all references to climate change.

Gov. Scott, widely reported to have censored science reports in Florida

Gov. Scott, widely reported to have censored science reports in Florida

Florida is the country’s most climate-vulnerable state, with all of its barrier islands and 30 percent of its beaches threatened by sea-level rise in the next 85 years. In just the next 33 years, much of Miami-Dade and Broward Counties are projected to be inundated by rising seas – plus virtually all of Monroe County, home of the Keys and the Everglades. And globally, Miami ranks #1 among cities projected to suffer monetary losses from rising seas, according to the OECD. And so the censorship was widely seen as both ridiculous and incredibly dangerous in this state.

The governor’s staff has denied the reports, but increased scrutiny is unearthing a flood of very detailed reports, plus many whispered accounts of intimidated employees cowed into compliance under the threat of termination or de-funding of entire offices and programs.

The governor himself has become famous for dodging the question of manmade climate change. When asked about it by a reporter from The Miami Herald, Scott offered a familiar response: “Well, I’m not a scientist,” he said, echoing John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal and many other GOP politicians.

So last year, a group of Florida’s leading climate scientists publicly offered to educate Scott, then locked in a tight reelection battle with former governor Charlie Crist, who took climate change very seriously during his time in office. Under intense media pressure, Scott agreed to give the scientists thirty minutes of his time.

“This is not complicated,’’ said David Hastings, professor of marine science and chemistry at Eckerd College, before the meeting. “We teach this to 18-year-olds every year and I’ve been doing it for 25 years. It’s not hard science.”

One by one, the scientists used their precious half-hour to give Scott the barest summaries of their disciplines, ranging from the changing composition of the earth’s atmosphere, to the melting of the polar ices sheets, rising sea levels, dying coral reefs and alarmingly acidic oceans – all linked to the burning of fossil fuels.

And they warned of the cost of inaction: “The longer you wait the cost of the solution goes up about 40 percent a decade.”

By all accounts, the meeting did not go well at all. University of Miami geologist Harold Wanless remembered that Scott “spent ten minutes doing silly things like prolonged introductions,” which reduced their time to speak to about 20 minutes. “He said thank you and went on to his more urgent matters, such as answering his telephone calls and so on. There were no questions of substance.”

I hope we don’t miss how incredible this is. The governor of the most climate-threatened state in the country doesn’t know enough to act on climate change. So his state’s scientists band together to teach him. In response, he doles out 30 minutes of his precious schedule, and then filibusters one-third of it, cutting deeply into a meeting that was impossibly short to begin with.

Could there be a clearer way for the governor to say: I don’t know, and I don’t WANT to know?

But if the scientists made no progress with Scott, evangelical pastor Rev. Mitch Hescox couldn’t even get his foot in the door. Hescox, the President of Evangelical Environmental Network, brought a petition signed by 60,000 Christians, urging fellow evangelical Scott to take action to protect Florida from the threat of climate change. But Hescox was sent away without even the courtesy of an audience.

The charlatan "wizard" in L. Frank Baum's classic "Oz"

The charlatan “wizard” in L. Frank Baum’s classic “Oz”

Scott, it happens, is one of a handful of climate deniers who openly profess faith in Jesus Christ, while promoting policies which suppress the basic knowledge necessary to care for God’s creation. Some of these even cite their Christian faith as the reason for their denial of climate science. And to Christian earth-keepers, this makes our skin crawl.

To our many friends who are becoming disaffected with the anti-science voices that are being dressed up these days as “American evangelical Christianity,” we beg you to consider: There are more than 2.1 billion Christians in the world today; only about five percent of them hail from the US; almost all of them come from countries where the science of climate change is accepted as fully reliable; the vast majority face very tangible climate threats, including droughts, flooding, rising sea levels, ocean acidification – and social upheavals which arise from these ills. And even here in America, there are numerous evangelical declarations that affirm the importance of creation care, and call Christians to action against climate pollution. And only one takes the position of the climate denial politicians. What you hear from the religious talking heads on American cable news channels has precious little to do with the global Christian church, which understands the perils of environmental abuse with first-hand clarity.

In our experience, the world’s Christians watch with near disbelief as American politicians cite the Christian scriptures as the skin-deep rationale for their heart-deep collusion with wealthy polluters, inflicting severe harm to the world’s poorest communities.

Consider GOP Senator James Inhofe, the inventor of the “greatest hoax” narrative of global warming. A professing Christian, he cites this verse as his favorite premise for denying that human actions can change the world’s climate: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Genesis 8:22). In context, God makes this promise in the aftermath of the story of the great flood, as he makes a new covenant “with every living creature” never again to destroy the earth by a cataclysm of judgment.

Perhaps serious theologians might debate the possible meaning of this passage. But surely no scholar thinks it means that climates never change: that the Little Ice Age of the 17th Century (which killed roughly one-third of the planet’s humans) could never have actually happened; or that the Earth did not warm since the last great Ice Age; or that there would have to be a “seedtime” in Antarctica; or that equatorial regions would have to have a “summer and winter;” or that the world cannot have warmed by 0.9 degrees Celsius during the last century. And certainly, no scholar believes that a passage like this negates the natural laws that God has set in motion, like the workings of greenhouse gases that warm and protect the planet when in balance, and cause climatic chaos when thrown out of balance.

Sen. Inhofe throws a snowball onto the Senate floor to prove that climate science is "the greatest hoax"

Sen. Inhofe throws a snowball onto the Senate floor to prove that climate science is “the greatest hoax”

Senator Inhofe, we beg you to refer us to a single biblical scholar who affirms your narrative.

But back in Florida, suppression of the truth is much less bombastic, and more insidious. Gov. Scott never says why he shuts his eyes to climate science. No silly speeches warning of massive hoaxes by corrupt scientists. He just makes sure his administration suppresses climate science, and intimidates experts who rely on state funding.

By the end of this century, most of South Florida will be uninhabitable. The Keys will be gone; Sanibel-Captiva and much of Ft. Myers will be abandoned; the Everglades will be open water; what remains of Miami will be a narrow sliver of land frequently inundated by periodic storms. Those who remain in the state may well remember that they once had a governor who suppressed the one discipline that might have saved their state.

But, alas, he was not a scientist.

“The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”  (St. Paul, Romans 1:18)

New York Times: Missing the Point on Keystone XL

The Times op-ed page is great place to find thoughtful pieces representing a variety of viewpoints. So I didn’t know what to expect when I saw an op-ed piece in yesterday morning’s paper titled “Don’t Kill Keystone XL. Regulate It.” I wondered what they could possibly be thinking.

Well, I would have never seen it coming. To my utter surprise, the gist of the article was something like this: Impose strict regulations to make really, REALLY sure the pipes don’t rust. Then let them seize all that Midwest land and build the thing. And we’ll be happy and safe knowing TransCanada’s pipeline isn’t RUSTY.

Really. I’m not making this up.

It turns out that the op-ed was written by Jonathon Waldman, a journalist and author who has just finished a book all about – you guessed it – rust. Everything you could want to know about rust in steel mills, rust in bridges, rust in naval vessels and, yes, rust in pipelines – it’s all in there. Rust: The Longest War; Simon & Schuster. If you’ve been really curious about rust, this book is for you.

But President Obama announced that his decision about the pipeline would hinge on his assessment of its likely contribution to climate change. He didn’t mention rust. And for the most part, Keystone’s opponents haven’t been fixated on rust either. They’re mostly thinking about whether we will leave a habitable world for the next generations.

Canada's tar sands, the most polluting oil. Courtesy Desmog.CA

Canada’s tar sands, the most polluting oil.       Courtesy Desmog.CA

But Waldman’s “stop-the-rust” op-ed piece has a quick answer for them all. It’s actually the same point that the State Department offered in 2011 when they first began considering TransCanada’s application to run this thing right through the middle of our country. It goes like this: In Waldman’s words, blocking the pipeline “won’t actually prevent Canada from extracting its tar sands oil. Ours is an energy-thirsty world, and when demand eventually drives up the price of oil, out it will come. If the oil is going to be consumed one way or another, then the only remaining argument against the Keystone pipeline is that of preventing local environmental catastrophes that result from spills.”

This man must be reasonably intelligent. But I have to wonder, where has he been the last four years? Anyone could see at the outset that the “resistance is futile” argument was cooked up in oil-company PR departments. If all the world’s oil reserves “are going to be consumed one way or another,” then we might as well say goodbye to the human race, and most other species as well.

Hyperbole, you say? Consider:

The world’s proven, recoverable fossil-fuel reserves presently controlled by energy companies contain more than five times the CO2 that is permissible for consumption if the world is to have a chance of staying within 2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels. Burn that amount five times over and we’re in 4-degree-plus territory, which climate science refers to ominously as an “unstable state.”

And what on earth does that mean? It means that in the neighborhood of  4 degrees, we trigger all kinds of “positive feedback loops,” like the shriek you hear when someone puts a microphone too close to a loudspeaker. Blow recklessly through 2 degrees, flirt with 4 degrees, and no one has any idea where it stops for thousands of years to come. White, reflective sea ice and ice sheets give way to dark ocean water and land surfaces, absorbing more and more solar heat, melting more ice, and leading to even more heat. Warming oceans release frozen deep-sea methane hydrates, which are incredibly abundant and 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, warming the oceans even more, and releasing even more methane. Melting permafrost permits enormous Arctic peat reserves to decay, releasing yet more carbon into the air, melting yet more permafrost … and so on.

In all this, one thing is clear: The extinction event that already threatens the world today will almost certainly rival the five previous mass extinctions if we disrupt the climate by 4 degrees or more. And just like in those events, such as the one 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs, the dominant species never fares very well.

The Tar sands pipeline has ignited numerous protest campaigns in recent years.

The Tar sands pipeline has ignited numerous protest campaigns in recent years.

So for a rust expert to tell us that energy companies will inevitably do something that threatens our species’ survival, it’s probably fair to ask how he’s so sure.  Especially today. Up there at the Canadian end of the proposed pipeline, tar sands operations are shutting down one after the other. That’s because they’re some of the most expensive, carbon-intensive and low-quality oils in the world. And they don’t pencil out in today’s market by a long shot. Last year, both Shell and France’s oil giant Total abandoned massive new tar sands projects. Before that, Canada’s Suncor and Total killed a joint project in the tar sands – writing off a $1.5 billion investment. And just a few months ago, Canada’s Statoil announced the postponement of a major tar sands mining project for at least three years.

But just wait, you might say, and eventually prices will recover enough for these companies to turn a profit mining this stuff. I wouldn’t be so certain. Take a look at the numbers:

  • Tar sands oil is expensive to produce, and commands a low price because of its poor quality. Estimates vary, but almost all of it won’t break even at market prices below $95 per barrel.
  • Pipelines are the cheapest way to move the tar sands to market, but the Americans and the native First Nations aren’t budging on any of them. Add another $18 per barrel for expensive rail transport across the continent.
  • There’s no market price on carbon emissions today, but it is almost certainly coming. The age when pollution was free – when the costs were for everyone else to pay, while the profits flow to rich oil producers – is coming to an end. Look in virtually any company’s SEC filings, and you’ll find their plans for life after the free ride is over. The EPA has done extensive work on the “social cost of carbon” (SCC), and it’s alarming. When oil pays its own social costs, you can add another $19-20 per barrel to costs.
  • So tally up those costs, and tar sands have to clear more than $130 per barrel just to break even. Today, Brent Crude, a major benchmark oil commodity price, closed just below $60. Will it stay there? Who knows? But tar sands producers have an enormous hurdle to clear to make a profit on some of the world’s dirtiest oil, and they will for years to come, while the world transitions to a sustainable economy.

So to the Times, and the rust expert who gave us his thoughts yesterday, I would suggest a little more rigor, before you proclaim that “the oil will come out.” Resistance is NOT futile. Fossil fuel reserves will NOT all be burned into the atmosphere. The world will NOT accept extinction at the hands of one very rich industry. And congressional climate deniers will NOT forever prohibit our country from joining the world in the struggle for a sustainable future.

And to those believers who have been praying faithfully for the denial of the Keystone XL permit, your prayers are surely NOT in vain. You will keep the faith, not simply assume defeat for your Father’s world and his creatures.

Exxon’s Home-Run Investment in Governor Christie

We hope someone is around, one day, to record what happened to American democracy.

Never a perfect system, its death spiral could have been obvious to anyone who knows how to use a calculator. First came the super-PACs with their millions of dollars for attack ads, always under the veil of nominal independence from any particular candidate.  Then came the “charitable” super PACs, which hid from scrutiny the identity of the political puppet-masters. Then came the billionaires, like Charles and David Koch, buying virtually any election they pleased, and neutralizing the millions of citizen contributors who could pitch in twenty or fifty bucks to their favored candidates. Then came congressional redistricting, which made it all but impossible to replace incumbents. Then came the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and a host of state-backed measures to discourage voting by marginalized communities.

And most of this was made possible by the highest court in the land, which enshrined as “free speech” the use of unfathomable wealth by the richest corporate “persons,” to make sure that democracy didn’t infringe on their profits.

The energy industry featured prominently among those big spenders. In 2012, they gave $143.7 million to political candidates, with 80 percent of it going to Republicans. Of course, that doesn’t count the soft “issue-spending,” on things like fracking, offshore drilling, mountain-top-removal mining and the Keystone XL pipeline.Picture1

And if $144 million sounds like it might buy an election or two, get ready for much, much worse. The biggest energy-industry political bankers, Charles and David Koch, have announced plans to spend nearly $900 million in the 2016 election cycle – almost a billion dollars from two unfathomably rich oil guys. That $20 click you made to some worthy cause last year is about to be overwhelmed 45 million times over.

American voters: You never stood a chance. Against this money, your candidates are being swept away, or are cutting their own deal with the devil.

And with that much money being poured into politics, you can be sure that it’s getting a fair return. Consider Exxon Mobil.

Exxon had a problem in New Jersey. For decades, they had poisoned Newark Bay and Arthur Kill, plus more than 1,500 acres of wetlands, from their two refinery sites in Bayonne and Linden. Eventually, the state sued the oil giant for $8.9 billion in damages. The lawsuit went forward under the administrations of four different governors. Exxon denied any wrongdoing. But the court saw through the denials, and found the company liable for the pollution. All that remained was for the court to settle on the numbers.

Now, $8.9 billion is a pretty big loss, even for Exxon. And even if the award were cut by half or even more, it could spoil their whole afternoon. But Exxon lays out a lot of money to influence lawmakers. In 2014, they spent $12.7 million on political lobbying (admittedly, way down from the $29 million they spent in 2008 when faced with the threat of an Obama presidency).

Exxon's Bayonne Refinery : "Staggering and unprecedented environmental damage."

Exxon’s Bayonne Refinery : “Staggering and unprecedented environmental damage.”

It’s worth noting that in 2014, New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, was the head of the Republican Governor’s Association, charged with raising money to elect GOP gubernatorial candidates. Of course, Governor Christie was also in charge of New Jersey’s huge lawsuit against Exxon, although it was being handled by the state’s attorney general and career state employees who had developed the case over years. So at first, no one gave much notice to the $500,000 donation that Exxon gave to Christie’s GOP governors group.

But then something really amazing happened. Christie’s own chief counsel took a sudden interest in the case, and reportedly muscled aside the attorney general, to cut a deal with Exxon. The judge was believed to be ready to announce the amount of the award against Exxon. But the Christie administration asked him to defer his ruling while they worked on a settlement.

Settlements happen all the time. Exxon was guilty. Naturally, they’d rather settle than be hit with unknown billions in damages. So maybe this would be all for the best for New Jersey’s beleaguered taxpayers.

Well, for Exxon, it was definitely all for the best. Better than their wildest dreams. The Christie administration settled for a mere $250 million – on an $8.9 billion claim. On a claim where Exxon had already been found guilty. That’s three cents on the dollar. Three cents.

Now, in order to send someone to jail, you’d have to find a direct link between Exxon’s $500,000 pocket change for Christie, and Christie’s $8.65 billion claim release. And they’re way too smart for that. But the message to the state’s taxpayers was cruelly clear: Polluters, come to our state and do whatever you want; as long as you take care of our politicians, we’ll pick up 97 percent of your clean-up costs. The profits are for you; the costs are for us. So long as you keep the campaign funds rolling in.

At Beloved Planet, we’re not out to enshrine anyone’s national myths. But much of what was once noble about the American experiment is now at risk of being drowned in a flood of political cash. Our water, our atmosphere, our wetlands – these things belong to all people and all God’s creatures. But with the collapse of virtually all limits on cash to control our lawmakers, we fear that these common blessings are in peril as never before.

Sooner or later, those who believe that this world belongs to God – and not to the rich and powerful – are going to have to take a stand. God help us.