Monthly Archives: September 2016

The Debate: Breaking the Silence on Climate Change

When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump squared off Monday night before 100 million viewers, they covered a lot of important ground – including their visions of prosperity, security, and the direction of our country.

Outside the debate venue, a group of students and young people from Young Evangelicals for Climate Action joined hands to pray and demand that the moderator and candidates address the threat of  manmade climate change to humans and God’s creation. Observing the debate from home, I’d have to say that their prayers were answered, if only just as a start.

Young Evangelicals for Climate Action praying outside the debate venue

Young Evangelicals for Climate Action demand that candidates present climate change plans at Hofstra Univ.

Yes, Clinton did stake her flag on making the U.S. “the clean energy superpower of the 21st century.” She even got specific: “We can deploy a half a billion more solar panels. We can have enough clean energy to power every home. We can build a new modern electric grid. That’s a lot of jobs. That’s a lot of new economic activity.”

And she challenged Trump on his longstanding climate denialism: “Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. I think it’s real.”

Of course, Trump denied the charge: “I did not — I do not say that. I do not say that.” The mid-sentence change in verb tenses (“do” not “did”) provided a bit of a fig leaf for the billionaire. As almost everyone knows, Trump tweeted the “Chinese climate hoax” idea in 2012. In fact, he has been recorded on video or in his tweets eleven times calling global warming a hoax, as recently as July 26, 2016.

So, “I did not” clearly doesn’t fly. But “I do not” is one of those imponderables: As-I-stand-on-this-stage, I do not? Well, okay then. We’ll wait for tomorrow.

Well, in fact, tomorrow arrived. The morning after the debate, Trump’s campaign manager said that the candidate has traded the “climate hoax” narrative for new story: “He believes that global warming is naturally occurring,” said Kellyanne Conway.

Naturally occurring. Well that’s something. In the last month, Mr. Trump has learned a lot of new things. He’s discovered that there is no hoax going on, despite four years of being certain that the opposite was true. But even more remarkable, he’s learned that global warming is happening due to natural causes, not manmade carbon emissions.

Natural causes? So, where he did he do his research on this? We decided to look:

  • Maybe the U.S. National Academy of Science? We checked, but no luck there: “Scientists know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities,” they write in a landmark study, “from an understanding of basic physics, comparing observations with models, and fingerprinting the detailed patterns of climate change caused by different human and natural influences.”
  • Okay, how about the world’s largest scientific society – the American Association for the Advancement of Science? Hmm, strike two. Their website banner trumpets the conclusion before you even get to the details: “Based on the evidence, about 97% of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is happening.” We kept looking.
  • How about the peer-reviewed science journals, like Science or Nature? More bad news. They virtually all agree that “climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.”
  • Well, there must be someone. How about any American or international association of sciences from any discipline whatsoever? We checked. Again, no dice. Just this summer, 31 scientific societies representing millions of geologists, chemists, biologists, agronomists, mathematicians and researchers from many other specialties wrote to Congress to inform our leaders that “greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver” behind climate change, and warned of “broad negative impacts on society, including the global economy, natural resources, and human health.”

We’re not giving up, and will let you know when we find where Trump got his new scientific information, or whatever else he may have found instead.

In our view, this debate was not wasted. People are now talking. Twitter is abuzz with references to climate denial. Perhaps voters may see their choice this year as a choice for the future of the world’s ecosystems. That would be redemptive, we think.

Young Evangelicals, thank you for your prayers and your demand for open discourse. Whatever our political leanings might be, we now have a fuller idea of where our country – and our world – might go regarding the climate crisis in the next four years. Clinton promises to lead a transition to a clean power economy. Trump promises to stop the transition – stop the Clean Power Plan, the global Climate Accord struck in Paris, and to turn back the clock on the burning of coal to where it was when our grandparents were young.

We have a choice. And the faithful witness of Young Evangelicals has helped us to see it more clearly.

Carbon Offsetting for Air Travel Pollution

It takes me the whole week to get over the jet lag. Just in time to get back on the plane to New York. Farewell to my dear, new Himalayan friends. And back home at my little farm in New Jersey, I’m once again beset with the sleepless state that comes with being on the wrong side of the world.

It’s a 5,000-mile roundtrip between New York and Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu – over Labrador, Greenland, the Arctic ice cap, Siberia, Mongolia and China. My destination is a meeting of Christian church and mission leaders from South Asia, to encourage and plan national movements to care for God’s injured creation – in ecological hotspots like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka.

For years now, I have been dying to get to Bangladesh and Pakistan – two enormous countries facing existential threats from the effects of climate change. Rising sea levels, receding Himalayan glaciers, catastrophic droughts and flooding, salinization and severe water stress have made it difficult to see much of a future for tens of millions of my fellow humans in parts of these countries. At the Lausanne South Asia Creation Care Consultation, I would have access to co-laborers from these and other places, and maybe even find ways to help with their efforts.

Source: Foreign Policy

Source: Foreign Policy

But here’s the irony: If climate change is draining the life-blood of these communities, isn’t my carbon-heavy globe-hopping only making things worse? My share of carbon emissions from the flight, tucked back in the economy cabin, comes to 3,362 kilos of CO2, or 7,412 lbs. The average American generates 17.1 tons of CO2 every year. My 3.2-ton flight exceeds a couple of months’ worth of living for most Americans. Worse yet, it’s almost exactly the annual emissions of the average citizen of the Maldives, an island nation facing near-term inundation from rising seas. And it’s close to the average CO2 emissions for all people on earth, about 4.9 tons.

All for one single flight.

And while Nepal is admittedly a long trip, shorter ones are serious polluters too. New York to Paris will spew 1.6 tons of CO2 for an economy seat; a roundtrip to Los Angeles will add 1.1 tons; a drive to the family in Ohio accounts for 109 kilos, or 0.1 tons.

So, what am I supposed to do? Stop traveling?

Well, maybe. Or at least, I might travel with a bit more thought about the consequences. Even if airfare seems affordable, someone else pays the unpriced costs of climate pollution. Whatever our politics, I’m pretty sure we agree that that’s not right.

But some travel is clearly worth it, or simply unavoidable. If so, we’re going to have to get used to offsetting our carbon emissions.

Offsetting? Sure. It’s not hard to make a modest contribution to projects around the world that sequester carbon, in amounts equal to the emissions from our air travel. For me, I use Climate Stewards, an affiliate of A Rocha – the global Christian conservation organization. Climate Stewards directs my carbon offset payments to projects in Ghana, Mexico and Kenya, restoring forests and replacing inefficient cookstoves with new ones. The trees I’m helping to plant and the reduction in kitchen charcoal burning sequester about the same amount of CO2 as my share of the flight emissions.

And it doesn’t break the bank. Climate Stewards’ offsets run about $20 per ton of CO2. Offsetting my flight to Nepal costs me about $65, or around 2 percent of the total cost of my trip. For a flight to Paris, you’d pay $32; Los Angeles would set you back $21. And the drive to Ohio is scarcely more than a bit of pocket change.

Flooding in low-lying Bangladesh

Flooding in low-lying Bangladesh

It’s not difficult at all. Try it at Climate Stewards’ website. You’ll be done in a couple of minutes.

Listen, we know that offsetting is not a panacea. It certainly isn’t a way for people of means to indulge in wasteful and lavish lifestyles without any guilt. But while we look for ways to reduce our carbon footprints, why not offset the effects of pollution that can’t yet be avoided?

Eventually, of course, everyone will do this. The cost of carbon pollution will be baked into transactions for goods and services throughout the global economy. Pollution will no longer be free to polluters and costly to poor and vulnerable communities. But until then, you and I can pay our own little share when we travel simply out of a sense of fairness and decency.

I’m pretty sure you’ll stand a little taller once you start this. And you can know that you’re part of something that God’s people are doing in the world: acting a little more justly, loving a little more kindly, and maybe even walking a little more humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Thanks, and God bless you.

Imagining a World With No Future

I remember a couple of years back seeing the trailer for Interstellar, an earth-exodus sci-fi thriller. The film starred Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and a host of other luminaries. But it was the 21st century setting of the film – a dying world facing the extinction of all plant life from an unnamed blight – that intrigued me most.

Like almost all people who take today’s environmental crisis seriously, the specter of ecosystem collapse – and even of existential threats to our own species – constantly haunts the shadowy margins of my consciousness. The spectral appeal of the film was strong, but still no match for the drone of daily routines that normally crowd out interesting films. Interstellar came and went, without me.

Well, I finally got around to seeing it a couple of nights ago. To break up day/night-long flight to Nepal – where I am currently attending a conference of South Asian Christian church leaders engaged in ecological ministry – I finally took the time. And sure enough, the movie’s story-line confronted me with an imponderable challenge: How could anyone manage life in a world with almost no plausible future beyond one’s own lifetime or maybe their children’s’?

Last night at the opening dinner of the Nepal conference, I was confronted with a dystopian nightmare eerily similar to Interstellar’s fictional crisis. And it wasn’t a movie. With my plate filled with rice, dahl and curry, I took a seat across from a Bangladeshi man named Manna (I’ll skip his full name for this post). Manna works with an international faith-based NGO in Southeast Asia.

Eventually, the conversation turned to Manna’s home in coastal Bangladesh. Yes, he confirmed, the sea levels are rising at an alarming pace. Farms in his home are becoming too salty to produce food. Fish farms are suffering mass die-offs as freshwater ponds turn to sea-water, until the monsoon flushes them fresh again. Groundwater tables are falling rapidly as communities drill for fresh, clean water. Coastal mangrove forests are succumbing to rapid climatic changes, leaving the low-lying Ganges River delta defenseless against storm surges from tropical cyclones.

Bangladeshi communities caught between flooding rivers and rising seas

Bangladeshi communities caught between flooding rivers and rising seas

“You cannot invest for the future under such conditions,” Manna told me. “Everyone knows what is coming.” But still, he told me, many people cannot afford to think even several years ahead.

Manna is not saying anything more than what countless scientific studies have already established: Bangladesh and its 160 million human souls are facing the irresistible advance of the sea over large expanses of their country. The culprit? Thermal ocean expansion and melting land ice in a world choking on the exhaust from the global industrial behemoth.

Scientists are still working on the expected pace of the rising seas, with new studies raising the prospect of rapid coastal inundation far more severe than previously thought. But Bangladesh illustrates the maddening complexity of the problem: Long before the dry land slips beneath the waves, freshwater sources are fouled; farmland is poisoned by salt; and capital investment moves to higher ground.

But there’s a personal word in what I hear from Manna: There is a clouded future for my hometown, my family, my people. You can’t plan for the long haul here. There is little to leave our children in this place. In effect, we have to find somewhere else to start over.

So, what stories do you tell yourself in Manna’s Bangladesh to hang onto hope? What do you say to the mother of a newborn child, nursing the hope of a new generation? What do you tell your young people about the value of industry and honest work? What do you tell investors looking to create value in their communities?

The movie, Interstellar, is just a story. For those of us who feel relatively secure in our brief time and place, it offers the thrill of an existential peril that we don’t actually have to  face ourselves. It’s entertaining, in a way, isn’t it?

But what if that were the world we really lived in? What if there simply was no reliable future in our cities, counties and states? What if broad swaths of our entire country saw little option but eventual flight?

And to flee – where? In a world increasingly absorbed with fear and hatred of The Other, where could we hope to find welcome and shalom?

And since most of my readers are from North America, let me ask one more question: If we were Manna’s Bangladeshi countrymen, what would we want to say to people in the consumerist world of the West?

That’s what I’m here in Nepal to listen for. If I can, I will bring you their voices over the next couple of weeks. I hope you will find the time – and the human compassion – to hear their voices.