Category Archives: Extreme weather

California: Time to Stop Soaking the Rich?

Compton, CA is a working-class town midway between LA and Long Beach. Daily water use in Compton comes to 63.6 gallons per person. That’s a lot more than in Sudan, or even Uganda. But a 45-minute drive to the east brings you to the wealthy community of Cowan Heights, where daily water use is a whopping 572.4 gallons per person. That’s nine times higher than Compton. Water is getting expensive in California, and the folks in Compton are feeling the pinch. Median household income is $42,335, about one-third of Cowan Heights, which clocks in at $125,556.

sprinkler1So here’s the question: Should a wealthy community making three times as much as its neighbors be allocated nine times as much water? Or clean air? Are there any things that should be allocated as God-given rights, not subject to market pricing?

Drought-parched California is making both towns cut back. Water-guzzling Cowan Heights residents will have to reduce by 36%, down to 366 gallons per day. Compton must cut back by 8%, to 59 gallons. Wow. Then the wealthy Cowan Heights will have 6 times as much water as its poorer neighbors.

Market economics have undoubtedly done wonders for many people in our country. But there was a time when conservatives and progressives alike agreed that some things should be allocated equitably to our world, not based on what the richest could pay. With California’s drought beginning to look something like the “new normal” in the American West, I’m not sure that “soaking the rich” is the best way to allocate life-giving water.

California's 4-year drought is likely to subside over time, but it is consistent with climate warnings for the  American West.

California’s 4-year drought is likely to subside over time, but it is consistent with climate warnings for the American West.

Are you?

And have you spent much time asking and praying about what your sacred scriptures teach about such matters?

 J. Elwood

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.

Picture1

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.

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.

Cool Summer? Record Hot Summer? You Might be Surprised

Most people I know don’t really doubt the reality of global climate change. The daily news of nasty weather – including deadly droughts, flooding and wildfires in remote places – makes this hard to do without seeming callous. California is burning, and running out of water; Phoenix is flooding in freak monsoons; more than 150,000 Kashmiris are trapped in record floods, and water-borne diseases now threaten many more; the multi-year drought in Syria and Iraq has given rise to a wave of climate migration and the resulting ethnic tensions.

But around here, the weather seems remarkably cool and pleasant. Everyone says that this was the coolest August they can remember in New Jersey.

So we might be surprised to learn that for the entire Earth, August broke all records for global heat. No fooling. NASA has reported that last month was the hottest August since record-keeping began in 1880.nmaps

It was hotter than average almost everywhere:

  • Eastern Europe and western/central Asia were 3.6-7.2 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the 1951-1980 average, as were Siberia, central South America and East Africa.
  • The American West Coast and Alaska were 1.8-3.6 degrees F hotter, just like Brazil, India, Greenland and Scandinavia.
  • And West Antarctica was so hot (up to 14.4 degrees F above average!) that NASA had to re-code its temperature map colors (the old maps had no category for that much heat).

Really? But it felt so nice here!

Well that’s true. For much of the central and eastern U.S., and especially the Northeast, it was nicer than most Augusts in recent memory. But memory can be tricky. Actually, for most of the country, this August was just about exactly the way August used to be back when JFK was in the White House. When your parents were kids (or when us Boomers were), August was normally pretty nice. We played outside. We slept without A/C. And even in the breezy Northeast, this August was less than one degree cooler than the thirty-year average temperature before 1980.

And of course, that’s the big problem with runaway climate change. Even when our pollution is changing the global systems at breakneck speed, it’s pretty hard to notice within the timescales of human generations and memory.

So if August seemed cool to you, then I suspect you lived in pretty near me. And like the rest of us, perhaps you’re having a hard time remembering what a normal summer is supposed to feel like.

“Nothing from the past is remembered. Even in the future, nothing will be remembered by those who come after us.” Ecclesiastes 1:11 (GOD”S WORD translation)

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: CNN.com

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

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

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

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

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

Protesters at immigration processing centers

Protesters at immigration processing centers

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

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

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