Category Archives: Extreme weather

February Smashed Global Heat Records: But What Does That Mean?

You’ve already seen the news. February was a record month for global heat. It followed the hottest January on record. Which followed the hottest year (2015) on record. Which follow the previous hottest year (2014) on record. Etc. Etc. Etc.

So, maybe we think: A bunch of scientists are sifting through data from all over the world, and we’re supposed to be alarmed at a few more degrees of heat? Seriously, what does this mean to us? Well, let’s see if we can distill this down to a few key points.

First, these records are not flukes or outliers. Global data has been kept for 137 years. Of all the Februaries over that time, this one ranked #1, unseating last February, the former hot-weather champion.

Picture2Worse, it wasn’t just the hottest February. It was the hottest month ever, compared to 20th century averages. And the prior record had just been set only two months earlier, in December.

Worse yet, it continued a ten-month string of record-hot months. Yes, February was the hottest of all 137 Februaries. But January was also #1 for all Januaries. And they were preceded by #1 records in December, November, October, September – and all the way back to May 2015. Something like that has never happened before. Doubters will tell us “The climate always changes!” Not like this. Not always in one direction. Not in lockstep. We’re seeing something frighteningly new.

Second, did you notice the amount of warming? For all land and ocean surfaces, the earth was 1.21oC (or 2.18oF) above the 20th century averages. You may recall that the nations of the world just agreed in Paris on efforts to limit global warming this century to no more than 2.0oC, and to make every effort to keep it below 1.5oC, to spare our fellow humans from the Philippines, Bangladesh and island nations from being inundated by rising seas. Well, already, we’ve experienced a month within a whisker of breaking that 1.5oC threshold.

Worse, if we look at land surfaces alone (where most of us live) the average global temperature was 2.31°C above the 20th century average. Two-point-three degrees. That’s territory we’re not supposed to see in our lifetimes, or even our children’s. But it just happened.

Third, the heat was just about everywhere. Record heat took hold across much of South America and southern Africa, southern and eastern Europe, around the Urals of Russia, and most of Southeast Asia stretching to northern Australia. Here are some examples:

  • New Zealand had its second warmest February and second warmest month of any month since national records began in 1909, at 2.2°C above long-term averages.
  • In Venezuela and Colombia, the heat was about 3.0°C higher than average.
  • Germany ran 3.0°C above average and Austria was a whopping 4.1°C hotter than average.
  • Speaking of whopping, Alaska reported its warmest February in its 92-year period of record, at 6.9°C higher than the 20th century average. That’s not a typo. Six-point-nine degrees Celsius, or 12.4° Fahrenheit. That’s more than the difference between the last Ice Age and today’s world.

Fourth, all this heat is destabilizing the Polar regions dangerously. For starters, this winter marks the lowest sea ice coverage ever measured in the Arctic. It’s way less icy than 2012, the previous record year for summer Arctic ice melt. That means that this summer and fall there will be less ice to start with, and the seasonal warmth will have an easier time melting what remains there. Not only that, but less winter ice mean less bright, reflective snow surface, and more deep blue, heat-absorbing water to soak up the sun’s heat, which will warm the region even further.

Sea IceBut an even greater concern is now emerging in the southern Pole, with new warnings about the instability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. About the size of Mexico, the ice sheet could raise sea levels by 12 feet or more if it becomes destabilized. Many of us took some comfort in believing that while this will occur in a warmer world, humanity and the rest of creation would probably have hundreds of years to adapt. But new research from scientists at Penn State and UMass now projects that continued greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting heat could disintegrate the West Antarctic sheet in only decades. That would mean that coastal cities like New York, Boston, Miami and New Orleans would be largely inundated during the lifetimes of children born today, with further sea-level rises of one foot per decade thereafter.

But it’s not hotter EVERYWHERE. And that’s actually alarming. There’s one spot on earth where it’s not getting warmer. It’s Iceland, and the North Atlantic Ocean. See that spot of blue on the map? In a warming world, it was cooler there all last year, and in each of several years before that. That region has always been warmed by tropical ocean currents (called thermohaline, or the Gulf Stream) carrying equatorial waters northward along the US East Coast to Iceland, before they dive to the ocean depths and return southward. Scientists have long believed that fresh meltwater from Greenland could slow down the Gulf Stream, trapping hot water off the US coast, and chilling the northern seas.Picture1

So what’s the big deal? A little warmer here, and little cooler there? Actually, it’s a very big deal. Warm coastal waters off the American East Coast are what gave us Super-Storm Sandy, but that storm happened when the oceans were cooler than they are today. And warm Icelandic waters have given Northern Europe the benign climate it has enjoyed for millennia. Tinker with the Greenland Ice Sheet too much, and we’ve got something much worse than a few more feet of sea-water on our hands.

Final thoughts from a Christian thinker: So before we hand these climatic records off to the statisticians for filing, maybe we could take a minute to consider where we stand in history. Two centuries after the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve pumped eons’ worth of carbon – long hidden deep within the earth – back into the atmosphere. As a result, we’re seeing the early results of our planetary carbon experiment: a consistent record of global warming; heat growing at an ever-faster pace; not just here and there, but spread all over the map; and destabilizing the Polar ice sheets, which are raising sea levels and threatening coastal communities. And we’re even seeing signs of disruption in planet-regulating systems like the Gulf Stream.

“Where is God in all this?” asks Christian author Rev. Edward Brown, in his landmark book, Our Father’s World. “God would not allow us to destroy his creation, would he?”

Well, yes he might, concludes Brown, noting that within his sovereignty, God allows us humans a shocking amount of latitude in what we do with our lives – including what we do with his creation. “If we choose to destroy our home,” says Brown, “God will not stop us. Unless, that is, God were to step into history the way he usually does, through human beings who have aligned their lives with him and who are committed to accomplishing his purposes in their own small histories.”

Brown reminds us of God’s answer to Israelite prayers from the misery of slavery in Egypt: “I have heard them crying out…. So I have come down to rescue them” (Exodus 3:7-8).

Phew! So maybe God will rescue our injured planet, just like he did in Exodus! But Brown demands that we read on: “So now, go” he tells Moses, “I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

Go? Who, me? How? What can I do? “I will be with you,” says God to Moses, words taken up again by the resurrected Christ more than a thousand years later: “Go…. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Do you think maybe it’s time for God’s people to hear that call once again?

ISIS, Assad and Syria’s Misery: Who’s to Blame?

The news today was grim – again. By the latest count, more than four million Syrians have now fled the chaos and killings in their homeland, and crowded into camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, or onto leaky boats headed for Europe’s distant shores. Worse, perhaps, another 7.6 million have fled the violence but cling to life within Syria’s perilous borders.

That’s a total of 11.6 million living souls, in desperate conditions far from home. In a country of 23 million people, fully half of Syrians can’t go home any more.

It’s hard to fathom what a country would look like with half of us fleeing for our lives. In the US, imagine all the residents of our 15 largest cities – from New York and LA down to Indianapolis and Columbus – living in camps or under overpasses on either side of our borders. That’s what it would be like, except for this: You’d need six times more people.

We struggle to translate this crisis into terms we can grasp. The UN Refugee Agency offers this simple graphic, with the searing reality that two more of Syria’s children are forced to flee their homes every minute of the day and night.UN Hig Commission refugee agency

And this is particularly galling for Christians and others who regard the Bible as God’s word. Throughout its pages, sacred scripture consistently identifies three classes of people as deserving our special care and protection: widows, orphans, and sojourners. Sojourners – or displaced migrants and refugees. Here’s a country where half of the people are sojourners.

And so, it’s understandable that we might be getting angry. Who’s to blame for all this suffering? Who turned all these people into homeless sojourners?

If you listen to the cable news, plenty of political aspirants have an easy answer: It’s President Obama, who wouldn’t listen to the hawks and send in American soldiers to set things right. On the other side, many blame Cheney and Bush, for destroying the comparatively benign social order imposed in neighboring Iraq by its former strongman, Saddam Hussein.

But increasingly, our researchers and military commanders are pointing to another, less obvious suspect. Changes in the climate of the Middle East have created a perfect storm of conditions for civil war. A killer drought has driven hunger and mass migration into Syria’s urban slums. Sectarian, tribal and political differences always threatened Syria’s stability, but the unprecedented drought lit the fire in this tinderbox.

A war caused by drought? It’s more likely than you may think. From 2006 to 2009, Syria suffered the worst multi-year drought since record-keeping began. The parched farmland produced nothing, and crop failures drove 1.5 million mostly-Sunni farmers off their dusty farms and crowded them among Alawite/Shiite urban dwellers. President Bashir al-Assad’s resulting social policies favored his sectarian Alawite base, leading to massive discontent among the majority Sunnis, and resulting in the 2011 uprising against his regime. And with many of Iraq’s former soldiers on the run from the newly Shiite-dominated Iraqi army, all the conditions for the rise of a powerful, radical Sunni Syrian movement were in place.

Syrian child in Lebanon camp. Credit: UNICEF

Syrian child in Lebanon camp. Credit: UNICEF

Start with a crushing drought destroying the breadbasket of the country; drive a flood of farmers into urban slums; throw in age-old sectarian distrust; upend the order of the largest neighbor; and add a heavy dose of presidential corruption and repression – and you’ve got the smoldering ruins of today’s Syria.

Earlier this year, researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a study that concluded that the severity of Syria’s drought could only be explained against the backdrop of manmade climate change. In fact, they concluded that human factors made the odds of a drought this severe 2 to 3 times more likely than natural variability alone.

And this isn’t the first study linking manmade climate change to aggression, war and mass migration. In 2013, researchers published in the journal Science a study concluding that increasing temperatures raise the risk of all kinds of conflicts, from interpersonal spats to civil wars and societal collapse. Using results from over 60 studies covering 12,000 years, they found that climate disruptions have increased the likelihood of civil war by 14% in human history.

In recent history, the genocide in Darfur has been called the “the first climate change war,” as perpetual drought drove nomadic Sudanese herdsmen into conflict with settled agrarian communities, aggravating tribal and religious conflicts. But Scientific American cited a 22-year study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finding that long before Darfur, sub-Saharan Africa suffered from wars most often during unusually warm years. They concluded that one degree C warming will increase the chances of civil wars by 55 percent, causing almost 400,000 additional battlefield deaths over two decades.

The drying Sahel climate drove herdsmen and farmers into conflict. Credit: Georgina Cransto

The drying climate of Sudan drove herdsmen and Darfur farmers into conflict. Credit: Georgina Cransto

Of course, not everyone agrees that the causal linkage between climate disruption and war has been adequately proven, and that’s part of the normal discourse of science. But among the many that have been persuaded are the commanders of the US Armed Services. In the Quadrennial Defense Review in 2014, they warned that the impacts of climate change could “increase the frequency, scale, and complexity of future missions, including defense support to civil authorities, while at the same time undermining the capacity of our domestic installations to support training activities.”

These soldiers are really alarmed about climate-change and conflict, calling it a “threat multiplier” all over the world. “As greenhouse gas emissions increase,” they wrote, “sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating…. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”

Do these warnings remind us of anything we’re seeing today? In Syria, this sounds just like what we’re dealing with right now. So if we’re angry about the countless suffering refugees from the Syrian war, and if we’re worried about the horrors of ISIS, what if our best course is to take personal and national steps to counter the rise in planet-warming gases? Because with another one or two degrees of warming, we could be dealing with 20 or 30 Syria-level disasters.

Or has it even occurred to us that we could be among the homeless ourselves?

J. Elwood

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)