Category Archives: Ice & Seas

How Our Coasts Will Disappear

They say that doom and gloom is sure-fire method of driving away readers. But if sea levels are rising, as seven in ten Americans acknowledge, then it’s worth asking just how – and when – my favorite coastal spot might be gone. Believe me, I know you’d rather not wade into this swamp. But it’s important. Please, take a second to look.

Just this August, Louisiana suffered historic flooding, causing more than $10 billion in damage, 80 percent of it uninsured. It was dubbed the most destructive storm to hit the country since Super Storm Sandy.

Hardly a month later, another storm barely grazed the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, and left behind comparable damage, still being assessed in the range of $6-9 billion.

Big storms, no doubt. But here’s the thing: Neither one involved a hurricane making landfall on U.S. soil. Louisiana merely suffered from an intense rainstorm. And American Easterners nervously watched an advancing hurricane’s trail of destruction and death in Haiti, but breathed a sigh of relief as it sliced eastward into the open Atlantic.

Still, the storm wreaked many billions of dollars of damage, and more than fifty fatalities.

Of course, these storms produced the usual claims and denials about the connection to climate change, as always. But more instructive to me was the picture of what coastal inundation will look like in an age of climate chaos. Here’s why:

For the large majority of Americans who accept the findings of climate science, I suspect we tend to view sea-level rise as a linear phenomenon. Mapping websites abound where you can zoom in on your home, select a hypothetical level of ocean rise, and see whether you’re safe or not. For Louisiana, here’s what it looks like for two feet, well inside many estimates for the current century.capturelouisiana

Look! The blue incursions make New Orleans look pretty dicey, but Baton Rouge and Lafayette are still okay, right? And here’s a look at the Carolinas at two feet. Sure, the Outer Banks, Charleston and Wilmington are all gone, but Goldsboro, Wilmington and Raleigh are pretty good.capture

Okay, admittedly it’s bad, but we can find a way to manage, right?

Actually, no, we probably can’t. Here’s why: These maps may be accurate, for what they’re being asked to do. One a calm, sunny day, the communities shown in the green may be, in fact, above water. But take a look at what happened during the Louisiana non-hurricane – before any further sea-level rise at all:

picture1

Lafayette was inundated. Baton Rouge was a virtual island, with flooding on all sides. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, was it? New Orleans would slip away first, and Mardi Gras would set up shop Baton Rouge. Except Baton Rouge was flooded out first. (And that’s with today’s sea levels, not an extra couple of feet.)

The Carolinas tell a similar story. After Tropical Storm Matthew slipped past, Goldsboro and Lumberton – each about 80 miles inland from the Atlantic beaches – were completely awash, together with hundreds of other inland communities.picture2

For nearly ten years now, we’ve been warning our fellow beach-lovers: Visit as often as you like, enjoy the sun and surf. But please, please, don’t invest the nest egg in sea-side property. Even now, that’s probably sound advice. But the picture is actually much worse. In a world of increasingly dire climate chaos, you’re hardly safe in low-lying inland communities either.

What should you do? Well, what if we started by living like people who understand that the future of our world, and especially our children’s, depends on lower carbon emissions. Cut our carbon footprint, and offset what we can’t cut.

But whatever our individual efforts, there are many things that we can only accomplish together — as a country, or as an entire world. We can each drive smarter, but most of us can’t develop our own electric car. We can insulate the house, but most of us can’t build our own wind farm. These things depend on concerted national action. So find out what your Congressional representative is doing about climate change. And look at where the Presidential candidates stand.

The consequences of ignoring climate change may seem to be a long way off. But for many on our lowland coasts, they’ve already arrived.

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.

Why I’m in Paris: Because We All Need Water

I’ve tried to capture stories over these last two weeks that explain why I came to Paris to the global climate summit called COP-21.  I’ve joined with countless Christians from all over the world, sharing our stories and hopes, praying for our fears, and proclaiming the lordship of God over a groaning world. This morning, I sang and prayed with Christians from Singapore and India, and their presence drew my thoughts to the people of Asia who have come to Paris desperate for solutions to the climatic upheaval besetting their world.

It’s clear why the countries of Asia are desperate for an agreement on climate pollution. The principal water source for countries from China to Pakistan is the frozen Tibetan Plateau — the “Third Pole” — and it’s melting fast in our warming world.

Dwindling Himalayan glaciers feed Asia's most important rivers, watering countries from China to Pakistan

Dwindling Himalayan glaciers feed Asia’s most important rivers, watering countries from China to Pakistan

Vanishing glaciers raise urgent concerns beyond Tibet and China. The 46,000 glaciers of the Third Pole region sustain 1.5 billion people in 10 countries — its waters flowing to places as distant as the tropical Mekong Delta of Vietnam, the hills of eastern Myanmar and the southern plains of Bangladesh. Scattered across nearly two million square miles, these glaciers are receding at an ever-quickening pace, producing a rise in levels of rivers and lakes in the short term and threatening Asia’s water supply in the long run.

I have written extensively in these pages about the plight of Pakistan’s 160 million souls, overwhelmingly reliant on the flow of one single source of life: the Indus River. Pakistan’s Indus – like India’s Ganges, Vietnam’s Mekong, China’s Yellow and Bangladesh’s Brahmaputra – is fed by Himalayan glaciers, which today are receding at an alarming pace, adding to floods that have displaced millions in the Sindhi breadbasket region and destroying its farms and crops. The World Bank warns that in coming decades, the mighty Indus – crippled by its dwindling glaciers – could become a seasonal stream, leaving Pakistan completely dry in the crucial summer growing season.

Worse yet, the Indus flows into Pakistan from Indian-controlled Kashmir. India and Pakistan, both armed with nuclear weapons and wounded by profound sectarian conflicts, could be left to debate whose thirst will be quenched by the Indus, and who will wither and starve. If you’re looking for the apocalypse, this may be the place to start.

Today’s Himalayan melting calls for compassionate and wise action. Deadly floods routinely beset the region, as the people of Chennai in south India are experiencing even today, as they bury more than 300 flood victims. But do we dare to imagine a world when 1-2 billion of God’s people have no water to grow food?

So Christians are in Paris to pray and act for a world where our Asian brothers and sisters can live peaceable and quiet lives in their own homes. Here we see clearly the blessing of Jesus pronounced at the final judgment: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father … for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink….”

Drink, and food. For the billions sustained by the waters of the Tibetan Plateau, these precious gifts now hang in the balance. That’s why I’m here in Paris, praying and acting for the success of COP-21.

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)

A Wedding on the Edge of the Rising Seas

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Luke 17:27

I am stuffed from too many hors d’oeuvres. Barbara is nursing sores from all that dancing. Our hearts are warm from celebrating the marriage of one of our favorite young women – she still calls us “Uncle John and Aunt Barb” after many years of surrogate family life. And in my heart is the image of a contented friend, basking in happiness as his daughter begins a new life with a young man he has learned to welcome as a son.

The setting was fantastic. On a beach, in one of our favorite getaway spots – Key West. Lovely harp music. A gorgeous bride. Gaff-rigged schooners plying the waters in a fresh breeze just offshore. Vows and rings exchanged on the sand.

When we received the invitation, my first thought was: I know this place! That very hotel, that little pebbly beach! That end of raucous Duval Street! Those gorgeous sunsets! That lovely island!

But my second thought was this: Maybe this will be the last time – one last visit to Key West, while we still have it.

Beautiful Key West, facing  an ominous future

Beautiful Key West, facing an ominous future

Because, of course, Key West is doomed. Just like all the rest of the Keys. Nothing can now stop the thermal expansion and melting of polar ice sheets which will force the abandonment of this lovely place during the lifetime of this bride and groom.

We can hope for the survival of the massive coral reefs that dwarf these tiny islands, with their bustling communities of billions of creatures. But even that is in doubt, as the world’s oceans absorb more and more carbon from the choked atmosphere, creating an oceanic flood of carbonic acid, which undermines coral and reef health.

No evidence that any of the other guests are aware of any of this this. Many are here for the first time. They don’t notice how much things have changed, even in the couple of decades since we first saw this place. Those waters that used to flow well below street level, now lapping just below the curbs at high tide. That little beach, where I expected the vows to be exchanged, now disappeared beneath the waves. The new “beach?” A little patch of sand spread next to the poolside bar, safely protected from the rising waves by sea walls sea walls and rock levies.

For most of the guests, this is the new baseline. A beach-less island where waters encroach on the town’s infrastructure on sunny, calm days. Maybe it’s always been this way? Who knows?

The Keys from space: dry land is dwarfed by its enormous reefs

The Keys from space: dry land is dwarfed by its enormous reefs

And yet the evidence is everywhere. Of course, not on the ubiquitous hotel-lobby flat screens, where Fox News holds court. But the rest of the world’s new outlets told us just yesterday that 2014 was, as expected, the hottest year ever recorded on Earth, since measurements began more than a century ago. And while it’s a global record, it only just edges out 2010, and 2007, and 2005. In fact, ALL of the last 16 years are among the top 19 hottest global years ever recorded.

And all that heat is warming the oceans, and melting the ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, which hold enough water to raise sea levels by more than 200 feet. Not surprisingly, the seas are rising fast – much faster than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned over the years. In fact, oceans are rising about 60 percent faster than projections. About two or three feet will be enough to finish off Key West, and that will likely happen well before the end of this century.

And the reefs which sustain these islands? Acidic ocean waters – often called climate change’s “evil twin” – are eating away at them at an alarming pace. In the Caribbean, approximately 80 percent of coral reef cover is now dead, victim to the warmer waters of a changing climate, overfishing and pollution. And yes, with oceans now 30 percent more acidic than they were in 1980, corals face more and more difficulty in building their exoskeletons, which form the backbone of these reefs.

These patterns are occurring all over the world. In 2012, 2,600 of the world’s leading marine biologists came together to issue a “state of emergency” for the world’s coral reefs, upon which the entire ocean ecosystems depend. They noted that 3 billion humans depend on marine ecosystems and biodiversity for their livelihoods – roughly half of humanity. And without the reefs, those humans face an increasingly uncertain future.

But the news didn’t stop with record heat and acidic oceans. The screens in the hotel lobby also didn’t think it newsworthy that just Thursday, an international team of 18 experts issued a new warning that climate change and high rates of extinction of animals and plants have pushed the Earth into a danger zone for humanity’s survival. In fact, of nine crucial “planetary boundaries” considered vital to human survival, four have already been crossed, and the remaining boundaries are in danger.

I strongly suspect that no one in this lovely wedding had any inkling of this alarming report. It is, you know, only a bunch of scientists telling us how and why our species could well be facing extinction.

So, we are glad to have come to the Keys one last time. We thank God for our dear friends, and their daughter’s lovely wedding. We pray for this beautiful new family, and all the good that may come from their union.

And yet, we recognize that every good thing happens in a context. This wedding, on an island that is becoming less and less hospitable to human habitation with the passing years. All terrestrial life, in a world whose climate patterns are unraveling at a pace seldom seen in the geological record. Marine life now struggling to deal with rapid warming and drastic shifts in ocean chemistry.

Are we again seeing the days of Noah, as suggested in Jesus’ warning printed above? If so, it will not be due to lack of notice. Virtually all of the world’s scientific disciplines warn that we are flirting with danger, both for ourselves and those loved ones who will follow us. Even now, there is time to salvage much of the damage we are causing. But we will have to look beyond beautiful seaside weddings, like this one, to the rising waters just barely beyond.

The Parable of the Corals

“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Romans 12:3-5)

On the evening of June 11, 1770, Captain James Cook and his fellow explorers aboard His Majesty’s bark Endeavour sailed cautiously under a full moon along Australia’s east coast – a wild terra incognita never before seen by Western eyes. The calm of the tropical night was broken only by the sighing of the wind in the sails, and call of the “leadsman” in the ship’s bow, throwing his lead-weighted line into the black water ahead to measure its depth beneath the ship’s keel. For days now, the passage between the massive landmass to the west and the Great Barrier Reef to the east had been narrowing, and vigilance was required to assure the safety of the ship’s 94 living souls, now almost two years into an epic journey of discovery.

Austrialian replica of HMS Endevour

Austrialian replica of HMS Endevour

“Fourteen fathoms,” came the call from the leadsman – 84 feet, a comfortable depth for any ship. “Sixteen fathoms.” No worries disturbed the quiet evening. “Seventeen fathoms.” More than one hundred feet of blessed, deep water.

The leadsman prepared to cast his line again, but the throw was never made. With a sickening, splintering jolt, the Endeavour came to a jarring halt, the sea grinding the ship’s broken timbers on sharp corals with every swell, pouring into the hull beneath the gunwales.

Stricken and alone in the remotest corner of the world, the wreck and subsequent rescue of the Endeavour offers an inspiring story of courage, leadership and resourcefulness on the part of a desperate ship’s crew. But years later, the wreck left Captain Cook wholly perplexed by the “wall of Coral Rock rising almost perpendicular out of the unfathomable Ocean.”  He knew that coral reefs were biological in origin. But if so, how had it come to be so massive a wall – to be “thrown up to such a height?”

Corals turn out to be among the world’s most amazing creatures, capable of building structures that dwarf the Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, or even the monstrous tar sands pits of Canada. The Great Barrier Reef, where Captain Cook nearly met his end, stretches for 1,500 miles, and is as thick as 500 feet from top to bottom.  And coral reefs range throughout tropical waters around the globe, from Australia, to Belize, to the Red Sea, and thousands of places in-between.

As any reader of the gospels knows, Jesus Christ had a habit of calling on familiar natural objects to illustrate his teaching. “Consider the lilies,” he would tell us in our worries about food and clothing. “My sheep hear my voice,” he said, comforting his anxious followers. “Foxes have dens, and birds of the heaven have nests,” in contrast to his own enduring homelessness.

But if Jesus were teaching the Christian church in North America today, I think he might point us to the corals. “Consider the corals,” he might begin.

Why corals? Because, of all God’s creatures, corals display the beauty of unified community, nurturing an explosion of life in otherwise barren places. And whatever else might be said about the Church today, surely we need someone – or something – to help us to nurture unity and life-affirming patterns.

Unity Amidst Diversity: The New Testament is packed with pleas for – and shining examples of – unity among Jesus’ disciples. In his only recorded prayer for the Church that would follow him, Jesus asks the Father “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you …” (John 17:21). St. Paul carries on the theme, calling us one body with many vital parts – the Body of Christ, drinking of one cup, partaking of one Spirit, serving one Lord and Father of all. And perhaps most coral-like, St. Peter calls us “living stones” being built together as a single house of worship.

Hundreds of species of coral polyps at work

Hundreds of species of coral polyps at work

All these scriptures speak of the Church. But perhaps they also could describe those amazing corals. Let me explain.

At the heart of every coral reef are millions of tiny animals that we call polyps. Coral polyps are invertebrates related to anemones or jellyfish, only a few millimeters in diameter. Despite their soft bodies, they’ve been endowed with the ability to build exoskeletons – rock-like shells, made from the building blocks of the ocean’s chemistry – through the process of calcification. And as they multiply, those exoskeletons build upon one another to create massive formations, rich in calcium, and home to complex ecosystems.

They are, quite literally, “living stones.” A coral polyp on its own is practically nothing. But on a reef, billions of polyps belonging to as many as a hundred different species are all devoting themselves to the same basic task. Building together, sharing nutrients with one another, and providing mutual protection, they form what appears to be a single rock formation, strong enough to sink ships of wood or steel, and tame the fiercest ocean waves.

I’m afraid we have much to learn from the corals. In Western culture, we have developed a once-unimaginably individualistic world-view – possibly the most inhospitable to real community in human memory. Our technology, our wealth, our rampant consumption and our national myths all conspire toward individual comfort and isolation, in ways never before possible. We often drive our cars alone. One in four of us lives entirely alone. In Los Angeles, more than 75% of us have our own solitary home, cutting off the beautiful messiness on which community thrives. Our long commutes guarantee plenty of “elbow room,” safe from intrusion by meddling neighbors. We shop with the click of a finger. And even when we’re with others, our ear buds and smart phones block out the messy community around us, as we tune in our private play-lists and videos.

So it’s not surprising that our Western brand of Christianity tends to reflect this hyper-individual mindset. God has a plan for my life…. I come to the garden alone…. My Redeemer waits for me at gates of gold…. I change churches frequently, rather than reconciling personal conflicts, or seeking common ground amidst divergent perspectives, beliefs and tastes. Ultimately, perhaps, I drop the whole church thing entirely, while insisting that I remain deeply “spiritual” – in some individualized conception.

But I wonder if we can imagine Jesus speaking to us: “Consider the corals….”

If lilies of the field and birds of the air can be our teachers, then why can’t they? The tiny polyps are distinct individuals; real animals with their own God-given value, representing many distinct species. Each one builds a small bit of calcified shell during its life. But those shells are fused together with the entire coral community, eventually yielding massive rocks of every color, shape and size. Not only that, but each polyp extends its tissues to link with its neighbor, so that each can share nutrients with all the rest. No coral polyp hungers – or prospers – alone.

But the communitarian enterprise does much more than unite coral to coral. In fact, none of world’s reefs would be possible if corals did not also welcome and shelter other species into their homes. Although corals are animals, each polyp harbors tiny plants known as zooxanthellae. Protected by the coral structures, these plants produce carbohydrates via photosynthesis, and polyps harvest the carbohydrates to support their growth. As long as ocean conditions are stable, this symbiotic relationship drives the growth and health of all reefs.

Father, may they all be one…. Like corals, perhaps? Wouldn’t that be remarkable!

Nurturing Life in a Barren Place: I love the sapphire blue of tropical waters, don’t you? But appearances can be deceiving. In fact, tropical waters are clear and bright precisely because they are low in nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, the marine equivalents of deserts. Paradoxically, however, it’s these waters that spawn an explosion of sea life without which the ocean ecosystems would collapse.

The reason? Of course, it’s the corals. They are perfectly suited to thrive in these waters. The reefs are natural construction projects that displace no creatures, but rather support thousands or millions of species with nutrients and shelter.

"Nurseries of the ocean: Reefs support incredible biodiversity

“Nurseries of the ocean”: Reefs support incredible biodiversity

Thousands of species? Consider: Author Elizabeth Kolbert interviewed an Australian researcher who broke apart a volleyball-sized chunk of coral, and found, living inside it, more than 1,400 polychaete worms belonging to 103 different species. She found an American researcher who collected corals from a one square meter of reef coral, and discovered more than 100 species of crustaceans. And in another square meter, a researcher discovered more than 120 species.

Corals work together to fulfill their singular purpose, and entire ecosystems spring to life. Indeed, the corals feed their guests in a more sacrificial manner as well. The corals are constantly being eaten away at by fish, sea urchins and burrowing worms. And yet, if ocean conditions are healthy, they grow fast enough to feed their guests while maintaining the health of their own community.

The Church after Pentecost comes to mind doesn’t it? No one claimed his possessions as his own; there were no needy persons among them; much grace was upon them all. “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:46-47). Doesn’t it sound a bit like a spectacular coral reef community, built and maintained by those tiny polyps and their tinier zooxanthellae partners?

In Danger of Collapse:  The Acts 2 passage above goes on: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” It’s funny, but the more they gave away, the richer they became in brothers, sisters, and acts of grace. And in fits and starts, the Church of Jesus Christ has grown over the years to include 2.2 billion self-identified Christians, the largest faith community on Earth, and by far the most culturally diverse.

And once again, the corals reflect this picture of growth and global diversity. An enormous band of tropical waters stretching around the Earth has been filled and enriched by them. In temperate zones, our limestone quarries and fertile fields point to the presence of their ancient predecessors.

Can we imagine the Lord directing us to model our faith on the lives of corals? If so, we should pause to consider a dire warning. The Earth’s corals are dying.

This is not hyperbole. Take it from the chief scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, J.E.N. Veron: “Here I am today, humbled to have spent my life around the rich wonders of the underwater world, and utterly convinced that they will not be there for our children’s children to enjoy.”

Veron has plenty of company in his lament over dying oceanic ecosystems. In 2012, more than 2,600 of the world’s top marine scientists warned that coral reefs around the world are in rapid decline due to human impacts. The warning signs are everywhere. Virtually all reefs now suffer frequent “bleaching,” when the coral polyps expel their vital zooxanthellae guests in a desperate effort to survive the warming water temperatures. In the Caribbean, approximately 80 percent of coral reef cover is now dead, victim to the warmer waters of a changing climate, overfishing, pollution, and ocean acidification (climate change’s equally “evil twin”).

That last one – ocean acidification – might be a sleeper, but it’s absolutely devastating. Over the last 200 years, mankind has dug up and burned into the air fossil fuels containing more than 500 billion tons of CO2.  About half of all that carbon – roughly 250 billion tons – has been absorbed by the oceans. If not for all that ocean carbon uptake, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would easily be twice as thick as before the Industrial Revolution, and the Earth would be uninhabitable for many thousands of species.

But the oceans’ services have come at a cost: When CO2 dissolves in water, it forms carbonic acid – H2CO3 – which effectively “eats” carbonate ions, the key chemical ingredient in calcification for creatures like corals, crustaceans and shellfish. Today, carbonic acid has raised the acidity of the oceans by thirty percent over pre-industrial times. And in these acidic waters, corals struggle to grow, or even begin to dissolve. Meanwhile, fish, sea urchins and other creature continue to nibble away at reefs, and humans continue to pump more carbon emissions into the atmosphere, further acidifying the waters that we all depend on.

No one knows for sure how long God’s generous corals can hold out against the onslaught of acids in our day. But many scientists give them no more than 25 years, or perhaps until mid-century, unless we make major changes in the way we consume and produce energy.

Christians believe that their Lord loves the things he made. Not one sparrow falls without God’s loving knowledge, Jesus told us. To him, the lilies of the field were far more beautiful than the most glorious royal wardrobes. And after every day of the Creation story, we hear the voice of Divine Pleasure: “And God saw that it was good.”

I’m convinced that God loves his coral reefs too. If only his Church could come together to nurture life the way they do! Indeed, if the corals are to survive – and the entire ocean ecosystem with them – they may need the Church to unite now in defense of its Master’s beloved Creation.

Mountains of the Moon: The Melting Rwenzoris

In 1906, the Duke of Abruzzi – an Italian nobleman known for his expeditions to the world’s most forbidding destinations – trekked into the Mountains of the Moon, the glacier-bound peaks of Uganda’s Rwenzori range, whose snows feed the mighty Nile River.

Vittorio Sella's 1906 shot of Mt. Stanley

Vittorio Sella’s 1906 shot of Mt. Stanley

Abruzzi brought with him Vittorio Sella, a photographer whose prints unveiled one of the most other-worldly places on earth. Among them was this picture of Mt. Stanley, one of the highest peaks in Africa.

A century later, biologists Nate Dappen and Neil Losin have retraced Abruzzi’s steps, on a quest to replicate Sella’s picture of Mt. Stanley – from the exact same position under identical circumstances. In the process, they’ve produced “Snows of the Nile,” a breathtaking short video documentary of the Rwenzoris, with a run time of only 11 minutes. It’s beautiful, engaging, and worth every second.

And in the end – SPOILER ALERT! – they discover that they simply can’t take Sella’s picture today. That’s because in 1906, the Italian photographer had perched his camera on ice hundreds of feet higher in the air than the bare rock that remains today. The shots that they succeed in taking tell the story of virtually every glacier in the world: land ice is melting rapidly; 80% of the Rwenzori glacier mass is already gone; the residual ice won’t last another 20 years — with untold consequences for the Rwenzori ecosystem and the Nile basin.

[We have a personal connection to these beautiful mountains. Missionary doctors Scott and Jennifer Myhre have labored in their shadow for decades, with water engineers Michael and Karen Masso, and even our kids Nathan and Sarah Elwood, currently in medical residency state-side. The Rwenzoris pose a formidable obstacle for any visitors to their home in Bundibugyo, Uganda’s remotest district.]

Spend a few moments, and treat yourself to some amazing footage from a corner of the Creation you’ll almost certainly never see for yourself. And in the bargain, you can’t miss the changes being wrought in these mountains by decisions being made thousands of miles away, as industrial nations continue to use our shared atmosphere as a free and unlimited dumping ground for the soot and smog of the carbon-industrial complex.