Category Archives: Justice

Why I’m in Paris: Climate Justice

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

Bishop Ephraim Tendero addressing the Paris climate summit

Bishop Ephraim Tendero addressing paties at the  Paris climate summit

Today, we at the Paris climate summit were privileged to hear from Bishop Efraim Tendero, Pesident of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). In addition to leading the 600-million-member WEA, Bishop “Eff” serves as the presiding Bishop of the Philippines. And so his lecture, titled “Climate Justice,” rings with special authority, as the nation of the Philippines leads a bloc of nations that claim to be the most harmed by climate change. That bloc, called the V20, is demanding justice from polluting countries that are causing them harm.

Indeed, it has long been recognized that poorer countries are most vulnerable to climate change, without having contributed meaningfully to its causes. Bishop Eff noted that China and the US account for 42% of global greenhouse gas emissions. By contrast, the low-lying Philippines account for only 0.28% of those pollutants. And while the big polluters will indeed suffer in a world of climate disruption, it is the Philippines which are already being devastated by monster storms like Typhoon Haiyan.

The leader of the WEA isn’t the only one telling this story, either. The Global Climate Risk Index, maintained by GermanWatch, ranks countries by the harm they have suffered from climate change. In the last 20 years, the Philippines has ranked fifth in the world in climate damage, behind Honduras, Burma, Haiti and Nicaragua. In fact, of the ten most affected countries, nine were developing countries in the low-income group. The red circles on the map below highlight the hotspots, with Bangladesh, Vietnam, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Pakistan rounding out the ten countries with the dubious honor of paying most heavily for the cost of our oil and coal binge in China and the US.

The Christian witness at this global gathering is meaningful and visible. And with the voice of leaders like Bishop Tendero, the evangelical world is now demanding justice for the poor, in an increasingly inhospitable world.

A Lament for France, in Perspective

Today, two weeks before leaving for the COP-21 meetings in Paris, I am deeply troubled for the people of France. No, I’m not just troubled: I’m furious. I’m angry for those who are mourning the loss of 129 innocent victims, with many more barely clinging to life in French hospitals. I stand with our grieving friends on both sides of the Atlantic. And yet, let me try to set my fury aside for a moment, to offer what I hope may be a useful perspective – to some, at least.

First, on the day of this heinous massacre, there were many other things threatening God’s children around the world. 7,600 other people died prematurely of AIDS on Friday; more than 18,000 died of pulmonary disease and respiratory infections on that day; 3,500 of malaria and 3,266 from vehicle accidents. In fact, 164,000 people died that day prematurely from illness, accidents or violence around the world. The Paris murders are a horror; but there are many, many things to lament, and to fight against by giving and working.

Solidarity: San Francisco City Hall awash with the lights of the tricolor

Solidarity: San Francisco City Hall awash with the lights of the tricolor

Second, I hope we’ll look with caution on those who offer easy fixes for France’s sorrow, and especially those who extol the vision of a gun in every French pocket. On the day France lost 129 souls, the US, with its enormous arsenal of privately-owned guns, suffered 25 gun homicides. The next day, France went back to its normal pace of one death every ten days. But the US suffered another 25 killings; and then another 25 … ad nauseum (the 5th highest killing rate in the world). Please, let’s not turn France’s sorrow into an ad for an even more gun-totin’ world.

Third, it’s almost certain that the leading cause of premature deaths last Friday (and all other days) was air pollution. Among the top ten global killers, five are linked to air pollution. The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution claims 7 million lives every year, or more than 19,000 souls every day, including last Friday. Invisible killers may be harder to hate, but the data suggest that air pollution kills 150 times more people every single day than ISIS did last Friday.

Finally, at moments like these, it’s important to consider the longer term consequences of impulsive and bellicose responses. We want to exact revenge or justice, and we want it to be swift. And surely, severe justice is due to those who have wrought this horror. But many of us have lived through the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (certainly bogus) which spawned the horror of the Vietnam War; and the WMD Scare (also bogus) that almost certainly gave us today’s chaos in Iraq and Syria. These are complex issues. but perhaps they tell us that you’re not weak just because you want to think twice before bombing somebody (and, inevitably, his innocent neighbors). Maybe you’re just wise.

May God look with mercy on his beloved France. And may He give us the wisdom to seek mercy in the face of every threat, whether hunger, disease or hatred and violence.

Who Pays for Smog?

In the lead-up to his 2012 reelection campaign, President Obama faced a ticklish problem. Under the terms of the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency was required to issue rules governing industrial emissions of smog, that murky ozone pollution driving an epidemic of respiratory diseases and birth defects in our country. But compliance with the EPA rule would have been costly to coal-fired power plants in key electoral states in the Midwest Rust Belt, and the president needed them to remain in office.

So, in a bow to political expediency, Mr. Obama instructed the EPA to delay finalizing the smog rule for several years. Well, several years is now up. This Thursday marks the court-ordered deadline for the EPA to publish its smog rules. And industry-backed groups are pressing an all-out campaign to make them as weak as possible. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute, and the National Association of Manufacturers are pushing for a relaxed standard of 70 parts atmospheric ozone per billion. The American Lung Association and environmental groups are advocating a tighter standard of 60 parts per billion.

Smog

Thursday deadline for EPA smog rules.

The difference? In health terms, the industry’s proposal would result in 1.5 million more serious asthma attacks per year, and thousands of premature deaths, mainly among children and the elderly.

You might think this would be easy. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 25 million Americans suffer from asthma, and the number is growing rapidly. About half of them experience asthma attacks every year. About 9 people die from asthma every day. And the annual national medical bill for the disease was last estimated at an astounding $56 billion, and that was almost a decade ago.

For each victim of asthma, the personal cost is enormous. Of course, for the 3,600 who die every year, the discussion of cost is hugely ironic. But for the surviving sufferers, average individual yearly medical costs ran at $3,300 a decade ago, and we all know what’s happened to medical costs since then.

But asthma sufferers aren’t the only ones talking about cost. The industry lobby claims that tighter ozone standards will cause electricity costs to soar, as smokestack scrubbers costing tens of millions of dollars will need to be installed in many plants. They’ve been joined by dozens of mayors and governors from both sides of the political aisle in their appeal: It’s too expensive. We can’t afford it.

But this debate illustrates one of our great American industrial illusions, doesn’t it? As long as pollution doesn’t cost me anything, then it must be essentially free. If I can produce electricity at five cents per kilowatt-hour while generating lots of smog, then rules that will cost me six cents are pure losers. Losers to my shareholders. Losers to my customers.

But who are the losers today? Well, there are those 3,600 dead Americans. And there are those 25 million asthma sufferers. There are the families of black children, who have seen a 50 percent increase in asthma rates in the last ten years. And there’s that not-so-tidy sum of $56 billion in US medical costs for asthma, much of which is attributable to ozone pollution.

And – I suppose I should mention – asthma is only one of smog’s ill effects, which also include cancers, neurological birth defects and more. The province of Ontario alone counts 9,500 premature deaths per year from all effects of ozone pollution. There’s that too.

So maybe it comes down to this: Who should pay the cost of smog in a just country? Should it be the children and the elderly? Or should it be the people profiting from its use?

Just like you, we don’t want higher electric bills. But we’ll solve our problems (see below) without asking the kids, the aging and the poor to pay them for us.

Note: At Good Hand Farm, we generate most of the electricity for three houses and field irrigation pumps from solar arrays. The balance, we purchase from wind farm generators. It isn’t always easy, but it’s doable.

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

Oh, Canada! An Earth Day Lament

Today is Earth Day. I’m not marching, or celebrating, or even planting a tree (my latest dozen hazelnuts haven’t arrived yet). But I am sending you a sobering article from Sojourners Magazine on abusive and unjust mining practices worldwide by Canadian companies.

Last year, I spent a week in Fort McMurray, the heart of Canada’s tar sands petro-state of Alberta. I reported the horrors I saw there in several posts (see here, here, here, and especially here.) And while I lamented the poisoning and cultural genocide of peaceable First Nations in Alberta, I also mourned the apparent transformation of Canada from a relatively peaceable steward of its land and people, to a cynical state committed to the destruction of God’s most precious gifts for the enrichment of the powerful. I felt like I was watching the movie “Avatar,” but in real life — with real children, parents and elders as the real victims.

downloadNow, Rev. Emilie Teresa Smith, a Canadian Anglican priest, has detailed horrifying accounts of Canadian mining companies exploiting and poisoning the poor in less-developed countries. “What? Canadians?” she asks. “We’re supposed to be the good guys in the story. Well, not anymore.”

Please, read Rev. Smith’s article (and consider subscribing to Sojourners while you’re at it!). And for meditation and thought on this Earth Day, here’s the way she concludes her article:

“The Earth is not a thing to be bought, sold, used and destroyed. Our eternal connection to the dust is that we are dust. We are not the Creator, but frail creatures, utterly dependent on the care of the Earth, her mountains, her water, streams and deepness underground. As the psalmist reminds us, the Earth is not ours, but God’s; we live with tender mercy and grace upon her abundant belly.”

I pray that you are blessed this Earth Day, and are looking for new ways to tend and keep the garden in which God has placed you.

J. Elwood

Climate Conversation: Kenya

The Christian Reformed Church sent a dozen North Americans to Kenya last year — including me — to witness first-hand the impacts of climate change on farmers and on the poor in East Africa. Out of that venture came five short videos, each less than five minutes in length, that bring a cry for justice and action to North American churches and Christians.

On the CRC’s website, the video series is introduced with this invitation:

“For millions of subsistence farmers in Kenya, climate change is not a political debate. It is a reality in which adaptation can mean the difference between life and death. The Climate Conversation: Kenya video series is a chance to move past the white noise and to get up close and personal with the issues of climate change and environmental stewardship. It is a chance to meet people, not statistics; to hear stories, not arguments. It is an invitation to a conversation.”

 

I hope you’ll watch them all, at the CRC site or on YouTube. And then, please, join the conversation.