Category Archives: Science

Reader’s Poll: What January’s Record NYC Snowstorm Tells Us

During the three days from January 22nd to the 24th, a mammoth blizzard paralyzed New York City with 27.5 inches of snowfall – the city’s biggest snowstorm since record-keeping began in 1869.1171676_630x354

Beloved Planet wants to know what you think about this. Please choose the answer that most closely reflects your response to this news:

  • Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe and his Congressional allies are right in dismissing climate change as “a massive hoax” perpetrated by greedy scientists getting richer and richer.
  • NASA, NOAA and the EPA are right in stating that “as temperatures rise and the air becomes warmer, more moisture evaporates  into the atmosphere. More moisture in the air means we can expect more rain and snow.”
  • Yet another example of President Obama’s feckless leadership. Thanks Obama!
  • The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.
  • It’s mainly Elsa’s fault, with all that stuff about “I don’t care what they’re going to say. Let the storm rage on ….”

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?

It’s March: Why Are We Talking About Global Heat?

Yes, it’s been a warm winter. A couple of weeks of really chilly weather, one or two snows, but that’s about it. Talk to me again in August if it’s abnormally hot, and you’ll have my attention.

That’s the problem with global data, isn’t it? It’s the only thing that can really hurt us is what happens in the long run, but it fails to motivate unless it’s hitting us hard at home right now. Well, if you can be bothered with those far-away markers that impact distant families now and you yourself in the future, please take note of a few developments going on right under our noses.

  • February was the hottest month for our common home, relative to historical averages, by a longshot.
  • It followed January, which was the previous hottest month by a longshot.Picture5
  • January followed 2015, which was the hottest year ever recorded.
  • 2015 followed 2014, which had been the hottest year ever recorded, until 2015 came along.
  • It hasn’t been easy to set heat records since 2000, because 15 of the 16 hottest years ever recorded have occurred since then.
  • The Arctic is melting fast. While Arctic sea ice reached record summer minimums in September 2012, winter ice coverage is at a record low right now, beating the previous record-low in 2015, which beat the previous record-low in 2014.Ice
  • Earth-warming gas concentrations are now at their highest levels in human history. When the climate was relatively stable, they measured 280 parts per million of CO2. Today, they are more than 404 parts per million.kc-monthly-0600
  • With all this scary news, you might think that we’d be doing a lot to stop it, and the growth rate of greenhouse gases would be slowing. In fact, 2015 marked the fastest growth year for earth-warming gases in the atmosphere ever measured.
  • What happens during the next presidential term will likely determine whether the world summons the resolve to take action, or continues to race at breakneck speeds toward tipping points from which our children cannot return. Some US presidential candidates take this seriously. Others prefer not to talk about it. Others still call it a hoax.

Beloved Planet attempts to offer a platform to consider “the gospel’s call to care for an injured world.” Given the set of facts listed above, what does the gospel call us to? Is God really in Christ, “reconciling all things” from the effects of human sin? Is God really “making all things new” in the kingdom of his Son, inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus? If so, how does he call his people as co-laborers with him in this ministry of reconciliation?

How – do you think – is God calling you?

Should I Be Worried?

The candidates want you to worry. Be very worried – about immigrants, about job security, about terrorists, about China, about billionaires, about healthcare.

Here’s one thing they don’t particularly want you to worry about: The planet has a fever. Its thermostat is broken. Our only home is heating up dangerously.

Take last year, for example. It was the hottest year for the world since measurements began in 1880. Take a look at what that meant all over:Picture2

In pockets here and there, 2015 was a little cooler (see the blue?) than average: If you lived in a boat off the Straits of Magellan, for instance. But almost all of the world was “Much Warmer Than Average” (the deep pink on the map above). And “Record Warmest” (pictured in red) prevailed in Central and South America and the Amazon, Europe, and vast expanses of ocean: the Pacific, the Indian, and the mid-latitudes of the Atlantic.  The Arctic was off the charts, but that doesn’t show up on this map.

Should I be worried?

Well, maybe things just change from time to time. Heat goes up. Heat goes down. Maybe 2016 will be different?

Well, unfortunately, this year is off to another blazing-hot start. Maps for February aren’t out yet, but it was a global sizzler. But January (another record) maps are here. Take a look:Picture1

We can add Southern Africa and the Mediterranean to the “Record Warmest” list. But notice a couple of exceptions. First, the US lower 48 states were about normal in January (and this is a problem, because we tend to ignore things we can’t feel right here at home).

And then, do you see that blue blob in the North Atlantic just below Greenland? (It was there in 2015 too.) The Gulf Stream usually keeps that part of the world warm, carrying warm tropical water northward, warming Europe in the process, and regulating climates all over the globe. But these days, the warm Atlantic waters are getting stuck in the sweltering tropics, and the northern waters are now cooler. Mess with the Gulf Stream, and you’re messing with just about everything on earth. Some have predicted that global heat could slow or stop the Gulf Stream entirely, and that’s the basis for apocalyptic movie scripts.

Should I be worried?

Well, let’s not get carried away by one or two years of funny data. Haven’t I heard politicians saying that the world hasn’t warmed in 20 years, or something?

Yes, in fact you have. Unfortunately, it is entirely wrong, even cynical. Even after the data began screaming just the opposite, many kept saying it. Most are now trying to avoid the topic, or to revert to dog-whistle rants about jobs and government meddling, but Senator Cruz remains undeterred by the facts, doubling down on the “no-warming” message.

But the facts are, well, worrisome. Here’s a look:Picture3

Last year was the hottest year on record, followed by 2014 in the number-two spot. 2010 takes the bronze medal, so to speak; but fourth place goes to 2013. In fact, of the 15 hottest years on record, 14 occurred during the first 15 years of this century. The only exception was 1998 (which, of course, just barely pre-dated our century).

So it’s hot, staying hot, and getting hotter. Should I be worried?

Well, if you’re a Christ-follower, you’re confronted with the challenging command not to worry. “Do not worry about your life … your body … your clothes …. But seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness…” (from Matthew 6:25-34).

But orders from anyone not to worry can be tricky in practice, don’t you think? And then there’s that ubiquitous qualifier: “your.” Your life, your body, your clothes. What if it’s the plight of God’s world that worries me? Or his creatures? Or the children he’s given my wife and me? Or our little grandkids? And what if Jesus’ antidote to worry – “but seek first his kingdom” – means precisely that I should be willing to look unblinkingly at the worrisome facts around me, even if it costs me a bit of sleep?

Should I be worried? Should you?

Why We Doubt the Bad News About Climate Change

It was the spring of 1973, on the day that this college freshman found his way to the rear of the lecture hall for a first session with the famous Georgetown professor, Jan Karski. GOV-105 – The Theory of Communism – was a reasonable choice for a Foreign Service student in the 1970s, with the Cold War still raging, and Vietnam looking like the next of many more “dominos” to fall.

It took only a couple of minutes for Professor Karski to win me over. Bolt upright in posture, head held high, devoutly Catholic, and speaking with the heaviest of accents – everyone knew that Karski had fought the Nazis with the Polish Underground. But I didn’t know half the story on that spring morning.

Professor Jan Karski at Georgetown University

Polish Underground veteran Jan Karski at Georgetown University

As Karski warmed to his topic, a sweeping gesture with his arm pulled back the crisp cuff of his white shirt sleeve, revealing disfiguring scars on his wrist. Soon enough, the same would happen with his other wrist, revealing matching horrors. Whatever could have happened to this man, I wondered, for both of his wrists to be slashed repeatedly? And how was he still alive?

Soon enough, I found a copy of his autobiography, and learned the awful truth. Blessed with a photographic memory, Karski served as a courier for the Underground, committing lengthy communiques to memory and delivering them verbally upon arrival. But he was captured three times by the Germans, and tortured beyond describing, in an effort to pry loose his precious secrets. Karski knew that there was only one way to destroy the files in his memory, and a razor blade hidden in his shoe would have to do the trick. But weakened by days and nights of torture, Karski’s blood-flow failed him, and guards discovered his attempted suicide before his life could fully ebb away.

An audacious hospital rescue by the Underground saved Karski, and sent him on his most important mission, slipping through the back channels of Nazi Europe on a mission to President Roosevelt, armed with the first eyewitness accounts of the Jewish Holocaust in the death camps. But to Karski’s dismay, few Americans in Washington believed his account.

Karski’s story was, quite simply, unbelievable. Roosevelt brushed him off. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who could not believe what he was hearing, would later say: “”I did not say this young man is lying. I said that I could not believe him. There is a difference.”

Karski’s story tells us something about ourselves as humans. There are dark secrets that our species is simply ill-equipped to deal with, often until it’s too late. This reality is all too familiar to climate scientists in our day. They speak of a world two degrees Celsius hotter than normal as an elusive goal that will require massive effort and some really good luck to boot. But four degrees?

That’s the course the world is on right now. And four degrees is shorthand for environmental, social and economic collapse. Absent determined worldwide efforts, four degrees is what we will reach in a mere sixty years, when my grandkids are my age.

Justice Felix Frankfurter: "I did not say this young man is lying. I said I am unable to believe him."

Justice Felix Frankfurter: “I did not say this young man is lying. I said I am unable to believe him. There is a difference.”

The British climate researcher George Marshall has examined how climate scientists deal with the fact that they carry an almost unmentionably dark outlook for the world in their research. His words are worth repeating here:

“One scientist told me that he was so disturbed by the latest findings that he wrote to a few close friends – he named some of the world’s most senior scientists – and asked them: the future of humanity depends on this, is there any chance – please, any chance – that we could be wrong? They replied immediately, saying that they too constantly worried about this and (contrary to what the skeptics claim) were always open to the possibility of being wrong. However, whenever they went back over the evidence, they could not avoid the uncomfortable conclusion that they had indeed gotten this right.”

You’ve noticed, however, that with few exceptions, scientists seldom speak this way openly. Their findings indicate that business as usual means something impossibly dark for their children to bear, and for billions around the world. But they continue to speak in the bland language of science – confidence factors, uncertainties and arcane measurements. And like Felix Frankfurter generations earlier, wide segments of the public refuse to process even the simple data they serve us.

This reality was driven home with force the other day, when my church received an invitation to listen in on a webinar titled “The Gospel Truth About Climate Change.” The invitation asked a question that the Polish Underground would understand all too clearly:

“Are scientists, economists and politicians purposely creating a culture of ‘climate alarmism?’ Join us as E. Calvin Beisner challenges the myths of climate change and exposes its threat to humanity, liberty and prosperity. Every ambassador of Christ and missionary of the Good News will want to see this eye-opening message.”

[Sigh.] Oh “climate alarmism” again.

And no, every ambassador of Christ will not want to listen to the willful blindness that so often greets deeply disturbing discoveries. Professor Karski would recognize what’s going on in an instant. Even the most distinguished Supreme Court justice – like the President himself – could not bring himself to believe the dark accounts that Karski knew to be true.

How long will it be till love for our children – and for the God of creation – eventually overcomes our instinctive rejection of sobering global-scale news? Can it happen in time to avoid some of the darkest consequences of our fossil-fuel binge? If so, we’ll need to experience a conversion that runs against the very grain of an instinctive human reaction.

God give us the grace to act with open-eyed love, while we still can.

So, What’s Causing Global Warming, Congressman?

After months of writing and waiting, my congressman’s office finally called back.

This isn’t just any congressman: This is Scott Garrett, the long-time Republican congressman representing New Jersey’s 5th District. The map of the 5th District tells you immediately that something fishy has been going on. It’s an irregular strip of upper- and middle-class suburban and ex-urban communities stretching from wealthy Wall Street bedroom communities to rural horse farms. Rep. Garrett’s stock in trade is his powerful voice on the House Financial Services Committee, the source of a trove of cash he receives from the banks he is charged with overseeing.

But that doesn’t keep Garrett from wandering into the general vicinity of climate science. Not surprisingly, Garrett is one of the many in Congress who swell the ranks of climate denial. In fact, the League of Conservation Voters gives him only a 3% rating, one of their very lowest. In 2010, Garrett told the New Jersey Herald that he had no idea if global warming was even happening.

Superstorm Sandy convinced many New Jerseyans that climate change was a serious risk

Superstorm Sandy convinced many New Jerseyans that climate change is  a serious risk — but not Rep. Scott Garrett.

“The real question that still exists in a lot of people’s minds, experts and non-experts alike,” said Garrett, “on the area of global warming and what role the government should have in this realm … I’ve heard a number of experts on both sides of the equation on this issue and to me the evidence, the question is still out there.”

Well, since then, more than five years had passed, several global heat records have been broken and super-storm Sandy has ravaged Garrett’s home state. So I figured that the congressman might have noticed that there simply isn’t any more scientific debate over the reality and the cause of climate change, and its costs to the folks back home. So I began writing and calling. I wasn’t going to be put off by the standard form letters touting how much he loved “landscape” and “beauty,” and all the “job-killing” EPA action he was opposed to.

I asked what he actually supported in dealing with climate change.

I asked again. And again. Until I finally got a call back, after months of trying. It wasn’t Rep. Garrett himself, mind you. It was a fellow named Stephen, one of Garrett’s staffers. Stephen had an upper-crust British accent and the refined manners that would go with it. I couldn’t believe that I was hearing from a Tea Party politician’s office; it sounded like Buckingham Palace on the line.

I’m afraid that Stephen’s British manners outshone mine by a longshot. I kept interrupting his canned talking points about “energy independence” and “all-of-the-above energy” and “job-killing regulation” with one repeated question: “What will the congressman do about the climate crisis?”

Well, of course, the actual answer was – Nothing. But you can’t acknowledge that we face a crisis, and still insist on doing nothing. So Stephen began asking me how I was so sure that climate change is happening. And particularly, didn’t I think that El Niño might have something to do with it?

“El Niño?” I asked, flabbergasted. I thought I should explain some basic facts to this mannerly Brit: El Niño patterns occur every decade or so in the Pacific, and seem to accompany spikes in global temperatures. Yes, the last strong El Niño event occurred in 1997, ushering in the then-record-hot year of 1998 (since then, a record broken four times). And yes, 2015 – the world’s hottest year ever – was also an El Niño year.

But, I asked, didn’t the congressman understand that El Niño effects last only a year or two, while global heat is growing year after year in an alarming pattern? Doesn’t he read about the decline in Arctic sea ice, and the melting of the polar ice sheets? Doesn’t he know what’s happening with rising sea levels? Doesn’t he understand the nature of greenhouse gases that are rising year after year as we burn more and more fossil fuels?

Picture2

Thermal imagery of effects of 2015 El Niño in the eastern Pacific. NASA image.

The staffer’s response took me off guard: “I suppose,” he said in his most dignified British manner, “we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”

What? Wait a minute! You’re not disagreeing with me. You’re disagreeing with every university in New Jersey – Princeton, Rutgers, Drew, Fairleigh Dickenson and more. And you’re disagreeing with NASA, and NOAA, and the US Armed Services. And you’re disagreeing with 195 other countries that just signed the Paris Agreement to fight global warming.

“So, what’s your alternative theory for rising global heat?” I asked. El Niño is probably to blame, Stephen implied in an artfully cautious response. El Niño, the periodic one-year phenomenon that the whole world has failed to understand as the cause of a century-long heating of the earth.

“And how do you know about El Niño?” I asked. Of course, he admitted what everyone knows: from climate science. You know, the same scientists whose conclusions Stephen dismisses as alarmist propaganda. Or at least, when those conclusions suggest that we need to move away from fossil-fuels produced by powerful campaign contributors like the Koch Bothers.

Well, Rep. Garrett, this is simply ludicrous. Any of the thousands of young people enrolled in New Jersey’s fine colleges and universities can tell you that the basic science of climate change is well settled, and highly unlikely to be undermined by the sources you rely on, like the US Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute.

Maybe it’s too late, but let me just hope one last time: There are Republicans in Congress who have recognized the danger to our country, our children and our world, and are calling for climate action. In theory, at least, you could join them, and restore our confidence to some degree. The Climate Solutions Caucus is one option; the Gibson Amendment is another. And if you were to add your name to either one, you’d likely hear cheers from the 56% of Republican voters who actually support regulating carbon emissions from power plants.

And then maybe we’d manage to forget that you tried to blame long-term global warming on this year’s El Niño.

I haven’t given up hope just yet. You can still do something really good for us and our children.

Evangelical Conversion on Climate Change

When it comes to climate change, the Evangelical community has long been an outlier among American social groups. That all changed dramatically this year. In the short span of six months, evangelicals have swung from a minority of 49% accepting that global warming is happening, to fully 65% acceptance. They are now slightly more likely than mainstream Protestants to believe in climate science, and almost as likely as the average American, 70% of whom affirm that global warming is happening.

The poll conducted by the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College has been compiled every six months since 2008. While evangelicals initially held beliefs very similar to those of Catholics, Protestants and other Americans, the gap widened in 2012, with evangelicals falling 10-15% below other religious groups.

But as of November 2015, evangelicals now fall squarely in the mainstream of climate science. Of greater importance, evangelicals affirm a moral obligation in connection with climate change. 68% of evangelicals now say that the US has a moral obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Picture1

The Michigan/Muhlenberg polling organization summarized its finding as follows:

  1. Acceptance of global warming is up among all Americans, regardless of creed. The most notable gains in the last six months, however, have been among Evangelical Christians, whose belief rose 16 points from 49% in Spring 2015 to 65% this Fall, considerably narrowing the gap between Americans of different faiths.
  2. Pope Francis and his call to action on the issue of climate change may have contributed to this rise in acceptance, with 15% of Americans saying they are now more convinced global warming is happening and that we should act to address this matter as a result of the Papal Encyclical.
  3. Americans are more likely to tie their attitudes about climate change to moral convictions, rather than religious beliefs. While less than a quarter (23%) of Americans say their religious beliefs affect their views on how government should deal with the issue of global warming, 75% agree that rich countries like the US have a moral obligation to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
  4. Fewer than half (49%) of Americans think religious leaders should discuss environmental issues within the context of their faith, but most (60%) support Pope Francis’ call to action to address global warming.