Tag Archives: Elizabeth Kolbert

Confessions of a Global Warming Alarmist

Last week, I was sobered to read a note of sincere concern from a close friend who – like me – belongs to the American evangelical movement. In reference to my increasingly shrill warnings about the consequences of climate inaction, this person wrote, in effect: “The only note you can sound right now is the Chicken Little note.”

Chicken Little. The sky is falling. Global warming alarmist.

Well, let’s be thankful for all God’s blessings, however they might sometimes seem to sting: It is rare to find a friend who loves you enough to tell you the truth as he or she sees it. But if your friends don’t share your sense of alarm, it’s also important to recognize this truth: Like my honest friend, they probably believe you’re a little nuts. You’re a climate fundamentalist. Of course, they are kind enough to tolerate you – as one would with a conspiracy theorist or a grouchy old uncle. But you’re still an alarmist.

As you alone know, they don’t recognize the agony you’ve gone through not to yield to the hopelessness of the unfolding data. This is the tortured debate among climate communication experts: How do you speak the scientific truth without causing everyone to simply give up and wait for the end to come? You see it in virtually all climate reports. Regardless of the factual content, the final narrative will always be the same: We can still solve this! The time to act is now!

What’s the point of reporting the factual implications if they push us over the brink into tomorrow-we-die fatalism? So you try to soften the implications of your words. And yet, your witness seems impossibly dour to people who don’t spend their time digesting the implications of our abuse of the creation, as you do. Your friends and your family think you’re Chicken Little.

So, with my friend’s letter in hand, I read with renewed interest an article in last week’s New Yorker magazine by Pulitzer-Prize winner Elizabeth Kolbert, dealing with the technical matter of “carbon dioxide removal” or “negative emissions” – the mostly theoretical idea of sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere and storing it safely forever. (Note: This isn’t the same as carbon capture and sequestration [CCS], which pulls the carbon out of smokestacks. This is full-bore geo-engineering, where vast infrastructure parses through the entire atmosphere to hunt down and trap excess carbon, and store it away forever out of reach of the earth’s climate systems.) This is truly radical stuff.

Reading about “negative emissions,” my interest was piqued, not by the technology, cost or logistical hurdles, but by the unspoken hopelessness of the facts that served as the backdrop for the discussion. We are now discussing “negative emissions,” not because it’s a terrific – or even feasible – idea, but because we can’t imagine a survivable world without this technology. Consider with me a few of the facts presented by Kolbert:

“Catastrophe,” while once cited in hyperbole, now occupies a prominent place in the scientific lexicon. Kolbert recounts the facts: “This past April, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record four hundred and ten parts per million. The amount of CO2 in the air now is probably greater than it’s been at any time since the mid-Pliocene, three and a half million years ago, when there was a lot less ice at the poles and sea levels were sixty feet higher. This year’s record will be surpassed next year, and next year’s the year after that. Even if every country fulfills the pledges made in the Paris climate accord—and the United States has said that it doesn’t intend to—carbon dioxide could soon reach levels that, it’s widely agreed, will lead to catastrophe, assuming it hasn’t already done so.

“As the world warmed, it started to change, first gradually and then suddenly. By now, the globe is at least one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than it was [at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution], and the consequences are becoming ever more apparent. Heat waves are hotter, rainstorms more intense, and droughts drier. The wildfire season is growing longer, and fires, like the ones that recently ravaged Northern California, more numerous. Sea levels are rising, and the rate of rise is accelerating.”

In light of what we have already done, there is nothing we can do to stop the earth from warming at least to levels targeted as dangerous by every country under the Paris Acord: “Meanwhile, still more warming is locked in. There’s so much inertia in the climate system, which is as vast as the earth itself, that the globe has yet to fully adjust to the hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide that have been added to the atmosphere in the past few decades. It’s been calculated that to equilibrate to current CO2 levels the planet still needs to warm by half a degree [in addition to one degree already in the books]. And every ten days another billion tons of carbon dioxide are released. Last month, the World Meteorological Organization announced that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere jumped by a record amount in 2016.”

Few voices are telling us how radical are the personal and societal changes needed to salvage a world whose climate can support its species, including humanity: “When the I.P.C.C. went looking for ways to hold the temperature increase under two degrees Celsius, it found the math punishing. Global emissions would have to fall rapidly and dramatically—pretty much down to zero by the middle of this century. (This would entail, among other things, replacing most of the world’s power plants, revamping its agricultural systems, and eliminating gasoline-powered vehicles, all within the next few decades.) Alternatively, humanity could, in effect, go into hock. It could allow CO2 levels temporarily to exceed the two-degree threshold—a situation that’s become known as ‘overshoot’—and then, via negative emissions, pull the excess CO2 out of the air.”

The odds against us are more daunting than climate communication experts will ever advise us to admit: “The I.P.C.C. considered more than a thousand possible scenarios. Of these, only a hundred and sixteen limit warming to below two degrees, and of these a hundred and eight involve negative emissions. In many below-two-degree scenarios, the quantity of negative emissions called for reaches the same order of magnitude as the ‘positive’ emissions being produced today.”

Please, my friends, let that sink in. More than one thousand scientific models have been run. Only sixteen conclude that humanity can keep global warming to two degrees Celsius. Of those sixteen, only eight reach that conclusion without reliance on massive, arguably-fictional geo-engineering technologies that actually suck up and hide the pollution that we are emitting today. And, even those assume immediate Herculean efforts at every national and sub-national level – efforts that we are still refusing to adopt as a country, and perhaps as a world.

For me, this dismal narrative explains, to a considerable degree, the renewed interest in biblical lamentation among young people of faith. The prophets and psalmists saw the Babylonian exile coming; others wept in captivity as they remembered their homeland; they raised their complaint to God with bitter tears. They maintained profound hope rooted in God’s faithfulness; but sunny, can-do optimism is nowhere to be found.

And today, you share much with those prophets and psalmists. You have tasted God’s grace in creation and redemption; you have placed your hope in his love. Yet you also know that God’s love is not a magical antidote to suffering in this world, whether personal or societal. Genocide, starvation, famine, pandemic and flood afflict all of mankind, in virtually every age, regardless of faith commitments.

And yet, you pray “thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” And in this age, that might make you an alarmist, like me. We must resist the arrogance of dogmatic certainty. But some things are terrifyingly clear. Our walk of faith today is to work and to speak for those who cannot speak. And finally, to pray for faith to believe that this world’s Maker will ultimately be just, despite the calamity we are bringing upon his beloved planet.

 

Read Elizabeth Kolbert’s article here: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/20/can-carbon-dioxide-removal-save-the-world

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.