Climate Change In My Backyard

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That’s what my lawn looks like in the middle of July. In many past years the grass is dry and going into dormancy, its natural response to the hot and dry weather of mid-summer.

Not this year. Our lawns are green and growing. The landscape has the lushness of spring. It has rained nearly every day of the last week. Someone may say it is just a weather pattern, like the hot weather in the west. While there is truth to that, climate scientists say the impact of a warming climate is an intensifying of these patterns. In the case of Central Ohio, where I live, we are in the fifth year of wetter than usual weather. Average rainfall in Columbus is 39.7 inches. Over the past four years the rainfall here has been:

YearRainfall
201746.7 inches
201855.2 inches
201944.0 inches
202050.5 inches

What I have observed is more rain events with heavy downpours with risks of everything from flooded basements to more widespread flooding. This corresponds to the predicted effects of climate change for our region. Sometimes, those rain events are dramatic–high winds, tornadoes, more lightning strikes.

Temperatures in Ohio have risen 1.2 to 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the last hundred years. While summers are wetter, we are also seeing more days over 90 degrees. The growing season is longer, I would estimate by 10 days on each end. While we have more rain, generally, we are having less snow and warmer winters.

Compared to some parts of the country, we are relatively fortunate. We don’t have the hurricanes of the southeast or the hot and dry weather and fire seasons of the west.

These are the kinds of things I think about given the changes we are seeing in our climate:

Water drainage is the big one. It begins with the gutters and downspouts on my house. With heavy downpours making sure these are clear and adequately can handle the water coming off the roof. Are all the drains to our street clear? Is the drain outside the landing to the backdoor on our lower level clear? Is the sump working properly (we replaced it last summer after bailing the pit during a heavy rainstorm)? I’m also looking at all the grading around our house to make sure water is flowing away from the house.

Warmer and wetter conditions invite insects. Ticks and mosquitoes are a growing concern. Ticks can transmit Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Mosquitoes carry West Nile Virus, and Zika could also become an issue. Now an evening working in the yard includes a tick check on oneself and one’s clothes. We look for any standing water where mosquitoes can breed.

Last summer, we cleaned out an interior storage closet so it could be used for a tornado shelter if worst came to worst. We hope that’s enough. If I were building a new house anywhere in the Central and Midwest part of the country, I would incorporate a safe room in the design.

The high winds that accompany some of our storms mean evaluating the health of the trees on our property. We do find ourselves spending more time cleaning up branches after a storm. We don’t want to clean up heavier limbs, though.

When we replaced an A/C unit to our house, we installed one that had greater cooling capacity and energy efficiency to handle the higher summer temperatures.

We’ve probably halved our electricity consumption in recent years through energy efficient appliances and lighting. But heavier storms have made power outages a greater problem. We’re weighing using the southern exposure on our roof for solar energy, and the possibility of some form of backup power. Two major storms in recent years have resulted in widespread outages, some lasting a week.

There are some upsides. We do have longer growing seasons. I can put my tomatoes out by May 1 instead of May 10-15 when I first moved here. That means ripe tomatoes in July. We do have ample water (wish we could send some out west). During the worst of COVID, we were able to do outdoor visits comfortably from April through late in October of last year.

I don’t want to indulge all the tiresome arguments about whether climate change is real or whose fault it is. What I do have to think about as a responsible homeowner are the climate impacts we are experiencing. What I’ve discussed is simply how I am thinking about “what is” rather than “what if.” I do think the longer term challenge to limit global warming is an important, even an existential issue, as the heat-related deaths in the Pacific Northwest underscores. But the changes to our climate that I have seen in the thirty-one years we have lived in our home involve all sorts of practical considerations from maintenance schedules to what improvements we make on our home.

Human beings all over our planet are making changes, many far more dramatic than the ones I’ve described. Some are having to relocate to produce food or because rising sea levels are inundating their homes. Some have “go bags” packed to evacuate at a moment’s notice during fire season and are not sure to find their home standing when they come back. Some are trying to survive unseasonably hot temperatures that can be deadly to the elderly.

Whether we choose to admit it or not, life is changing for all of us. It certainly is for me.

Living Christianly in a Changing Climate.

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I wrote a post last week titled “Pandemic as Dress Rehearsal,” discussing how the pandemic is really a test of how we will respond to the challenges of a changing climate.” A friend of mine who shares my Christian commitments wrote back, “Now, in next column, tell us what are a few Biblically correct ways to respond to the frightening facts you put before us today!” This is my attempt to do so. I don’t claim to speak for all Christians by any means, but rather of the biblical convictions that are formative for me.

I would begin in response, that I believe we are called not to live in a “spirit of fear but of power and love and a sound mind” (2Timothy 1:7). It is one thing to confront frightening facts (or hide from them which I believe is one species of fear). I believe living in and acting out of fear thwarts our capacity to live with power, love, and a sound mind.

Power. Often this is seen as a bad thing, and certainly can be. However if we understand power as agency, or even better, as vice-regency with God in the care of his creation, this means we’ve been given capacities to act for good or ill in the care of creation. Sadly, we have often understood our dominion over the creation as license to exploit it. If, however, we see creation as a trust from God to be cared for, cultivated and developed for the flourishing of humans and other creatures, and conserved for those who will follow, we will act differently. A principle of gardening is to put as much (or more) into the soil as you take out, and it will keep feeding you. In our changing climate, we do not need to surrender to fear or hopelessness, because to do so would be to surrender our power or agency to care for God’s world. Scripture? Genesis 1:28 and 2:15 begin to address these matters. There are things to be done to address build-ups of greenhouse gasses and the effects these are already having. But how ought we do them?

Love. The greatest command to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:30-31) summarizes the ethic of a Christian, with the other commands elaborating how we do this. It seems to me that we cannot love God without loving what he has made. It is sad that I see many Christians spending more of their time fighting about how God created than devoting themselves to love his creation. We cannot care for places or people well without loving them. Do we recognize their intrinsic worth, whether the trees of the Amazon rain forest or the people living on islands or coastal regions facing inundation from rising sea levels. Often, sadly we only consider the economic, extrinsic worth of so many things (and people) and how they may enrich those of us with more access to wealth and power.

Love means love of the soil, of rivers and oceans, of the tiniest creatures of earth and the rarest. If we believe God made them all and that not a single sparrow if forgotten before God (Luke 12:6), then the extinction of a species surely grieves him and is a loss to the fabric of creation, weakening it and rendering it less lavish and full. Loving means we will take steps to care for those whose lives are ravaged by extreme climate events–shelter, food, and for those from other countries who lose their home or livelihoods, a welcome to find these among us, as challenging as that may be. Mother Theresa spoke of doing “small things with great love.” There are a thousand small things we may do from our dietary choices to the vehicles we drive that may be done with love. Both cows and cars are significant factors in contributing to greenhouse gas buildups. I can also envision technological interventions implemented lovelessly. These will not be good.

Sound mind. There is no other creature that devotes the energy to studying everything from genomes to galaxies that we humans do. As Ecclesiastes 7:25 say, there is something in us that wants to search out “the reason of things.” I’m struck in Paul’s encouragement to Timothy that he speaks of a sound mind. Elsewhere, in Romans12:2 he speaks of a renewed mind. Christians are to live contrary to those who accept whatever their “itching ears” want to hear. They believe there is such a thing as truth that may be distinguished from falsehood. No wonder that science grew up in a Christian atmosphere that believed both in our abilities to observe and study the world’s phenomenon, and to search out the truth about them through rigorous processes. We have great need for those with soundness of mind not only in science but among those who develop technology, who model data, who develop public policy, and who seek to skillfully marshal public support for the changes that need to be made.

Beyond all this, I believe we need to live as people of hope. My pastor preached this past Sunday on Jeremiah 29 which includes this passage:

Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit.  Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters—that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace. (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

Jeremiah is writing to exiles in Babylon. This should ring true for all of us who Peter also calls exiles (1 Peter 1:1,2:11). We live in hope of a better home. It might be easy to become indifferent and say “let it burn.” Jeremiah tells people who are tempted to indulge false hopes of a quick return home to build homes and gardens, have babies and grandbabies and seek the peace of the city of their exile. That is how they live in hope. For us, caring for our home and seeking its peace prepares us for our new home, the new heaven and earth. No matter what happens to our climate (and I believe things will get worse before they get better), our care of creation reflects hope, not that we will bring a new Eden on earth, but rather in some dim way prepare for the new creation to come.

Faith. Finally, this is an uncharted journey for all of us. But we are not the first to take uncharted journeys. Abraham gets that honor, for leaving his family in Haran to go wherever God would take him. The scriptures say, “Abram [Abraham] believed God and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). And God kept his promises to Abraham to give him offspring, land, and to make him a blessing to the nations. Someone has said that what matters is really not the size of our faith (a mustard seed is enough) but the size of our God. Another friend observed that the big question of the Bible is, “is God good and can we trust Him?” I believe within the next generation, we will face serious tests of faith. Will we trust that the God who did not spare his own son will bring us through?

So to my friend who suggested I write this, here is my humble and far from complete reply. Whole books have been written about this (and I should probably write a post listing some of them!). Surely my friend and many others may add to what I’ve written, which I welcome. It is an important conversation I believe we need to be having about how then we shall live in these times.

Pandemic as Dress Rehearsal

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OK. I’m just going to put it out there. I am convinced that the pandemic is a dress rehearsal for a more serious challenge that makes infection control, treatment, and a global vaccination campaign look like child’s play. The challenge is our rapidly warming planet and the ways it will change and imperil life on our planet, the only one we have.

An article from 2013 states that the last time CO2 levels on earth were as high (then 400 ppm, recently as high as 420) was before we humans were around. The oceans were 100 feet higher, the arctic was a tropical paradise. Since 1800, planetary temperatures have risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit, on average, and far more in some locations. The evidence of a changing climate is evident in rising sea levels, melting glaciers all over the planet, more extreme storms in some areas, drier, prolonged drought and fire seasons in others. The growing season where I live is at least two weeks longer than when I moved here 30 years ago. In some places, summer temperatures have hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit, levels that challenge human habitability. Coastal cities globally face inundation.

At this point CO2 outputs continue to rise as the rest of the world catches up to the US in outputs, and likely global temperatures will follow. If the permafrost melts, large amounts of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas, will be emitted, further accelerating global warming. Now some forms of life survived while others died during this previous time of high CO2 levels. One thing that is clear is that some people will die from heat or famine or flooding. Many others will be displaced and what will happen when they (or we) try to share the remaining habitable places. We haven’t even begun to reckon with other creatures on the earth. Even if we make the requisite effort to reduce CO2 output to “net zero” by 2050 or earlier some of this will happen. If it is not evident yet to everyone, I believe we are facing an existential threat.

It is one that:

  • Threatens our very existence.
  • That will wreak significant global devastation even if we take the necessary actions, which may mitigate but not eliminate the consequences of what we have already done contributing to global climate change.
  • Will require significant changes in the way we live.
  • Will require concerted efforts to address the primary causes of CO2 emissions–cows, coal, and petrochemicals.
  • Calls for a shared ethic of pursuing the common good.
  • Cannot be accomplished without global cooperation and coordination.

Do you recognize the parallels with our global responses and sometimes lack of responses to the coronavirus? I think the verdict is mixed. We did mount a global scientific effort to study the virus, sequence its genome, and develop highly effective vaccines in record time. Efforts to mitigate the virus’s impact worked to a certain extent, more in some countries than others. In the US where personal freedom is more highly valued than acting for the common good, these efforts have faced a tug of war between public health and personal freedom that has led to an acceptance of infection rates, hospitalizations, and deaths that have outpaced the rest of the world. At this point, there are great inequities of vaccination rates reflecting distribution of vaccines in various parts of the world. Meanwhile the virus continues to mutate becoming more effective in spreading itself, especially in parts of the world where it can continue to spread unchecked, which imperils us all.

The thing is, we have seen human beings at their best and worst through all of this–selflessly caring for the very sick in ICUs and hoarding toilet paper. We’ve seen the capacities of researchers to study something that was novel and learn immense amounts about how it infects and spreads and effects the body and where it can be attacked in the space of a year. Medical personnel have made major advances in treatment. And we’ve seen it turned into a political football, where nearly every insight into prevention, treatment, and the safety and efficacy of vaccines has been contested.

It makes me wonder how we will respond to the coming climate challenge. Now some of you don’t buy that this is really an issue. I do. Truthfully, I’d rather you were right. I respect you if you think differently. But I would hope you might think about the “what if?” Because if “what if” turns out to be true, this will be one of those situations where we either choose to “hang together or hang separately.” We can choose to listen to our better angels and work for the global good. Or we can choose a “survival of the fittest” (and the richest) ethic in a hotter and less hospitable world. Ultimately, what happens to the earth is beyond me. But what kind of person I will be as we face these challenges is not. At this juncture of the pandemic, it seems time for me to consider how I’ve played my own part in this “dress rehearsal” for the greater challenge before us.

Review: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021.

Summary: An assessment of what it will take to get to “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, and the technological breakthroughs we will need to achieve that.

If you do not believe the scientific consensus about our changing climate and the implication of increasing global temperatures for all forms of life on planet earth, you probably want to take a pass on this post. Likewise if you have it out for Bill Gates. I’m not interested in arguments with you. I review books for those who want to know about new books so they may decide whether or not to purchase them and that’s who this review is for.

Bill Gates spent his early adult life building Microsoft as one of the leaders of the personal computer revolution, with the goal of a computer in every home, many of them powered by Microsoft software. He made a massive fortune and has spent the second half of his life giving much of it away, focusing particularly quality healthcare for the impoverished of the world and quality educational opportunities. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has led initiatives for vaccinations to eliminate childhood diseases, and poured money into COVID-19 vaccines, resulting in conspiratorial allegations, a classic example of the axiom that “no good deed goes unpunished.” His travels around the world have brought to his attention how global climate challenge threatens to undo the progress made by the health and education programs the foundation has funded. And in typical Gates fashion, he has researched the problem, read voraciously, and put his own money where his mouth is. His book recommendations at GatesNotes are second only to my own (just kidding!).

This new book makes a very simple contention. We need to go from 51 billion to zero. 51 billion is the amount of pounds of greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere. Zero is zero net emissions, which most climate scientists believe we need to get to by 2050 at the latest if we have any chances of averting the worst consequences of anthropogenic climate change. Gates outlines their case and the consequences, disproportionately hitting the world’s poorest who have contributed the least to the crisis. And probably in the biggest understatement of the whole book, Gates spends the next chapter telling us “this will be hard.” If we ignore it, things will be even worse. We could just say, we have what it takes and we just need to do it. Gates makes the case that this is only partially true at best. To get to zero, there are problems we need to solve for which we do not yet have the solutions. And we hardly have a consensus that we need to lean into this hard work and invest in solutions we don’t even have.

In the chapters that follow, he lays out the challenges. Electricity and the grid that delivers it is an amazing thing. But we get much of it from burning fossil fuels and we have to figure out how to eliminate those emissions, either by capturing the carbon or better, using forms that don’t require burning carbon-based fuels. He reviews all the alternatives, making the argument for solar, wind, and thermal, but also for a new generation of nuclear plants (in which he is investing). We need to figure out how to make things without carbon emissions. Plastic, steel, and concrete all require significant emissions as currently manufactured. We have to deal with how we grow our food. Huge increases in crop yields have fed the world, but require fertilizers that add to our emissions as do the cows that provide for our beef-heavy appetites, through their burps and farts (Gates’ words!). Then there is transportation. Trains, planes, and automobiles (and ships) are most efficiently powered by fossil fuels. Battery technology allows cars to travel up to a few hundred miles, but they are heavy, and the larger the vehicle, the more limited they are as a solution. Finally, there is heating and cooling. Even if there are solutions for all these problems (and for some they don’t yet exist), the Green Premium (the extra cost of the carbon-free alternative) is often prohibitive, especially in poorer countries, and needs to be reduced.

The final part of the book attempts to chart the course governments, companies, and individuals will need to take to overcome these challenges to get to net zero. First he addresses the fact that adaptation will be part of it. The world will get warmer. It will be particularly critical to address food production, especially in poorer countries. Then Gates argues for the importance of government policies that invest in research and in leveling the playing field so fossil fuel based solutions don’t enjoy an advantage that removes the incentive to develop alternatives, and more. One of the most critical pieces is to invest in research and development and match it to our greatest needs. Finally he focuses on what each of us can do as citizen advocates, as conserving consumers, and as Green employers.

I found myself reflecting as I read all this on whether we have any hope of making it to zero. One thing I appreciate about Gates is his blunt honesty. This is incredibly hard! Even at the height of pandemic lockdowns, carbon emissions only went down 17 percent, according to Gates. Actually the pandemic is a kind of dress rehearsal for what we need to do globally to address climate change. While there are bright spots like the rapidity in which the vaccines and new therapies were developed, or individual countries that managed to balance public health and economic pressures well with high citizen cooperation, the uncoordinated global response and contentiousness within countries have led to a muddled effort at best, far from optimum. Bill Gates does not address how to overcome the resistance to the hard work needed (when many resisted even wearing masks) and what will be needed to engender trust in the science instead of suspicion.

Perhaps the question is whether a critical number of world leaders, business leaders, science leaders, community leaders, and faith leaders will come together in resolute action over a thirty year period. Not all will follow–at least at first. Over time, new norms may just become norms. Bill Gates is hopeful that we will take the measures needed and that we will find and implement the solutions that are necessary. I’m not so sure. But I also agree with him that the alternative is far less desirable. The question is whether we will see it coming before it is here.

Review: Angry Weather

Angry Weather, Friederike Otto. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2020.

Summary: A description of the use of attribution science to assess the probability that anthropogenic-caused climate change is a factor in particular extreme weather events.

You’ve heard the discussions. An extreme drought results in unprecedented forest fires. A record and extended heatwave results in hundreds of heat-related deaths. A hurricane stalls over a major coastal city and dumps record amounts of rainfall resulting in extensive flooding, property damage, and deaths. Record spring rainfalls flood farmlands resulting in major crop losses. Commentators will cite these as yet more examples of climate change, while those denying climate change will argue that these are rare but naturally occurring events.

It turns out that many climate scientists are quiet during these discussions. Weather is complicated. Most climate scientists observe long term trends and the impacts these have as inputs to weather systems. But they are reluctant to opine on individual events. In the last decade, a new area of climate science has developed called attribution science that is used to determine to what extent anthropogenic climate change has contributed to the magnitude or probability of an individual event. Friederike Otto is one of the scientists on the forefront of this emerging field and this book serves as a description of this field and its uses for the lay reader interested in climate research. (For those wanting a more technical version of this material, this article, co-authored by this author, goes deeper into their research methodologies and studies of climate events.)

She uses her team’s real-time research of Hurricane Harvey that dropped over 40 inches of rain on the Houston metro area as an example of attribution science, which has also studied European heatwaves. She details how they isolated the variable they would look at, which in this case was rainfall amounts. Then there is the work of collecting, modelling and analyzing large amounts of data, both about this particular storm and weather data going as far back as possible, in many cases from 30 to 100 years. Using peer-reviewed mathematical modelling, within three weeks the team estimates that climate change makes an event like Harvey three times more likely at the current state of change. In Harvey’s case, this was an event that would occur every 9,000 years under historic conditions, but three times more probable due to climate change. That’s still very unlikely, but also signals the increased likelihood of lesser flooding events.

The account of their study of Harvey is interlaced with explanations about how rising global temperatures from CO2 emissions contribute to changes in weather patterns contributing to more extreme events. She also describes the fossil fuel industry’s spending to cast doubts on climate research. She is honest about the number of weather events they studied where climate change played little or no part and the kinds of events currently not amenable to this approach. One of the most valuable aspects of this research is the information it gives governmental bodies to take steps to prepare when once rare events–floods, storms, droughts, can be predicted to be more common. She describes steps taken in Europe for the sheltering of vulnerable populations during heat waves as an example. If flooding becomes more popular, permits for construction in what were once infrequent flood plains need to be re-evaluated.

There are aspects of this work that are controversial. For one thing, studies like the one on Harvey, are published in real-time, and only subsequently in journals that are peer-reviewed. The argument is that the models are peer-reviewed, as are subsequent articles, but that in the elapse of time, and given the obscurity of most academic journals, this information is most timely and helpful in policy discussions in the immediate context of an event rather than when it is in the rear view mirror.

The other controversial element is to use the results of attribution science in lawsuits for damages against fossil fuel companies who have contributed to climate change. She describes such efforts. I am concerned that these models, built on multiple variables and probabilities may be better to use in future planning than to assess damages arising from past actions, whether the actors were aware of or not of the possible consequences of the actions.

I don’t think the energy companies are without fault in all this, but there seemed a bit too much of a “go after ExxonMobil” in this book for my liking, and I think this can backfire on what seems to be an emerging and useful area of research. Far better it seems to me to use this research for good public policy decisions going forward. Also, the author notes how even 30 years of data is a bare minimum in climate research. This area of research is in its infancy, and while promising, will be proven out more definitively as they continue to produce studies of events, particularly ones with similar variables. But if I were a planner concerned with both the economic viability and disaster preparedness of my region, I would be paying attention.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Insects are Coming!

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Maize weevil, U.S. Department of Agriculture, [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

The other day, we had a delivery scheduled at our home. A young man was directing the driver as he backed into our driveway when suddenly he yelled, “Stop!” He pointed up, and low and behold, there was a nest of bald-faced hornets hanging from a branch in the maple tree by our drive, about twelve feet from the ground. Concealed partially by leaves, we had not noticed it. I’m glad this young man did, because bald-faced hornets are nasty insects when aroused. They can sting repeatedly and respond in large numbers when their nest is endangered. Not something any of us wanted to deal with.

Because of the location, near a sidewalk where many people, including school children walk, we had no safe alternative but to call a pest control company to remove it. If the nest had been on a part of our property remote from house or walks we could have safely left it a few more weeks because the first frosts would have taken care of it. The young man who came out, wearing protective gear, quickly took care of it. We were chatting about the warmer temperatures and changes in growing seasons and then he made an interesting comment. He said, “I don’t know about this climate change stuff, but it sure has been good for our business.” He deals with things like termites and ant infestations as well.

Much of the focus in discussions of climate changes have focused on rising sea levels, melting glaciers, warmer temperatures, drier or wetter conditions, more severe weather events and so forth. Another consequence however is greater problems with insect pests that eat crops, that carry disease, and invade our homes. My pest control man is already seeing the difference in his bottom line. I guess climate change isn’t bad for everyone!

It is bad news for the world’s food supply. Insects are ectotherms, which means that their metabolisms speed up as it gets hotter. They eat more and reproduce more quickly. Some projections suggest up to a 46 percent increase in wheat yield losses, 31 percent for corn, and 19 percent for rice. This compounds potential losses from weather events, drought, and other climate-related problems.

Two other factors also stand out. One is that insect ranges are changing. As once-temperate zones get warmer, tropical and subtropical insects are able to move into these zones. Also, in northern areas, like the one I live in, many insects don’t survive stretches of sub-freezing temperatures. Some always do, but more will with milder winters.

While the most critical impact could be on crop yields, we can’t ignore the increased prevalence of insect-borne diseases and the need to deal with more insect pests invading our homes.

It is possible that various pest management approaches and insect-resistant plants can offset some of these impacts. But it also means we should be prepared to spend more addressing the problems these pests cause. It might be extra cost for increasingly scarce food or even food shortages. Or it might simply be extra production cost. Wearing insect repellents may become necessary whenever we go out. Pest inspection and control measures may become a cost we factor into home maintenance.

A saying I remember from the first Earth Days in the 1970’s was “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” We may have fueled our high energy economy relatively cheaply with fossil fuels, only to find we have merely deferred the cost of our actions, perhaps long enough that our children will be the ones to pay them. If nothing else, it appears they may face a buggier future. I doubt they will thank us for it.

Review: Losing Earth

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Losing Earth: A Recent HistoryNathaniel Rich. MCD/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019.

Summary: An account of the lost opportunity of the 1980’s to address climate change and the birth of the polarized dialogue that exists to this day.

Did you know that much of the scientific understanding of the greenhouse effect and global warming traces back to the nineteenth century? That in the 1950’s and throughout the Sixties and Seventies, scientists were already warning of global warming and contending that warming connected with higher carbon dioxide levels was already evident? Did you know there was a time when climate change and the science behind it was not a political issue and that political leaders in both parties, and many others in most the the countries of the world, substantially agreed that this was a looming problem that needed to be addressed? That world leaders came very close to an agreement to limit and reduce carbon dioxide emissions in 1989? That was thirty years ago. In 1990 human beings emitted more than 20 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Instead of cutting that amount, by 2018, the amount was projected at 37.1 billion metric tons and growing.

Nathaniel Rich narrates the story of a lost moment through two figures: Rafe Pomerance, an environmental lobbyist and Gordon MacDonald, a climate scientist. A third figure who plays a prominent role is James Hansen, a NASA climate scientist who compiled massive amounts of data, and gave compelling testimony wherever called upon. Pomerance, came across this finding in a government study on the continued use of fossil fuels: “continued use of fossil fuels might, within two or three decades, bring about ‘significant and damaging’ changes to the global atmosphere.” That was in the Spring of 1979 and changed the course of his life. It led to his interview with Gordon MacDonald, a geophysicist, who was glad that someone beside him finally noticed.

Rich’s book traces their efforts to mobilize awareness and action, culminating in the formation of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and a climate summit in the Netherlands in 1989. Initially, action on climate change was widely supported, at least in public statements. Meanwhile, a transformation began to take place in the fossil fuel industry from studying the issue themselves and reckoning on the consequences of continued fuel use, to a movement of resistance and a challenge to the science, and exercise of increasing leverage. In the climate talks, the resistance of one US figure led to a meaningless agreement to which the US never subscribed, and an increasingly politicized discourse around climate issues. Perhaps the most stunning revelation of this book was that it was not always so.

Rich’s afterword is both hopeful and sobering. He both notes the technological advances that might be turned to action limiting global temperature rises to somewhere between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius. Yet he also wrestles with the propensity of human beings to not act to address possible dangers down the road and instead prefer their present comfort. He not only condemns in the strongest terms those who twist and deny what they know. He challenges all of us:

We do not like to think about loss, or death; Americans in particular, do not like to think about death. No matter how obsessively one follows the politics of climate change, it is difficult to contemplate soberly an existential threat to the species. Our queasiness even infects the language we use to describe it: the banalities of “global warming” and “climate change” perform the linguistic equivalent of rolling on sanitary gloves to palpate a hemorrhaging wound.

To see how close the world came to a climate agreement on carbon emissions in the 1980’s, to learn of a time when this was not a political football, suggests that it may be possible in the future. To avert the worst possibilities, it is imperative. One concludes Rich’s book wondering, will we seize or miss the opportunity that we have?

 

Planetary Denial

Earth

Our only home. Image credit: NASA

I’ve lived long enough to walk with friends facing terminal illnesses. One of the most character defining things is how one faces one’s death. One of the most relationship-defining moments is how the friends of the dying walk with their friends in those moments. One thing we do know is that denial never helps. Sometimes, denying a life-threatening illness averts treatment that can save life. Denying that one is dying prevents one from concluding one’s life well. Pretending a dying friend will get better prevents the conversations that allow people to say what is needed to finish well together.

I’m convinced that the planetary systems that sustain life on our planet are in a serious crisis. If you are not convinced of that, I really have no argument for you. Chances are, you’ve heard them all and don’t credit them.

I do. The rapid planet-wide rise of temperatures that corresponds to the rapidly increasing levels of carbon dioxide we have poured into our atmosphere already is having consequences. The death of coral reefs. An arctic free of ice. Coastal cities and inhabited islands that will be submerged. Droughts. Catastrophic fire seasons. Melting glaciers. Melting permafrost adding even more greenhouse gases, accelerating the process.

I’ve lived one place for thirty years. I garden. I’ve seen our growing season extend two to three weeks in that short period. We have more insects. Rains and storms are more intense. Winters are milder. Thirty years is a short time to see some of these changes on a year in, year out basis.

What I read, what I learn from politically impartial scientists who are friends, what I see around me, even what I feel, tells me I am not living in the world of my youth just fifty to sixty years ago. If there is anything to what I read, these changes are only going to intensify in the years ahead. We have yet to see all the effects of the carbon dioxide we’ve already emitted, let alone what we will emit in the years ahead.

In my childhood, we learned to live under the cloud of a nuclear holocaust. The apocalyptic consequences of a nuclear war, at least so far, have stayed the hands of those who could unleash one. In one way, instant incineration, or a quick, if painful death from radiation sickness may be easier than what we could be facing.

The scenario before us seems to be one of survival of the fittest and devil take the hindmost. Drought and famine will likely increase taking many by starvation, or others in wars for food and water. The migrations we have seen in recent years will likely increase, and the confrontations at borders become more violent. We will be in an increasingly unstable world, and even within national borders, tensions will increase. Living near the relatively abundant water supply of the Great Lakes, I wonder what tensions we will face even from other parts of our own country stressed for water. Meanwhile, food pressures or environmental degradation will mean rapid species die offs of other creatures. Imagine a dawn without bird song but simply the intensifying of unremitting heat. As oceans rise, the question occurs to me of where will all the people in our coastal cities live and work?

It won’t all happen at once, which gives us the illusion that somehow we will escape the apocalypse. No doubt, this is what assures the powerful that they can get by. And maybe they will. Those in power today will likely die a natural death, as probably will I. But if the predictions hold, every year will get a little worse. Within a generation, we will know we are in an unremitting global crisis that will take generations or millennia to reverse. In two generations, many places on our planet will be hellish, and it seems credible to me that our social order will not sustain the brutal struggle for survival that will ensue.

I think we all hope for an amazing techno-fix. This seems like our hopes for miracle cures, or even miracle diet plans! Given the complex systems, and planetary scale, and how far down the road we are, I think the best we may do is prepare for the future, and do what we can not to make it worse. From what I can see, we’re not even doing that, and we crucify anyone who seriously talks about the drastic steps needed just to keep planetary temperatures from rising “only” 3 degrees Celsius.

As a Christian, my belief that Jesus is Lord of all challenges me to bring all my thoughts about this under his Lordship. I’m wrestling with what this means when I’m pretty convinced we face an existential crisis as a species we’ve not faced. For starters, I think this means continuing to live by faith. It means that I bring this crisis, and how I live to Him. If I believe all things were created through and sustained by Christ, that means that I do not stop looking to him when things appear dire. It may be that our hope is only in the “new heavens and new earth” of which scripture speaks. That’s not up to me. What is up to me is to continue to live as a responsible steward and caretaker of God’s world. I am increasingly aware that I, and all of us will answer for how we cared for the world, for the species, and fellow human beings who died because we did not care for it well. It challenges me to do all I can and to cherish and preserve the beauty of the earth while we can.

My faith teaches me that love of God and neighbor are intricately intertwined. As Christian communities, I think we will need to wrestle more deeply with how we will care for neighbors who experience loss and need. Will we adopt a “lifeboat ethic” or a “lay-down-our lives” ethic?

It seems to me that Christian communities need to begin talking about these things. These are end of planetary life conversations, and as desperately important as any other end-of-life conversation. It may be an easy escape to hope for the return of Christ to deliver us from all these things. But Jesus says we cannot know the day or hour of this, and we cannot count on this coming before things get bad. What we can count on is that there will be a reckoning for how we lived in these bad times.

There are some who will think all this is extreme. I so hope you are right. I would love to be proved wrong. But all that I know, see, even feel in my bones tells me we face something as serious as humanity has ever faced. The planet will survive. Whether we do is another question. It may depend on whether we face the hard truths before us, and on how we live whatever life is given us.

“America is Addicted to Wars of Distraction”

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich, by David Shankbone [CC BY-SA 2.5] via Wikipedia

Barbara Ehrenreich, a writer who has described herself as “a myth buster by trade,” made this observation in the Times of London on April 22, 1991. I don’t know the context of the quote, although this comes toward the end of the first Gulf War. Whether Ehrenreich (of whom I’ve not always been a fan) is referring to America’s actual wars or some of the metaphorical wars of political discourse, I wonder if she has a point.

I wonder if so many of the conflicts on our political landscape, whether intentional or not, are distractions from larger issues, ones that, if true, are really uncomfortable to face. Perhaps the biggest of these is the future of life on the only place we really have to live. It seems to me that it would be like arguing about the size of the iceberg if you are a passenger on the sinking Titanic.

Every year seems to be the record hottest for the planet. Cities like New York, Washington, DC, Miami and our naval base at Norfolk could be the new Venices. Summer temperatures in some parts of the world inhabited by millions are reaching levels that pose significant dangers to human life. Often, the populations most affected by the changes that have already happened or that will happen are the least equipped to handle them. There have already been massive species die-offs. Are we being presumptuous to think we are exempt? It may be more comforting to us to keep fighting about all this, calling each other tree huggers and climate deniers.

I could go on. I cannot help notice that there are deep flaws in a society where life expectancies are declining, where deaths from suicide are on the rise, where we have more than one “mass shooting” incident a day, where large swaths of our population are wrestling with substance addictions. Are we concerned with the disparities of health outcomes that depend on zipcodes, and that life and death (or bankruptcy) often depends on the health coverage one has, something that could change with a merger or a layoff.

It’s not that people aren’t talking about these things. They are. They tend to be fighting about them. It seems to me that often fighting is like turning up the car radio when the car starts making unusual noises we haven’t heard before. All our political arguments seem like distractions that mask or divert our attention from the ominous noises our society, and our planet are making.

I disagree with Ehrenreich in one important regard. Creating “wars of distraction” is a human rather than American thing. We all do it to avoid facing unpleasant things. The problem is that distractions can kill if they are ignored long enough. On the other hand, silencing the distractions and paying attention to the big scary thing that seems insurmountable is actually empowering. Getting to the hospital at the first sign of a heart attack can save one’s life, and subsequent lifestyle changes may extend it.

Instead of the arguments that distract us from big hairy problems in our world, perhaps it is time to stop arguing. We may not know what to do (or we may have some notions). What if we shut up long enough to really pay attention to why our life expectancy in the US has been going down. What if we paid attention to gun violence long enough to wonder why so many mostly young men in good health are choosing to end their own as well as a number of other lives, which is often the way these things conclude.

If you notice, I’ve said nothing about political party proposals or government solutions. Right now everyone is talking past each other, mostly distracted from the realities they are arguing about. What if we started paying attention to what is happening in the world instead of fighting about it? What if we started taking personal steps on the basis of what we see? I suspect we all might notice things that have been hidden in the arguments of others. We might conclude that things are urgent enough to start listening to each other and stop fighting. I just hope it is soon enough.

If you are tempted to argue about climate change, or gun violence, or other realities I mention in this post, you’ve not understood the point of the post, which is that our arguments often distract from the things we are arguing about. I will take down argumentative comments in the interest of promoting paying attention to the things we have been arguing about and considering what personal action we might take.

Review: The Uninhabitable Earth

the uninhabitable earth

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After WarmingDavid Wallace-Wells. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019.

Summary: An exploration of our near future if projected increases in global temperatures occur and the multiple impacts of these increases.

This is a sobering book. It opens with the evidence that four of the last five episodes of planetary extinctions were related to climate warming. The premise of the title and this book is that there will be major repercussions if even the projected two degree Celsius increase in global temperatures occurs. If those temperatures increase by four or five degrees or more, the changes could be exponentially greater, affecting not merely the quality but the possibility of life for many of the planet’s inhabitants.

The first part of Wallace-Wells book discusses “elements of chaos.” There is heat, and the summer temperatures in tropical parts of the world, that will render them uninhabitable. Rates of death from heat will climb dramatically (remember the Chicago heat wave of 1995?). Rising temperatures will reduce crop yields in many food-producing parts of the world. Coastal cities throughout the world will be inundated due to sea level rise due to melting ice in Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets. Drought in many areas may lead to year round fire seasons over increasing areas, as has been the case in California and other parts of the western US. Terms like “500 hundred year” storms will become meaningless when they occur at five year intervals, and rebuilding in frequently hit areas will become increasingly costly and unlikely. Diseases once considered “tropical” will spread to more temperate regions: malaria, yellow fever, dengue will join the spread of diseases like East Nile Virus, Zika, and Lyme disease.

Economic projections suggest the possibility that each degree of global temperature rise may cut the GDP by 10 percent, or higher percentages as temperature levels continue to increase. Economic pressures and displaced populations will increase the level of conflicts, both civil wars within countries and international conflicts.

One of the sobering aspects of this book is that these changes are already upon us. Just in the last two years 50 percent of the Great Barrier Reef has died from warming ocean temperatures killing off the organism the coral depend upon for sustenance. Increasingly intense storms, greater flooding, more powerful hurricanes, year-long fire seasons are already part of life. Day time temperatures over 120 degrees Fahrenheit and night time temperatures that never drop below 100 degrees are already common place. Glaciers around the world are melting, jeopardizing water sources for many communities.

The second part of the book explores some of the non-scientific aspects of projected climate change, from economic systems no longer based on growth, a planet covered with carbon recapture facilities, what life might be like for those who survive when progress is no longer a part of life. He closes with a section on the anthropic principle and the discussion of why we haven’t found life on other planets. He speculates that this might be because the trajectory of civilizations is to burn themselves out and self-destruct as we appear to be doing.

Many will object to the speculative character of parts of this book. In part, much of the discussion is not, but is based on well-established scientific findings, and current manifestations that fulfill prior predictions. It is true that we are notoriously bad at predicting the future. What I might suggest is that while things might be better, they could also be worse, perhaps in ways yet unforeseen. Yet this isn’t a work of despair. Wallace-Wells observes that the reality that rising global temperatures have been caused by human causes (from rapidly burning carbon sequestered underground for years) to our taste for meat that multiplies methane-producing animals is good news. It means that humans can take measures to reduce and offset carbon dioxide emissions.

At the same time, the window for action is increasingly short, and in some cases, action will consist of adjusting to the “new normal” and preventing further degradation of the planet’s climate. It is striking to me that many of our younger politicians and other youth are advocating climate action. While some of us may not see the world Wallace-Wells is describing beyond the present day harbingers, our youngest generations and their children will. If Wallace-Wells is right, the opportunity to avoid being cursed as the generation that made Earth increasingly uninhabitable may rapidly be coming to an end. His book asks me, and others of my generation whether that is the legacy we want to leave our children.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this an advanced review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own