Review: Following Jesus in a Warming World

Following Jesus in a Warming World, Kyle Meyaard-Schaap. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2023.

Summary: By combining biblical and theological framing with personal narrative, offers hope and practical steps to those daunted by the immensity, and perceived hopelessness, of the realities of climate change.

Kyle Meyaard-Schaap grew up in a conservative, Christian-schooled community voting heavily Republican. The one social issue his community cared about was a pro-life opposition to abortion. Until his brother came home one day and announced himself as a vegetarian. He had not deconstructed his faith. As they talked, it became more and more apparent that his brother was living into biblical truths they had been raised upon, and commitments to life that were dear to them.

Meyaard-Schaap traces his own journey to becoming an evangelical environmental activist, currently serving as vice president of the Evangelical Environmental Network. Part of the book is theological. He overviews the sweep of scripture from creation and our mandate to serve and protect creation, the impacts of human fallenness, and God’s purposes for new creation, where heaven comes down to earth as we reign with Christ and restore creation with him to what he intended. He argues that this is good news, and in one of the distinctive contributions to the Christian environmental conversation, contends that climate action motivated by the vision of the kingdom, is evangelism. He also proposes that climate activism is pro-life. Climate change is killing people. In the decimation of forested land, new diseases are arising for which we have no immunities, and vector-born diseases are expanding into formerly temperate zones. Especially, climate change is killing those with the least resources to protect themselves in coastal communities and rapidly warming parts of the world where temperatures are exceeding what the human body can tolerate for any length of time.

The news about climate change seems daunting and Meyaard-Schaap acknowledges how many of his generation have lost hope. They are not having children. From his field experiences, he shares the power of stories. Defying the image of guilt and drudgery, he relates how both advocacy and personal disciplines of climate care are sources of joy and hope. He discusses how we replace climate arguments with conversations about the things we care about together in God’s world and how we can ensure their continued existence. He offers practical instructions on effective climate citizenship and various forms of advocacy, including an appendix on how to write an effective letter to the editor or op-ed piece. And he lists practical disciplines of good creation care.

Some of the book draws upon the thought of others, notably Dr, Katherine Hayhoe’s framework for climate conversations that bond, connect, and inspire. What is unique about this book is his account of his own journey through conversations like that with his brother and his ability to connect theologically with concerns of evangelical Christians around the creation, the return of Christ, evangelism, and the pro-life cause. He shows in his own life that becoming active in climate causes reflects Christian faithfulness rather than deconstructed faith. He offers practical advice drawn from his own experiences in advocacy.

What I thought most significant is that he addresses at different points the decision many are making not to have children, perhaps most eloquently in a letter to a grandchild at commencement in 2066. He writes:

By the time your dad was born in 2018, though, the consequences of our [climate] procrastination were becoming harder and harder to ignore. There were some our age, even then, choosing not to have kids. Deciding that the future was too dangerous, to unpredictable to morally justify yoking a human life to it without that human’s prior and informed consent, a sentiment your grandma and I could certainly understand, though never quite embrace. I guess our hope in God’s good plans for the world has always been more stubborn than our fear of our ability to derail them. But that doesn’t mean the fear hasn’t been there, ever mingling with the hope.

On the day your father came into the world, that alloy of hope and fear was forged in my heart for good….It’s a phenomenon that repeats itself whenever we make the dangerous, awesome choice to love (p. 176).

In sum, what Kyle Meyaard-Schaap offers is an account of Christian climate action that is nothing more nor less than faithful Christian discipleship, following Jesus.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: The Deluge

The Deluge, Stephen Markley. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2023.

Summary: A novel imagining the interaction of accelerating impacts of climate change and the unraveling of societies.

I should say at the outset that there are a number of reasons not to read this book:

  • It’s long–880 pages
  • It’s scary, because it reads like our news feeds on steroids–both in accounts of extreme weather and other climate change impacts and societal unraveling.
  • It involves movement back and forth in narrating the lives and actions of a disparate set of characters, all a part of a growing crisis intermixed with collages of news articles, fictional op-ed columns, and magazine articles. It’s not always easy to keep track of it all.
  • It’s raw with graphic descriptions of violence, of various iterations of sex, and adult language.

Yet, despite all this, I could not put it down and I can’t stop thinking about it and talking about it. The lead character in this book is really our planet–its ice sheets, its oceans, its atmosphere, and its weather. Markley portrays in vivid detail the extreme weather events we already are seeing–in even greater extremes. Unprecedented snow storms. An atmospheric river flooding California (certainly written before the recent actual weather events). Monstrous hurricanes with 250 mph winds. Fires that destroy Los Angeles. Sea levels inundating coastal cities. Midwest flooding. Triple digit heat domes a routine summer event. Melting permafrost and ocean floors releasing methane, leading to cascading increases in global warming.

The novel moves between the stories of a collection of characters. A passionate environmentalist, Kate Morris, founds a creative movement, Fierce Blue Fire, starting both local community development groups and a national lobbying effort to pass environmental legislation, ultimately gutted by carbon interests. Her story is told mostly through the eyes of Matt, her partner in an “open” relationship–the terms dictated by Kate. Tony Pietrus, is a scientist who discovers and models what happens when underwater methane is released through oceanic warming. Then there is the Pastor, a has-been actor who undergoes a conversion and becomes a religious alt-right charismatic figure who eventually runs for president as a tool of the carbon lobby. Jackie is a savvy ad exec, who crafts the media strategy that guts the climate legislation Kate had fought so hard for who goes on to join her partner, Fred, in building a global investment fund leveraging the changing energy and social situation to make lots of money for investors at the expense of the world’s poor–until she regains a conscience. There is a group of climate radicals, 6Degrees, committed to using violent means to stop big coal and corporate America that through compartmented protocols and infiltration of computer networks, evades detection while staging a series of increasingly violent bombings. Keeper, an ex-addict trying to put his life back together with the help of an immigrant pastor in a small town community and gets swept up in 6 Degrees activity. And there is Ashir, who writes memoranda to a congressperson that are really personal narratives. He is a brilliant analyst and mathematician whose predictive algorithm ends up being exploited by everything from sports betting to the investment fund Jackie and her partner, Fred, manage.

All of these characters’ stories unfold against the backdrop of an unraveling country. States seceding, An irreconcilably divided political environment controlled by powerful lobbies. A tanking economy. Food and power shortages. Increasingly violent and aggressive militias. And a similarly unraveling international situation. A series of “martyrdoms” lead to what seems an awakening and embrace of the actions needed to stabilize an ever-warming world, but one requiring generations of brave effort to do so.

While one might find faults with the book, its length, structure, and character development, I thought it all worked in the end. I found myself actually caring about many of the people. As I said, I couldn’t put it down. And it made me ask the question–could all this really happen? I find myself very troubled by the fact that I have no good argument to say, “it can’t happen here?” A society that threatens public health and political officials over wearing a piddly little face mask during a highly infectious pandemic strikes me as ill-prepared or disposed to enact radical and long term societal-wide changes to reduce global warming. Despite all we know and all the talk about energy-saving and renewables our U.S. carbon emissions went UP 1.3 percent in the last year.

Can fiction speak to what all our white papers and models have not? What Markley does is take a holistic look at what happens to a society when increasingly extreme weather disrupts the fabric of our lives on an increasingly pervasive scale. The picture isn’t pretty. He bids us to look into the abyss. While some act with nobility and courage, for many others, the worst nature dishes out brings out the worst in humans. He raises profound questions about whether our democratic republic can survive these stresses. There are indications that he hangs on to hope even while portraying how challenging the world will be for our children and grand-children. And perhaps that is where we need to be–both clear-eyed, and passionately hopeful. Lord have mercy!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Climaturity

Climaturity, Marc Cortez. Morro Bay, CA: Wise Media Group, 2022.

Summary: An argument for a more transparent and measured climate discussion, avoiding either scare tactics or denialism.

Marc Cortez has worked on various projects addressing climate change over several decades. But he writes critically about the way the climate discussion has unfolded. On one side are those saying we are in an existential crisis threatening life on the planet. On the other are the deniers that say the climate isn’t changing and carbon dioxide isn’t a problem.

Cortez stands in the middle, at least this is what he says. He acknowledges the rise in CO2 in the atmosphere and temperature rise and that there appears to be a relation between the two but he argues that much of the climate discussion is driven by predictive or attributive models that are far from certain and that costly remedies are being recommended or even pushed through governing bodies. He calls much of this “psyence,” claiming it is more an effort to manipulate public opinion, and worse, scare a whole generation of children and young adults.

Part of his argument is that in reality, no one is acting as one would in a real emergency. Scientists and politicians continue to fly in large numbers in jets emitting great quantities of CO2. More significantly, our carbon reduction strategies only say how much less carbon we will emit, but does nothing with the excess already there, or the fact that we still are emitting amounts in excess of what are being absorbed. It’s like, he says, being told you are 50 pounds overweight and saying you won’t eat donuts. But that does not deal with the excess weight already there. And many of the “carbon zero” goals have no realistic plan for how states or countries will get there. He salutes Microsoft as a rare exception of a company with specific plans not only to get carbon zero but to remove the carbon they have emitted over the years the company has existed, going back to 1976.

He wants us to get realistic about renewables. They are like stopping eating donuts, but even then, require large amounts of carbon fuel in their manufacture, and, in the case of electric vehicles, in their re-charging in many cases. Much of our power grid, agriculture, and manufacturing, and many of our consumer goods depend on fossil fuels. We can’t just make them the bad guys. We all are the bad guys.

I question some of the arguments. Climate modelling has been predictive of regional changes that have proven accurate in many regions. He makes out that temperature rise hasn’t been such a bad thing over the last century and the rise of a degree or two may not be so bad. But warmer temperatures are resulting in ice melts, rising seas, coastal inundations and even the disappearance of island nations like Vanuatu and more severe weather events occurring with greater frequency. Modelling is iterative, subject to continuous improvement based on feedback, and an important resource for many regional planners to do what I think Cortez is recommending–taking realistic measures to mitigate effects of change that has, is, and likely will occur. If not racist, as Cortez contends, the impacts of climate change are at least unequal. Often, the impoverished suffer greater impacts for the actions of rich countries than those in the richer countries–and have less wherewithal to mitigate those impacts.

What separates Cortez from the deniers, although he seems to use many of their arguments, and many may draw comfort from what he says, is that he does take a hard look at what needs to be done. Very simply, he argues our major task is to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere. He believes the most effective solutions begin, not with reducing emissions, which are often quite costly, comparatively speaking, but with those that focus on absorbing CO2 which in itself is a necessary component of life, absorbed by all sorts of vegetation. Many of these are relatively low cost for the amounts of carbon absorbed: peatland protection and rewetting, the protection and restoration of all sorts of forests, grasslands, coastal wetlands, and various agricultural methodologies. Making our cities walkable once again with good public transit are other relatively low cost steps. Yet this is not where much of our investment is going.

I do think he has a point in discussing the lack of efficacy and the real harm of our scare tactics. He actually agrees that individual decisions are important–the lifestyle changes people made at the outset of the pandemic resulted in at least an 11 percent reduction of CO2 emissions–now if we could make those lasting. Moving to plant-rich diets, even planting trees is important (our church sits on a former farm property with a lot of grassy area, which, thanks to a donation from an environmental group, has been planted with 100 trees).

Cortez calls for “climaturity.” For him, this means a more honest conversation about our models, our goals and how we will actually get there, and an end to the cheap shots at the fossil fuel industry that in reality we all depend upon. The capacity to feed 8 billion people resulted from an agricultural revolution made possible through petrochemicals. Renewables simply haven’t yet shown they ability to replace our fossil fuels. We should look more at increasing our capacity to absorb CO2.

What I question is whether Cortez will be one of those to lead us to that “climaturity.” His dismissiveness of climate scientists and groups like the IPCC will not draw those who shape climate policy to his “muddy middle.” And his snark and “it’s not so bad” attitude will not influence those who do not think there is a problem. And the citizenry in the middle? By and large, many of us already are taking a number of the personal steps he mentions from reducing our carbon footprints to planting trees. I much prefer what scientists like Katherine Hayhoe are doing in reaching across the divides and engaging with people around what they care about and want to preserve, and finding common ground for good environmental action.

There is one thing Cortez and Hayhoe agree on. We won’t get to productive discussion through manipulating guilt and fear. That, I think, is a good place to begin in the pursuit of climaturity.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program.

Review: Saving Us

Saving Us, Katharine Hayhoe. New York: Atria/One Signal Publishers, 2021.

Summary: A discussion of both the urgent challenge of climate change, and the difference we can make in both action and conversations.

I thought this book was going to be one more argument for why we need to address climate change. And it certainly offers good fact-based evidence for why this is so, why it is urgent, and what the impacts on life on the planet, human, animals, and plants will be. But while Katharine Hayhoe believes there are consequences that we should be afraid of, this is not an appeal from fear or guilt or an exercise in shaming. Instead, Katharine Hayhoe’s hopeful appeal in this book is rooted in what she loves and we love and care for. She writes hopefully of the steps being taken by individuals, churches, businesses, towns, schools and governments that are making a difference

She begins by the problem so many have faced–the deep divisions around climate that arose since this issue was politicized (it wasn’t always). It’s just hard to talk with those with whom we disagree. Hayhoe proposes that there are actually six and not two camps. Only seven percent are in what she calls the dismissive group. She believes that it is possible to find ways to collaborate with the other 93 percent. Much of it, she believes is connecting what we care about with what someone else cares about. She writes about connecting with conservative Rotarians around their Four Way Test, around West Texas farmers around concerns about water, with conservative Christians around their shared love of creation and the truths of the Bible. While facts are important at certain points, recognizing the mental dispositions of others and how counter-productive approaches based on fear and guilt, is vital.

She explores why we often fear solutions and takes on the big issues of carbon and energy and what can be done. While fossil fuels certainly contribute to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, she recognizes how energy dependent our lives are and the role these sources play as we transition. At the same time it is important to speed our transition, and provide reliable and renewable electricity throughout the world.

Hayhoe concludes by discussing the ways we matter. I see in my neighborhood her example how residential solar contagiously spreads as one neighbor gets solar and others see it, talk about it, and follow. She believes talking about it, connecting what we care about with what others care about is important, and coaches us how to do that without the alienating arguments. Finally, she addresses the matter of hope and how we find and sustain it.

This book was a breath of fresh air. Amid so many dire accounts of what is happening with the climate, this book is neither despairing or tendentious. Hayhoe doesn’t want to discourage us or divide us but to find ways for us to work together on what we care about, no matter our disagreements about science or policy. She is not pollyannish–she observes that scientists’ intolerance for error means they have been more conservative in their projections than what is happening (i.e. things have happened even more quickly than they projected). But she has seen so much of what can be done, and that it leads to better outcomes for us and the planet. She has realized that when it comes to “saving us,” there is only us. We have no planet B which means its time to end our fighting and care together for our common home.

Climate Change In My Backyard

Photo by Johannes Plenio on

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:

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.

Photo by Akil Mazumder on

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

Photo by Markus Spiske on

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.


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!


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.