Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Visit Sunny Miami – Make that Sunny Khartoum!

Nobody wants to leave our debts for the children to pay.  That’s why there’s so much talk these days about the U.S. national debt: at $14 trillion, that’s $45,000 for every American alive today.  But we recently put the debt in perspective with a report by the OECD forecasting costs of $6.6 trillion for the damage from climate change to just three U.S. cities: Miami, New York and New Orleans – assuming we continue with a business-as-usual approach to greenhouse gases. (Get it here.)

Isn't this city great?  Zillions of us go there annually.
Miami tops the list.  We love this city!  It’s warm, but not too warm.  The beaches are beautiful, and so are the people.  Every year, fully one in four Americans visit the state, and many of us come here.  But it's the #1 climate change loser for many good reasons.  At $3.5 trillion in costs (or about $10,000 for every single American), Miami faces crushing challenges from sea level rise, loss of tourism, hurricane damage, fresh water shortages and other related effects.  

Even darkness can't mask Miami's appeal, can it?
And recently, a remarkable study was done for the State of Florida by researchers at Tufts University, documenting the cost of climate inaction for the Sunshine State.   Click here to download the complete report for yourself:

I’ll be reviewing notable impacts on Florida over the next few weeks.  But for starters, if we maintain our current practices, the research predicts that Miami will be HOT! If we act quickly to rein in greenhouse gases, Miami will be 2 degrees (F) hotter than today’s average temperatures by the end of the century.  But keep up our current practices of unrestricted use of coal and petroleum, and it will be almost 10 degrees hotter.  TEN DEGREES HOTTER!   That means that tomorrow’s Miami will have an average annual temperature of 85.6 degrees.

At first, 85.6 degrees average temperature didn’t sound so bad.  So I started looking at global temperature charts for a city that is that hot today.  Mumbai?  Nope. Bangkok?  Sweltering, but nowhere near this hot.  Cairo, Lagos, Panama City or Kampala?  Not even close.

Blistering heat drives blinding dust storms in Khartoum
But my labors were rewarded when I finally stumbled across the future of our tourist paradise: Khartoum, Sudan.  Here’s a city of 5-7 million souls, living in 114-122 degree days from May to August.   Now Khartoum is not Miami, but that’s how hot the research projects that Miami will be if we stay on our current course. 

The heat will affect everything: keeping  visitors away; drying out the crops and killing the livestock; warming the water and fomenting more intense tropical storms; and killing off the plant and animal species that are well adapted to today’s more benign temperatures. 

Tourist shots were hard to find; but lots like this!
In Khartoum, the blistering sun dries everything, despite the life-giving White Nile and Blue Nile rivers that come together in the city.  But with the blistering heat, even the world’s greatest rivers can’t save the city from fierce dust storms that periodically make travel and all other outdoor activities impossible.  It’s hard to find visitor accounts, because so few people choose to go there.

The comparison between Miami and Khartoum may not be entirely fair.  Unlike Khartoum, Miami has the Atlantic Ocean to cool off in.  But this may turn out to be too much of a good thing:  If we continue with business as usual, more that 69% of Miami-Dade County will be under the rising sea levels within 50 years.

So if you want to be good to those who will follow you on our Father's world, do your best to reduce our country’s debts.  But for the love of God, let’s not turn a blind eye to the cost we’re leaving them in the form of climate challenges.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sustainable Living in Small Steps

We used to think that caring for our Father’s world was a matter of a few big choices.  We’d drive a smarter car; install solar panels; re-insulate the house -- you know, big things.  Over time, however, we’ve come to appreciate how many little choices go into developing a sustainable life – and how many more we’re discovering every day or week.  They range from collecting acorns for sprouting new oaks, to reading the paper electronically, to purchasing groceries with the least packaging waste, to leaving the dishwasher out of our kitchen regimen, and enjoying vacation time closer to home. 

This Christmas, Barbara Elwood made beautiful (and reusable) fabric gift bags for all our presents.  No more Christmas wrapping paper for the Elwood family – ever again.  Little choices, yes.  But thousands of them.

For the most part, however, it all began with the backyard clothesline. Years ago, we learned the pleasure of leaving the power-hungry clothes dryer shut down cold: summer or winter, our laundry dried out on the line.  Sub-freezing temperatures?  No problem.  They dry just the same.

Winter ice doesn't stop Barbara from sustainable laundry practices.
Sadly, not every day is a good day for drying clothes.  This winter, we’ve seen some pretty long spells of wet, gray, cold weather.  But Barbara is unfazed.  She keeps three simple drying racks in the house.  Usually, she uses them for socks and undies.  But on wet, cold days, they’re pressed into service for everything from shirts to sheets.  Here’s where you can find one for about $28:

$28 drying rack.
Another clever way of beating the winter weather is the retractable clothesline.  For only ten bucks, you can get one of these for a bathroom, or any utility space you’ve got.  When you’re not using the line, you’ll hardly know it’s there.  Click here to see one:

There’s even a website entirely devoted to drying the laundry without carbon emissions or harm to the creation.  Click here for a look:

$10 retractable line
And since we’re always looking for ways to tread more lightly upon God’s good earth, maybe you could share your favorite new ideas with us.  We’ll happily collect them, and put them together in a future post for all our readers.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Monday, January 17, 2011

Cultural Genocide in America?

We wondered, why were the Louisiana forests dead?
One thing struck us as we drove away from the New Orleans Airport upon arrival last week:  the forests all looked dead.  It’s winter, so at first we thought maybe the leaves had just fallen off the trees.  We were wrong.  The trees were, in fact, dead.  A few days later, we learned the reason why, from a Native American tribe that calls the bayou their home.

Our visit took us to a village – accessible only by small boat – called Grand Bayou, where the Atakapa-Ishak tribe has lived for uncounted centuries. 
Rosina Phillipe of Grand Bayou
There we met tribal leader Rosina Phillipe, who showed us around.  Rosina explained how the village has supported itself entirely by fishing, trapping and planting for countless generations.  The bayou provided shrimp, oysters, fish, and abundant hunting.  Every home had a garden that put fresh vegetables on the table.

But recently, things have not gone well for Rosina and the Atakapa-Ishak people.  Of course, Katrina destroyed almost all the homes in 2005, and BP has dealt them another horrible blow.  But the problems didn’t begin there. 

How the bayou might have looked to Rosina's grandfather
The bayou country has been changing for generations.  Rosina’s grandfather remembered when the bayou was shaded and protected by tall cypress and live oak trees.  Fresh water flowed through the bayou’s channels, supporting rich and diverse habitats.  But then engineers built levees along the river, and – deprived of river sediment – the land began to subside.  Oil companies dug straight canals to the sea, and that brought salt water into the once-fresh bayous, killing off much of the ecosystem.  Rising sea levels – driven by the warming climate – flooded the land, raising the soil salinity, and killing all the trees.  What remains is a grassy salt marsh, toxic to any garden vegetables.

And speaking of toxic, then came the BP spill.  Now the oysters and shrimp that once supported the Atakapa-Ishak and Rosina are contaminated, and the gardens are salt.  The sheltering trees are gone, exposing Grand Bayou to rising sea levels and more intense storms. 

The bayou today, giving way to the rising seas
Rising seas, subsiding land, increasing salt levels and more violent storms are now joined by petroleum and chemical dispersants in their assault on the tiny village.  “Every time we get a chance, seems like there’s always something shooting us back down,” said Grand Bayou shrimper Maurice Phillips.

Maurice has seen the effects of sea-level rise in practical terms beyond the reach of outsiders like us.  “What used to be a duck pond you could hunt in, now you can trawl in it,” he said.  “It’s a bay.”  And when ponds become bays, the land is going back to the sea.

The Lower 9th was rimmed by a forest; now it's a bay
And as terrifying as the loss of the bayou is for Rosina, Maurice and the Atakapa-Ishak people, it’s not their problem alone.  The bayou’s decline – from freshwater live oak forests, to salt marshes, and increasingly to open sea water – is depriving the city of New Orleans of the all-important buffer that once protected it from tropical storms. 

Today it’s these Native Americans clinging to the edge. And to be honest, we take some shameful comfort when disaster strikes people different from us. But the rising sea doesn't care about race and ethnic origin: folks just like you and me are next.

Remember those dead forests back by the airport?  Rosina tells us they’ll be salt marsh or open sea in a few decades.  She should know: her village has been watching for generations as the bayou has collapsed under the heavy hand of human exploitation.

Rosina and her neighbor Ruby Ankar
Rosina Phillipe called this perfect storm of made-made disasters “cultural genocide,” and I think she may be right.  The Atakapa-Ishak people have never lived anywhere else, and that won’t change now. “We’re not going anywhere,” she said.

I am worried for her.  Really worried.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.


To see Rosina, Maurice and Grand Bayou, just click here and watch a short NatGeo video:

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Cost of Inaction: The Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans

By the waters of Babylon,
   there we sat down and wept,
   when we remembered Zion …

We weren’t ready for this.  When Barbara and I set out last Friday morning for one of New Orleans’ low-lying neighborhoods, we expected something bad.  But we didn’t expect this.

We had seen the horrid news accounts after Hurricane Katrina; but we had also read stories about the ensuing redevelopment efforts.  We knew that New Orleans had lost about a third of its population, now scattered around the country; but we had also heard about Brad Pitt’s efforts to help rebuild in the Lower Ninth Ward.  And on top of all that, we had seen how much money was being poured into saving the beachfront resort community of Grand Isle:  Surely, there must be a king’s ransom flowing into this community, once home to so many thousands, right?

This used to be a city: Lower 9th from the levee
But what we saw was almost beyond telling.

Afterward, a friend called the Lower Ninth “a field with streets.”  Words failed us, so we settled for that.  It was so strange:  fire hydrants, utility poles, street signs, concrete house footers, driveways, an occasional fence.  But almost no houses.  Here and there, a derelict house still stood, its broken windows exposing the hollow blackness within.

And then suddenly, a lonely Tyvek-wrapped house under construction, perched atop tall concrete pillars, standing sentry amidst acres and acres of devastation. 

The enemy beyond the wall
As we traveled south toward the Mississippi River, things began to look a little better.   Lots of houses were standing.  But first impressions can be deceiving.  On closer inspection, three out of four houses were dark, with plywood or locked shutters sealing the windows tightly. Ah, here’s a church!  But no, it’s just an empty building with a steeple – vines and brambles choking the entryway.  A school!  No, it used to be, but there are too few children remaining, and the steel gates are padlocked.

Here and there, the spirit of New Orleans snaked a tender shoot through the thick crust of devastation.  A small home repainted in bright yellows or pinks.  Christmas lights adorning a festive front porch.  Garlands of shiny beads in the windows anticipating the celebration of Mardi Gras.

Levity, or hopelessness? A sign at a ruined home.
What struck us was not so much the injustice of poor people relegated to the most flood-prone land, or of public money being poured into beachfront properties.  What stayed with us was the sense that we were looking at a preview – at New Orleans of the future.  This land sunk 3’ relative to sea levels in the 20th century, and sea level rise is just beginning to build up a head of steam.

Or might we find the national will to really do something to curb the emissions driving global climate change, and give this city a fighting chance?

… On the willows there
   we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
   required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
   "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
Psalm 137
More images of the Lower Ninth Ward 

Dorgenois & Lamanche Streets: devastation in every direction.

The blue sections of New Orleans are now below sea level on a good day.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Cost of Inaction: Mississippi Delta

Have you been hearing about the U.S. national debt recently?  $14.0 trillion, or about $45,000 for every man, woman and child in the country.  Sounds bad, right?  But for perspective, the OECD study which I cited the week before Christmas tabulated the cost of sea level rise in the 21st century on just three U.S. cities – Miami, New York and New Orleans – at $6.6 trillion.

That’s right:  If every single American kicks in a mere $20,000, we’ll be able to pay for the damage to three U.S. cities – not four, five or fifty – but only three, caused by the effects of climatic sea level rise.

To read the report, click here:

Rising seas claimed a truck on the bayou.
I am writing today from New Orleans, one of those three cities, and Ground Zero for the impact of climate change in the U.S.  Yesterday, we took a long trip to the outer edge of the Mississippi Delta, to a barrier island called Grand Isle.  The bayou was beautiful, as were the fishing trawlers in evidence everywhere.  And yet, on this calm, sunny day, the water’s edge lapped gently just below  the roadside.  As we made our way south, we began to see barriers along the road to hold back the swampy waters. Old houses (the few remaining) were built on the ground, while new ones were perched on top of what looked like telephone poles.  The old road disappeared now and then into the water, with towering elevated roads – essentially endless bridges – rising overhead.

At last we reached Grand Isle on the Gulf of Mexico.  To our newcomers’ eyes, it looked like something out of a sci-fi movie.  Entire clusters of houses and shops were built 10-12 feet off the ground, with a virtual forest of sturdy poles holding them aloft.  You could see hundreds of yards around you under the structures.

Living aloft: Park your car under the house!
But as high as they were, they weren’t high enough to give their occupants a view of the Gulf beaches.  These were hidden behind newly-built levies, constructed after Katrina to hold back the rising seas.  The efforts to defend the land didn’t stop there:  Just offshore was the Maginot Line of sea level defenses, a series of concrete rubble breakwaters stretching like a perforated seam to the horizon, a defensive line to break the waves.

Your tax dollars at work.
Does it stand a chance of holding?  Nope.  The locals told us that the entire levy washed away three years after Katrina, when Hurricane Gustav hit.  But the good folks at the Army Corps of Engineers came right back and rebuilt it.  Trucks and heavy  equipment were all over the beach during our visit, and no one was allowed near.

We wondered: Who’s paying for all this stuff, and who benefits?  The answers aren’t all that hard.  The Army Corps is an agency of the U.S. Dept. of Defense, and we know that defense spending is ... well, you know.

Unending bridges over the flooded bayou.
Who benefits?  That’s a trickier question than it may sound.  Of course, at one level, the rich people who have their vacation homes and yachts out there benefit the most.  But some will argue that the bayou benefits from coastal engineering to “save” the barrier islands from the angry seas.  This sounds plausible, but it isn’t true.  Barrier islands are very useful, but only if they move with sea levels.  Levies and sea walls are useless, as they have to be continually rebuilt from inevitable damage and erosion.  And they’re worse than useless in that they prevent natural beaches from moving landward, as they inevitably must. 

In the end, the cry “Save our beaches!” is really nothing more than “Save my vacation home!”  It’s up to you to pay – pay for the new bridges, pay for the elevated highways, pay for the levies, pay to “re-nourish” the beaches, pay for the Federal flood insurance programs, and pay for the mortgage guarantees that permit people to build homes out here.

So what, you ask, is the alternative?  Your newly-elected congressman may tell you we can't afford to cut greenhouse gases and stop the effects of climate change.  And, to be fair, serious climate action now will not stop sea level rise entirely.  But unless you're ready to pass on some unthinkably large debts to your children, you may want to start asking your representatives some serious questions.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.


More pictures from Grand Isle 

Houses in the air:  Even this height won't save this house from a Katrina-like storm surge.

The Army Corps was all over the beaches reinforcing the levies.

This looks like a sand dune, but it's a levee built by the Corps.  It washed away entirely in Hurricane Gustav.

The beach levee, and the offshore breakwater.

For perspective, here's Barbara Elwood standing atop the beach levee.  This thing is big, but it's sand.