Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Climate Skeptics Edition (Part 1)

Lots of people read the Clothesline Report, and they believe all kinds of things.  Some are thoroughly convinced by climate science, and deeply alarmed about the consequences for their futures, their children and the earth.  Some are more skeptical, or just uncertain.  Some skeptics, to be sure, have questions that they probably don’t really want answered.  But that’s generally not true of the questioning readers of the Clothesline.  Here’s a sampling of questions I’ve recently been asked to address:

What about recent centuries when the climate has changed without the burning of fossil fuels (like the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age that followed it)?
Aren’t lots of scientists climate skeptics?
Since there’s so much carbon below the surface, wasn’t it once all in the atmosphere?
Since plants use CO2, isn’t more of it likely to make a greener world?
Didn’t I read somewhere that climate scientists had “cooked the books?”

I’ll get to all those things, even if it takes two or three posts.  But first, let me set down a few things we actually know, beyond serious ongoing scientific debate.

Item #1:  We know how much CO2 has been in the atmosphere for each of the last several hundred-thousand years.
Item #2:  We know what the average global temperature was for each of those same years.
Item #3: We know that that global CO2 concentrations and global temperatures moved in lockstep for all those years.
Item #4:  We know that CO2 works like a blanket in the atmosphere, keeping the earth at a suitable level of warmth for life.
Item #5:  We know that global CO2 levels are increasing today to levels not seen on earth in over a million years.
Item # 6:  We know that the burning of fossil fuels is the principal contributor to today’s increases in CO2.
Item #7:  We know that today’s increasing CO2 concentrations are irreversible for centuries or millennia.

Really?  We actually know those things, you ask?  Well, yes, we do.  Scientists seldom speak of knowing, preferring the language of likelihood and probability.  But there are good reasons to speak in layman’s terms of knowing these things.  Here’s why.

How do we know how much CO2 has been in the atmosphere for each of the last several hundred-thousand years?

Some will be surprised to hear that we actually have samples of the air for each of almost the last million years, left in little time capsules for us.  Really.  We don’t have to theorize or guess.  We’ve got the air.  Where?  In Greenland and Antarctica, every year a new layer of snow blankets the prior year’s snow and ice.  And with each successive year’s blanket, the layers below become compressed and stretched into thinner and thinner layers of solid ice, each one banded with distinctive summer and winter patterns.  In Greenland, there are 450,000 years’ worth of ice layers, and the pile is more than two miles high; in Antarctica, more than 800,000 annual layers.

In recent decades, people have been drilling out cores of the ice, all the way to the bottom, in ice sheets all over the world – from the Andes to the Himalayas, and from pole to pole.  What they get are miles of cylinders of ice, containing water, minerals and air bubbles untouched by anything since they were buried by subsequent snowfalls.

As you’ve guessed, they’re not doing this for fun.  Rather, the ice cores contain the most fascinating information.  When Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991, it spread a thin film of sulfur dioxide captured by the snow and ice, clearly visible in that year’s layer.  Same for the Mt. Vesuvius eruption in AD 79.  But all kinds of lesser events are also captured:  When the Romans began smelting lead for plumbing in the centuries before Christ, sure enough, the ice caught them red-handed.  When the fall of Rome put an end to lead smelting, you knew it from the ice. 

But there’s more in the ice than water.  Snow is mostly air, and even after eons of compression, the ice retains tiny bubbles of atmosphere captured from ancient times.  Thanks to the ice cores, we can examine the air as it actually was over hundreds of thousands of years.  And we can count the amount of CO2, among other things.  Here’s what we know:

The jagged line that looks like a heart rate monitor is the level of CO2 in the atmosphere over the last 800,000 years, ranging from a low of 180 to a high of 280 parts per million.  That is, it was in that range till the beginning of the Industrial Age, when humans began digging up coal to fire the engines of progress.  Then came oil and gas, suburban commutes, SUVs and the like, and now we’re at 390 ppm, higher than any time on the chart by far, and growing.

How do we know what the average global temperature was for each of those same hundreds of thousands of years?

Those same ice cores tell us much more than CO2 levels.   The water also has a story to tell.  As you know, not all water is plain old H2O.  Some is “light water” (having an oxygen isotope containing one less electron), and some is “heavy water” (an isotope with a heavier molecular structure).  As equatorial water vapors make their way toward the polar regions, the heavy water precipitates first, leaving the light water to fall last.  In cool years, the heavy water is almost all gone before it reaches the polar ice sheets.  In warm years, there’s much more heavy water in the polar snows.  By measuring polar snow chemistry, we can know how cool or warm the trip from the Equator was that year.

If you look at the red line below, you’ll see how warm the atmosphere was over the last 400,000 years.  Take a close look at the last ¼” on the right.  See that nice flat warm bunch of red?  That’s the last 10,000 years – the period of human civilization.  No ice age, no sizzling heat.  It’s been nice, right?
(For more on ice core research, click here for a great book, or here for a good documentary.)

How do we know that that global CO2 concentrations and global temperatures moved in lockstep for all those years?

Well, the chart above shows – for one set of ice cores – what all the ice core analyses show.  The temperature line and the CO2 line always move together.  When the CO2 is high, so is the temperature.  When it’s low, so is the temperature.  This is always true, with one exception: the last hundred years (way over on the right), when humanity has been pouring CO2 into the air.  CO2 has skyrocketed, but global temperature has only edged up -- so far.

How do we know that CO2 works like a blanket in the atmosphere?

This is not disputed by anyone.  It’s called the Greenhouse Effect, and it was discovered in 1824, subsequently measured and refined by many researchers.  It’s a process by which thermal radiation from the earth into space is trapped by certain gases, called greenhouse gases (GHGs).   Without them, the Earth would be a block of solid ice.  Major GHGs are water vapor, CO2, methane, and ozone.

All GHGs have been increasing in recent years, but especially CO2.  Notably, the earth has started warming markedly.

How do we know that global CO2 levels are increasing today beyond levels not seen on earth in over a million years?

The ice core records tell us a lot about CO2 levels over the years.  But in 1958, researchers began measuring CO2 levels on a daily basis at a remote mountain station on the big island of Hawaii, far from pollutants and other local effects.  Back then, CO2 concentrations had already increased from historical highs of 280 ppm to about 318 ppm.  Since then the CO2 trajectory – called the Keeling Curve – has been invariably upward, accelerating with the passing of years as we burn more fossil fuels (see yellow line below).  At last measure, the Keeling Curve stood at 393 ppm, 40% above the highest level in the last million years.  And it’s accelerating, not slowing. To see more on the Keeling Curve, click here.)

How do we know that the burning of fossil fuels is the major contributor to the today’s increases in CO2?

Every year, the humanity pumps 9.2 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels and from changes in land use.  (This is not all that hard to measure, since detailed statistics are available for coal and oil production and consumption.)  Of this, the oceans absorb 2.3 billion tons, and other factors such as plant growth absorb 2.8 billion tons.  That leaves an additional 4.1 billion metric tons of CO2 in the atmosphere every year.

How do we know that new CO2 concentrations are irreversible for centuries or millennia?

The oceans and plant life absorb 5.1 billion metric tons of CO2 per year.  But there are 814 billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere today.  And for the sake of illustration, even if we could stop burning every single fossil fuel immediately, it would take more than 50 years for these global forces to return CO2 levels to the million-year maximum levels. 

So, that’s some of what we know.  Not everyone who writes an internet blog knows this, but everyone who teaches at a research university does.  They’ll fight like dogs on thousands of details and ramifications of all this, but this stuff is basic: CO2 is higher than it’s been in many hundreds of thousands of years, and global temperatures move with GHGs – notably with CO2.  The main reason for the increase in GHGs is humanity and our exploding use of fossil fuels.  While China has surpassed the U.S. in total GHG emissions, they’re nowhere near us in per capita emissions.  And while it’s not all that hard to burn all this world-changing stuff into the atmosphere, once we do so, there’s no reversing what we’ve done for many generations.   

Our grandchildren’s grandchildren will inherit what we do in the next decade, and there will be no changing things for lifetimes beyond theirs.

We believe many things.  But these things, we know.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

P.S.  Next edition:  What about disagreements among scientists?  What about past climate changes before people burned coal and oil?  Maybe all this CO2 will give us a more fertile world?

I Hate to Clean Up!

Don’t you?

I love to cook; but I hate to wash the dishes.  I love woodworking; but I hate to sweep the shop. I love to tend our horses; but mucking stalls is another matter entirely.  I love a good night’s sleep; but make the bed?  Maybe later.

Am I alone in this?  If so, at least I’ve passed it on to my kids.

But I think I’m a lot like you.  You know that cleaning up is part of every activity, but maybe mom will come along and do it for you – or maybe your wife, or your roommate, or someone.
Cooking is fun. This is not!

But responsible people – and conservative people – know that this is no way for adults to act.  We rightly screamed bloody murder when steel companies poured toxic runoff into our nation’s rivers. We made electric utilities install smokestack scrubbers to keep acid rain from killing our forest and lakes.  We insisted that the refrigeration industry stop using CFCs that burned through the earth’s ozone layer.

These were their messes.  They were grown-ups.  SOMEONE had to clean up.  And we weren’t their mom.

Well, now a conservative spokesman has started speaking like a responsible adult to his fellow conservatives.  Bob Inglis, Republican former congressman from South Carolina, is telling conservatives that it’s anti-conservative to expect someone else to clean up our oil & coal mess.  In a free market, says Inglis, oil, gas and coal will contain all their costs – including the cost of clean-up.

“Conservatives say that free enterprise, not government mandates, can deliver innovation,” said Inglis, in an article published in USA Today (full text below).  “But we've been waiting since 1973 to be freed from foreign oil. Maybe that's because all the costs aren't ‘in’ the petroleum –  the national security risk, the costs of protecting the supply lines out of the Middle East, the cost of the pollution from tailpipes and the cost of tax subsidies for petroleum. If those costs were paid at the pump and not out of sight, we'd be aware of our need, and America's entrepreneurs would meet our need with new fuels.”

Of course, you can already hear the screams of the oil and coal industry and the many politicians who rely on them for funding: He’s calling for new taxes!!

Not so.  Someone bears the costs of wars in petro-states.  Someone pays the health costs of the soaring asthma epidemic. Someone pays for the massive tax subsidies we give to oil companies. Someone pays the costs of floods, droughts, sea-level rise, and crop failures associated with climate change.
Hell with the lid off: Pittsburgh before EPA regs
You know who that "someone" is, right?  Not them.  But rather, you and I.  And to varying degrees, virtually every other person on the planet.

Today, the price of your car contains the cost of steel made without polluting our rivers. The price of your house contains the cost of insulation that doesn’t destroy the ozone layer.  The cost of a dozen eggs is enough to prevent manure from running off into our lakes. These aren’t taxes.  They’re the cost of behaving like adults.

But the cost of a gallon of gas? Well that’s another matter.  And the oil and coal tycoons want to keep it that way. They’re hoping that mom – or someone – will bear the cost of their clean-up.  As we do today.

Here’s Republican Congressman Inglis’ appeal to fellow conservatives.  No matter your political leanings, I think you’ll like what he has to say.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you. 

J. Elwood

Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC)
Texas Gov. Rick Perry's recent assertion that the science of climate change has been politicized is almost certainly true. Environmental groups (the kind that always gave me F's on my congressional report cards for voting against bills such as cap-and-trade) decided a while back to run this play on the left side of the political field. But perhaps the strongest proof of Perry's assertion is what we conservatives are doing now...

Perry asserts, and many conservatives believe, that the flow of grants have produced a corresponding flow of studies indicating human causes of climate change. Skepticism is warranted, but it's relieved by an observation: Scientists become famous by disproving the consensus, not by parroting it. You don't get a theory named for yourself by writing papers that say, "Yeah, like he said." You become famous (and, for the pure of heart, you advance science) by breaking through with new understandings.

In the zeal of our disproof, many conservatives have latched on to the outliers to create the appearance of uncertainty where little uncertainty exists. Accordingly, only 15% of the public knows that 97% of climate scientists have concluded that the planet is rapidly warming as a result of human activity...

Many conservatives believe that, even if climate change is caused by human activity, the costs of correction outweigh the benefits. What does that calculation say about our objectivity, our commitment to accountability and our belief in free markets?

Conservatives say that free enterprise, not government mandates, can deliver innovation. But we've been waiting since 1973 to be freed from foreign oil. Maybe that's because all the costs aren't "in" the petroleum – the national security risk, the costs of protecting the supply lines out of the Middle East, the cost of the pollution from tailpipes and the cost of tax subsidies for petroleum. If those costs were paid at the pump and not out of sight, we'd be aware of our need, and America's entrepreneurs would meet our need with new fuels.

But markets can't respond when some fuels escape accountability. If the coal industry, for instance, were held accountable for all of coal's costs – including health effects – we'd build emission-free nuclear power plants instead of coal-fired plants. Electricity rates would rise because we'd be paying all of coal's cost at the meter, but health insurance premiums would fall. In such an all-costs-in scenario, the profit motive would drive innovation just as it drove innovation with the Internet and the PC – without clumsy government mandates.

Conservatives can restore our objectivity by acknowledging that Americans are already paying all the hidden costs of energy. We can prove our commitment to accountability by properly attaching all costs to all fuels. We can prove our belief in free markets by eliminating all subsidies and letting the free enterprise system sort out winners and losers among competing fuels.

Or, more cynically, we can attempt to disprove science, protect the fossilized and deprive America of a muscular, free enterprise, no-growth-of-government alternative to cap and trade.

Monday, October 24, 2011

You're Invited to the White House

We’ve dedicated a lot of ink over the last month to the Alberta tar sands and its link to world markets: the Keystone XL pipeline. 

The tar sands are widely regarded as the world’s filthiest oil.  And thanks to oil money, our Congress would approve the tar sands pipeline in a heartbeat. 

But it’s not up to Congress.  The President needs to approve it for it to go ahead. This is the same president who took a bold stand in 2006 against the global peril of climate change:

“The issue of climate change is one that we ignore at our own peril. There may still be disputes about exactly how much we're contributing to the warming of the earth's atmosphere and how much is naturally occurring, but what we can be scientifically certain of is that our continued use of fossil fuels is pushing us to a point of no return. And unless we free ourselves from a dependence on these fossil fuels and chart a new course on energy in this country, we are condemning future generations to global catastrophe.”

Global catastrophe.  Sounds like something worth standing against, right? But now, he’s waffling, or worse.  We believe that – unless common people force his hand – he’s going to approve the massive Keystone XL pipeline, and rapidly drive world greenhouse gas concentrations far beyond levels ever seen in the history of mankind.

This pipeline is no small matter. It is the fork in the road for our world. Either to squeeze massive new carbon deposits into the atmosphere before we run out of global oil, or to get serious about sustainable clean energy for coming generations. Either to drive atmospheric CO2 concentrations to double or triple the levels enjoyed on earth for over a million years, or to begin to heal our Father's world.

And it’s dripping with corporate money.  Exxon, Shell, Valero, TransCanada; some of the richest companies in the world are pushing all out to get it approved.  They bought the State Department’s key person in charge of approving the project, and he’s been lobbying his buddies all-out to reward his new benefactors.
We don’t have the money, but there are so many of us.  More than 1,250 of us got arrested at the White House in August to make the President hear our voices.  At the U.S. Department of State hearings in October, almost all the speakers were opposed to the pipeline.  But oil money made its presence felt even there:  They hired scores of unemployed laborers to heckle speakers, and to read prepared scripts of their own about the jobs they expected to get from the pipeline.

Yes, Congress has already sold out to oil money.  But maybe, just maybe, the President can be persuaded to honor his early promises.  But if we lose this battle, there's not likely to be another one worth waiting for.  That’s why my wife Barbara and I are asking you to join us at 2:00PM at the White House on Sunday, November 6, for a few hours, to join with thousands of other ordinary Americans in asking the President to remember his promise, and not to condemn our children to “global catastrophe.”

Please take a moment to watch this excellent film on the tar sands and the KXL pipeline, and then consider registering (here) to come to Washington with us.

And in case you need any reminders, here are a few things we think we’ve made clear about the tar sands, and the KXL pipeline that will make them so much more deadly:

  • Tar sands mining will devastate boreal forests in Canada the size of the state of Florida.
  • Tar sands production consumes 12 barrels of water for every one barrel of crude, and contaminates 4 barrels of water, which then slowly leak toxic chemicals from vast, black containment lakes visible from space.
  • Indigenous people living in the tar sands region face sharp increases in all kinds of rare cancers, and the loss of ancestral lands and waterways, carrying the shameful specter of indigenous genocide into the 21st century.
  • Tar sands oil generates life-cycle greenhouse gases 82% worse than conventional oils.  As such, your hybrid Prius, with tar sands gasoline, is the equivalent of the most gluttonous SUVs running on conventional gas.
  • Tar sands oils are unusually corrosive and highly pressurized in the pipeline, which runs through the huge Ogallala aquifer from Canada to the Gulf, threatening Midwest communities all along the way.
  • The oil industry’s cynical promise of new jobs is a cruel illusion for desperate people: overstating by far the employment benefits; and ignoring entirely the jobs that will be lost due to inevitable oil contamination, continued reliance on foreign oil, and the increasingly severe effects of climate change on our businesses and farms.
  • And most sinister of all is the promise of energy independence. We already have tar sands oil being pumped to the Midwest.  This pipeline will take it straight through the heartland to export terminals on the Gulf Coast, where foreign oil companies can sell it to the highest bidders on world markets.
  • And for those who care about “global catastrophe” falling on their children, America’s leading climate scientist – NASA’s James Hansen – has warned that if the Alberta tar sands get produced, then “it’s essentially game over for the climate.”
So please, please come to Washington with us on November 6th.  Maybe you’ve got plans already.  But I doubt there is anything you can do – perhaps in your lifetime – of greater consequence than helping to dissuade the President from caving in to the oil money on this pipeline. 

They’ve bought Congress. They’ve bought the State Department. We must stop them at the Oval Office.

For the sake of our children.  For the sake of billions around the world.  For the sake of our Lord, to whom all of us belong.

Register here, please.

May God bless you. 

J. Elwood

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What's Killing the Rocky Mountain Forests?

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good…..

… And that includes a tiny little creature named Dendroctunus, which in Latin means “tree killer.” We know Dendroctunus as the Mountain Pine Beetle.  It’s been around for millions of years.  And its favorite meal is the lodgepole pine – and other pines, like ponderosa and whitebark pines.

God’s pines are also very good.  He endowed them with nifty defenses against the pine beetle.  They emit a waxy white resin into the beetles’ drill holes to drown the invaders.  So if there’s enough moisture, and not too many beetles, the pines can usually recover to serve their Maker for many decades.

Cold winters protect the pines from beetle infestations.
The Rocky Mountain seasons and winter snowpack have also done their part in maintaining the balance between beetle and pine.  Cold winters – with occasional cold snaps reaching 30-40 degrees below – would reliably wipe out 80% of pine beetle larvae.  And cool summers would assure prolonged snow melt, providing moisture to keep the pines healthy during their summer-long struggle against the manageably-few surviving beetles.

Even fire plays its part in God's beautiful Rocky Mountain symphony.  Forest fires clear out excess vegetation and dying trees, and cause the lodgepole pine cones to open and release their seeds, giving rise to a new generation of vigorous young trees.

Fire and ice, winter snow and summer stream, massive tree and tiny beetle – all working together in harmony balanced by the laws of nature, responding to the good hand of their Creator.  Every so often, beetle infestations would break out with notable damage; but the forests generally recover with the help of the cold winters and steady summer snow melt.

But something’s changed in the Mountain West: From Arizona to British Columbia the pine beetles are going nuts.  And the pine forests are suffering unimaginable devastation.

Veteran forester Jim Furnish has been watching the trees and beetles for almost four decades. In his 34 years with the U.S. Forest Service, Furnish saw “bug epidemics” come and go.  “But what’s shocking is that no one’s ever seen anything like this,” says Furnish. “The scale is something no one’s ever contemplated before, from Alberta to Northern New Mexico.”

A lifetime's work: Furnish observing still-healthy forests
What Furnish is describing is a pine-forest die-off of epic proportions.  Pine beetles are overwhelming the forest defenses, resulting in rust-red dead pines almost beyond measuring.  The scale is astounding:  The dead or dying forests cover an area in North America the size of Wisconsin; or for easterners, the combined areas of Virginia and Maryland.  You could fit five New Jerseys into the beetle kill zone.

And while foresters like Furnish can attest to the freak nature of the infestation in recent history, researchers have traced the record back much further.  According to British Columbia analyst Ben Parfitt, the forest die-off “is probably the biggest landscape-level change since the Ice Age.”

Apparently, God’s symphonic masterpiece has begun playing out of tune. What happened?

Not autumn colors: The red is dead. Gray/white skeletons died earlier
There’s actually not all that much mystery.  The climate in the West has been undergoing sustained changes not seen in tens of thousands of years.  The average winter lows in much of the Mountain West have warmed by 4-6 degrees in the last half-century.  The cold that used to reliably kill off most pine beetle larvae every few years “just doesn’t happen anymore,” says Steven Running of University of Montana.  Winter conditions that use to kill 80% of beetle larvae now kill only 10%.  “It’s game over,” said Running.

At the same time, formerly cool spring and summer weather in the Rockies used to provide an extended snow melt, maintaining the health of the forest throughout the warm seasons.  But with longer and hotter summers, the pines are coming under severe water stress.  Healthy trees drown the beetles in resin; without water, the weakened trees are an easy meal for the beetles.

Faced with exploding beetle populations and drier mountain conditions, there’s only so much that the Forest Service can do.  “We don’t have any tools at our disposal to keep it from happening,” says Furnish.  “It’s just racing across the landscape. Humans are just watching it all.”

Life & death: Gray & green strands tally the casualties
And where is it racing to, we wonder?  Forest Service entomologist Bob Cain says the beetle infestations are moving north and east.  A freak wind storm in 2006 blew the beetles eastward from British Columbia into northern Alberta for the first time, where they have set to work on the boreal forests spanning the Canadian northlands.  Colorado’s beetles have appeared in Nebraska.  And they are acquiring a taste for previously unaffected species, like the jack pine, threatening forests that never developed natural defenses.

So if God’s beautiful symphony brought together the seasons and the snows to balance the needs of trees and beetles, what does our disharmony sound like in the new world of climate change?  Here’s an extremely limited sampling:
  • Dead and weakened forests in the Southwest are burning at an unprecedented pace.  Texas, New Mexico and Arizona have lost millions of acres of forests and thousands of homes this summer to explosive wildfires.
  • Many Southwest forests are not recovering, but converting to unproductive heat-tolerant scrub and grasslands due to new, drier climate conditions. These lands cannot begin to hold the amount of carbon – or provide habitat to wildlife – that forests can.
  • 80 percent of British Columbia’s massive western lodgepole forests have been devastated by the beetle infestation.  And it’s headed eastward across Canada, a country that accounts for one-third of the world’s forested area.
  • Beetle-killed forests are tinderboxes, and after 5-10 years, the shallow-rooted trees simply fall over, blocking roads, destroying power lines, and endangering humans.
  • Many Rocky Mountain recreational destinations like Steamboat Springs are now surrounded by dead forests.  Communities will have to live through the red forest stage, followed by a grey moonscape after the dead needles all fall.  And for a decade or more, falling trees will render it unsafe to go into the woods.
Almost pretty: Red hues disguise the horror of mass mortality in B.C.

  • Falling dead pines disrupt the forest soil structure, giving rise to erosion which chokes streams and reservoirs, and imperils community water supplies.
  • The forest die-offs are both the result and the cause of rising greenhouse gas concentrations, as dead or burning forests emit far more CO2 than they absorb.  It’s an example of the many positive feedback loops that make climate change so tricky to forecast, and often drive unpleasant, un-forecasted surprises.
Nice vacation? Dead lodgepole forest up close.
Those of us who regularly warn about the perils of climate change often speak of risks to our children, or to far-off peoples.  But Jim Furnish reminds us that this is now, and it’s here:

“This is different.  You can’t deny that it’s happening.  But some will always blame the Forest Service or insist that mankind is not to blame.”

Maybe, Jim. But just maybe, this catastrophe will awaken some Americans.  Maybe we'll demand climate action from our leaders to stop the misuse of God’s good creation. Let's pray that it will.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you. 

J. Elwood

How bad?  The red-orange areas are recent forest die-offs. 

Are Alberta's boreal forests next?

Monday, October 17, 2011

The TV Christian v. God’s People

What is it these days with TV commentators anointing themselves to speak for Christianity?

Last year, we had Glenn Beck telling (really – ordering!) Christians to abandon their churches if their pastors ever dared to teach about social justice.  Social justice!  Practically every page of the Gospel of Luke is about social justice.  But this TV guy – who happens to be a Mormon – figures that he’s ordained to order Christians to abandon their churches if their pastors ever follow their Master into the sacred realm of public justice and mercy.

And just last week, we had Rush Limbaugh telling American Christians that their President was declaring war on fellow Christians fighting to liberate Uganda.  He’s talking about a group called the Lord’s Resistance Army, probably the most maniacal and ruthless killers the world has seen since Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.  Here’s what Limbaugh said:
Limbaugh: The LRA are Christians
“Lord’s Resistance Army are Christians. They are fighting the Muslims in Sudan. And Obama has sent troops, United States troops to remove them from the battlefield, which means kill them.”

Now maybe you’ve never crossed paths with the Lord’s Resistance Army (or LRA).  The fact that you’re still alive to read this suggests that you probably haven’t.  But the LRA is abhorred across East Africa for descending upon villages, herding terrified families into the village church building, and then chopping their unarmed victims to death with machetes.
It happens that dear friends of ours have lived under the shadow of this demonic presence for many years.  Scott and Jennifer Myhre, two doctors serving with World Harvest Mission – together with their four children – have spent 20 years healing the sick and malnourished in Western Uganda along the Congo border, and now in Kenya.  Michael and Karen Masso and their children have spent their lives providing safe water to the poorest people of Uganda, and now continue their life-giving work in South Sudan.  Our children, Nathan and Sarah Elwood, were honored to serve with both of these families for two years after college.

Dr. Jennifer Myhre: 20 years saving the poorest children
All of them have felt the chilling horror wreaked by the LRA on innocent Ugandans, Congolese and South Sudanese.

So I figured I’d find out what a veteran Christian missionary, one of the unsung heroes of our day, had to say about Limbaugh’s attack on the American President and his defense of the LRA murderers.

“I am stunned,” said Dr. Scott Myhre. “I have never read a more ill-informed piece of idiotic misinformation!! What a travesty. Unbelievable.”

Missionaries – and particularly mission doctors – are tough people.  But it still takes a bit to get them to call people idiots. It looks like Limbaugh has given them that bit, and more.

Dr. Scott Myhre with AIDS victims and their babies
What is it going to take for American Christians to finally declare their independence from political ideologues spewing hateful venom on TV in the name of the Christian church?

Maybe in this political season, we will finally come to our senses, and realize that the God who made the supernovae is not a member of either American political party.  And that the TV guys certainly don’t speak for His beloved church.

To read more about the gospel and social justice, here is an excellent and accessible book by noted author and pastor, Tim Keller.
And to see what genuine Christians like the Myhres and Massos are doing in the shadow of evil incarnate like the LRA, take a look here, or here.  And while you’re there, look for the many ways you can join them in bringing true Christ-like justice and mercy to a fallen world.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

At grave of colleague, killed treating Ebola outbreak
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.  And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”  Micah 6:8

“On the Sabbath day [Jesus] went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read…: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
“Today,” [said Jesus] “this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”   
Luke 4:16-21

Friday, October 14, 2011

Oil Addiction Gets Soldiers Like Me Killed

Straight talk is what you expect from a soldier. 

And that's what the U.S. State Department got last week in its hearings on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  Hundreds of people packed the hearing room, and scores signed up early enough for a chance to speak.  Ranchers, indigenous leaders, clergy and many more.  But a favorite of mine was Brig. General Steve Anderson.

Gen. Anderson was a top logistics officer in Iraq.  As such, he commanded thousands of soldiers transporting fuel to the battlefield.  And under his command, many were killed supplying U.S. forces with gasoline.  Now, he's doing everything he can to help us break our addiction to oil -- the root cause of so many armed conflicts that are killing American young men and women.

Here's what he has to say:

This pipeline (the Keystone XL) will keep us addicted to oil.  And our addiction to oil gets soldiers killed.  Our enemies are delighting in this pipeline, because they know that their wealth will continue to prosper, and ours will continue to degrade.

We will continue to send billions of dollars over to our enemies....  This will continue our CO2 emissions.  CO2 emissions lead to climate change, and climate change leads to instability. And that will mean soldiers like me will continue to fight and die to police the world....

U.S. Army tanker is a soft target for insurgent IEDs
Thanks, General.  For better or worse, some of us are skeptical of scientists and activists.  But when a soldier speaks this clearly, maybe it's time to listen.

You can read more about what America's leading officers are saying about climate change here or here.  And you can join me in urging the President not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline here.

Thanks for joining General Anderson and me in this effort.  Simple, straightforward people like the General are making a difference, and so can you!

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tar Sands Energy Independence? Oh, the Details!

Suppose you were President of the United States. 

You don’t like importing foreign oil, but you really don’t like depending on Middle East and other unstable producers for it. So if you could only get it from a friendly neighbor like Canada! That would be great, right?  And maybe they’d pipe it right to the center of the country, far from seaports into which the overseas stuff gets shipped.  Wouldn’t that be great?

Actually, Mr. (or Ms.) President, that what we’ve got today.  Canada is our largest supplier of oil, and it gets piped right into the Midwest, reducing oil costs in our heartland.

But suppose we changed all that.  What if, instead, we built a huge 1,700-mile pipeline that runs, not to the heartland, but straight across it to huge export terminals on the Gulf of Mexico.  And suppose that this export terminal was tax-free, so that oil exporters didn’t have to pay U.S. duties? And suppose that this pipeline was owned by a foreign company?  And suppose that the pipeline contracted to sell its oil to foreign oil companies, which are committed to selling their oil on the world markets to the highest bidders? Suppose there was no intention of keeping the oil here at home?

How does that sound to you, Mr./Ms. President? Are you feeling safer now?

Now, in case you’re actually thinking about running for president, a word of advice:  You probably shouldn’t tell the voters in advance that you’d approve something like this.  In fact, nobody would do this, right?

Um, well, let me tell you about the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and an actual president, named Barack Obama.  You already know that the tar sands oil is filthy stuff; that it destroys indigenous tribes in Canada; that it pours mercury and other toxins into northern waterways; that the pipeline will cross 1,904 American rivers and streams; that it will likely destroy far more jobs than it creates; and that it generates almost twice as much CO2 as conventional oils.  But you were hoping, perhaps, that at least we’d have a captive supply of oil, no?

Valero's tar sands oil is going overseas
I’m so sorry, Mr./Ms. President.  The Keystone XL pipeline is an export pipeline.  It’s owned by a foreign company, TransCanada.  And TransCanada has contracted to deliver the oil to seven big oil companies:  two are Dutch (Royal Dutch Shell and Trafigura), one is Saudi (Aramco), one is French (Total S.A.), two are Canadian (CNR and Cenovus) and only one is American (Valero).

Well, thank heavens! At least one is loyal to us, right?  Surely they’ll keep their share of the oil here at home, right?

Oh, I’m so sorry.  Valero, the top beneficiary of the Keystone XL, has explicitly detailed an export strategy to its investors.  They’ve locked in at least 20 percent of the pipeline’s capacity, and it’s going to Europe and South America (see the investor presentation map above).  And because its refinery is in a Foreign Trade Zone, the company will export it tax free.

The U.S. will have provided a huge new subsidy to oil companies: importing and transporting massive amounts of toxic fossil fuels across the vital midsection of our country, only to have it exported duty free.  The American people bear the risks of spills, emissions and contamination; and companies like Valero reap the profits.  The only thing that stays behind is the pollution.

Total S.A. hardly sells anything in the U.S., with heavy focus on Europe
The same is true for all these companies: Total S.A. has 69% of its gas stations in Europe, and less than 3% in the Americas (none in the U.S.!). All these companies have the exact same motivation: Get the oil as cheaply as possible and sell it to the highest bidder, wherever they are.

These facts highlight a fundamental reality, captured in a report by OilChange International:  “The oil market is fundamentally global.  The only way to truly reduce our dependence on foreign oil is to reduce our dependence on ALL oil.”

I’m so sorry to be the bearer of such bad news, Mr./Ms. President:  There’s no energy security in this pipeline.  Now that you think about it, why would a president ever approve such a project, if corporate lobbying and campaign money was not at stake?

Oh, and what about President Obama? Well, he's poised to sign the pipeline permit before year end.

Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to write the President!  And may God bless you.

J. Elwood

More disclosures from Valero
Where's the Gulf refinery oil going?  Latin America and Europe
Valero's tar-sands oil will go to diesel-thirsty Europe

Monday, October 10, 2011

“A Literal Hell on Earth…”

Some of you have been following my awakening to the dire risk our Lord’s world and His people face today in the form of the massive tar sands pipeline project called the Keystone XL.  It takes a while to read all this stuff, doesn’t it?

Well, here’s a short film by Josh Fox that will give you a four-minute introduction, and some remarkable footage.  It depicts about the closest thing to hell on earth that I’ve ever seen.

And if this makes you wonder about your future, or your kids’, or the wholeness of the world belonging to the God to whom you pray, here are some things you might consider:  You can tell the President what you think about this, by writing him here.  Or better yet, you could join me in paying him a visit on November 6th; more about that here.   

And you can also join me before someone much greater than the President, asking for His Kingdom and His will on His earth:

‘Our Heavenly Father, may your name be honored; May your kingdom come, and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day the bread we need. Forgive us what we owe to you, as we have also forgiven those who owe anything to us. Keep us clear of temptation, and save us from evil.’   Jesus' prayer, from Matthew 6

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Saturday, October 8, 2011

You Will be My Witnesses...

 ... in Jerusalem ... and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)

Yesterday Nathan Elwood and I went to the U.S. Department of State, to testify on behalf of evangelical Christians against the pending approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. We were joined by a mosaic of voices -- indigenous leaders, ranchers, doctors, pipeline inspectors, ministers and robed friars, an Army general, college students and more -- asking President Obama not to approve the pipeline.  We were opposed by a much smaller number -- overwhelmingly oil industry people and, sadly, unemployed union laborers bused in for the event -- repeating the claims of jobs and energy independence, as though repetition would make them true. (See my post on the "jobs" claims here.)

Here is my testimony:

My name is John Elwood.  I am an evangelical Christian; an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America; a board member of the Evangelical Environmental Network; and I represent The Micah Institute, GreenFaith, and Interfaith Power & Light. 

First Nations chiefs & citizens spoke out against tar sands
Roughly 100 million Americans identify themselves as Evangelicals. We believe that the gospel compels us to care for the created world: that God created all things; that He made mankind with a special mandate to care for all that He has made; that the creation, whether pure or despoiled, is the inheritance of our Lord Jesus Christ; and, in a world where degradation of the earth is responsible for much hunger, sickness, and conflict, we hear the command of Jesus to serve the hungry, homeless and oppressed as “the least of these brothers of mine….”

For these reasons, our faith compels us to urge our leaders, as we follow Christ, not to proceed with the proposed pipeline project.  We take this position for the following reasons:

  1. Exploitation of the tar sands threatens to severely harm human health – especially amongst indigenous peoples – both by the devastation of vast tracts of Canadian ancestral lands and waterways, and by highly likely future threats to American waterways and aquifers.
  2. Tar sands are among the most carbon-polluting of any fuels known to man, with life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions roughly 82% greater than the comparable emissions from conventional petroleum, according to the EPA.  As such, they harm vulnerable people all over the earth. 
  3. At a time when we need to invest heavily in non-carbon-polluting energy solutions, the last-gasp exploitation of non-conventional fuels such as the tar sands represents a huge step backward, wedding our economies to unusually dirty fuels for generations. 
  4. Without this pipeline, the damage from tar sands operations will be restricted for years into the future.  Its expansion depends on this project.  
  5.  The job creation and energy independence touted by promoters of the pipeline are illusory.  Among scores of flaws, they ignore the job-killing impacts of increasingly severe droughts and floods; and the clearly-stated plans by the multi-national oil companies to export the tar sands products, not use them in the U.S.

Oil addiction is killing our soldiers: Gen. Anderson
When we consider these factors, the Keystone XL pipeline directly or indirectly contributes to results which are contrary to the Kingdom of God; harming His Creation; threatening the balances through which He has blessed the earth; and placing a crushing burden upon our children.

We are not experts in the U.S. national interest.  But if God is who our scriptures say He is, such a course cannot be in our interest.

Thank you.