Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Friday, February 25, 2011

Can Unbelieving Parents Be Saved?

Tiibea Baure fears for her mom and dad.  More than anything, she wants them to be saved.  But despite her pleas and prayers, they refuse to believe.

Tiibea Baure of Kiribati
Tiibea’s parents scoff at all warnings about the changing climate, whether from scientists or from their own government.  They are like many among the older generation, who refuse to believe the research about the future of their homeland, the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati.  The 33 low-lying islands that 90,000 Kiribatians call home are increasingly succumbing to the rising sea levels, and the future is bleak. 

“It's not nice to be planning the demise of your country,” admits Kiribati’s president, Anote Tong.  “Nobody wants to do that. Who wants to lose his national identity? Nobody wants to do that. But can you give me any other option, given the rising tide? No, you cannot.”

Rising sea levels overwhelming Kiribati's villages
Why is he so pessimistic?  Because Kiribati’s islands are giving way to the rising seas today, and are projected to be completely inundated by the end of the century.  Already, the islands’ fresh water is turning salty, and crops are being destroyed by encroaching salt water.  Many Kiribatians are being trained for careers in Australia, so that they will have somewhere to go when this nation – which spans an area larger than the state of Alaska – is no longer habitable.

But Tiibea’s parents don’t believe.  Her mom, Batie Tebwa and her dad, Baure Karakaua just laugh at her worries.  “When the sea coming, God will come under our island and raise it up a bit higher,” laughs her dad.  “So why's she so worried about it? God keep raising our island higher and higher, so we're not worried!' "

Mom and Dad laugh at Tiibea's warnings, and ignore presidential concerns.
Many of Kiribati’s politicians agree with him (sound familiar?).  Almost all Kiribatians belong to a church, and many are suspicious of science.  The former president, Teburoro Tito, recalls that God promised Noah never again to destroy the world.  "Saying we're going to be under the water, that I don't believe," Tito says. "Because people belong to God, and God is not so silly to allow people to perish just like that."

This used to be the village of Tebunginako
But the unbelief of the older generation does not appear to be stopping the forces of nature.  The village of Tebunginako is a striking example.  In the late 1970s, the tides began encroaching into the village, home to over 400 people.  Despite their frantic efforts to build sea walls, the waters kept advancing.  Now, the site where the village’s central meeting hall once stood is 100 feet offshore.  And the population has dwindled to one quarter of its earlier size.

This is the destiny Tiibea fears for her family.  She’s training in Brisbane, Australia, to be a nurse.  Perhaps, she tells herself, when the rising seas drive her unbelieving parents away from their ancestral  home, she’ll be able to take care of them in this new land.  Ironically, her Australian city of refuge suffered floods of biblical proportions last month which destroyed 25,000 homes and 5,000 businesses, all due to climatic factors predicted for Australia by climatologists.

Kiribati could easily just be a fictional parable for the United States:  scientists and government agencies sounding the alarm; young people voicing particular concern; old folks and politicians refusing to take the warnings seriously; and religious people imagining that God won’t permit them to suffer the consequences of environmental degradation. 

But the sacred scripture of Christians and Jews says no such thing about God.  In fact, the God of grace issues severe warnings to mankind, if it should disregard the Sabbath Laws requiring people to care for the creation:

“If in spite of this you still do not listen to me, then … your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins.  Then the land will enjoy its Sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its Sabbaths.  All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the Sabbaths you lived in it.”  (Leviticus 26: 27-39)

The God of the Christian faith undeniably loves people, but He loves them in the context of loving the entire Earth that He made.

And Kiribati is no parable.  It’s a real place where belief, faith and salvation all hang in the balance.  The rising seas are coming. 

Will Tiibea’s parents be saved?

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Weather’s Getting Extremely … Extreme

An old friend of mine said to me last year: “I don’t know whether to be concerned about global warming, or to just enjoy it."

Ah!  If only the researchers who first discovered global warming had consulted a PR agent before naming the thing!  “Warm” or “warming” is almost always a pleasant thing: affable, affectionate, friendly, snug or toasty.  As a verb, it can mean to animate, enliven, arouse or gladden.  We all like warm fuzzies, warm hearts, and a warm welcome.

No wonder my friend hopes to enjoy global warming.  It’s tempting to think that climate change will simply make Buffalo, NY feel like Ashville, NC. But we’re not going to be nearly that lucky.

Pakistan flood victims not enjoying global warming
Here are a couple of suggestions for a better name.  One might be “climate chaos.”   Or maybe, we might try “global extreming.”   Extreming?  That’s not even a word!  But maybe it captures a picture of the world facing us and our children.  Here’s why:

For starters, we can’t deny it -- the climate is indeed getting warmer.  So global “warming” is – at a minimum – a valid name.  Last year was tied for the hottest year on record for the earth.  9 of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. And it’s not just a few scorchers at fault; it’s staying hot.  Consider:  According to NOAA, the last 12 five-year periods (2006-2010, 2005-2009, and back to 1995-1999) are the 12 hottest such five-year periods ever recorded.  12 for 12.  God’s world is clearly getting hot.

And worse, the heating is accelerating.  Look at the chart below showing annual temperature deviations from the 1971-2000 average for all years from 1901 to 2008 for the continental United States.  It shows that for entire period, temperatures are climbing at a pace of 1.28 degrees per century.  That’s serious.  But now, look at just the last 30 years:  the warming rate is a shocking 5.84 degrees per century. Do we all see what’s happening?  The rate of global heating is almost five times faster in the last 30 years than it’s been for the entire century.

So the world is just getting hotter, right?

Not at all.  If only it were that simple.  NASA’s lead climate scientist, James Hansen, has repeatedly tried to correct this impression for our political leaders.  Of course, he says, the warmer earth today features worse droughts and heat waves.  “However,” he notes, “because a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor, global warming must also increase the intensity of the other extreme of the hydrological cycle – meaning heavier rains, more extreme floods, and more intense storms ….”  And add to that severe winter cold spells occurring with the weakening of the polar vortex, and you have a chaotic collection of climatic extremes.

Okay, that’s what they say.  But what’s happening in the real world?

Well, in fact, global rainfall is increasing, as expected.  In the U.S. it’s increased by 6% per century since 1901, accelerating at a much higher rate in the last 30 years.  And, as expected, it’s not coming in gentle “farmer’s rains,” but in increasingly intense floods.  And at the same time, fierce heat and drought is increasing throughout much of the world.  Just take a look at events in the last twelve months:

Pakistani mother carries her children to safety
Pakistan floods:  The Indus River system overran its banks with unprecedented fury in last summer’s record rains, wreaking $43 billion in damage upon the country (or 3 months' income for every man, woman and child) and displacing 20 million people.  Damage from the floods destroyed 1.4 million acres of cropland, leaving 70% of Pakistan’s 160 million citizens without access to proper nutrition.  Do the math:  112 million hungry people.

Fire and drought took 20% of Russia's 2010 wheat crop
Russian drought:  Last summer, the worst drought on record destroyed more than 20 percent of Russia’s wheat harvest.  As Russia is the fourth largest global wheat exporter, the drought hit the poor in Asia and Africa especially hard, driving up wheat prices by 90% by the end of summer.  Almost a year later, wheat prices are near record highs.

Workers cleaning toxic sludge in Devecser, Hungary
European floods:   Last fall, unusually heavy rains across Europe caused a landslide of toxic red sludge, associated with aluminum smelting, which quickly blanketed a 16-mile swath of Eastern Hungary.  The flood contaminated 270 homes, polluted hundreds of farms, and threatened the Danube River with concentrations of acids and heavy metals.

Middletown, CT rubble
U.S. snowfall:  You’ve noticed, eh?  The last two winters have been horrid.  Laborers all over the country have flocked to New England – where countless buildings have collapsed under the weight of the ice and snow – to work ten-hour days shoveling the roofs of buildings to keep them from being crushed by the weight.  In Middletown, CT, 130 barns have collapsed this winter, as have numerous downtown stores and offices.

Australian floods:  The two million residents of Brisbane suffered the worst floods on record last month, when relentless rainfall wiped out 25,000 homes and 5,000 businesses.  Local leaders said that the prospective cleanup and reconstruction would amount to a challenge of “postwar proportions.”  Worse yet, the floods have damaged about 30% of Australia’s wheat harvest.

Brisbane, Australia  flooding was the worst on record
Chinese farmer carrying water on parched field
China drought:  This year, China’s massive wheat belt is in the grip of severe drought.  Five provinces which account for 80 percent of Chinese wheat production are suffering their worst drought in more than 60 years, and the breadbasket of Shangdong has not seen this dry a season in 200 years. 

And the result of these climatic upheavals?  Higher food prices, increased global migration, increase in poverty, greater economic uncertainty and political upheavals.

Higher food prices:  The International Grains Council now estimates that world-wide wheat production will decline by 30 million tons this year, or roughly 5% of the total, while the world’s population continues to grow.  Wheat now goes for about $9.00 per bushel, up 72% from this time last year.  Tragically, the world’s poor don’t have an extra 72% to pay for more expensive bread, noodles or tortillas.  Consequently, we will surely see increasing malnutrition and desperation.

North African refugees overwhelming a Sicilian island
Increased human migration:  People will do almost anything rather than let their children starve.  As a first step, they migrate to where things appear to be better.  This week, the floodgates opened as thousands of Tunisians, fresh from celebrating their successful revolution, were driven by hunger across the Mediterranean in small boats, looking for a better life in Europe.

Extreme poverty:  Just this week, the World Bank issued a quarterly report, which found that recent food price hikes have added 44 million people to the ranks of those in extreme poverty.  Rising prices benefited 24 million people in poor countries, mainly farmers who received more for their crops. However, those same rising prices pushed 68 million people below the bank’s extreme poverty line, defined as someone living on $1.25 a day. The result is a net increase of 44 million people living in dire poverty because of food inflation. That represents about a 3.0 percent increase in the total number of people living in extreme poverty, which the bank calculates at about 1.2 billion.

Economic uncertainty:  While it’s hard to drum up wellsprings of sympathy for insurance companies, without them most business can’t function.  Munich Re, one of the world’s largest insurance companies, says climate-related events serious enough to cause property damage have risen significantly since 1980: Extreme floods tripled and extreme windstorms nearly so.   So how do you insure against a “hundred-year storm” – an event so epic that there is a 1 percent chance it will happen in a given year – when 100-year storms are seen every 10 years, and 10-year storms become regular events?  Extreme weather events are making nearly every insured activity much more expensive.

Will fledgling democracies survive 2011 food shortages?
Political upheaval:  We’ve all watched events in Egypt and Tunisia with admiration.  But let’s not fool ourselves.  While every human wants to be free from oppression, the most pressing need in the world is to be free from hunger.  Food riots have broken out repeatedly in the region in recent years, and the greatest peril to these young revolutions is undoubtedly the shortage of food which will likely grip their cities this summer.

So, if you ever hoped to “enjoy global warming,” you might want to think again.  It’s much harder to enjoy global hunger, global poverty and global chaos. 
Welcome to the brave new world of “Global Extreming.”

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Friday, February 11, 2011

Sleeping with the Fishies

I was interested last week to come across a hotel in Florida that’s totally under water.  You actually get to it by scuba diving.  It turns out to be pretty small to be called a hotel, with only two guestrooms, but where else can you sleep with the fishies?

Jules Undersea Lodge in Key Largo
Well, give it a few decades, and it looks like you’ll find more than a thousand of them, right there in Florida.  We've been looking at a study prepared for the State of Florida by Tufts University researchers.  It projects that 1,362 currently-standing hotels and inns will be engulfed by the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico by the year 2060 – assuming we continue with business as usual when it comes to carbon emissions. And this assumes only 27" in sea level rise, which is far below the worst case.

Of course, every single hotel in the Keys, on Sanibel Island, on Miami Beach and most Florida barrier islands will be awash.   For me, the catastrophe is Sanibel, my childhood summer haunt, with its mangrove swamps teeming with every kind of bird and fish.  The modestly gracious Island Inn, the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, and my aunt’s simple cottage tucked among the dunes – they all will be miles from the nearest land.

But it can’t be just hotels that are giving way to the waves, as sea levels respond to the effects of warmer oceans and melting ice sheets.  What else will be “undah dah sea?”

Well, for starters, 900,000 residential units, including houses, apartments and condos.  Almost one million homes will be gone. 

And churches:  1,025 of them.  More than a thousand congregations will be homeless, looking for other places to worship.

The list goes on with some pretty sobering items:  68 hospitals and 37 nursing homes; 115 solid waste disposal sites and 140 water treatment facilities; 5 Superfund sites, and 336 hazardous materials sites. All these toxins awash in the ocean.

That’s probably as bad as it gets, right?  Not really.  Our new Atlantis will also have a couple of superstar attractions: two nuclear reactors – the massive Turkey Point Generating Station that currently supplies Miami’s electric needs.  These reactors will be – by my estimate – between 6 and 8 miles from the nearest land.

Miami's largest nuclear power station could be far offshore in 2060
Congress is gearing up just now to hold hearings on climate change. They're led by politicians who are bent on chastising those nettlesome climate scientists: the ones who are trying to scare us good folks into reducing our use of fossil fuels.  Much testimony will be offered by experts telling us how we can’t afford the cost of action on CO2 emissions.  I only hope that some sober voices will be present to focus our elected leaders on the costs of inaction.

If we do nothing, I’m afraid a lot of Floridians will be sleeping with the fishies.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Monday, February 7, 2011

Snowpocalypse! Snowmageddon!

We’re struggling with the harshness of this winter.  Aren't you?  It affects everything we do.  Business contacts in Dallas are trapped at home by more than an inch of ice.  Friends in Chicago are buried under the worst snowfall in memory.   A hotel I work with near New York routinely spends $8,000 to $10,000 to plow away wave after wave of snowfall.

Not working: Wagon (front) & solar panels (rear)
And here at Good Hand Farm, we haul water to our horses by hand, dig pathways to the barn, watch helplessly as frozen gutters pull away from buildings, and struggle in vain to keep the solar panels clear.

These conditions make great PR for the oil-funded politicians.  Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma seized upon the harsh weather to denounce “the fanciful claims surrounding global warming” as a “colossal deception, an artful hoax, and an intellectual fraud.”

What’s going on?  I thought global warming meant the globe was warming!

Well, it is.  The U.S. government just released global temperature measurements for 2010, and the results are scary.  Both NASA and NOAA report that 2010 is tied with 2005 as the hottest year for the earth on record.  In fact, 9 of the 10 hottest years have occurred since 2000. 

NOAA's data: 2010 tied for the hottest year on record
With 40 percent more water vapor in the atmosphere than in 1970, it’s not surprising that our winter snows might be getting heavier, just the way summer floods are getting worse.

But what’s with the cold?  Well, to be honest, the research is not conclusive just yet.  But it is clear that while we’re getting cold winter weather here in the mid-latitudes, it’s much warmer than usual in the Arctic.  Here’s why, according to some researchers at NOAA and other research centers:

There is a pattern of circulation around the Arctic called the “Polar Vortex.”  It’s a wall of wind that tends to keep polar air in the Arctic, and warmer air to the south, like a climatic fence.  With the warming of the Arctic, the Polar Vortex has weakened, permitting swaths of arctic air to sweep south, intensifying our winters here in the mid-latitudes.  Last winter, one index related to the Vortex hit its lowest wintertime value since record-keeping began in 1865, and it was quite low again last month.

The weaker Polar Vortex pushes arctic air further south, among other impacts.

These researchers note that the weakened Polar Vortex is permitting arctic air to “jump the fence,” and we’re feeling the results down here.  If they are right, we could be in for a climatic double whammy: hotter, longer summers, plus colder, snowier winters.

I, for one, am hoping so. You're wondering why, of course.  Right?

Anyone looking honestly at the issues of justice related to climate change can’t miss the cruel realities:  The affluent U.S., with 5% of the world’s population, generates more than a quarter of global greenhouse gases.  But the billions of poor in the  developing world, with limited means of adaptation, are the most certain to suffer the resulting climate effects on food supply, rising seas, increased flooding, and severe droughts.  We consume; they suffer.

The Bible’s Psalms are full of prayers that God would visit the consequences of evil on its perpetrators, and not upon the innocent.  Here’s what one of them says:

“This is what the wicked are like—always carefree, they increase in wealth.  Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence….  When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.” (Ps. 73)

Is it too much – in our day – to pray that God’s creation would visit the effects of environmental degradation upon its perpetrators?

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Friday, February 4, 2011

We've Discovered Atlantis!

And Poseidon received for his lot the island of Atlantis …   Plato’s Timaeus

It is not surprising that the ancients spoke of cities slipping beneath the waves:  since the end of the last Ice Age, sea levels have risen hundreds of feet, until they reached the relatively stable levels enjoyed for the last several millennia.  It stands to reason that some coastal communities disappeared before the rising seas in antiquity, perhaps including Atlantis, “standing before the Pillars of Hercules.”

Miami: 2.3 million souls just above the rising seas
In our century, we don’t need to go looking for Atlantis.  We’ve got Miami.

The OECD ranks it #1 in the world in terms of monetary loss from climate change at $3.5 trillion – assuming we continue with business as usual.  Coastal and marine experts worldwide project significant sea level rise during the lives of our children and grandchildren, and most predictions range from 2-5 feet.  The big unknowns are the earth’s three great ice sheets: Greenland, and the Eastern and Western Antarctic ice sheets.  These contain enough water to raise sea levels by about 210 feet.  And two of them are retreating under warmer polar climates.

Researchers at Tufts University recently completed a study for the state of Florida, which graphically set forth the impact on Florida of rising seas levels.  They used a moderate projection of 27 inches in the next 50 years – a relatively conservative estimate of the impact of business-as-usual greenhouse gas policies.  What’s striking is how much of the state will simply disappear beneath the waves.  But nowhere is this as striking as in South Florida, home to Key West, the Everglades, and of course, Miami.

Monroe County, home to 80,000 people, the beautiful Florida Keys and the ecologically irreplaceable Everglades will disappear entirely.  ENTIRELY. Miami-Dade County – with its population of 2.3 million souls – will lose 69% of its land.  In the city of Miami, 380,000 people today live on land that will be below sea level in 2060 -- assuming we continue our consumer-driven carbon binge.

Miami in 2060: a narrow, soggy peninsula
But we’ll build levies to save them won’t we?  I’m afraid not.  Unlike New Orleans, Miami sits on strata of very porous rock and sand – a blessing for drainage in our day, but a sieve for sea water in the future. 
But there is hope, if we can believe the work of climate researchers.  They tell us that if the world begins immediately, and reduces 50% of its CO2 emissions by 2050, then we might hold sea level rise to as little as 7 inches by 2100.  On our current carbon joy-ride, however, we can expect seas to rise by about 55 inches – far above the scary images presented on these maps.

Odds are, I won’t be here to see the worst of these events.  But this is our Father’s world.  And these are our Father’s people.  And some of them are my kids, and, as of last year, my beautiful new granddaughter.  She’ll be 50 years old in 2060, the year these maps are forecasting.

We’d better not mess this up.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Not Venice: Parts of Miami already  flood frequently at high tide