Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Greetings from the Clothesline Report!

(Note:  If you’re looking for this week’s post about food riots in Africa, you’ll have to page down a bit.  The following is a special greeting for Easter Day.)

Most of you know that the Clothesline Report is not a particularly sectarian tract.  It is, I hope, accessible by people of all faiths who care about the world, and especially the poor.

But this writer – like many of you – is committed to a particular faith.  I am a Christian: which means, I believe that one particular man rose bodily from the dead two millennia ago, and that he is building a world in which all people and all things will be freed from the bonds of evil, suffering and death.

And because this Easter Day is the day Christians celebrate the resurrection, I thought this would be a good day to reflect on this aspect of Christian hope in the words of N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England.

The intellectual coup d’etat by which the Enlightenment convinced so many that “we know that dead people don’t rise,” as though this was a modern discovery rather than simply the reaffirmation of what Homer and Aeschylus had taken for granted, goes hand in hand with the Enlightenment’s other proposals, not least that we have now come of age, that God can be kicked upstairs, that we can get on with running the world however we want to, carving it up to our own advantage without outside interference. 

To that extent, the totalitarianisms of the last century were simply among the varied manifestations of a larger totalitarianism of thought and culture against which postmodernity has now, and rightly in my view, rebelled. 

Who, after all, was it who didn’t want the dead to be raised? Not simply the intellectually timid or the rationalists.  It was, and is, those in power, the social and intellectual tyrants and bullies; the Caesars who would be threatened by a Lord of the world who had defeated the tyrant's last weapon, death itself; the Herods who would be horrified at the postmortem validation of the true King of the Jews. 

And this is the point where believing in the resurrection of Jesus suddenly ceases to be a matter of inquiring about an odd event in the first century and becomes a matter of rediscovering hope in the twenty-first century.  Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word.  The same worldview shift that is demanded by the resurrection of Jesus is the shift that will enable us to transform the world.  [N.T. Wright: “Surprised by Hope”]

I hope that many good things come your way this Easter, and in the year ahead.  And may we all be able to envision a world transformed.

J. Elwood

Saturday, April 23, 2011

U.S. Boots on the Ground in Africa?

With all the upheavals in Libya and Syria, and polarizing budget battles here at home, it might be easy to miss a little story coming out of East Africa: the food riots that have rocked the country of Uganda.  We’ve been thinking about bigger things.

But that could be a big mistake.

Here’s what’s happening:  For two weeks now, Uganda has been rocked by rioting and protests over soaring food prices.  The government has responded with force, firing live ammunition at unarmed protesters, killing and severely beating protesters, and jailing opposition political leaders.  Amnesty International has decried “the excessive use of force,” and the government is coming under intense pressure at home and abroad.

29% spike in food costs have sparked angry protests
What’s the problem with food prices?  Well, to begin with, Uganda is a poor country, tied with Haiti near the bottom of per capita income tables.  It takes only nine days for the average American to earn a Ugandan’s annual income.  Of course, people in such poverty live from meal to meal, without the luxury of savings.

But in the last year alone, Ugandan food costs have increased by a whopping 29.1%, according to the Ugandan Bureau of Statistics.  And the reason for the run up in prices?   “A prolonged dry season in most parts of the country,” the statistics office said.

From our perspective, it’s more complex than that, involving global forces driven by ethanol subsidies in the U.S. and changing climatic conditions worldwide.  But on the ground in Uganda, they see crop failures and declining yields from local droughts.

Back here in the U.S., our politicians don’t seem to be worried.  But for years, Ugandan leaders have been telling an alarming story.  “Climate change,” warned a 2007 Ugandan government report “puts additional pressure on the world food supply system. Uganda’s agriculture is subsistent, rain-fed and, therefore, vulnerable to climate change. Erratic rain seasons have been observed in the past few years.  Prolonged droughts can have serious impacts on agricultural production.”  And among the consequences they warned of are exactly what we’re seeing in Uganda today: economic and political instability, leading to the decline of governing institutions.

But maybe we don’t care what bureaucrats from an African country have to say, right?  In that case, let’s listen to the top officers in the U.S. Armed Services.   In 2007, a blue-ribbon panel of 11 of the most senior retired U.S. admirals and generals warned of exactly the same outcome.  The study, “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change,” explains how climate change acts as a threat multiplier in already fragile regions, exacerbating conditions that lead to failed states — the breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism.

Violent clampdown: Ugandan army used live amunition
In Africa, the report highlights how climate change can contribute to shortages of food, drinking water and farmland, adding strain in a region that is already the source of 30 percent of the world's refugees. It states: "Such changes will add significantly to existing tensions and can facilitate weakened governance, economic collapses, massive human migrations, and potential conflicts." 

And why do our military leaders care about the prospects of failed states in Africa?  Air Force General Chuck Wald put it this way: "We import more oil from Africa than the Middle East - probably a shock to a lot of people - and that share will grow... we'll be drawn into the politics of Africa, to a much greater extent.”  Anyone watching Libya today can see how prescient he was four years ago.

Sharp increase in droughts in Uganda
Back on the ground in Uganda, the country’s 33.4 million people – many of them living in extreme poverty – are struggling  with 29% food cost inflation, which translates directly into chronic hunger, malnutrition, disease, and now – political instability and violence.  They don’t know about the American generals’ predictions of increased terrorism and resource conflicts.

And, they don’t know that many politicians in the world’s largest economy are doing everything they can to prevent action to address the environmental degradation at the root of their problem.

They just know that it’s going to be much harder to feed the children tomorrow than it was last Easter.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Friday, April 15, 2011

A World Without Coffee?

One of our readers recently challenged me regarding human-caused climate change:  If it’s happening, how do you know it’s significant?

Hmm.  How do we measure significance? 

The significance of climate change probably depends on where you stand.  For example, this morning Barbara Elwood suffered one of the effects of climate change.  But you might argue that it wasn’t really all that significant.  When she brewed her beloved morning coffee, she cut the amount by one-quarter.   One quarter less of the precious elixir we all crave.

Have you noticed what’s happening to the price of coffee?  Barbara has.  The price of high-quality Arabica coffee beans from Latin America is up 85% since last June, with no end to increases in sight.  In March, world wholesale coffee prices of all types were up 79% over the prior year.  What’s going on?

Well, worldwide demand for coffee continues to grow at a 2.5% annual pace.  But production has been hit with many difficulties, limiting average annual supply growth to only 1.7% since 2000.  What’s the problem?  The International Coffee Association puts it simply: “Climatic variability is the main factor responsible for changes in coffee yields all over the world.”

I never knew how specialized a plant the Arabica coffee strain is.  It turns out to be a delicate fruit, grown in just-right climate zones. It grows in narrow bands of peak conditions on tropical mountainsides, requiring very specific ranges and timing for everything from temperature to rainfall amounts.  As a result, it’s particularly susceptible to weather shifts, changes and extremes. 

Coffee rust fungus flourishes in newly-warm temperatures
But extremes are exactly what the Arabica regions of Latin America and Africa have been suffering.  Average temperatures in many coffee lands have increased 1 to 2 degrees in the last thirty years.  And while global warming causes droughts in many places, the warmer Pacific Ocean today releases torrential rainstorms on South American coffee highlands.  In the new, warmer and stormier climate, the plants’ buds abort or their fruit ripens too quickly for optimum quality. Heat and flooding also incubate pests like coffee rust, a devastating fungus that could not have survived the previously cool mountain weather.

As a result, coffee production is being driven higher into the mountains.  According to a recent study by CABI – Britain’s science-based development and research agency – the lower altitude limit for coffee growing is rising by roughly 15 feet per year.  15 feet every year!  Our entire farm doesn’t have 15 feet of elevation variability.  And coffee isn’t like dandelions:  the bushes take years of work to become productive.  Even if you owned vast plantations, you can’t just move uphill.

So an arguably insignificant sacrifice for Barbara Elwood has a much darker side for coffee growing families in the world’s tropical zones.  Consider the news from Colombia, Kenya and Uganda:

Colombia:  The world’s No. 2 Arabica exporter has lost 28% of its coffee production in the last 4 years.  With a 2-degree warmer climate, and a 25% increase in mountain rainfall, Colombia’s 91,000 coffee growing families are facing an onslaught of challenges, including reduced coffee quality, squeezing them out of the crucial export market.   The warmer climate is incubating new pests, including coffee rust, which destroys entire fields which were once safely uphill from its range.  And while sales are down, costs are way up, with growers beset by the cost of new fungicides, insecticides and the cost of replacing fields with genetically-modified coffee strains. 
Kenya:  U.S. imports of Kenyan coffee have increased five-fold since 1992.  But since 2000, production is down 15%, and in three of the last four years, it was down by 33-50%.  The land around Mt. Kenya now being used for coffee and tea production is being pushed up the mountain, forcing clear-cutting of upland forests.

Uganda:  This country is dear to our hearts.  We have trekked among Ugandan coffee bushes, and we count as friends families who grow coffee, in addition to cocoa, cassava and plantains. The outlook for Ugandan coffee is alarming.  A report by Oxfam warns:  “If average global temperatures rise by two degrees or more, then most of Uganda is likely to cease to be suitable for coffee.  This may happen in 40 years, or perhaps as little as 30.”  

Uganda's prime coffee lands (brown/tan) are lost with 2 degree rise.
And it’s not just the heat:  the changing climate is bringing erratic rainfall patterns to Uganda, with resulting floods, landslides and soil erosion.  Let’s not imagine that these plagues will hit only the coffee, sparing the vital food crops that virtually all Ugandans rely on for their daily bread.

So, is the impact of climate change significant?  Barbara Elwood thinks so.  Not because she’s drinking less coffee, but because she knows and cares for families who depend on the earth’s stable climate for today’s food.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Pinch Yourself – Are You Alive?

This week, Barbara, my wife, was cleaning out the attic, and came across our wedding album, one I hadn’t looked at in decades.  Who were those people?  We weren’t just young and thin; we were DIFFERENT.   Every photo reminded me how much we’ve changed.

But despite the inevitability of change, most of us are reluctant to do so.  I certainly am.  After all, we don’t hold our opinions, habits and beliefs because we think they’re stupid, right?  But if you’re within hailing distance of our age, look at your wedding album, and see how hard it is to recognize those strange people.

Fortunately, we’re not alone, and last week we saw a stunning example of it.  The new Congress was holding hearings on climate change, and climate-denial politicians brought out a raft of expert witnesses.  They had a marketing professor, a lawyer and an economist.  But their star witness was a physicist named Richard Muller, a scientist at the prestigious Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory at UC Berkeley. 
Muller didn't like NASA's global temperature data
For years Muller had been expressing skeptical views about the consensus climate data.  The existing data, developed separately by NASA and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.K.’s Hadley-CRU, all pointed to a 2.2°F increase in global temperature over the last century, accelerating in the last 30 years as atmospheric CO2 concentrations have accelerated.  It’s some of the most important data about global warming.  But Muller didn’t like the way the scientists at NASA, NOAA and CRU had selected the data.  And he thought they hadn’t accounted well enough for the temperature effects of urban sprawl on some of the measurement sites.

So last year, backed by grants from coal & oil billionaires Charles and David Koch, Muller’s Berkeley team began developing their own global temperature data for the last century.  Climate skeptics were gleeful.  Finally, there was going to be a real record, free from the biases with which the world’s climate scientists had been tarred on skeptic blogs.  And last week, Muller was there at the U.S. Congress to unveil his new bias-free record of global temperature changes. 
As I said, it’s hard to change your mind, but there, in front of the entire nation, that’s exactly what Professor Muller did, to the shock of his climate-denial sponsors. 

Muller's results, virtually identical to NASA, NOAA & CRU
Here’s what the professor had to say:  “The world temperature data has sufficient integrity to be used to determine global temperature trends.”  In other words, the data he had been criticizing was actually valid.  But he went on: The work of the consensus researchers was “excellent.”  The human causes of climate change are very much what the U.N. IPCC declared in its 2007 assessment.

In fact, Prof. Muller made a disarming admission: He was surprised at his own results. “Data integrity is adequate. Based on our initial work at Berkeley Earth, I believe that some of the most worrisome biases are less of a problem than I had previously thought.”  The facts had changed his mind. 

In a subsequent video interview, Muller said:  “There are some real deniers out there….  They should be ignored.” 

Well, maybe I was glad at Muller’s willingness to change his thinking, but the denial machine was not amused at all. Their star player had grabbed the ball and raced into the wrong end zone.   Anthony Watts, a leading skeptic blogger who had previously endorsed Muller’s work now labeled his testimony “post-normal science political theater” in a letter delivered to the House committee.

Mainstream researchers, predictably, were more measured.  Scientific research is always subject to a process called “peer review.”  You submit your data, processes and conclusions to the scrutiny of other researchers in the field, so that they can rebut, refine or confirm your results.  Muller hasn’t done this yet.  So most researchers withheld judgment.  But they can't miss the fact that Muller’s conclusions to Congress are almost identical to theirs, conclusions that he’s spent years criticizing.

Cizik: I've changed my thinking
I recently saw a riveting documentary about nuclear arms called Countdown to Zero.  One of the film’s commentators was Rev. Richard Cizik, a leading Christian evangelical thinker.  The film ended with this quote from Cizik:  “I've changed my thinking and millions and millions of other people are changing their thinking. And frankly, if you've never changed your mind about something, I say, pinch yourself. You may be dead."

Well Rev. Cizik, there are at least some signs of life in the political wars over climate change.  Skeptic professor Richard Muller has seen the data, run the numbers and determined that the research he had been attacking was right after all.

It’s not that painful to change your thinking.  After all, you’re alive.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Friday, April 1, 2011

Numbers You Never Learned in Algebra

They say figures don’t lie, but liars figure.

So I’ve checked the numbers pretty carefully, and I think they are correct.  If you’re one of the billions of people who are suddenly curious about nuclear energy, here are some numbers for you to think about this week.

04410                  The number of nuclear electric power reactors worldwide.  105 of them are located in the United States.   Another 14 are in Ukraine, 6 on Taiwan, 2 in Pakistan, and a whopping 53 on the earthquake-prone islands of Japan.

01,3000              The number of tons of highly-radioactive nuclear waste generated every year by the world’s nuclear power plants.  In the U.S., the average reactor generates 27 tons of high-level radioactive waste every year.

06,000,0000      The number of years it takes for spent nuclear fuel waste to decay to the point where it is no more dangerous than natural uranium.   This is the time it takes to reverse the effects of concentrating and using these materials.  For much of this time (give or take a few million years), someone will have to manage this waste to prevent exposure, leakage, fire, etc.

000                      The global number of disposal facilities licensed for long term storage of nuclear waste.  None exist.  Anywhere.

The U.S. has more reactors than any other country, concentrated in the east.
010.50                The average number of years between major meltdown or partial-meltdown nuclear accidents, beginning with Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now, Fukushima.  These all occurred during times of general global stability (no world wars, pandemics, etc.).  

0140                    The number of “near misses” reported by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States during 2010 alone. Near misses are malfunctions or failures that the NRC judges to have had the potential for major failure resulting in exposure to harmful radiation.

0110                    The number of U.S. reactors with 8-hour battery backup systems in case of a loss of power.  The remaining 94 U.S. reactors have only 4-hour backup.  Some in Congress are now pushing for 72-hour backup systems.

050%0                The approximate proportion of U.S. nuclear reactors located near major geological fault lines, including the San Andreas and New Madrid Faults.

Many reactors are in active geological zones. The gray areas are safer.
031.50                The average age (in years) of nuclear reactors in the United States.  Reactors are rated for lives of 30-40 years, and estimates of actual useful lives vary, from 30 to 50 years.   

017,452,5850    The number of people who live within 50 miles of America’s most dangerous nuclear power plant, at Indian Point, NY.   

 57,400,0000      The number of people who live within 50 miles of America’s ten most dangerous nuclear electric power plants.   

0400x0                How much more radiation was released by the Chernobyl, Ukraine accident than the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.  Caribou in Scandinavia, tea plantations in Turkey and farm fields in England were among the victims the Chernobyl’s contaminants.

0600,0000           The number of Soviet citizens assigned to work on the “liquidation” of Chernobyl.  2,000 known deaths occurred from the catastrophe.  250-350,000 people were forced to relocate from the area.  The union representing plant workers claims that 220,000 were either killed or permanently disabled.

03 to 50              The number of years that Japanese experts predict will be necessary to “feed and bleed” the Fukushima reactors: pouring on water that then leaks radioactive waste into the surrounding environment.

0300                    The number of new plants proposed for construction by the U.S. nuclear power industry.   Beyond this, some nuclear developers are proposing another 270 U.S. plants.

0$9 billion0         The projected cost of a single new nuclear reactor in the U.S.

0$0 billion0         The amount of private investment available for the development of new nuclear plants without U.S. government guarantees.
Now you remember why you didn't go into mathematics in college, right?

Thanks for counting, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood