Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Monday, August 20, 2012

Red Sky at Night: Signs of the Times

It can be deadly to misread the signs of the times. 

Consider the Pharisees in St. Mathew’s Gospel: They came to Jesus demanding a sign from heaven.  The Lord responded with a version of the old mariner’s rhyme: 

“You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky” – red sky at morning, sailors take warning – “but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” No sign will be given you.

In the near term, they got their revenge: Within a year, the Pharisees had seen Jesus hung on a cross. But within a generation, more than a million of them perished by the Roman sword, their temple destroyed, their holy city laid waste, and virtually all survivors dispersed to the furthest reaches of the Empire. If only they had read the signs all around them….

But signs of the times are much harder to read without the benefit of hindsight, aren’t they? Of course we abhorred the crimes at Wounded Knee. Who would support Apartheid? Who wouldn’t have marched with Dr. Martin Luther King? 

But smack in the middle of things, it’s much harder, isn’t it? The earth seems to be sending us some ominous signs today.  Until recently, we didn’t pay much attention. But – just maybe – the American people are beginning to read them accurately.  Consider:

  • The American West is seeing its second mega-drought in a decade. The 2000-2004 one was worse than the legendary 1930’s Dust Bowl, and the current one is even worse than that. 
  • In the last 1,200 years, only two other megadroughts have been like these last two.
  • June 2012 saw 3,200 heat records broken in the U.S.
  • July was worse: the hottest single month ever recorded in the U.S. (since recordkeeping began in 1895). It was 3.3 degrees hotter than the average from the last century.
  • Globally, July was the 4th hottest month ever. 
  • It didn’t just last for a month. The prior 12 months were the hottest annual period ever recorded in the U.S.
  • And globally, July marked the 329th consecutive month with average temperatures above last century’s average.
  • 62% of the U.S. is now in drought.
  • As a result of projected shortages, global food prices jumped 6% in July, corn is up 23%, and wheat rose 19%. This is the third food price shock in 5 years, and the poorest countries are now reeling from almost chronic food insecurity.
  • Arctic sea ice in July was the second-lowest July ever recorded.
  • In July, 97% of Greenland’s ice sheet experienced melting, up from around 50% maximum most summers.  And Greenland’s Petermann Glacier lost an iceberg about the size of Manhattan last month, the second massive calving since 2010.
  • Some researchers are now warning that by the end of this century, the 2000-2004 drought might be remembered as “a period of abnormal wetness.” In other words, the American West and Midwest would be largely a desert.
U.S. drought damage has pushed corn prices up 23%
What should we do with all these climate signs? 

Climate scientists generally exercise great caution in relating specific weather events to global climate change. They remind us not to make rash connections between a given local storm or drought and worldwide climate trends. But these days, scientists are increasingly willing to make the connection that is intuitive – if not always scientifically precise – to many laypeople. 

For example, scientists analyzing the current drought in the American West wrote last week:  “Although we do not attribute any single event to global warming, the severity of both the 2000-2004 drought and the current one is consistent with simulations accounting for warming from increased greenhouse gases.”

And a few months ago, prominent NASA climate scientist James Hansen went even further, writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:  “We can state, with a high degree of confidence, that extreme anomalies such as those in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 were a consequence of global warming because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small.”

Scientists are seldom given to rash statements. These are about as strong as you can get.

But it turns out that ordinary people are making the connections as well.  Gallup found this year that Americans who think “global warming will never happen” have fallen from a high of 19% in 2010 to just 15% this year. 76% of us think that it’s already happening, or will in our lifetime.  55% say the media underestimates the dangers, or reports them accurately.  53% now say that harmful climate change results from human activities. Only 7% of Americans doubt that most scientists believe global warming is happening.

Now, in fairness, the opinion trends in the last few years have been modest. They are reversing the climate skepticism that took off in 2008, when the recession stoked our national fears and consumed most of our attention. And there are notable differences depending on party loyalties. But on the whole, it looks like more and more Americans are beginning to read the signs of the times.

There is much at stake, just as there was in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. Few of us can imagine our entire world falling apart, nor could they in the time of Christ. But the earth is now sending us some strong warning signals.

Will we read the signs of the times? For the sake of our Father’s world, and all who depend on its natural systems, let us pray that we will.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

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