Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bono and the “Unholy Trio”

Two weeks ago, U2 lead singer Bono paid a visit to a packed auditorium at the World Bank.  In an on-stage conversation with bank president Jim Yong Kim, Bono warned of “an ‘unholy trio’ of extreme poverty, extreme ideology and extreme climate” – which together threaten to stymie global efforts to alleviate poverty and human suffering.

The Irish musician and activist is widely recognized for his advocacy for the poor in Africa. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and was granted honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth. And now he’s warning members of one of the world’s leading development organizations about the threat of climate change to the poor of the world.

Before taking the top spot at the World Bank earlier this year, Jim Yong Kim co-founded the global medical NGO Partners in Health with Dr. Paul Farmer, and served as president of Dartmouth College. He added to Bono’s warnings his concern that catastrophic levels of global warming would be reached within the next generation, not in some distant time horizon.

Here are brief snippets from Bono’s comments, and Kim's responses:

Bono:  [An] “unholy trio” of extreme poverty, extreme ideology, and extreme climate make a very difficult weave; very strong, very hard to break. And we have to accept that the climate crisis could undo a lot of the work we do in development.

World Bank president Kim: The world at two or four degrees [Celsius hotter] is going to look so different. And it’s not three generations ahead. I have a three-year-old son. When he’s my age, he could be living in a completely different world. And right now, I don’t see the roots of that movement [to combat climate change] taking shape.

I’m no expert on the World Bank, and I know some people who offer only qualified endorsement of their work.  But when leaders who have dedicated their lives to alleviating poverty raise the alarm about the climate crisis, maybe it’s time for people of goodwill to take action. The world will not do what it must without the United States. And the U.S. will not do what it must while most of our politicians think that we don’t care.

Maybe it’s time we write our representatives and tell them we care. Do it now, by clicking here.

You care. I care. But I'm afraid we have no idea how much our children will wish we had really cared.

May God bless you.

J. Elwood

Friday, November 16, 2012

More Federal Flood Insurance? The Wrong Response to Hurricane Sandy

It’s been almost fifty years since the first billion-dollar hurricane hit American shores. In 1965, “Billion Dollar Betsy” meandered through the Bahamas, changing course like a drunkard, devastating Key Largo, and gathering strength as it headed for landfall at Grand Isle, LA. When was over, 77 people were dead, and costs mounted to $1.42 billion – or $8.5 billion in equivalent current dollars.

Of course, insurance companies reacted to the staggering losses by carving out flood damage from their policies. And Congress responded by creating the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) to fill the gap they left behind. For the last 43 years, the Federal government has been the primary provider of flood insurance in the country. And in hindsight, Betsy's losses look like small change, dwarfed by modern monsters like Katrina ($108 billion in losses), Ike ($38 billion) and Wilma ($29 billion).

We’ve written twice about the NFIP: first, about the huge losses that are mounting as taxpayer-subsidized insurance lures ever more people into harm’s way; and second, about states like North Carolina, which have embraced plans to suppress sea-level science, leaving the damage from unchecked coastal development to be paid for by the rest of the country.

When we wrote those posts, we had never heard of Hurricane Sandy. That now seems like a long time ago. Since then, we’ve replaced two roofs and repaired two more at Good Hand Farm; endured two weeks without water, light or heat; and cut up hundreds of tree branches lying on homes and power lines. Few of us imagined that northern cities like New York would be so vulnerable to a “tropical” storm.

Tuckerton, NJ, awash during Sandy storm surge
To be clear, we’ve repeatedly warned our readers – and our personal friends – about the risks of sea-level rise to New York and the Eastern Seaboard. We’ve highlighted the OECD’s projected $2.1 TRILLION cost to New York City, and the surprisingly high toll ahead for the Tidewater region.

But, to be honest, we never imagined it would happen so soon.

When we bemoaned the $19 billion dollars that the NFIP has had to borrow from taxpayers to honor its flood claims, we never imagined that in the span of a few weeks, the number would be hovering at $25 billion. To be fair, no firm numbers are in yet. But the cost of Hurricane Sandy has been estimated at $52.4 billion, and NFIP’s insured losses have been ball-parked at $7 billion. It could be better; or it could be much worse.

Our fiscal-hawk friends will be pounding the table at this point, and who can blame them? $25 billion of taxpayer money has been poured into the sea, mainly to rebuild vacation homes and seaside condos largely owned by wealthier Americans.

But our concern is much more basic: American policy is actively luring our citizens into harm’s way. Many of us have friends who are investing their retirement savings in attractive coastal properties, financed by mortgages that rely on Federal flood insurance. There should be no doubt as to whether these policies will still be available in ten or twenty years. They won’t.

They won’t because sea levels are rising, and coastal storms are gaining intensity – two well-documented consequences of global climate change. Most coastal states are planning on sea-level rise of 1-2 meters this century. Add a meter to Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge, and you have almost inconceivable damage and loss of life. Two meters? It’s beyond counting.

Not just projections: The sea is rising
No Federal program has the money to make good on such losses. For the sake of all Americans living on or near coastal flood zones – and particularly for those considering a move – we simply must remove the enticement to wander into harm’s way. When you’re stuck in a hole – they say – the first rule is this: Stop digging.

So what should we do? Here’s a plan that might serve as a starting point for people smarter than me:

  1. Over the next decade, NFIP premiums should gradually increase to reflect the full cost of coastal and flood zone risk – to levels that would be supported by private insurers.
  2. Over a very short time, the NFIP should impose a moratorium on policies for new development in zones that will be flooded by a 5-foot rise in global sea levels. 
  3. No new policies should be issued for development on barrier islands.
  4. Vacation homes should be phased out of the NFIP program as soon as is practicable.
  5. After major losses, NFIP should provide incentives for claimants to relocate out of floodplains, rather than rebuild in harm’s way.
  6. Repetitive-loss properties should be carefully examined for immediate exclusion from the program.

If there’s any silver lining to the horrors of Hurricane Sandy, it’s that ordinary people have begun to accept that the climate has changed. Perhaps our leaders will now begin to realize that our coastal policies must change with it.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Lausanne Evangelical Movement Calls on Christians to Care for the Earth

The global Christian Lausanne Movement this week issued a Call to Action, declaring care for the creation as a core gospel issue, and calling on all Christians to adopt simpler lifestyles, to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to mitigate the effects of environmental degradation on the poor. The Call to Action was developed and signed by 57 church leaders, scientists, theologians and creation care practitioners from 26 countries, working in collaboration with the World Evangelical Alliance, whose members represent more than 600 million Christians worldwide.

Individual Christians may now add their endorsement of the Call to Action by clicking here:

Lausanne Call to Action arose from two fundamental convictions:
  1. Care for the creation is a core element of the gospel, seen in creation, in the resurrection of Christ, and in his mission to reconcile all things to God. As such, it is a necessary element of the Christian response to God’s grace, and would be a core component of Christian life and mission even if the earth were not presently in crisis.
  2. In fact, however, the world is in crisis, brought on by global climate change, deforestation, pollution, loss of species to extinction and water stress. These threats place a heavy burden on the poor, on vital ecosystems and on vulnerable species of animals and plants.

The Lausanne Movement was founded in 1974 by Christian leaders including Billy Graham, John Stott, Francis Schaeffer and Samuel Escobar to reframe Christian mission in a changing world. Represented by leaders from more than 190 countries, Lausanne has worked to apply the gospel to a world gripped by social, political, economic and religious upheaval.

In 2010, the Lausanne Movement convened in Cape Town South Africa, and outlined the Christian responsibility for creation care in the starkest terms: 

We cannot claim to love God while abusing what belongs to Christ by right of creation, redemption and inheritance. We care for the earth and responsibly use its abundant resources, not according to the rationale of the secular world, but for the Lord’s sake. If Jesus is Lord of all the earth, we cannot separate our relationship to Christ from how we act in relation to the earth. For to proclaim the gospel that says ‘Jesus is Lord’ is to proclaim the gospel that includes the earth, since Christ’s Lordship is over all creation. Creation care is a thus a gospel issue within the Lordship of Christ.
The new Call to Action, developed by a Lausanne working group assembled in Jamaica this month, filled in the general terms of the Cape Town Commitment with a list of specific measures, including the following:

  • Christians must develop simpler lifestyles, work to restore the creation, and equitably share its bounty with others.
  • The church should develop an integrated theology of creation care to equip pastors in teaching Christians to challenge prevailing economic ideologies which result in harm to the creation.
  • The entire church – including women, children, youth and indigenous people – must mobilize to engage all of society – including governments, businesses and civil society – for creation stewardship.
  • Environmental missions among unreached people should be encouraged as a fully-recognized category of missional outreach, akin to medical missions.
  • The church should engage in radical action to address climate change and reduce greenhouse gases, the harm from which falls most heavily on the poor.
  • The global church should actively promote sustainable food production methods such as conservation agriculture.
  • Churches should encourage small steps to promote local expressions of creation care and preserve local ecosystems.
  • The church must encourage Christian prophetic advocacy to those in power, to mitigate harm to the creation and to support communities devastated by environmental degradation.
  • The church must come to God in prayer, lamentation, repentance, and an appeal to Him to heal the land and all who dwell in it.

Advocating local creation care projects, like nature camps by A Rocha USA
Christians and their leaders from all over the world will be adding their names to the list of signatories. We can do the same, simply by following this link. 

Won’t you take sixty seconds to stand with your brothers and sisters from around the world in calling for a new commitment to care for our Father’s world, and its most vulnerable children?

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Mass Extinction #2: How Serious Is It?

A couple of weeks ago, we dipped our toe into the waters of species extinction. We were alarmed to find serious research indicating that the earth has likely entered a new mass extinction event, the sixth such event known to science. The most recent of these occurred some 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs disappeared from earth.

Of course, we could not escape the nervy implication that our mass extinction could logically be called – perhaps by some researchers in the distant future – the event that ended the Age of Humanity. Or if that’s constitutionally or theologically beyond what we’re willing to consider, we still grapple with the possibility that it could signal the end for billions of our fellow humans. And by definition, it is the end of countless species of enormous value to their Creator.

So if it’s so, or even remotely possible, it’s certainly worth looking into. In this post, we take a closer look at some of the findings of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Specifically, we will address the following questions:

  • How many species are threatened with extinction?
  • What direction is the extinction threat trending?
  • What does it mean to be “threatened?”
  • How complete is our knowledge at present?
  • Why does it matter to humans?

How many species are threatened?

The IUCN maintains the “Red List of Threatened Species.” The Red List gives us two potentially different answers to the question: (1) Without a doubt, lots of species are likely to go extinct; but (2) We don’t know enough yet to confidently predict just how many. First, we’ll consider the “lots” response. Later on, we’ll take a look at the limitations on our current knowledge.

Roughly one in five vertebrates – mammals, birds, fishes and the like – are "threatened," according to the Red List. In fact, of the 64,283 known species of vertebrates, more than 56% have been assessed by the IUCN. Exactly 20% of these are threatened with extinction. That’s 7,250 species of animals in danger of disappearing forever. And that’s before any effects of climate change and ocean acidification in coming decades.

Here’s the summary data. I think you’ll agree it’s alarming:

If you look beyond the vertebrates, there are another 1.7 million known (or “described”) species – invertebrates, plants and the like. The picture here looks arguably even more alarming. Consider plants, for instance: almost 60% of the more than 15,000 assessed species are threatened with extinction. That’s more than all the vertebrates combined.

For invertebrates – insects, shellfish, corals, etc. – we see much more of the same. More than 13,000 invertebrate species have been assessed. And more than one in four of them are threatened with extinction.

Overall, the Red List has assessed 65,518 species, and 30.9% of them – almost one in three – are listed as threatened with extinction. If the data is at all credible, this should be setting off alarms in every corner.

What are the trends?

Since the year 1500, 869 species are known to have become extinct. In a world where we casually speak of millions and billions, perhaps we might take comfort that 869 doesn’t sound so bad.  But even if this were so, the trends are not favorable at all: The pace of extinction is picking up, and most have occurred very recently; extinctions are under-reported due to the difficulty of final confirmation; and species whose threat status is deteriorating far outnumber those that are recovering.

Leatherback turtles: Ancient species critically endangered
The plight of amphibians sheds some light on these findings. 38 species of frogs, salamanders and the like have gone extinct in the last 500 years. But 11 of these 38 extinctions have occurred in the last three decades. And while that sounds alarming, it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. That’s because another 120 amphibian species have disappeared since 1980, and can no longer be found. Researchers are understandably cautious about declaring them extinct, but they’re missing. If they should indeed be extinct, then the pace of dying begins to look like a runaway train, with 27 species dying out over about five centuries, and about five times that number vanishing in the last thirty years.

If we look at surviving – but threatened – species of all kinds, we see a similar story. Between 2004 and 2008, 32 threatened species of mammals actually became less threatened – success stories for conservation advocates. But for every success, there were more than four failures: the threat status of 143 mammal species deteriorated during the same period.  For birds and amphibians, similar trends prevailed: 2 species of birds improved, while 30 deteriorated; only one amphibian species improved, while seven slipped closer to extinction.

What does it mean to be “threatened?”

The Red List contains three categories for species that are aggregated as Threatened: Critically Endangered; Endangered, and Vulnerable.  In assigning species to any of these three categories, researchers consider the following:

  • How much has the population declined?
  • Are the causes of decline reversible, ongoing or ceased?
  • What’s the absolute size of remaining population?
  • How rapidly is the species’ habitat being destroyed or altered?

To get a sense of how serious it is to be “Threatened,” let’s consider what it would take for humankind to make it onto the list. To begin with, the global human population would have to decline in amount as though everyone in the United States, China and the European Union instantly perished, assuming that the cause of our deaths had not been remediated. If whatever was killing us had been solved, then humanity couldn’t make it onto the list unless that death toll was increased to add India’s 1.3 billion plus all of South America, plus Indonesia.  And that only would get us into the least-threatened category – “Vulnerable."

If we were hoping that these categories were an exercise in alarmism, we are going to be disappointed.

What don’t we know?

Optimists and pessimists can both run a long way with the answer to this question. There is a lot that we don’t yet know.  In the last four years, the IUCN has added almost 21,000 new species to the Red List, an amazing feat in such a short time. While more than half of all known vertebrates have been assessed, the information is much spottier when we consider all living things: less than 4% of all known species have been evaluated. Invertebrates – particularly insects – figure prominently in this: Of the roughly one million known insect species, only 0.4% have been assessed. For spiders (arachnids), it’s even worse, with only 0.03% having been assessed.

Given the extensive work that's already been done on vertebrates, we can extrapolate current knowledge to the entire set with some confidence. About one in five species is seriously threatened. But when we add the vast masses of plants and invertebrates, extrapolation gets more dicey. About 31% of all assessed living species are threatened. But what about the remaining 96% that haven’t yet been assessed? Until researchers whittle that figure down, none will confidently make projections for the entire range of living things. But this much we do know: The familiar animals we know – excluding creatures like insects, spiders, corals, anemones and mollusks – are in serious decline under our stewardship.

Why should we care?

The IUCN goes on at some length about the numbers of threatened species which are used by people for food and medicine. Surprisingly, we learn that humans use almost 300 species of amphibians for these purposes, plus 22% of all mammals, and 14% of all birds. They tell us that a much greater proportion of human-used species are threatened than other species.

Golden toad: 1st climate change extinction?
I – for one – am left wondering if this approach does much to answer the question.  The utility of species can hardly be considered in isolation, as though some contribute to human interests and some don’t.  Rather, species are always part of ecosystems, complex symbiotic webs which we upset at our peril. As an example, 39% of the world’s hundreds of coral species are threatened. If they become extinct, we may perhaps regret the disappearance of beautiful coral reefs; we may tally the loss of tourism income at tropical resorts; and in the longer term, we may fret about the exposure of coasts no longer protected by barrier reefs. But surely, this approach fails to capture the vital role corals play in maintaining ecosystems teeming with plants, shellfish, anemones, plankton, herbivores and predatory fishes – often called the nurseries of the oceans. If corals die, as seems increasingly likely, I doubt any of us can confidently measure the consequences for the world’s oceans, and for humanity.

Perhaps Holy Scripture gives us a clearer way of thinking.  Genesis tells us that God created “every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.’”

We see in this account the pleasure God finds in each of his creatures, the sense that they are good, and that they should fill the seas, the land and the air. It’s unlikely that the ancient Hebrew writers fully understood the complexities of natural ecosystems. But they knew that God intended for his creatures to flourish. And they would recognize today's threatened state of many of his species as fundamentally out of synch with God’s creative purposes. 

Yes, living species provide us with food, medicine, and countless other benefits. But they also play unseen roles in balancing ecosystems upon which we rely. And in the final analysis, their Creator – and ours – demands that we commit ourselves to the kind of world in which they can flourish for his pleasure.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Saturday, November 3, 2012

An Apology to the Mayor

Two days ago, I asked this question: Was Hurricane Sandy an isolated weather event or an indicator of climate change? I was surprised to report that New Yorkers from all walks of life had reached the conclusion that the climate is fundamentally changing. This included scientists (as usual), insurance companies, waitresses, business owners – and, yes, Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

I acknowledged the Mayor for stating that the weather events are “much more severe than before.” But the compliment was definitely back-handed. The Mayor’s apparent agnosticism about the causes of our new severe weather drew this comment from me: “Trust the savvy mayor to call it straight while ducking the politically-sensitive issue of climate change!”

Bloomberg tours wreckage at Breezy Point, Queens, NY
So you can imagine my surprise in finding that the Mayor Thursday endorsed President Obama for one reason above all: that he’s demonstrated leadership in fighting the threat of global climate change, a threat that the Mayor blames for much of the hurricane devastation in New York City. By contrast, the Mayor said that Governor Romney has abandoned the beliefs he once professed to hold regarding our “temporary stewardship of this Earth.”

To be clear, the notable thing to us is not that the Mayor endorsed one candidate or another, but that in doing so, he clearly outlined the very present, practical threat of climate change to the people of New York and their children. Caution to the wind, the Mayor said it straight: “The climate is changing.”

Here are a few excerpts from the Mayor’s announcement of support for the President:

  • The floods and fires that swept through our city left a path of destruction that will require years of recovery and rebuilding work…. In just 14 months, two hurricanes have forced us to evacuate neighborhoods – something our city government had never done before. If this is a trend, it is simply not sustainable.
  • Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be – given this week's devastation – should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.
  • Here in New York, our comprehensive sustainability plan – PlaNYC – has helped allow us to cut our carbon footprint by 16 percent in just five years.... Local governments are taking action where national governments are not.
  • But we can't do it alone. We need leadership from the White House – and over the past four years, President Barack Obama has taken major steps to reduce our carbon consumption, including setting higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks. His administration also has adopted tighter controls on mercury emissions, which will help to close the dirtiest coal power plants … which are estimated to kill 13,000 Americans a year.
  • Mitt Romney, too, has a history of tackling climate change. As governor of Massachusetts, he signed on to a regional cap-and-trade plan designed to reduce carbon emissions 10 percent below 1990 levels. "The benefits (of that plan) will be long-lasting and enormous – benefits to our health, our economy, our quality of life, our very landscape. These are actions we can and must take now, if we are to have `no regrets' when we transfer our temporary stewardship of this Earth to the next generation," he wrote at the time. He couldn't have been more right. But since then, he has reversed course ….

So Mr. Mayor, I owe you an apology. You did not – as I said – duck the issue of climate change. You called it straight based on what you’re seeing in New York. And whatever your politics, you explained your decision clearly based on the issues most important to you. 

Thank you – and perhaps you alone – for responsibly dealing with the threat of climate change in this political season soaked with unlimited oil money.

For readers of the Clothesline Report, perhaps we’ve believed that only Miami and New Orleans are in the climate cross hairs. Now we know better. New York is facing some of the greatest losses to sea level rise in the country. This great city has $2.1 TRILLION of assets exposed to projected sea level rise, the third most exposed city in the world. (Miami, unfortunately, is number one.) The entire Eastern seaboard is highly vulnerable, from the Outer Banks, Hampton Roads, Washington DC, Philadelphia’s fresh water supply, and Connecticut’s vulnerable infrastructure.

What the Mayor sees today for New York, mayors across the country will soon be seeing. From cities awash on the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf Coast, from river towns flooding like clockwork in spring, from Southern cities devastated by record-setting tornadoes, from parched Texas and Midwest cities gasping for water, or Rocky Mountain cities scorched by wildfires, mayors will surely begin to make the connections between a climate on steroids and human fossil fuel emissions. It’s time to talk straight, and Mayor Bloomberg is leading the way.

Thank you Mr. Mayor for speaking out.

Thanks to you all for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood