Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Melting Permafrost and Catastrophic Methane Release

It’s only four days till the start of the most famous sled-dog race in the world. At the starting gate in Anchorage, Alaska, the weather today is 35o Fahrenheit, and partly cloudy. I suspect the conditions will be okay for this year’s Iditarod, but weather has been all the talk leading up to the race.

“It’s raining and not snowing,” said musher Luan Marques during a recent training ride, maneuvering the dogs to avoid puddles on the trail. “That’s not good.”

A number of qualifying races have been canceled because of warm conditions and lack of snow. In Minnesota, the 400-mile John Beargrease sled-dog race has been postponed by two months. Three major Alaskan races have been canceled. And a fourth had to cut its trail by 25 miles for lack of snow.  Much of the Iditarod is run on frozen rivers, so warming is a serious matter to mushers and their dogs.

Iditarod sled dogs
But, of all the alarming effects of a warming climate, why on earth would we worry about a dog race in Alaska? There are lots of places where you can’t sled. So what if Alaska becomes more like the rest of them?

In fact, the Arctic is warming rapidly. Over the last 100 years, the Earth has warmed by 1.4oF, but the Arctic has warmed by 4-5oF just since the 1950s. The effects are visible everywhere. Coastal villages are eroding into the ocean as sea ice yields to waves, and frozen shores thaw. Summer Arctic sea-ice cover breaks record lows year by year, and last year it fell precipitously. In 2012, the Greenland ice sheet melted faster than any prior year on record, and its glaciers are accelerating toward the seas. Northern boreal forests are increasingly filled with “drunken trees” tilting at crazy angles, as once-firm permafrost soils thaw and subside.

All these are interesting curiosities, perhaps. But where’s the danger to me, to my children, and to the world? The danger, it turns out, is lurking beneath the ground, clawing at its icy dungeon, waiting for some primeval spring to release its fury on the world. Like some sci-fi alien, it’s been locked away for eons, but is now edging its way toward the surface.

"Drunken trees" in the thawing north
We’re talking about massive quantities of carbon, buried for millennia under the permafrost, but increasingly free to escape into the atmosphere. Here are the facts:

About 25% of the entire land surface in the Northern Hemisphere is permafrost. And it contains massive amounts of carbon – dead mosses, lichens, leaves and such – built up over eons but never decomposing due to the frozen soil.  It contains about twice as much carbon as does Earth’s entire atmosphere. But it’s melting rapidly.

As permafrost thaws, microbes begin to break down this ancient plant matter. In the process, much of the carbon gets released into the atmosphere as CO2. With atmospheric CO2 concentrations at the highest levels in the last 800,000 years, that’s alarming. But it’s not nearly the worst part. As some permafrost melts, it creates swamp-like flooded zones, where microbes break down carbon with little or no oxygen. That creates little CO2, but lots of methane. And methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, 25 times more powerful than CO2. Tiny amounts of methane do enormous damage to global climate systems. In northern lakes and swamps today, you can see gases bubbling to the surface from carbon-rich lake bottoms – carbon in the form of methane escaping from eons of frozen captivity beneath the tundra.

One of the scariest parts of our global permafrost drama is that there are so many uncertainties. No one is certain how much of the permafrost will thaw; or how much of its carbon will be released; or how quickly the release will happen; or how much of it will be released in the form of earth-cooking methane. We laymen may be tempted to take this uncertainty as a comfort, but the opposite is true: What we don’t know can hurt us.

In the absence of hard data, the Permafrost Carbon Research Network – an association of 41 international scientists who publish research on various aspects of the permafrost – have pooled their best assessments of the prospects for earth-warming gases from the melting permafrost.  These are estimates, but they come from some of the most authoritative researchers in the field. The results are alarming:

If the earth warms at the low end of scientific projections, these researchers tell us that enough carbon will escape the permafrost by the end of the century to equal the emissions from another 25 years’ worth of fossil fuel burning at current levels. And if the earth warms at the high end of the projected range? Then add the equivalent of another 41 years’ worth of human carbon emissions. In effect, if humanity weaned itself completely off of oil, coal and gas by the end of the century, there would be additional CO2 in the atmosphere from the melted permafrost equal to another 41 years of our current carbon binge.

These are estimates. But let’s not imagine that uncertainty here is a reason for comfort. Melting permafrost is a classic example of a positive feedback loop that can cause runaway changes: More warming leads to more permafrost melting, leading to faster plant decomposition, which leads to more methane or CO2 emissions and still further warming, and so on….  Runaway changes have the potential to usher in major global extinction events, and to potentially threaten virtually every species on earth.

I don’t know of a single Christian thinker who believes that God’s plan for creation involves the extinction of mankind. Most of us agree that the Creator is the sovereign ruler of the world, and that he uses all things to accomplish his purposes. But we also affirm that the creation bears the curse of human sin and failed stewardship. And undoubtedly, these failures have resulted in the loss of many of God’s species, and misery for millions of people.

This year, our climate impact has been harmful to mushers, sled dogs and their hardy northern followers. But unless we act quickly to curb the burning of fossil fuels, I doubt that anyone can be confident about the future for thousands of species and billions of people.

Please join me in praying for – and working for – prompt climate action in our country and God’s entire world.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Monday, February 18, 2013

Washington Climate Rally: Reflections of a Lonely Evangelical

My brother Christopher Elwood, my niece Isabelle and I spent a lovely Sunday in Washington yesterday. We visited the Washington Monument and the White House. And I still haven’t gotten my voice back.

Of course, this wasn’t really just sightseeing. Together with some 50,000 others, we spent the day on the Capitol Mall and the streets surrounding the White House giving voice to the growing awareness that our country and world are on a suicidal course: That this beloved planet cannot continue to support us and its other creatures as we recklessly foul it with fossil fuels and thoughtless exploitation of its remaining resources.

Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip-Hop Caucus was among many who were thinking back fifty years earlier to Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington, with another huge crowd on these same grounds.

Courtesy of Christine Irvine
“Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King marched on Washington so that we could be here today,” Rev. Yearwood told the crowd. “Now, we will march on Washington again for the sake of people fifty years in our future.”

Some will note that our crowd was dwarfed by Rev. King’s gathering of a quarter-million souls, and they would be right. But when I first joined a small band in front of the White House in the summer of 2010, there were only 226 of us. When I came back a few months later, our ranks had swollen to 3,000. Yesterday, we were 50,000 strong. Stay tuned….

Yesterday, after Sunday worship at a nearby Baptist church, Chris, Isabelle and I met up with a group of faith-based participants before joining the main body of the rally. There were Jews and Unitarians, Catholics and Orthodox, mainline Protestants and interfaith groups. And – by my count – one or two self-identified evangelicals under the banner of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action.

Courtesy of Shadia Fayne Wood
One or two? Where were all the evangelicals? Out of a crowd of 50,000, surely there were many like me: participating as an individual out of love for my Father’s creation and for my neighbor. But where were the churches? Where were the mission agencies? The mega-church pastors?  The evangelistic associations?

Of course, there are evangelicals who labor tirelessly to protect the poor from the ravages of pollution and climate chaos – and who have done so for decades. And many of these are keenly aware of the political realities of the American establishment: that protests are often viewed as the exclusive domain of liberals and atheists. To preserve our voice with American evangelicals, perhaps we need to keep a low profile in mass protests which are supported by people of others faiths and diverse political affiliations. Might this be the thought process?

If so, it brings me back to Rev. King, whose classic “Letter from A Birmingham Jail” spoke to a generation of Christians who saw danger in direct action confronting injustice.

Isabelle and Chris Elwood
“Injustice anywhere,” wrote Rev. King, “is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (Don't settle for this sampling: read the whole thing!)

Fifty years have come and gone. The facts have changed. Despite common threads, the fight for climate justice is anything but a rerun of the Civil Rights Movement. But there are parallels. I pray that Christians today will keep working behind the scenes, teaching children, planting community gardens, writing to politicians, learning to shrink their carbon footprints. But one day soon, I also hope to see them in great numbers: churches, Christian colleges and other ministries, adding their voices to the thousands who today are demanding action to protect the beloved planet.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

More Climate Rally pictures

Rally organizer Bill McKibben, center. Photo by C. Irvine
Kids braved the cold
Protect our future. Courtesy Bora Chung
Kentuckian Isabelle Elwood


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Cliff Notes for the U.N. IPCC 2007 Report

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts “to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change.” Some people loved their work. Others hated it. But the Nobel Committee decided that their work deserved extraordinary recognition.

Now, the IPCC is preparing to issue its 5th assessment later this year, and some of its drafts have already been circulating on the web. We can surely expect fireworks. Many still consider climate science to be a “massive hoax,” and they won’t take kindly to a synthesis of global science that provides more certainty regarding the trends in climate disruptions.

But before the new edition comes out, it might be good to know what the old one actually said. Of course, you don’t actually want to read it yourself. The thing consists of four volumes, covering basic science, vulnerabilities, mitigation, and a synthesis report. It’s so cumbersome that most commentators settle for reading only a Summary for Policymakers.

But it can be read, and we’ve done so. We thought that it might be a service to summarize – in layman’s terms – the Physical Science Basis Report. This tells us the state of basic climate science six years ago. A lot more is known today, but here’s a readable summary of what was known back then. We paraphrase most everything, but our account is an honest every-man’s rendering of largely impenetrable scientific language.

1. Greenhouse gases are increasing:  Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities and now far exceed pre-industrial values.

  • Highest recorded carbon levels:  Carbon dioxide is the most important anthropogenic greenhouse gas. The global concentration of carbon dioxide has increased from a pre-industrial value of about 280 ppm to 379 ppm in 2005, and now exceeds by far the natural range over the last 650,000 years. (Note: CO2 is now at 395.55 ppm.)
  • Faster growth in carbon: The annual carbon dioxide concentration growth rate was larger during the last 10 years than it has been since the beginning of continuous direct atmospheric measurements.
  • It comes from burning coal and oil:  The primary source of the increased atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide since the pre-industrial period results from fossil fuel use.

2.  Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea levels.

  • These are the hottest years:  Eleven of the last twelve years (1995–2006) rank among the 12 warmest years on record (since 1850). (Note: The 6 years since then have all been hotter than every year before 1997, and include the #1, #5, and #6 hottest on record.)
  • The pace of warming is accelerating:  The linear warming trend over the last 50 years (0.13°C per decade) is nearly twice that for the last 100 years.
  • The oceans are getting hotter:  Observations since 1961 show that the average temperature of the global ocean has increased to depths of at least 3,000 meters and that the ocean has been absorbing more than 80% of the heat added to the climate system. Such warming causes seawater to expand, contributing to sea level rise.
  • Glaciers are melting: Mountain glaciers and snow cover have declined on average in both hemispheres. Widespread decreases in glaciers and ice caps have contributed to sea level rise.
  • Polar ice is melting:  Losses from the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica have very likely contributed to sea level rise from 1993 to 2003.
  • Seas are rising:  Global average sea level rose faster in the 20th century than in the 19th century; faster yet in 1961-2003; and nearly double that rate during 1993-2003.  Everything is accelerating.

3.  Global warming is affecting the Polar Regions and the tropics most significantly.

  • The Arctic is melting:  Average Arctic temperatures increased at almost twice the global average rate in the past 100 years.  Since 1978, annual average Arctic sea ice coverage has shrunk by 2.7% per decade, with larger decreases in summer of 7.4% per decade.
  • The permafrost is thawing:  Temperatures at the top of the permafrost layer have increased since the 1980s in the Arctic by 3°C. The maximum area covered by seasonally frozen ground has decreased by about 7% in the Northern Hemisphere since 1900.
  • It’s dryer in Africa, and wetter in the Americas:  Significantly increased precipitation has been observed in eastern parts of North and South America, northern Europe and northern and central Asia. Drying has been observed in the African Sahel, the Mediterranean, southern Africa and parts of southern Asia.
  • Drought for the tropics:  More intense and longer droughts have been observed over wider areas since the 1970s, particularly in the tropics and subtropics. Increased drying linked with higher temperatures and decreased precipitation has contributed to increases in drought.
  • More intense flooding storms:  The frequency of heavy precipitation events has increased over most land areas, consistent with warming and observed increases of atmospheric water vapor.
  • Stronger hurricanes:  There is observational evidence for an increase in intense tropical cyclone activity in the North Atlantic since 1970, correlated with increases of tropical sea surface temperatures.

4.  The warmth of the last half century is unusual in at least the previous 1,300 years.

  • This doesn’t happen regularly:  Average Northern Hemisphere temperatures during the second half of the 20th century were very likely higher than during any other 50-year period in the last 500 years and likely the highest in at least the past 1,300 years.
  • When it does, oceans rise significantly: Looking way back, global average sea level in the last interglacial period (about 125,000 years ago) was likely 4 to 6 meters higher than during the 20th century. Ice core data indicate that average polar temperatures at that time were 3°C to 5°C higher than present. 

5.  We can no longer say “It’s not our fault.”  Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to increases in human-caused greenhouse gases. 

  • Natural cycles have actually reduced warming: Increases in greenhouse gas concentrations alone would have caused more warming than observed because volcanic and human-caused aerosols have offset some warming that would otherwise have taken place.
  • Nature hasn’t caused these events:  It is extremely unlikely that global climate change of the past 50 years can be explained without external factors, and very likely that it is not due to known natural causes alone.

6.  For the next two decades, a warming of about 0.2°C per decade is projected. Even if the concentrations of all greenhouse gases and aerosols had been kept constant at year 2000 levels, a further warming of about 0.1°C per decade would be expected.

  • With more greenhouse gases, the Earth must get hotter before reaching equilibrium:  Warming is likely to be in the range 2°C to 4.5°C with a best estimate of about 3°C, and is very unlikely to be less than 1.5°C.
  • Actual observed warming confirms the IPCC’s initial warnings:  In the first report in 1990, projections were for global average temperature increases between about 0.15°C and 0.3°C per decade for 1990 to 2005. This can now be compared with observed values of about 0.2°C per decade.

7.  Current trends spell accelerated warming:  Continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates will cause further warming and cause many changes in the global climate system during the 21st century that would very likely be larger than those observed during the 20th century.

  • It will be at least 1.8°C hotter this century: Best estimates for surface air warming in the 21st century is 1.8°C and the best estimate for the high scenario is 4.0°C.
  • A hotter Earth will mean even more carbon emissions:  Warming tends to reduce land and ocean uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide, increasing the fraction of carbon emissions that remain in the atmosphere.
  • Sea levels will rise further:  Projections of global average sea level rise at the end of the 21st century are 0.3 to 0.6 meters, with most of the models projecting 0.2-.0.3 meters of sea level rise, excluding the impact of increases in polar ice flow. (Note: Most projections since this report point to much higher levels of sea level rise.)
  • It could be much worse:  Models used so far do not include uncertainties in climate-carbon cycle feedback nor do they include the full effects of changes in polar ice flow, because published research was lacking at the time.
  • White, reflective snow and ice will be replaced by dark land and oceans:  Snow cover is projected to decrease. Widespread increases in thaw depth are projected over most permafrost regions.  Sea ice is projected to shrink in both the Arctic and Antarctic. In some projections, Arctic late-summer sea ice disappears almost entirely.
  • More extreme weather ahead:  It is very likely that hot extremes, heat waves and heavy precipitation events will continue to become more frequent.  It is likely that future tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes) will become more intense.
  • It will be dryer in the tropics, and wetter nearer the poles:  Increases in the amount of precipitation are very likely in high latitudes, while decreases are likely in most subtropical land regions.

8.  No quick fixes:  Human-caused warming and sea level rise will continue for centuries due to the time scales associated with climate processes and feedbacks, even if greenhouse gas concentrations were to be stabilized.

  • Big cuts in carbon are necessary just to stabilize:  Based on current understanding of climate-carbon cycle feedback, studies suggest that to stabilize at 450 ppm carbon dioxide could require that cumulative emissions over the 21st century be reduced by 27% from 2006 levels.
  • Sea levels will keep rising regardless of what we do:  If greenhouse gases were to be stabilized at 2006 levels, thermal expansion alone would lead to 0.3 to 0.8 m of sea level rise by 2300 (relative to 1980–1999).  Thermal expansion would continue for many centuries, due to the time required to transport heat into the deep ocean.  Melting of Greenland Ice is projected to continue to contribute to sea level rise after 2100, and could result in a rise in sea levels of about 7 meters.
  • This struggle will go on for centuries:  Both past and future human-caused carbon dioxide emissions will continue to contribute to warming and sea level rise for more than a millennium, due to the time scales required for removal of this gas from the atmosphere.


J. Elwood

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Love God, Love Your Neighbor

Among the many excellent Christian works on the moral imperative behind caring for the creation, the National Association of Evangelicals offers one of the most compelling. Here is a brief excerpt from their booklet, Loving the Least of These: Addressing a Changing Environment.

In Matthew 22:39, Jesus gave us a “second” command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

For us to be faithful in loving God, we must love our neighbor. In Luke’s account of the same incident, a bystander asks, “But who is my neighbor?” thus setting the stage for one of the best-known of all Jesus’ parables: the story of the Good Samaritan. Loving my neighbor, according to the parable, includes responding to the needs of someone who has been hurt. We are to feed him, clothe him, care for his wounds and provide for him.

Care of the poor and oppressed is a resounding theme in both the Old and New Testaments, as, for example, in Deuteronomy 15:10-11:

”Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”

God gave the Israelites structures and rules that established provision for the poor. Relatives were to redeem sold land and support widows; cloaks could not be kept in pledge; the poor could glean in the fields. We are told to care for those who are hungry and thirsty, even if they are our enemies (see Proverbs 25:21-22; Romans 12:20).

Free downloadable NAE booklet
Nothing could be clearer than Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:36-44. Jesus tells his disciples that on Judgment Day, we will stand before God and answer for the way we treated those who were hungry, naked and sick, and for those who were strangers and prisoners: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (v. 40). And, on the other hand, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (v. 45).

When we care for the poor, we are ministering to Jesus himself: To care for the weakest is to care for Christ.

There are millions of suffering people in the world, and thousands of Christians who offer them assistance. Unfortunately, the realities of climate change mean that those suffering millions may become billions. All of us who follow Jesus will need to respond.

Reproduced from National Association of Evangelicals: Loving the Least of These. To download a copy of the complete NAE document, click here.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Travel Ethics: To Fly or Not to Fly?

I was at my doctor’s office last week. With February fast approaching, I remembered that his annual family trip to Hawaii must be in the offing.

“Not this year,” he told me, a bit hesitantly. It sounded to me like there was more to the story, so I waited for him to fill in the blanks. “We’ve been thinking about our impact on the earth, and we just don’t think we can justify the long flight.”

How about that? My doctor and his wife have canceled their annual Hawaii vacation because they’re committed to reducing their family carbon footprint. Perhaps their two young sons understand, or maybe they don’t yet. But it illustrates the fact that tackling the climate crisis begins with real personal choices.

Aviation fuel emissions: growing impact on climate
How can you know how much CO2 you’ll be emitting on your planned vacation? This is actually not hard at all to figure out. But let's start with the basics:

For starters, Americans on average emit 17 to 18 tons of CO2 every year.  That’s about double the level of the average European, and many times more than those from developing countries.  For many of us, our homes are our largest carbon emitters. Here at Good Hand Farm, despite years of work on insulation, window replacements, programmable thermostats and solar panels, our old farmhouse still burns enough heating oil to emit 9.5 tons of CO2, or about 3 tons per current occupant.

Our cars add more carbon emissions, of course. Our small diesel sedan and hybrid hatchback each account for about 2-3 tons of CO2 per year. A large car or SUV would emit about 2.5 times as much.

How do we know all these things? We found a great website from the World Land Trust that helps people like us figure out the carbon impact of our lifestyle choices: the houses we live in, the distances we commute, the cars we drive. I’d recommend it to anyone. Take a look here.

But (returning to our topic) what about business and leisure air travel? Well, it turns out that flying can be a huge carbon binge. Last year, I helped lead a student group in South China. My share of the flight’s emissions? A whopping 5.9 tons of CO2! That’s almost double my annual share of home heating emissions. This spring, I’m planning to fly to Nairobi, Kenya for consultations with other creation care workers. Chalk up another 5.3 tons!

Spacious skies? They're getting pretty clogged.
I can thank the New York Times for highlighting the heavy carbon cost of air travel. Last Sunday, they printed a great piece on this topic, titled Your Biggest Carbon Sin May Be Air Travel. Business people, they note, routinely cross the country, adding 2-3 tons of earth-warming CO2 per coast-to-coast trip. A visit to London or Frankfurt? Add another 3 tons. Frequent fliers will do well to turn down the thermostat at home, but cutting one or two flights may have a much greater impact.

It's important to note that how we travel also makes a big difference. Taking the train from New York to Washington generates only one-third the emissions of the flight from La Guardia – before considering the often-greater carbon costs of cabs or rental cars to and from the airport. And taking the family car may sometimes be the very worst choice. My little fuel-sipping cars are just barely more climate-friendly on a trip to Washington than the plane, but a larger vehicle would emit significantly more carbon than flying – unless we were carrying multiple passengers.

So before booking your next trip, spend a little time on the World Land Trust’s site.  You may be surprised at how easy it is understand the carbon impact of your life choices. And consider purchasing carbon offsets to reduce the climate impact of your flight. The proceeds fund projects that reduce greenhouse gases. Sure, your trip will cost you a little bit more, but someone is bearing those costs anyway -- among them, your own children.

And my doctor’s choice to skip this year’s family trip to Hawaii? They’re saving the earth 14.4 tons of earth-warming CO2. That’s almost a year’s worth of emissions for the average American. Admittedly, this February will be a good bit colder for them. But they can begin planning their summer boating trip to nearby Lake George, secure in the knowledge that their choices are making a difference for the future of the children they love.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood