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Saturday, September 28, 2013

The IPCC report: When climate change gets personal

On Friday as the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its most recent update on climate change, I was meeting with congressional, federal, and other state officials about coordinating for a changing world.

During the meeting, the head of my state’s planning office passed around a few sample inundation maps. One of them was of Jamestown, which is made up of two islands in Narragansett Bay connected by a natural and fragile causeway. 

Over the past few years I’ve seen lots of these maps. I will see many more as my office works with other agencies to determine the vulnerability to wastewater infrastructure from rising seas, increased levels of storm surge, and more intense precipitation. But this particular inundation map broke my heart. It showed the areas of Jamestown subject to rising seas and it included a solid swatch of red on the causeway that connects Jamestown’s two main islands. While the town’s largest area is accessible to the mainland by a large bridge (which isn’t going anywhere anytime soon), the town’s western “tail” is only accessible via that small sandy causeway. 

What hurt was that the map’s red swatch indicated areas threatened with submersion during increasing storm surges and, eventually, permanently because of a rise in sea level. 

Beavertail State Park is on that small island to the west. This funny sounding place is one of the planet’s most beautiful and invigorating. It certainly delights my mom, even if in her old age she can't explore its shore as she well as she did with my dad. But I still drive her there—over the causeway—so that she can stare out into the ocean and let the salty wind rush around her. 

Beavertail's rocky tip cuts into Narragansett Bay like a ship’s bow aimed into the Atlantic. A nineteenth-century lighthouse sits close to the island's edge, often flashing and sounding warnings to passing sailors. These are necessary because the glacial shore rolls steadily into offshore reefs. But those dangers are assets for people onshore. A mix of smooth and layered rock provides hundreds of viewing and fishing platforms and many more crevices and tidal pools for children of all ages to explore. All this is accompanied by the ongoing trio of gull cries,  wave upon wave on rock, and the wind from far-off waters.
The causeway during Tropical Storm Sandy. 
Photo Andy Manca

I can’t imagine how anyone at Beavertail could be an atheist. 

But as the Atlantic Ocean rises and my state’s coastal features move, erode, or disappear, Beavertail’s causeway will likely vanish, as that projection map demonstrated (and as experiences have already shown in major storm events). In time, the projections say, the only visitors to this spot will be boaters who may have to hike long distances to experience what so many generations of Rhode Islanders and so many more visitors have loved so much for so long.

Given all the news on the IPCC report, the probable isolation of Beavertail is hardly the worst issue to speak of. As I plan for the worst at work and home, there are many more pressing scenarios than a causeway that takes automobiles to Beavertail, even if the island is home to a number of private property owners. Elsewhere, entire communities are seriously threatened along Rhode Island’s 400-mile shoreline (which is a sizable number considering the state is only some 1,200 square miles) and along the East Coast.

While someone like me can become numb to these projections—even to the scenes of destruction from events like Hurricane Sandy—there are times when the truth sinks in, when climate change gets personal. For instance, in 2010 my hometown’s river made national news when it flooded the village a few blocks from me. In the midst of the turmoil I couldn’t help but think of the growing amount of meteorological tending data that predicted such events. 

In a similar way, the truth also cuts deep when I look at projections. 

Because I grew up in Rhode Island, I know many of its threatened coastal features and small villages from my childhood, when my mom and dad, brothers, and cousins would spend days at the shore. My dad died seventeen years ago but I can still see him deftly skipping stones as he patiently taught me that rock-throwing skill on the sunny waters off Jamestown. (You really do have to throw a well-shaped, flat stone at just the proper angle. And there really is a right method of holding the stone when throwing it.) I remember managing a double or triple skip, but most times my stones would hit the water hard and sink. Either way, my dad kept showing me what I needed to know, even if I wasn't always the best student.

The particular section of shoreline where this all took place in the early 1970s is just around the bend from Beavertail. In time it will be underwater even during low tides. Later it will be part of the bay’s floor as seas rise and many coastal gems become memories. 

Photo: Flicker/by sapienssolutions
Yes, features will shift and new coastal areas will appear for future generations. This process will be terribly tragic for some who will lose their homes. Others, like me, will see our favorite perches on the bay go under water. In time, future Rhode Islanders will have never known what I and so many know now. I suppose that is the way of things. 

These losses will hurt and hurt all the more when we lose what we love not because nature is taking its course but because we were too slow and too stubborn to see what we were doing—because we couldn't see what was happening and change the way we lived.

Let us hope and pray that events unfold otherwise—that those maps may be wrong
if it is not already too late to do so.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Holy Cross: "That the world might be saved through him"

Then he said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it." Luke 9:23-24.

A coworker came to my office yesterday excited by the news that the Church was revisiting clerical celibacy. He was, of course, profoundly misinformed by the secular media. NBCNews especially botched their reporting of comments made by the new Vatican Secretary of State, Archbishop Pietro Parolin. Reporter F. Brinley Bruton thought that the archbishop was breaking new ground, which, of course he was not. 

Putting to one side the details of this latest mainstream media misstep, the conversation with my friend and coworker allowed me to point to an image on my wall calendar—an image of the Cross. I did so because as I explained the purposes of clerical celibacy I was speaking about the Gospel of sacrifice that the world would rather do without.

And so there we were, two environmental regulators, pondering the Cross of Jesus Christ. And really, the Cross is a topic that environmentalists must be comfortable embracing.

This particular September 14th, as the Church celebrates the annual Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, we find the world worried over war in the political sphere and equally worried over humanity's sustained war against nature. As seen from the Data Series interviews so far (here, here, here, and here), man is inflicting unprecedented harm on creation and it will not be easily undone.

What Catholic ecologists seek to bring to discussions of environmental protection is the prophetic statement that the roots of our ecological crises are spiritual crises. In large part, the damage we inflict on creation stems from our individual and collective inability to control our appetites—disordered as they are, seeking fulfillment in worldly things when in fact what we truly seek is a Someone, and that someone is love itself, a divine Trinity of three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The desire for God's love isn't difficult to understand. What is difficult is turning toward God and away from our vices.

It is notable that after the words that open this post, Luke places the event of the Transfiguration. In doing so, Luke tells us that the Cross leads to the glory foreshadowed at the Transfiguration. Or as is noted in the famed prayer attributed to St. Francis, “it is dying that we are born to eternal life.”

The necessary changes to our lifestyles that will slow and, one hopes, reverse the rampant and dangerous destruction of our planet’s ecosystems will come only by our seeking the grace of God and by the taking up of our crosses of self-denial. 

This has been foreshadowed in these old Catholic petitions: "Lord, grant me the grace to mortify my senses—to be in this world but not of the world."

And as we read in the Gospel of this feast day, 
Jesus said to Nicodemus: "No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life." For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. John 3:13-17

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Data Series #4: Climate change and human inertia

Our occasional interview series continues with a well-known name in climate change science and policy.

Dr. Michael Oppenheimer is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson Schoo and the Department of Geosciences at Princeton University.

He is the Director of the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy (STEP) at the Woodrow Wilson School and Faculty Associate of the Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences Program, Princeton Environmental Institute, and the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.

Dr. Michael Oppenheimer.
Photo: Princeton University
Dr. Oppenheimer joined the Princeton faculty after more than two decades with The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), where he served as chief scientist and manager of the Climate and Air Program. He continues to serve as a science to EDF and is routinely sought after by the news media for his climate and policy expertise.

Dr. Oppenheimer is the author of over 100 articles published in professional journals and is co-author (with Robert H. Boyle) of Dead Heat: The Race Against The Greenhouse Effect. His full biography can be found here.

CE: You bring a range of experiences to the climate change conversation—from academia to non-government organizations to the IPCC. With this unique perspective, what do you find is usually missing in the general public’s understanding of anthropogenic climate change and its impacts?

Dr. Oppenheimer: What’s missing is not so much understanding as political leadership. Like most technical issues, the public doesn't have the time to get deeply into the factual arguments. Generally, they look to opinion leaders whom they trust: the President, some Congressional leaders, religious leaders, individuals like Al Gore to give them a sense of where the reality stands. Of course, on some issues, the details are less important than overriding concerns like ethical implications, and people are perfectly prepared to and capable of making their own judgments. On climate change, I believe the public gets the big picture, the long-term stakes, the ethical issue, but has a lot of confusion (exacerbated by intentional obfuscation by some economic interests) on the details. Clear, consistent political leadership, day in and day out, is the one irreplaceable factor for overcoming this sort of confusion.

CE: Likewise, what scientific nuances do government leaders often struggle with?

Dr. Oppenheimer: Governments on the whole understand the details. They have lots of in-house experts telling leaders the truth (when they ask). The struggle is over their willingness to pay short-term costs to preserve the climate and the planet’s sustainability for the long term.

CE: With new studies being added to what we already know about climate change in preparation of the latest IPCC report, what do you think the next six months to a year hold for policy makers and national and local governments?

Dr. Oppenheimer: It’s going to be an interesting ride. I’m an IPCC author so I can’t discuss the details until they are public but I’m confident that the report will provide further details, allowing governments to sharpen their approaches and adding another dose of seriousness to the need for international cooperation to solve the problem. At this point, governments are falling behind what the science says is needed to stabilize the climate during this century.

CE: Many of us encounter critics of climate change science. What would you say are three or four quick statements that would be helpful when dialoguing with these critics?

Dr. Oppenheimer: 
  • Carbon dioxide, the main human-made greenhouse gas survives for centuries to millennia once emitted so today's actions commit the climate to harmful changes for many, many generations.
  • Earth is already warming, and most of the warming is very likely due to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
  • The projected warming, if emissions continue to grow, would make earth warmer, and warm faster, than any time in the history of civilization.
  • Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy show just how ineffective we are currently at dealing with today’s climate risk. The risk is increasing be the year, and we will inevitably be falling further behind—that means losses of life and losses of property. We need to redouble efforts at adaptation and managing the risk but there’s no way to keep up with the changes without decreasing the emissions causing the problem.

CE: In some circles, there seems to be a growing focus on climate adaptation rather than mitigating the sources of climate change. Given what we know about the rates of greenhouse gas emissions, is mitigation a viable option in the next decade or so? Or is it more realistic to say that adequate emissions reduction will take a century or two to achieve?

Dr. Oppenheimer: We need to mitigate starting now and we need to improve our ability to adapt, starting now as well. Mitigation isn't going to avert all impacts and adaptation can’t possibly sufficiently ameliorate the changes headed our way if we fail to cut emissions.

CE: Is there a question that interviewers never ask you but that you wish they would? 

Dr. Oppenheimer:  After all these years (32) working on climate, I've been asked it all!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A homily for peace—and creation

“And God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:12, 18, 21, 25). The biblical account of the beginning of the history of the world and of humanity speaks to us of a God who looks at creation, in a sense contemplating it, and declares: “It is good”.  This allows us to enter into God’s heart and, precisely from within him, to receive his message.  We can ask ourselves: what does this message mean? What does it say to me, to you, to all of us?
The homily given by Pope Francis at today’s peace vigil included some profound catechesis. It also occasionally sounded like a homily for Earth Day. This should come as no surprise since many of the roots of man’s violence against nature are the same as those that sound the drums of war.

Benedict XVI said that it is a disorder of our “inner attitudes” that corrupt our good human nature. This disorder makes us selfish, demanding, and gluttonous consumers of worldly pleasures.

Today, Pope Francis put it this way: 
When man thinks only of himself, of his own interests and places himself in the centre, when he permits himself to be captivated by the idols of dominion and power, when he puts himself in God’s place, then all relationships are broken and everything is ruined; then the door opens to violence, indifference, and conflict. This is precisely what the passage in the Book of Genesis seeks to teach us in the story of the Fall: man enters into conflict with himself, he realizes that he is naked and he hides himself because he is afraid (cf. Gen 3: 10), he is afraid of God’s glance; he accuses the woman, she who is flesh of his flesh (cf. v. 12); he breaks harmony with creation, he begins to raise his hand against his brother to kill him.  
And so in the midst of worldwide conflicts, Christianity offers a view of creation—and thus of mankind—that denounces the belief that man’s foundation is corrupt. It proclaims that our foundation is God—the Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is visible and invisible. And God, who is love and relationship, is indeed the perfection of good.

Here I would like to restate a reply in my recent interview with Dr. Robert Brinkmann of Hofstra University. My answer helps place into context how the Christian understanding of creation—and thus reality—shapes our hopes and expectations—and can then inform our actions. Dr. Brinkmann had asked me about the roots of the Christian understanding of ecology. I answered that 
[i]t goes back to the beginning—to those early mystics within the nascent people of Israel who recorded (orally at first and then in writing) that in the beginning God created everything good and orderly. Hebrew Scriptures are a love story about God’s relationship with humanity and the entire cosmos. It’s a revelation about the innate goodness of all creation. What we often don’t appreciate is how this message was a radical addition to human thought made by the early Jewish people. All around them—in ancient Babylon and Assyria—much more powerful nations taught that evil existed before the creation of the world. The Jewish people, inspired by God within human history, said no to this. Interestingly, this teaching on the goodness of creation that we find in Genesis (which we all know is not a science book) survived and remains with us today while the Babylonian creation stories (which presupposed evil) were lost for centuries in the sands of the Middle East.
 This insistence that creation is good because God created it is a central reality within Christianity. Christians proclaim that the Word of God entered the human condition in Jesus Christ. That alone elevates the natural world. And then, as taught by Christ, the natural world becomes a vehicle of coming into contact with God’s grace—for instance, through baptism with the use of water; Communion through the sacrificial offering of bread and wine; reconciliation, with the familiar use of human dialogue; healing, with primitive oils. And then there is Mary. She also connects creation with the divine in an amazing demonstration of love and relation.
 At today’s peace vigil, Pope Francis put it this way: 
All of creation forms a harmonious and good unity, but above all humanity, made in the image and likeness of God, is one family, in which relationships are marked by a true fraternity not only in words: the other person is a brother or sister to love, and our relationship with God, who is love, fidelity and goodness, mirrors every human relationship and brings harmony to the whole of creation.  God’s world is a world where everyone feels responsible for the other, for the good of the other.  
But then he added:
This evening, in reflection, fasting and prayer, each of us deep down should ask ourselves: Is this really the world that I desire?  Is this really the world that we all carry in our hearts?  Is the world that we want really a world of harmony and peace, in ourselves, in our relations with others, in families, in cities, in and between nations?  And does not true freedom mean choosing ways in this world that lead to the good of all and are guided by love?
Good questions. And they are appropriate not just in times of war. We must ask the questions during every moment of our lives. For how we answer them—how we choose to live our lives—determines not just the fate of nations or the prospects of conflict. Our answers also dictate whether we will tend to or devastate the garden that is Earth.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Five eco-reasons why we don't want war

While the American political machine considers whether or not to stoke the fires of Syria, more reasoned voices are calling for peace. Pope Francis is one such voice and he has added prayer and fasting to this call. 

While we wait, pray, and fast for miracles (small and big ones)—and as we call in all sincerity for truce and dialogue—the horrors continue. And so we think of the immediate harm done to people remaining in Syria and to the over two million who have fled. We think of the violence done to individuals, most often the weak and innocent; to families; and to entire communities. Compounding the suffering of war is the damage to natural environments. This is not a small issue because such damage impacts people during and long after the fighting ends.

Here are five reasons why eco-issues count when we go to war:

War pollutes water supplies: Drinking water comes from reservoirs, rivers, or groundwater. The bombardment of weaponry contaminates these supplies with a missile's residue and with the debris of what was once a built environment. Fuel contamination, metals, spilled chemicals and chemical weaponry can easily turn a region’s water supplies into a toxic slurry. For the most vulnerable people—children and the elderly—such contamination results in imminent harm if this water is ingested or slow dehydration when family members are forced to travel long distances to find clear, potable water. Basic sanitation also quickly becomes an issue when clean water is not readily available.

War pollutes the air: Soldiers, well-connected rebels, and well-prepared civilians may have gas masks during times of war. For those without such devices, toxins and particulates can be a regular component of what one takes into one’s lungs. Smoldering fires and regular bombings can keep the air sullied for hours and days—or weeks or months.

War obliterates natural habitats: All that teeming life that God found good in the Book of Genesis needs a home. In fact, most life forms prefer particular kinds of homes. The destruction brought by war—along with all that polluted water and air—devastates a region’s unique natural habitats, and unique habitats help define a quality of life. Besides the damage to non-human species, habitat destruction can easily impact local fishing and agriculture, which only adds to the suffering of the innocent.

Photo: Flicker/ninjawil
War destroys infrastructure:
Roads, bridges, and airports become the frequent targets of bombing. Other targets—whether intended or not—include underground water and sewer lines, drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities, and other infrastructure necessary for public health and a clean environment. Such infrastructure is expensive to replace and not quick to rebuild. This damage becomes a long-lasting communal wound long after conflicts cease. And thus the suffering continues as people lose access to clean water and as their natural waterways are contaminated with sewage.

War leaves behind a toxic dump: Added together, the consequences noted above are compounded by the debris of factories, homes, vehicles, above- and below-ground chemical storage systems, electrical transformers, and a host of other man-made systems and devices that use toxic chemicals, heavy metals, fossil fuels, and lost more. Then there is the matter of regular garbage pickup, which can easily come to a halt during times of war. With massive amounts of debris strewn about during and after a war, cleanup takes time—lots and lots of time. And even after debris is hauled away—hopefully to a safe landfill—widespread soil contamination often makes once pristine neighborhoods uninhabitable.

This is of course a short list. It is neither detailed nor specific to a particular conflict. But this subject does not require advanced degrees to understand. 

Under specific circumstances, some wars can be justly waged. But William Tecumseh Sherman said it best in the late nineteenth century: "war is all hell." One reason why this is so is because war leaves behind a hellish environment when it’s over, scarring for a long, long time God’s very good, life-sustaining creation.