From Coal to Climate: the Evolution of an Activist

Originally published in the San Diego Free Press, September 22nd, 2016

So, here is a question: what’s about as likely as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly jointly admitting that pretty much everything they’ve ever said was wrong?

climate activist

Before I knew what coal looked like. And smelled. And tasted.

Answer: that a guy with my background would end up as an active member of

I grew up in Kansas, famous for Dorothy, sunflowers, and voting against your best interest (as in What’s the Matter With…). I remember my father vehemently wishing he could vote against Ted Kennedy. My mother railing against the Equal Rights Amendment, saying she liked having men open doors for her. Umm, I guess that such chivalry was banned in the bill’s text somewhere. Both of them mourning angrily that the country was ruined, now that Carter had been elected.

Not to spare myself, I also remember a Charles Kuralt interview in which he wondered what conservatism ever brought us. I turned to Dad and said—without a trace of irony—the money for everyone else to live on. I was maybe eighteen at the time, swimming with the rest of the fish in the Republican Kansas water. Unnecessary to point out?

An engineering degree landed me a job going around the country starting up coal-fired utility scale power plants. Doing that, I liked to reflect on the fact that I worked with some of the biggest “engines” in the world. I thought seriously about building my own small power plant, natural gas fired, and selling power to the grid. What fun it would be, I thought, but then found that the economics of small scale were a bit less than profitable. Regardless, it seemed to me that those of us in the industry were like priests of old, tending the sacred fires around which their civilizations turned.

[Read more…]

The Pope heard round the world

By Hutton Marshall
Originally published in the San Diego Free Press on September 24th 2015

The Pope is in town.

Not this town, unfortunately — he’s in Washington, D.C.  Today, Pope Francis will give a historic address to Congress, where he is expected to speak on the escalating climate change crisis. This closely watched event will further solidify his stature as an acknowledged global leader of the climate change movement.  He caps the year in Paris with an address to world leaders at the UN-sponsored climate-change summit COPS 2015.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis released his Encyclical Letter entitled “On Care for our Common Home.”  A passionate, comprehensive 40,000-word exhortation about caring for the planet, the Encyclical weaves modern climate science together with teachings from Catholicism and other religions, to build the case that caring for Earth’s climate is a moral obligation, a matter of justice for the poor and vulnerable. He thus breaks down the barriers between religion and science, and between environmental stewardship and social justice. [Read more…]

La Mesans Demand an Effective Climate Action Plan

By Joan Raphael

La Mesa residents in the audience hold signs showing support for a strong Climate Action Plan

La Mesa residents in the audience of the Planning Commision hearing hold signs provided by SD350 to show support for a strong Climate Action Plan.

On Wednesday, June 3, concerned citizens came together at a hearing of the La Mesa Planning Commission to press for a stronger Climate Action Plan (CAP). Many of those who came to speak were volunteers with SD350. The hearing turned out to be an uplifting reminder of what regular folks working together can achieve.

California’s cities are creating Climate Action Plans, following executive orders from Governors Brown and Schwartzenegger to comply with state targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions pursuant to provisions in the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32). Citizens at the hearing noted that La Mesa’s draft CAP includes no fixed timelines or mechanisms to quantify reduced emissions, and relies largely on promoting voluntary measures such as installation of solar power by individuals and businesses. [Read more…]

Review: The Green Bible

Published by Harper-Collins, The Green Bible has a cover of 100% all-natural cotton-linen, symbolizing its Earth-nurturing orientation.  The translation used is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), 1999, but  the volume’s contents offer more than just another version of the Bible itself.  The Green Bible is a “green-letter edition,” the green font serving to highlight those portions of the text that feature creation, God’s relationship to creation, how all the elements of creation — land, water, air, plants, animals, humans — are interdependent, how nature responds to God and to human dysfunction, and how we are called to care for creation.   The main idea behind it all is that what God created belongs to God, and it is therefore the responsibility of human beings, as faithful stewards,  to protect and care for Earth.

Prefacing The Green Bible are twelve scholarly essays written from twelve different perspectives, but all with a “green” approach to theology and to understanding the Bible’s intellectual and moral grounding: respect for creation is seen as respect for ourselves and the earth, as well as for God.  This edition of the Bible has value for the contents of its prefacing essays alone.  The writers cover a wide spectrum of Jewish and Christian thought, but because this is a Bible featuring both the Hebrew and the Christian texts published in a single volume as commonly used by Christians, it is more weighted towards the Christian perspective.

A thought-provoking commentary on biblical word-play explains that the name of the first man, Adam, means “man” in the sense of human being.  God formed Adam into an earth-dwelling creature from adamah which means “soil.”  So, now imagine the Genesis creation story being recited orally, as it must have been in the earliest times of the Hebrew people: the choice of these two words adam and adamah when heard together by the listeners would have evoked a semantic-poetic relationship between humans and the earth — a relationship evincing the notion that humans belong to the earth, and not the other way around.

Permeating several of the prefacing essays is the motif of “the suffering earth.”  Theologically, this motif is a powerful symbol of human beings being out of communion with the will of God.  One passage that illustrates this is from the prophet Isaiah:    The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants,  for they have transgressed laws, violated statutes and broken the everlasting covenant.                                                                      

The idea that humans have the ability to devastate the earth by either willful or thoughtless behavior — as anyone who knows the story of Noah understands — is hardly a new one.  It follows, then,  that we must rethink our values and change some of our ways in order to preserve a healthy earth, an idea that is also not altogether new; a turn, or perhaps a return, to ways of life that respect nature is glorified in many verses of the Bible, most notably in the Psalms.  In the following verses from Psalm 65, nature is personified as filled with joy at being treated respectfully by human kind:    The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy; the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain.                                                      

Implicit in these two verses is that when Earth is healthy, humans prosper; the relationship is, to borrow a term from biology, symbiotic, or mutually beneficial.  Such an outlook sees sustainability and morality as intertwined in its vision of a healthy planet — incidentally an outlook promoted by the Roman papacy in its encyclicals.

Following the biblical texts, in addition to the usual topical index — in this case a “Green Subject Index” — The Green Bible offers a guidebook for studying the Bible through a green lens.  “The Green Bible Trail Guide” is divided into six sections: two based on the goodness of creation, and one each on connectedness to the earth, social justice, sin and redemption — all of them as regards our relationship to the earth and, similarly, to all of our fellow human beings.  Each section poses questions that remind readers of their role in the larger picture of the health of the planet and how to fulfill that role by living simpler, more thoughtful lives.

Finally, The Green Bible contains a section entitled “Where Do We Go from Here?”  This section offers practical advice for individuals, families and faith communities on how we humans might conduct our daily lives so as to lessen the burden each of us puts on the earth because of our presence here, especially in a land of material prosperity and inducements to excess.  Some of the suggestions — fifty altogether — are humorously quaint but still relevant, like Grandmother’s advice: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” and the Depression-era penny-wisdom of turning out the light when we leave a room.   Planting a vegetable garden is the ultimate in eating local produce, while another suggests that we test our purchase of “needs” by waiting, and then by spending the money necessary to purchase an item of quality that will last a long time.

While there are many versions of the Bible, The Green Bible offers a path to Bible study and daily living that envisions our human behavior playing a vital role in sustaining the health of the earth.  The prefacing essays demonstrate that such an interpretation is consistent with the values of both the Hebrew and the Christian testaments.  Here, in The Green Bible, aided by passages highlighted in green font, readers can find a biblically-grounded spiritual, moral, and practical guide to sustaining the health of our earth.


Review: “What If We Never Run Out of Oil?”

In the feature article of the May issue of The Atlantic, What If We Never Run Out of Oil?, contributing editor Charles C. Mann lays out his vision of what the future holds for a petroleum-powered planet. The descriptor on the magazine’s cover reads, “Why the fossil-fuel boom is good for America, bad for Saudi Arabia – and scary for the planet.” Mann concludes that economic incentives will lead to ever-expanded ways of extracting carbon-based fuel from the earth despite the inevitable risk to the planet’s future.

High prices for petroleum should make alternative energy sources more competitive, but there is another side to this rosy outlook: these high prices also make elaborate and expensive carbon-fuel extraction processes more economically feasible. Two such processes featured in this article are the extraction of natural gas by fracking and the mining of coastal ocean beds for methane hydrate. The US expects to frack its way to energy independence in the not-too-distant future; and Japan, almost totally dependent on imported fuel, will innovate methane hydrate extraction along the methane beds of the western Pacific Ocean in its quest for the same. This latter source of fuel, largely untapped, has been estimated to be practically limitless, as new beds are continually being laid down due to both natural and man-induced processes, like industrial farm run-off.

Mann provides a broad perspective – historical, political, economic, and scientific – for his discussion of this future. In a less-than-hopeful tone, he warns that global warming will be collateral damage in the coming international carbon-based fuel extraction mega-enterprise. He also describes the anticipated global political upheaval that energy independence for industrialized nations will bring because the governments of the petro-states, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, have not created institutions that are viable beyond their profitable petroleum-export economic model.

What this should tell us is that the conversation about global warming has changed. Whether or not climate change is happening is no longer a question; that argument has been settled by legitimate climate research. The new battle lines are less clear because they do not involve answerable scientific questions; instead, they involve economic and political questions that lend themselves to the discussion of various policy options that are vulnerable to a money-driven, dysfunctional political process.

Nevertheless, the consequences of global warming still loom. In his otherwise thorough presentation of how human beings will try to satisfy their appetite for carbon-based energy, Charles Mann skims over these consequences. In doing so, he is giving us a clear indication of how the friends of petroleum will try to direct the discussion of our energy future: It will be all about prosperity based on new carbon-based fuel sources, not about the human and environmental costs associated with the pursuit of that carbon-based prosperity.

Carbon industry profiteers may be motivated, but the science is inexorable: global warming continues and can only increase with greater exploitation of carbon-based energy resources. We must keep the vision of what is happening to the planet in front of the public in order to show the real cost – to Earth and its inhabitants – of that supposedly rosy economic vision. The scenario of a super-charged, carbon-based energy future presented by Charles Mann is our call to action.

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This work is licensed by Bonnie Mosse Funk under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Not Just for Tree Huggers

Citizen’s Guides to Climate Change: How to Sort it All Out without Getting a PhD

This posting is the third in a series on how you can figure out what’s going on with climate change, without having to get a PhD in climatology and without going crazy from the conflicting messages in the media. My first post showed how you can bypass the media confusion by finding out what real scientists are saying. My second one showed how strongly scientists agree on the basic facts: Earth is warming. We’re causing it. The biggest contribution is burning fossil fuels, which accumulates heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We need to burn less fossil fuel to keep the effects from getting too extreme.

In this post, I’d like to acquaint you with some of the people besides scientists who are concerned about climate change. Some of them may surprise you. Who they are and what issues they identify may give you a sense for why mitigating climate change is important for all of us.

It is no surprise that environmentalists call for climate action. If we continue increasing fossil fuel consumption, people who are small children today could experience, within their lifetimes, an increase in earth’s average surface temperature of 2 to 5 ºC (4 to 9 ºF), which is nearly as great as that between the last Ice Age and today. That rapid change would disrupt ecosystems all over the world. As warming exceeds 4 ºC, there is a risk of major extinctions, involving 40 to 70 % of the plants and animals assessed in the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We can preserve much more of the natural world if we burn less fossil fuel and limit the warming to 2 ºC or so. Because extinct species are gone forever, the decisions we make over the next few decades will determine how much poorer a world we leave to every human generation that comes after us.

What you might not have guessed is that the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, World Health Organization and other groups concerned with human health are also calling for action to minimize global warming and prepare healthcare systems to cope with it. These groups point out that climate change can affect people’s health in a variety of ways, including extreme heat and drought that hurt agriculture and increase malnutrition; injury and disease from more severe floods and hurricanes; water pollution due to flooding and drought; higher temperatures that worsen the chemistry of air pollution; and expanded ranges of pests that spread disease.

Another group taking climate change very seriously is the American military. Recent reports from the US Department of Defense and intelligence agencies have looked at climate change as a concrete threat to national security. Global warming brings more drought to places already too dry, more flooding to places already plagued by floods, and less food and water to people who already have too little, especially in parts of Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean where social tensions are high, governments are weak and resources for coping with disaster are lacking. In such places, the added climate stresses may exacerbate existing risks of violence and political instability. As the military describe it, global warming is a threat multiplier.

We have already seen violence exacerbated by the kinds of environmental stresses that climate change will increase. The genocide in Darfur, for example, may have happened in part because expanding deserts forced herders into land occupied by farmers with different tribal, ethnic and religious identities. Violence has also occurred in India between natives and migrants forced out of Bangladesh by flooding and rising sea levels. As global temperatures rise, the environmental stresses and the resulting conflicts will continue to increase.

Although the military have focused on climate change as a destabilizing force in poor countries, it is a very real problem for richer ones as well. The US Department of Agriculture has been looking at how global warming might affect food production in the United States. The effects they describe are complicated, difficult to project, and likely to vary by crop and by region. However, some of the most recent analyses indicate that, if fossil fuel burning increases as it could well do, corn and soybean yields in the US could fall by as much as 60 to 80% by the end of this century. The losses will be much less if we minimize the global temperature change by burning less fossil fuel.

As these crop-yield projections illustrate, radically changing the climate can have real economic consequences that are potentially serious but hard to predict. One group that knows about dealing with uncertain risks of economic loss is the insurance industry. Many leading insurers, noting the ongoing increase in the number and severity of weather disasters, have called for action to minimize climate change. Another leader in insurance, Lloyd’s of London, has looked at climate change from a broader business perspective. They start with the overwhelming scientific evidence for human-caused climate change. They then identify a number of consequences that could affect businesses worldwide:

  • Water scarcity
  • Food production not meeting demand
  • Risks of mass migration from poor to rich countries
  • Risks of increased international conflict and insecurity
  • The increased unpredictability of a warmer world

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Departments of Defense and Agriculture, and Lloyd’s of London are looking at climate change not as environmentalists, but because it is their job to assess risks and plan for them. Looking at the same science from somewhat different points of view, they each find that global warming presents significant challenges for our society.

A common thread in their analyses is that climate change can affect our lives in complex ways, with potentially big, but imperfectly known consequences. Climate change is about making choices in the face of imperfect information. Doctors, generals and insurance companies do that all the time. What we know for certain is that we have a real problem, and that the risks will increase as global temperatures rise. Our choice is how much risk we want to tolerate, and how quickly we are willing to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. The more quickly we do that, the richer and more secure will be our world and the one we leave to our children.

Creative Commons License This material by William F. Avrin is used here by permission of the author, and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Comprehend the Consensus

Citizen’s Guides to Climate Change: How to Sort it All Out without Getting a PhD

Scientists are telling us clearly that we’re changing the climate and need to do something about it. Yet, what we hear in the media can be so confused that many people feel they can never figure out what to think about climate change. If you feel that way, this posting is the second in a series on how you can get to the truth about the climate.

My first post showed how you can get started by finding out what actual scientists are saying, rather than trying to puzzle out the Al-Gore/talk-radio argument that the media sometimes make climate science seem to be. A good next step is to appreciate just how strongly and consistently scientists agree on the essential facts of climate change.

One expression of that consensus is in the statements on climate change by science organizations all over the world. Those organizations include the national science academies of at least 32 countries (links: 1,2,3,4,5). They include professional organizations in earth sciences (6,7,8,9,10), meteorology (11,12,13,14,15), physics, chemistry and biology. They also include the National Academy of Sciences, America’s foremost science advisory board, whose members serve without pay and are elected for distinguished achievement. These statements all affirm certain basic facts: The climate is changing. It is virtually certain that we are causing it. We need to burn less fossil fuel, to stop heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide from accumulating in our atmosphere.

A 2010 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences took another approach to sizing up the scientific consensus: They counted. The authors identified the community of scientists who are most actively working on climate change, based on the number of peer-reviewed scientific papers each scientist had published, and how often those papers had been cited by others in the field. They looked at all the papers that those scientists had published. They then counted up how many of the scientists supported or challenged the basic understanding of human-caused climate change summarized in the Assessment Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They found that 97 to 98 percent of the scientists actually working on climate change supported that common scientific understanding. Other studies have found similar results. That nearly unanimous agreement among climate specialists, together with the supporting statements by national academies and professional organizations in related areas of science, indicates that scientists are in overwhelming agreement about the reality, human causes and urgency of climate change.

Another measure of how well settled the science of climate change is, is how consistent the scientists’ understanding has been over time. You can see that consistency in the very first Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In that 1990 report, scientists reviewed the research up to that time, and summarized what we knew then about climate change. They identified most of the key points that you can see in the most recent Assessment Report from 2007. To list just a few of the biggest ones:

  • Global warming happens because we are accumulating carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, mostly by burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil.
  • We know the warming will happen both from the physics of the climate system and from geologic records that tell us about past climates.
  • The details of how the climate changes depend on the behavior of clouds, snow, ice, water vapor, winds and ocean currents, which affect and are affected by the warming.
  • We can see the warming trend in records from weather stations, satellites, balloons, buoys and other tools that measure land, sea and atmospheric temperatures, as well as sea level rise and the retreat of glaciers.

That warming trend was measurable by 1990, though the data weren’t yet strong enough to rule out natural fluctuations as the cause. By 2007, the trend was unmistakable, and the scientists estimated that there was less than a ten-percent chance that anything other than human causes could explain all their measurements of trends in different aspects of the climate. The main change in the science was that the understanding had gotten clearer, a few apparent anomalies had been resolved, and the evidence supporting the basic model had become even more massive.

These few sentences don’t nearly do justice to the amount of evidence that supports the scientific consensus. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about global-warming science is the sheer number of different ways in which the scientists have checked and cross-checked their understanding.  The National Research Council, an agency associated with the National Academy of Sciences, has a 40-page booklet that summarizes some of the many lines of evidence in language that non-scientists can understand. I hope to show you a few examples in future postings.

This posting’s bottom line is simple but crucial: You might not hear it on TV, but scientists have reached an overwhelming consensus that climate change is real, happening now, human-caused, and a problem we urgently need to deal with. Knowing that matters because, once people hear how strong the scientific agreement is, they are much more likely to agree that climate action now is one of our highest priorities.

Creative Commons License This material by William F. Avrin is used here by permission of the author, and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

No Need to Let Your Head Explode

 Citizen’s Guides to Climate Change: How to Sort it Out Without Getting a PhD

Warming of the climate system is unequivocalMost of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very [90%] likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic [human-caused] greenhouse gas concentrations.”

 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, February, 2007

“If you want to know what’s causing global warming, listen to AM talk radio while watching ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and simultaneously running a Google search. We’ll stand back and watch as your head explodes.”

Lenny Rudow, Boating Magazine, March, 2007

Scientists have a clear message for us: The climate is changing right now. We’re causing it. To keep the consequences from getting too bad, we need to burn less fossil fuel.

Yet, many of us aren’t hearing that message. Like Lenny Rudow from Boating Magazine, we just hear a loud argument between Al Gore and right-wing talk radio. We feel like we can never figure out who to believe. It’s easy to get that impression, because the voices of real climate scientists are barely audible in the media where most of us get our news.

You don’t have to feel like your head is going to explode. You can figure out what’s going on with climate change. You don’t need a PhD in climatology. You just need to know where to look, and sometimes a few common-sense tools for thinking about what you find.

I know, because I’ve been there. I’m a scientist, but not a climate scientist. I’ve been exploring ways to understand what science says about climate change for more than twenty years. In this and future postings headed “Citizen’s Guides to Climate Change,” I’d like to offer some sources, and ways of seeing, that have worked for me and may work for you.

A good first step is simply to find out what the scientists are actually saying. One of the most authoritative sources is the National Academy of Sciences, America’s foremost scientific advisory body. The Academy was founded by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Its members are elected based on their distinguished records of scientific research. They serve without pay. Their mission is to review what is known on scientific issues of importance to the country, and advise the rest of us on what that science says about the choices available to us. The Academy’s most recent review of climate change (also available in summary form) affirms the long-standing scientific consensus that climate change is human-caused, happening now and a real problem. Scientific societies all over the world have issued similar statements affirming that scientific consensus on climate change.

You should also know that there is a kind of master consensus document on climate-change science. Every several years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change brings together hundreds of scientists with expertise in every field that relates to climate. The scientists sift through thousands of peer-reviewed research papers. They assess what all that research is telling us. They send their work out for peer review by hundreds more scientists. Their Assessment Reports are pretty dense, but are our most comprehensive source for what we know about climate change, how well we know it, and what we need to know better.

Finally, if you’re a little technically inclined, you might check out, a blog maintained by working climate scientists for journalists and the public. Even if you don’t get all the details, you can get a sense for the thoughtfulness and depth with which real climate scientists think about the evidence. It’s a far cry from the shallowness – the thin-ness – of the bogus arguments we hear from climate denialists.

The take-home message is simple: Climate change is not about believing Al Gore versus talk radio. It’s a matter of solid science. If you know where to look, it is easy to find out what the real scientists are saying. They are sending us a clear message: We have a problem. It’s up to us to fix it.

Creative Commons License This material by William F. Avrin is used here by permission of the author, and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.