Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Chinese and US carbon emissions: myths and morality

Statistics and spin
"China is inappropriately made a scapegoat in this case because what causes the climate change is not today's emissions, it's today's atmospheric composition and we [USA] are primarily responsible for the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - more than three times more than China and actually on a per capita basis more than an order of magnitude [i.e. ten times]. So to blame China and to say that we have to wait for them is nonsense."

- James Hansen, head of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in this interview.

Statistics can frequently be misleading. And so it really matters which statistics are given the most attention. It is true that China is currently the country that emits the most carbon dioxide each year. Yet Hansen is right to point out the massive historical and per capita disparity between the west and China (and India, of course). The climate change we are currently experiencing and the same again (more or less) already "in the pipeline" are due to emissions so far (there is a lag between the addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and rising atmospheric temperatures as most of the energy initially goes into the oceans). And the carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere is due very largely to the US, Germany and the UK (in that order).

Since cumulative emissions are more important than the current rate of emissions (due to the long period of time that about half the carbon dioxide we release stays in the atmosphere), then focussing simply on current rates without considering the cumulative totals obscures the bigger picture. And comparing countries with widely disparate populations also assumes that the only relevant moral unit is the nation state, a very odd assumption for individualists in the US to perpetuate. It makes much more sense to speak primarily in per capita terms. When these considerations are included, as Hansen points out, the US has little moral authority to consider China the largest contributor to the problem. Indeed, a further factor worth pondering is that roughly one-third of all China's emissions result from producing goods for western markets, so if we look at the consumption levels driving the dangerous emissions, then once again the west has little right to place the lion's share of blame for today's situation on China.

However, future emissions are also relevant, since (simplifying quite a bit), it is really the total amount of carbon dioxide humans release that matters. If we're to stay below 450 ppm (which has been the rough goal accepted by most governments - whether 450 is already too dangerous is a discussion for another day), then we've already spent more than half the carbon budget. Pre-industrial levels were around 280 ppm and we're currently at 390 ppm and rising (since more carbon dioxide is entering the atmosphere than leaving it). If this is accepted as a reasonable goal, then even if the US entirely stopped all carbon emissions tomorrow (impossible, but this is a thought experiment), China would never be able to emit as much carbon dioxide per capita as the US already has.

Does this mean that China (and other rapidly industrialising nations) bear no responsibility for their current (and rapidly rising) emissions? Of course not, but it is clear that the developed world has contributed far more to the problem than the developing world and so rightly ought to bear most responsibility for addressing it. Simply looking at current emissions obscures morally relevant considerations and enables the world's richer nations to downplay the role we have played in causing the mess. Unfortunately, such arguments are not widely understood or accepted in industrialised countries.

If you would like to see some of these statistics visualised, then Gapminder is an excellent resource. If you follow this link and click "play", you'll see a historical progression of various nations' contributions. The size of the circle indicates population size. The x-axis is per capita emissions and the y-axis is cumulative emissions. Colours are for region. You can play around with all the settings to see all kinds of relationships (a two minute tutorial is here). I haven't managed to find any graphs that compare per capita cumulative emissions. Doing so would demonstrate that China and the US are not simply in different ball parks but are playing entirely different games.

Monday, August 30, 2010

On track for going off the track

Perhaps you've heard that Arctic sea is "recovering" or is "just fine": unfortunately not so. You may also have heard that warming has stopped: unfortunately not so (and this doesn't include the record-breaking 2010).

Where's the talk of peak oil? Just where it should be: behind closed doors. Carry on. Nothing to see here.

The rapacious hunger of the ever expanding global economy means that it is not only species that are threatened with extinction.

Goliath whips David: enormous fossil fuel companies outspent the environmental lobby by about 8:1 blocking any US action on climate chaos.

Speaking of big money: keeping the wheels of denial, um, oiled.

Norway sells shares in illegal logging. What is it about the Norwegians that makes them smarter than the rest of us? Or maybe not.

Thank God global warming is a hoax.

Super-extreme weather in Indonesia is the worst on record.

NYT: What is the legal status of submerged countries?

NYT: Developing a climate plan Z.

Scientists reach for new term to describe super windstorm.

In case it felt left out: Atlantic garbage patch found to rival Pacific's.

The North West passage in the Arctic has melted open for only the fourth time in recorded history. The first three occurrences were way back in 2009, 2008 and 2007.

Heat records broken in 17 countries this year so far. Only one country has set a record for cold. No year has prior to this one has come close to having this many records broken (and remember, each year such a feat becomes statistically less likely if temperatures fluctuate randomly).

What are blogs for?

For beautiful writing.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

What can philosophy say about ecological crises?

"The environmental dangers that now face [hu]mankind put the reflexive non-scientist in an awkward situation. He must acknowledge that he can have precisely nothing interesting to say on the two most important questions in the air, namely, 'What is going to happen to us?' and 'What should we do?' It is not from a philosopher that you stand to be enlightened.

"Which is not to invalidate the attempt to contemplate, rather than simply find a way out of, our ecological dilemmas. It remains valid to try to fathom what the idea of planetary abuse has done to our minds. We may ask what the awareness of the crisis has done to our inner landscape, how it has altered the human psyche.

"One should begin by observing that there is nothing new for mankind about confronting the possibility of its own destruction. The feeling that the present order – the neat fields, the ordered laundry cupboards, the full granaries – might soon disappear, would have been intensely familiar to any inhabitant of medieval Europe. One need only study the carvings on the sides of the cathedrals to see that our imaginations have for centuries been haunted by visions of Armageddon.

"However, we have grown used to conceiving of our present environmental situation as unparalleled, perhaps because we have learnt of it through the media and because for the daily paper, everything must, from an a priori position, be novel. There never was a Lisbon earthquake or a sack of Rome. No one has ever murdered their children or wasted their fortune. This isn’t to deny some intensely novel features behind our anxieties, just to insist that we must carefully separate out the familiar, long-standing morbidity of homo sapiens from the particular features of the current predicament."

- Alain de Botton, "Ecology" in the UN Chronicle.

Populist philosopher Alain de Botton can be somewhat hit and miss, but I think this piece is well worth reading in full (see right hand column).

Fears about our present situation are neither entirely novel nor merely a repetition of ancient patterns. Indeed, part of what I will be arguing in my project is that in certain important respects, we do face genuinely new challenges and fears in the various ecological and resource crises of our time. More on that in future posts, but if you want to get a gist of where I'm headed (at least insofar as the diagnosis of an historically novel issue), read the article.
H/T Stuart.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Another exoneration: IPCC head cleared of financial wrongdoing by KPMG

To go along with the recent string of exonerations that have been given by public enquiries concerning the hacked CRU emails and the vindication of Michael Mann's conduct by PSU, now accusations of financial impropriety made against Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC, have also been refuted in an investigation by KPMG. The Sunday Telegraph, which first broke the story, has removed it and offered an apology.

Dr Pachauri has received a sum total of £0 for his work as IPCC chair (yes, far from a socialist plot to install world government, the IPCC is a tiny group co-ordinating the work of thousands of scientists that can't even afford to pay its own chair). And his entire income is under £50,000. More details are found here, with intelligent discussion here.

But like all such retractions, it is too little, too late. The smear did its job, spreading popular doubt about the work of the IPCC around the time of increased global attention on the issue due to the Copenhagen conference.

Yet of all the accusations against climate science flying around at the end of last year, the worst that have been substantiated were a reference to an incorrect date on one page of the IPCC's 2007 report (which ran to thousands of pages), some personal nastiness in private emails and possible evasion of FOI requests by a scientist under siege from dozens of such requests. No consensus has collapsed, no climatologists have been shown to have been fraudulent, no studies have been fatally undermined, no new theory to explain the data has gained wide acceptance. It is still the case that over 97% of the most active climatologists agree that human emissions are the primary culprit for a significant and ongoing rise in global temperatures and shift in climate patterns.

Moral: don't believe every breathless scandal dished out by the popular media, especially when the source is a blogger with an unimpressive track record and the target is a highly politicised figure. But then, most of you knew that already.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Shades of green: why is ecological degradation wrong?

Not all attempts to be ecologically responsible are the same. There are some huge differences between groups and individuals that are often simply lumped together as "environmentalists".

Sometimes these differences are discussed in terms of focus. For instance, Michael Northcott's The Environment and Christian Ethics identifies three broad approaches. Those who emphasise the intrinsic value of the non-human world and regret its destruction or transformation by humans he calls ecocentric. Those who emphasise the damage to human society represented by ecological degradation he calls humanocentric (others use the term anthropocentric, which keeps the Greek etymological theme). Those who emphasise God's glory and delight in the created order such that destructiveness is an affront to divine purposes he calls theocentric. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive and particular thinkers may draw upon multiple lines of thought. Each will lead in somewhat different directions at certain points, but the main difference lies in how they analyse the problem of ecological degradation. Why is it wrong for us to be clearing the rainforests, to be emptying the oceans of fish or to be dumping over 100 million tonnes of plastic each year? Is it because we lose species and damage ecosystems that are beautiful, unique and irreplaceable? Or because we're undermining our ability to feed and clothe ourselves, because the cost of replacing the lost ecosystem services is a drain on human society, because we're running up an ecological debt we can't possibly repay and so driving off a cliff? Or are they wrong because they represent a human attempt to uncreate, a perverse parody of God's original work?

Personally, I think any answer that doesn't draw on all three strands is likely to be deficient and lead to a poor response. Pure theocentrism could give the impression that as long as our hearts are in the right place, it doesn't matter if our actions are any benefit to our neighbour (human or non-human). Pure ecocentrism might imply that humanity itself is the problem and that any human modification of the "natural" order is wrong. Pure anthropocentrism risks becoming instrumentalist, and ignores the fact that God pronounces the created order "good" prior to the creation of humanity. These are caricatures, but all three reasons can find a place in an account that is attentive to the holy scriptures.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Eating, mortality and fellowship

"Eating together always implies trust."

He's actually onto a deep thread of Christian thought. We share meals and vulnerabilities. This was the power of Jesus' eating with sinners, of his reform of the food laws, and of the institution of a common meal as a mark of fellowship in his death.

It's also quite funny.

A few dead flies for your perfume

Michael Wells, the best catechist I've ever had (yes, ok, he's the only one I've ever had, but he's still the best), has been writing some interesting pieces over the last few days. First he wonders "what must I do to be saved from an anemic gospel?" and then he notes that Jesus rose early, while it was still dark before pondering whether unanswered prayer might all be a joke.

UPDATE: Mike seems to be particular busy recently. Here's one on grumbling and an excellent one on contextual theology (a.k.a. ethics!).

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Gittins on Australia's hung parliament

Ross Gittins once again talks sense in his latest SMH article on why the Greens did so well. Here's a taste:

"So unattractive was the choice the main parties offered that I'm sure people voted Greens for various reasons. But no doubt concern about lack of ''real action'' on climate change was the most prominent. Consider the way people concerned about global warming - still a majority of voters - were dudded by the two main parties. Both went to the last election promising to introduce (similar) emissions trading schemes; both went to this election promising not to introduce such schemes. [...]

"The Libs describe their approach as 'direct action' - which translates as support for the regulation and government intervention once primarily associated with Labor. Labor's major contribution to the climate change policy debate during the campaign was its proposal for a 'citizens' assembly', which sounds reminiscent of the Greens' historical preference for 'consensus-based' decision-making. The Greens, on the other hand, have been pushing for the economic rationalist approach of relying on a carbon tax and price signals."
Gittins mentions a new paper put out by the Australia Institute that includes six principles for policy design on climate change.

I've also just caught up with two slightly older pieces by Gittins: Gillard's failure of leadership and why the pursuit of green jobs is a distraction from climate action.

Ground zero mosque

See also this take by Charlie Brooker.

In case you were wondering...

...does Australia have a government yet?

It's a funny link, though incorrect of course. We do have a caretaker government under Prime Minister Gillard until things are resolved. Someone still has the nuclear launch codes, or at least, Obama's (deputy junior assistant undersecretary's) phone number.
H/T Rod Benson.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Too much of a good thing?

Modest decline in primary production
Primary production refers to the basis of the entire food chain in plant growth through photosynthesis (it's a little broader than this, but that's the main idea). The total level of primary production can be measured by instruments on satellites and NASA have just published a new report summarising long term trends (more commentary including a short video can be found here. While primary production was rising fairly rapidly during the 1980s and 1990s, the last ten years have a slight decline in the total productivity of the globe's plant growth, largely due to more droughts. The full significance of this finding is not yet apparent, but it may signal a shift that scientists have predicted and feared: that the benefits of more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to plant growth are being overwhelmed by disruptions to the hydrological cycle. Carbon dioxide is not simply "plant food", but also changes the climate, including precipitation patterns. And while (in small doses) it is necessary for life as we know it, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

Indeed, a recent NAS study confirmed that for each degree Celsius the temperature rises, global crop yields from major grains like wheat, rice and corn will fall 5-15%. The recent Russian heat wave is estimated to have destroyed around 30% of Russia's entire wheat harvest. The heat wave cannot itself be directly blamed on global warming, but events like it become more common and more severe.

In years to come, it might not be climate change in the headlines, but food prices and political instability.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hung parliament: not so bad?

Random thoughts on the Australian federal election result
"This is clearly the closest election result we've seen in Australian history."

- Antony Green, ABC's election analyst during an interview on Lateline.

I am not entirely disappointed with a hung parliament in Australia after Saturday's election. At the very least, it means that neither side can claim victory. They both lost. There was indeed a swing against the ALP (-5.4%) and towards the Coalition (+1.9%), but elections are not won on swings. And indeed, if they were, then the Greens received a much larger positive swing (+3.7%). One significant factor in this was likely to be disgruntled ALP supporters registering their disapproval of the Rudd/Gillard failure of nerve on climate. It may have also been punishment for Gillard's move to the the right on asylum seekers, but Rudd's popularity started its precipitous decline when he announced the shelving of his carbon trading scheme.

In the Senate, before below the line and postal votes are counted (and below the line postal votes, like mine!), it looks like both major parties faced negative swings (Coalition -1.3%; ALP -4.6%) while the Greens are highly likely to have secured balance of power (+3.9%) and the most Senate seats of a minor party in Australian history. The DLP may have followed Family First's success in 2007 by gaining a Victorian seat with only 2.23% of the primary vote.

Earlier this year in the UK election, when it became clear that the parliament was going to be hung, there was a lot of misinformation peddled by politicians, pundits and certain sections of the media about what it was going to mean. Due to a busy weekend, I haven't been following enough Australian media to know if a similar pattern has been emerging there. So to clarify some issues that were muddied here and may be there, by constitutional convention, Gillard remains caretaker PM until the result becomes clear, the incumbent PM has first right to form a coalition or minority government, and there is no necessity for either side to have a formal coalition to govern. Having more seats (yet not a majority), having more primary votes, having more two party preferred votes: none of these are really relevant in determining who forms government (except insofar as they can be spun to provide some kind of moral weight).

That a hung parliament doesn't necessarily mean instability can be seen from a wide range of nations who regularly manage to get along with one. That they have been rare in the UK and Australia has led to a little hysteria (from what I've seen, not quite as much in Oz as there was here a few months back) about the dangers of no party having a majority. However, it ought to be remembered that neither the ALP nor the Coalition (!) are really a single party (the internal divisions within the ALP are famous, and were on display in paradoxical ways with the recent leadership spill) and so Australia has never really had a majority government. We've pretty much always had to get along with a cobbled together kind of political power, and that's not all bad. Yes, this might be a little more pronounced than usual, but I think that it could turn out to be healthy if it means some negotiations and compromises, with each issue needing to be argued on its merits and weighed against other priorities. That's how the system works. As long as one side can guarantee a majority who will pledge to avoid frivolous votes of no confidence and won't block supply, then a minority government is quite feasible.

To get there, both sides are now wooing the support of the three independents (Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Bob Katter) who have pledged to work as a bloc. Although they are all former National Party members, it has quickly become obvious that they can not simply be assumed to belong naturally to the Coalition. They have affirmed their desire to (a) stay independent, avoiding a formal coalition and (b) provide enough stability for a full three year term, enabling one or other side to form a minority government with some stability. I found this quote from Oakeshott interesting. Along with a single Greens member, there is likely to be a fourth independent, Andrew Wilke, a former Greens member, who was also a whistle-blowing intelligence analyst under the Howard government.

In addition to these five, it is also important to note (and few media outlets seem to have mentioned it) that the sprawling WA electorate of O'Connor (which covers a greater area that NSW), saw not simply a surprise defeat by the outspoken and controversial Liberal veteran Wilson Tuckey, but a victory by a member of the National Party of WA, who are affiliated with the national National Party, but maintain a distinct party structure from them. In particular, they do not recognise a formal Coalition with the Liberal Party and so just as the Greens member is likely to side with Labor yet not enter a formal coalition, so Tony Crook of O'Connor is likely to side with the Coalition, but not be a formal member for the Coalition. There is no love lost in WA between the Nationals and the Coalition and Crook has indicated he is willing to negotiate with the ALP.

Speaking of the National Party (and for a moment lumping the WA Nationals in with the rest), that they can gain seven seats with 3.87% of the national vote, while the Greens gained just one lower house seat with 11.39% does make one wonder about the relative merits of arguments for proportional representation. Of course, Australia already has PR in the Senate and so the Greens' balance of power there is an indication of their current popularity. Whether it is a short term punishment of the ALP or indicative of longer term trends towards a greater consciousness of ecological issues remains to be seen.

Whatever happens, despite (or perhaps because of) a deeply disappointing and cynical campaign in which both major parties ran very negative campaigns almost entirely devoid of any global or long term vision, Australian politics just got more interesting.

The West Wing in three minutes

Not a bad summary, actually. I particularly loved Bartlett's speech about the tomato.
H/T Matt.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Understanding deflation

I mentioned back here that I'm not feeling very optimistic about the ecological, economic and political outlook of the next twenty years (whether one may be optimistic about the spiritual, relational and cultural outlook is another matter for another post or three).

In that post, I mentioned not only the ecological and resource crises that I've been banging on about for a while, but also a financial crisis about which I've been on a steep learning curve. If you're like me and have only a fuzzy grasp of economics, then you might find this post by Aaron Wissner on understanding deflation useful. Although he doesn't go into why deflation is so destructive, he did help me get more of a grasp on the causes and logic of it. As he says at the end: "What is deflation? It is being sensible, all at once."
H/T The Automatic Earth.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mainly bad news

A few things our new government largely ignores*

Total disaster: "Scientists estimate that 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours. This is nearly 1,000 times the "natural" or "background" rate and, say many biologists, is greater than anything the world has experienced since the vanishing of the dinosaurs nearly 65m years ago. [...] The loss of biodiversity compounds poverty. Destroy your nature and you increase poverty and insecurity."

Big coal gets bigger: a bet that there will be no serious cost placed on carbon emissions.

Mangrove losses worse than thought. Less than 7% of remaining mangroves are protected.

Antarctica ought to be World Heritage listed.

Conservative conservation in the UK: a false dawn?

Mackerel wars: and Mackerel are often considered something a "success story" in the prevention of overfishing.

Scientists claim almost 80% of Gulf spill is still in the water, contradicting the government claim that most has been skimmed, burned, collected, evaporated or digested by microbes. See also here.

Corals dying: coral reefs are among the most threatened ecosystems on the planet. Rising ocean temperatures, falling oxygen levels, rising acidity, falling fisheries, rising plastics - the bad news is pretty bad for corals.

Consumerism means "Earth Overshoot Day" arrives earlier every year. This year, the date on which we use all the resources that can be replenished in a year will be 27th September.

Desertification: "An area the size of Greece, or of Nepal, is lost every year to desertification and soil erosion, the world body said, equivalent to $42-billion in annual income."

The wake-up call: when my alarm goes, I usually hit snooze and roll over.

Now here's one biofuel I can get behind: made from whisky byproducts, it reduces the ecological footprint of water of life by reusing waste materials.

A small piece of "good" news: plummeting levels of phytoplankton might inhibit hurricane formation.

Priceless collection of crop biodiversity "saved" by Twitter. I'm not entirely sure whether this is good news (Russians are considering a halt to gross stupidity) or bad news (it took Twitter to achieve this).
*This post was scheduled a few days ago and this claim is more or less true on either outcome.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Vote for others

During previous elections, I have encouraged people to vote for others, that is, as an expression of love for neighbour, to vote not for the party or candidate who will meet my needs, validate my projects, support people like me, but for the ones whose policies are more concerned with the common good, with protecting the vulnerable and needy, who will look for long term benefits not immediate political or economic gain. Siu Fung Wu has written an excellent little piece making the same point with some good examples.

If you're a new reader or haven't been following recently, you might like to consider some of these posts:
How to vote Christianly
Why I am neither right nor left
How green are the parties?
The elephant in the room
Some myths about refugees in Australia
Are the Greens anti-Christian?
Changing the wind: elections and social change

Finally, for those looking for some slightly more detailed analysis and critique from an evangelical perspective, Gordon Preece, director of Ethos, has written a very useful piece summarising why this election has been particularly frustrating (parochialism, presentism and poll-iticians) and then offering some principles for ethical voting, including the need to evaluate the relative weight of ethical issues across a range of personal, social and ecological concerns. It is too simple to just pick one area and decide that the others are irrelevant.

Today, fear not and vote for others.
H/T Ian Packer for both the links.

Are the Greens anti-Christian?

Is it possible for a Christian to vote for the Greens in good conscience?

Frank Brennan, Professor of Law at ACU, argues at Online Opinion that it is "unbecoming and unhelpful" for Christian leaders to single out the Greens as anti-Christian.
"If all the Greens' policies were truly classifiable as “anti-Christian”, I would have no problem with church leaders urging people to vote for another party. But given that some of their policies, and on issues which will be legislated in the next three years, are arguably more Christian than those of the major parties, I think it best that Church leaders maintain a discreet reticence about urging a vote for or against any particular political party."
All parties have positions unpalatable to a thoughtful Christian (though which ones are most repugnant may vary depending on a range of factors). It is only possible to vote while holding one's nose. One consideration in selecting the least worst is to weigh the relative importance of the various policies that one doesn't like; another is to estimate the likelihood of particular distasteful policies ever being implemented. Prof Brennan makes a good point: from a Christian perspective and taking the current political landscape and functioning of the Senate into account, the more objectionable Greens policies are far less likely to come up over the next six years than some of their more attractive positions.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

How green are the parties?

In a comment on a recent post, I was asked "which party [do] you think people should vote for if they really care about environmental issues?"

You can read my response, or better, you can listen to one of Australia's oldest and largest environmental organisations. The Australian Conservation Foundation, a non-profit non-partisan non-government organisation founded in 1966 and with about 40,000 members, has put out a 2010 election scorecard comparing the three major parties across twenty four tests. The ranking may not be a surprise, but the gaps are larger than I expected. You can download the full scorecard (including a discussion of method) here, but the summary table looks like this:

ALP Coalition Greens
Reduce pollution 37% 13% 90%
Clean energy 47% 27% 100%
Sustainable cities 67% 20% 80%
Healthy environment 55% 23% 88%
Overall 50% 20% 89%

Despite claims of some Christians that they all "support greater care of God's environment", the parties are far from equal on this front.

Many readers may also be interested to compare the parties' commitments to international poverty reduction. The Make Poverty History website has published a 2010 election scorecard (or as a pdf). The differences between the parties are again quite significant.

Or if you're concerned about social justice within Australia, UnitingCare has this scorecard (Anglicare's election contribution is here). Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) have also put together this scorecard comparing the parties on indigenous affairs, and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre have put out this one.

Of course, these are not the only issues, but they are a few of issues that are (to different degrees) quite likely to come up in the next parliament (and, in the case of Senate elections, the next two Parliaments), and which Christians may find particularly interesting, especially since they are not always adequately covered by the mainstream media.

Politicians make incorrect estimates

Yes, there is nothing new under the sun.

Australian politicians overestimate the electorate's scepticism about anthropogenic climate change. But the mistake is not equally distributed amongst the parties.

Spare a thought for the theologians

"Theologians are people for whom the Christian faith is especially difficult, incomprehensible, infuriating."
Ben reflects on what makes theologians tick and just what it is that they do. His comments can easily be extended to the ethicist, who is not someone who is more virtuous than average, but one who finds action difficult, puzzling and dangerous.


I know there are plenty of other tools out there, and that all tools necessarily oversimplify, but if you are genuinely befuddled, then you could do worse than try the SMH vote-a-matic.

The elephant in the room

More than just climate change (which is largely a multiplier of other problems), the elephant in the electoral room is the cliff towards which we are driving at great speed, namely, the various ecological and resource crises that neither major party are addressing.

Vote thoughtfully.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The ideal PM: half Brown, half Turnbull

Elizabeth Farrally argues that what we're really looking in a national leader is someone with intelligence and integrity. Why are such people pushed to the margins while we allow poll-puppets who put sound bites over sound policy to run the show?

Some myths about refugees in Australia

Voiced by an old EUer.

101 little boxes

I have just received my postal vote for the 2010 Australian Federal election (just in time! I need to have it in the post by 5 pm Friday for it to count). I have seven candidates to rank for my electorate in the House of Representatives and ninety-four to rank for my state in the Senate (of course I am going to vote below the line).
For those readers unfamiliar with a preferential voting system, you can read about how it works in the Australian House of Represenatives and the Senate. It is a superior to the commonly-used first past the post system, though it does mean we vote on a ballot paper the size of a tablecloth (pictured).

I would love to hear thoughts on what I ought to do. While being unwilling to align myself straightforwardly with either the left or right, I do have a variety of opinions on these matters (for instance, regular readers may be able to guess that I'm unlikely to give The Climate Sceptics party a high preference), but am always open to hearing good arguments. In other words, I have decided the basic shape of my preferences, but haven't yet filled in the boxes. So here's your chance to talk me out of it.

Jessica received her postal vote today as well, a lovely birthday present from the AEC.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Struggling to breathe underwater

"Unless we find a way to rein in our carbon emissions very soon, a low-oxygen ocean may become an inescapable feature of our planet."

- Carl Zimmer, "A Looming Oxygen Crisis and Its Impact on World's Oceans".

Carbon dioxide emissions from human activities are destabilising the climate under which human civilisation has developed. That is well known and widely discussed. They are also acidifying the oceans ten times faster than during a mass marine extinct event 55 million years ago. That is less well-known, but possibly just as serious. But there is yet another global threat from rising carbon dioxide levels: a decline in oceanic oxygen levels. Not simply the local devastation caused in an increasing number of sites from fertiliser run-off creating marine "dead zones" starved of oxygen, but a global issue. Warmer water can hold less oxygen and warmer water is more stratified, making the mixing of surface oxygen with deeper water slower. Although the absolute drop in oxygen may seem slight (single digit percentages over many decades), this could have severe effects on many marine creatures for whom oxygen intake represents a primary limiting factor. The winners? Jellyfish and certain bacteria that thrive in oxygen-depleted conditions. The former are presently experiencing a population explosion (largely due to overfishing removing competition, amongst other causes). The latter are a source of yet more potent greenhouse gases.

Take a deep breath and read the full article.
"And God said, 'Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.' So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.'"

- Genesis 1.20-21.

Are we undoing creation and denying the blessing of God?

Monday, August 16, 2010

How green is God? A reply to Lionel Windsor

Is my God greener than Lionel's?
I've just come across a talk written by Lionel Windsor, whom I know and respect from my MTC days. It was published at some stage in the last 12 months by AFES's SALT Magazine under the title, "Is God green?". It can be found in five parts: #1, #2a, #2b, #3a, #3b. Having recently written a similar kind of piece for the same publication, it was interesting to note how much overlap our pieces had. His was longer, more conversational and an easier read but I'd say we agree on about 90% of the theological and ethical content.

We agree on the goodness of creation distinct from human usefulness, on the depth of human sinfulness and its effects on ecological health,* on the distinction between treating symptoms and treating the underlying disease, on the centrality of Christ and his death and resurrection for any theological discussion of treating this disease, on the universal (not merely human) scope of Christ's redemptive action, on the church as the first fruits of a redeemed humanity, on the anticipatory nature of Christian discipleship, on the impossibility of our actions "saving the world", on the significance of eschatology and God's future judgement and renewal in ecological ethics, on the aptness of yearning and active waiting, on the endurance of love and the passing away of the present form of the world,** on the cruciality of gospel proclamation and probably on much else as well.
*I think his analysis of the links between ecological destruction and human sin could be extended into social structures that give our greed, pride, apathy and so on extra momentum, and make some of these issues "built in" to the way we collectively and habitually do things.
**I would phrase certain sections of his talk quite differently and also emphasize the continuity of the resurrected body with the corpse - that it is this body that is resurrected and transformed, not some replacement for it - and so also expect a measure of continuity between the renewed creation and the old. Though since Lionel is happy to speak of creation being perfected and makes reference to Paul's seed analogy in 1 Corinthians 15, I don't think we're really too far apart here.

Our differences (such as I can discern from a single article and I apologise if I've misread him) seem to revolve around two issues. First: the relationship of ecological catastrophe to divine judgement. Lionel says,
"[T]he judgement day will not come before God is ready. So if you think that the human race will wipe itself off the face of the map through environmental disasters, then that is actually an arrogant attitude. Final judgement is God's job. Right now, God is keeping the world until he is ready to judge. We can’t wipe ourselves out because God will not let that happen until he is ready to judge us!"
He seems to imply that divine judgement is limited purely to the final judgement, whereas I think that the unveiling of God's wrath against human folly is already evident today in our being handed over to the consequences of our own greed and stupidity as discussed in Romans 1. Thus, ecological catastrophe can already be understood as manifestation of God's judgement in allowing us to experience the destructive effects of our search for invulnerability. We taste our own medicine and find that it is poison; we have to lie in the bed we have made. So, Lionel's contrasting of ecological catastrophes with divine judgement in order to avoid misunderstanding of eschatological judgement masks their present connection. I suspect, however, he may well be entirely happy with this nuance.*
*UPDATE Lionel has clarified that he was here only referring to final judgement and quite rightly pointed out that he discusses my concern in part 2a. My apologies for not re-checking my point.

But there is a further claim being made here, even about the day of eschatological judgement, namely, that human actions will have no part in bringing it about (even inadvertently). To my mind, the fact that the timing of the day of judgement is in the hands of God and so is hidden from human knowledge (two common scriptural themes) doesn't necessarily mean that God might not use human instruments in bringing about an end to human history. God's actions are frequently mediated by imminent agents and the images used of ultimate judgement are, I take it, largely metaphorical, such that its actual shape is not known in advance, only its inevitability and decisiveness (amongst other things). But Lionel seems to see final judgement as God's exclusive prerogative without any human instrumentality (apart from Christ the judge, of course).

And this means that Lionel is confident that, try as we might, we can't wipe ourselves out. I am not so sure. Certainly, we can so damage the living systems on which we thoroughly rely that our civilisation and way of life falls apart (whether quickly or slowly). Indeed, we can do this through the speedier nuclear option as well as the slightly delayed ecological route. Can we entirely "wipe ourselves out", presumably meaning the extinction of the human race as a whole? At a practical level, I don't see that it beyond our present power and theologically I see no promises that this cannot happen. This doesn't mean we thereby escape judgement, or that all hope is lost, because even if we entirely destroy ourselves, God can raise the dead. Suicide is no way out, either individually or collectively. The closest I think we see to a scriptural expectation of humanity's continued existence until final judgement is Paul's comment in 1 Corinthians 15 that "we shall not all sleep, though we shall all be changed" (a comment also applicable to babies, by the way). However, even this is not decisive as I think Paul's point is that death is not a necessary route to the kind of transformation of which he speaks. That Paul does not mention the possibility of the self-destruction of the entire human race may have more to do with a pre-industrial imagination not yet shaped by the staggering increase in human agency that has come in the modern era than with a divine promise of the imperishability of our species.

But the point is a minor one, and I don't place much weight on it. It is enough that we certainly have the power to wound ourselves grievously, to decimate the possibility of life on earth and shatter or erode the conditions under which our society is possible. And while these may not have ultimate significance, their penultimate import is weighty indeed.

The second, and I suspect more important, difference concerns the relation of the good to the best, or of deeds of love with words of love. Lionel paints a moving picture of composting out of love for neighbour, or even lobbying the G8 for the same reason. But then he places such activity in direct competition with "speaking the word of the Lord to others", and implies that doing one means the inability to do the other. They are competitors to my limited time and energy:
"But what is the greatest labour in the Lord? Compost heaps take time. Lobbying G8 leaders takes even more time. And we don’t have an unlimited time here on earth. Sure, these are good ideas, but how do I decide what is the most urgent thing? The primary, the greatest labour in the Lord? Isn't it to speak the word of the Lord to others? Isn't it to share Jesus with your friends and family?"
But I say, why either/or? Why not both-and? The good need not be the enemy of the best. The promotion of the gospel is not a zero sum game between words and deeds. Both are necessary; neither is sufficient. There is no conflict between loving God and his word of life for all and loving my neighbour in a dying world.

And so, despite much in common, I suspect that Lionel and I end up with somewhat different estimations of the place of ecological responsibility in Christian discipleship. My subheading was of course tongue in cheek, as though it were a matter of competition. But the differences between us are nonetheless of (penultimate) importance, since Christians have too often been too quick to sidestep the gospel invitation to love our ecological neighbours, or to relegate such matters to mere optional extras.

With these points mentioned, I warmly recommend you read his piece as a cogent introduction to an evangelical ecological theology.

Time and tide on the Thames

The always high-quality Skeptical Science (with its excellent collection of scientific answers to climate change sceptics) has a very thoughtful piece on the relationship of London to the river Thames in a dialogue between Samuel Pepys (17thC MP, naval administrator and diarist) and sea level rise from climate change. This is an interesting case study of a major city and the challenges it faces from one aspect of an increasingly uncertain future.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


In a couple of months, the date will be 10/10/10, and 350.org and a number of partner organisations have picked that date for another co-ordinated day of action. Their last major effort in late 2009 was (probably) the single largest day of political action in history, spanning around five thousand gatherings in hundreds of countries raising awareness of the dangerous levels of carbon dioxide rising with each passing year. This time, the focus is on work parties, small collective actions to improve the situation. There is no illusion that these actions will themselves do much to mitigate the problem (let alone solve it), but they are a demonstration of popular will and a message to governments that millions are ready to act and merely want leadership.

Again, thousands of events are being organised locally all around the globe. You can organise your own or join something already being planned in your area. For instance, two events are currently being organised in Edinburgh. One is tree planting in Fife and the other is a carrotmob to reward socially responsible businesses with custom. Each can be criticised for the level of ecological effectiveness compared to the effort involved, but the point remains primarily political. Individual actions are insufficient. The wind needs to change.

To each according to need, from each according to ability

"Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need."

- Acts 4.32-35.

Jeremy has been pondering the economic ethics of the Hebrew scriptures and makes the good point that both strict egalitarianism and totally free markets are largely caricature positions held by almost no one, so it does no service to charitable and productive discourse to assume your opponent to the left holds the former or your opponent to the right holds the latter. There are many other options that are far more interesting (he even has a chart of ten different possibilities).

One question I have about the passage quoted above is: what (if any) are the links between the economic arrangements of the early Christian community and the great power of the apostles' testimony to the resurrection and the great grace upon them all?
Jeremy has also been posting on the ethics of the creation and purchasing of clothes.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Why climate change is not an environmental problem

An interesting article by David Roberts in which he argues that the association of climate change with a narrow and partisan interest group (at least in US politics) has framed the discussion in unhelpful ways, and has failed to communicate the true scope of the issue, which is bigger than the environmental lobby, bigger than the preservation of particular species or ecosystems, bigger even than climate change itself.
"Humanity has passed, or will soon pass, what we understand to be the safe boundary conditions of a number of global biophysical systems. Our trajectory amounts to an extraordinary, even existential roll of the dice. Can we survive in conditions that humanity has literally never faced? Can we bring our species in line with the long-term sustainable carrying capacity of the earth before earth does it for us? Can we make the shift while still growing in learning, prosperity, and freedom? The stakes could not be higher.

"If we meet the challenge of sustainability -- and it's a big if -- it will be a tidal shift in human history on par with the [rise of] agriculture, industrialization, or democracy itself.

"'Environmentalism' is simply not equipped to transform the basis of human culture. It grew up to address a specific, bounded set of issues."
Speaking of framing, I have said before that "environmentalism" is not the best choice of term for a movement concerned about ecological issues. It is not about an environment that is external to us and might be of interest to those who study biology or natural history, or who enjoy beautiful landscapes, bushwalking or birdwatching. Ecology is the logos of our oikos, the logic of our house. And as such it is intimately related to the economy, the nomos of our oikos, the human laws or management of our house. If we don't base our management on the underlying logic of the living systems in which we participate then we are fouling our own nest, destroying our own home and dismantling our own prosperity.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Weather vs climate

There is an important and often misunderstood distinction between weather and climate.

Weather is what is happening when you go outside. It is what meteorologists study and consists of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions driven by the movements of blocks of hot and cold air. It is measured hour by hour (or even minute by minute) and predicted a few days in advance, beyond which the complexities and sensitivities of the system make computational estimation almost impossible.

Climate refers to long term patterns of weather. It is what climatologists study and consists of dynamical systems driven by long term fluctuations in solar activity, oceanic currents, surface albedo and atmospheric chemistry (and, over the very long term, by geological forces and plate tectonics). It is measured in decades, centuries and millennia and predicted in decades.

Predicting the climate
Yet this raises a common question: if we can't predict next weekend's weather, how can we predict the climate in 2050? Remember that climate prediction doesn't mean a prediction of weather, on which day it might rain or be a certain temperature at a given location. It means predicting the overall pattern, which, while chaotic from week to week, fluctuates within a certain range over the long term. Climate prediction means predicting changes in that range within which weather might fluctuate.

Imagine a pot of water being brought to the boil. Although predicting exactly where and when a bubble will appear is almost impossible, it is still quite possible (given knowledge of the original temperature and volume of the water and the amount of heat energy being applied) to predict when it boil with some degree of accuracy. Or consider tossing a coin one thousand times. It is almost impossible to know whether any given toss will be heads or tails, but we can all predict that there will be about five hundred of each. Or think of sitting on a packed train. You mightn't be able to guess how the person next to you is likely to vote in an election, but with knowledge of quality polling data (if that is not an oxymoron), you can make a pretty good estimate of the likely distribution of votes on the train as a whole.

So climate and weather are closely related, but it is important to keep their distinction in mind. One way of putting it I heard recently is that climate trains the boxer, the weather throws the punches.

This distinction means that it is not possible to directly attribute any particular example of weather either to anthropogenic climate change or to natural variation. A cold day doesn't disprove the theory any more than a hot day proves it. Each are a tiny piece of evidence in a much, much larger pattern. And when an extreme weather event comes along (such as the current Russian heat wave and Asian floods), this too doesn't by itself prove anything. What does count, however, is the well-recorded pattern of increasing frequency and intensity of such events. Put simply, climate change doesn't cause extreme weather, but it increases the chances of it happening, and increases the extremity of what is possible. This is because warmer air can hold more water, bringing more intense precipitation. By the way, this includes more intense snowfall if the temperature happens to be below freezing, as was seen in the northeastern US earlier in the year. Or as NASA says, this is what global warming looks like.

Read more

More doom and gloom

Asian floods affecting more people than the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, plus the 2005 Kashmir and 2010 Haiti earthquakes combined says UN.

Russian heat wave unparalleled in 1,000 years and could kill tens of thousands of people. What is the global cost of Russia's heat wave? When you take into account the highest cost of wheat caused by Russia's cancellation of all wheat exports for the rest of the year, it runs into billions.

But before we begin pitying Russians too much, this piece of lunacy is one of the most depressing things I've heard this week.

The largest iceberg seen in almost fifty years recently calved off Greenland. Arctic melt this year is likely to be second or third worst on record, though will very much depend on prevailing weather conditions over the next few weeks. You can follow it here. But a soot cloud from burning Russian peatland could prove to be a wild card.

Fire and rain: how can we tell when extreme weather is linked to climate change?

Commodity speculation: the price of bread depends on the whims of Wall St, not just the productivity of farms. But remember that "for each 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature we can expect a reduction in grain yields of 10 percent".

Big coal will continue to ensure US climate inertia, and without US momentum, the rest of the world will only reach small-scale and thoroughly inadequate agreements.

But at least we are cutting our throat more slowly in the Amazon.

Finally, perhaps the worst news of all comes from the Onion: Ecological disaster as millions of barrels of oil safely reach port.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why I am neither left nor right: where I stand politically

Christians and partisanship
In the comments of a recent post, I claimed that I was a Christian "who was neither left nor right".

As a result, a friend wrote to me expressing concern that I was perhaps being disingenuous about my loyalties considering various experiences and conversations we'd shared in which I'd been critical of one "side" of Australian politics and supportive of the other. My friend encouraged me to be upfront about where I am coming from politically and so I thought I would take the opportunity to do so, if for no other reason than to give a little more context for any comments I might make on policy or party-political issues from time to time.

When I said that I was a Christian who was neither left nor right, I meant it. I didn't mean that I have no political opinions or am apolitical, but that I generally try to be non-partisan for what I believe are good theological reasons.

As a disciple of Jesus, my political allegiance is to him alone. He has received all authority in heaven and on earth from the Father and so all political authorities that remain in this present age have been put on notice. What authority they have is derivative from his and is strictly temporary. Their jurisdiction is similarly limited. And Christians may not place in them anything other than small and provisional hopes, nor expect of them anything other than partial victories and defeats in a world marred by sin and indeed should expect them sometimes to resemble the powers and principalities arranged against God. So any identification by a Christian with a political cause will be under these caveats.
Or, to put this another way, it may come as no surprise that I broadly agree with my PhD supervisor Oliver O'Donovan. For a decent summary of some of his key ideas, see this essay by Andrew Errington, which is Andrew's work but draws upon O'Donovan fairly extensively.

Neither right nor left
I reject being straightforwardly labelled as "left" or "right" for two reasons, one philosophical and one theological. First, I don't think that the spectrums of left/right or conservative/progressive are particularly useful conceptual tools for discussing a political field that has more than one dimension. At best they are a commonly-accepted shorthand, but they often obscure as much as they reveal. The two-party system that dominates politics in Australia, the US and the UK (the three arenas with which I am most familiar) generally simplifies all issues to two positions. Sometimes these two positions are actually very close to one another, but this is hidden by constant focus on their slight distinctions. This represents a (perhaps partially inevitable) dumbing down of political discourse and debate and is not helped by mainstream media sources that are more interested in profit than accuracy or nuance.

But more importantly, speaking theologically and ethically, none of the parties of which I'm aware manifestly represents the cause of the gospel. Each holds positions and priorities that as a Christian I find disappointing, disturbing or repulsive. Furthermore, neither the agenda of the "left" nor the "right" can be entirely adopted or entirely demonised by thoughtful followers of a crucified and risen king. Both contain worthwhile attempts to defend aspects of the good creation. In a world of complex goods, there will rarely be policies that are unambiguous expressions of justice, truth and the common good. By the same token, the parasitic nature of evil means that even the worst policies will lay claim to some good thing, even if, in seeking to defend it, they trample other (and perhaps more important) goods. When the complexity of the moral and political field is combined with human sinfulness and the impossibility of any leader (other than Jesus) being the Messiah,* then no party or "side" can claim the obvious, exclusive, permanent or total commitment of Christians.
*Indeed, some of my longer blog pieces have been critiquing implicit messianism, whether associated with leaders or nations. Here is one example and here is another.

Consequently, voting is only ever possible while holding one's nose. I've rarely voted with much confidence and never without some degree of regret, often quite deep. And remember, voting is only the tip of the iceberg when considering what makes for a healthy political authority. But if and when you do vote, it ought to be done thoughtfully and out of concern for neighbour.

Politics and love
Indeed, all Christian political activity (which may begin with voting, but is not at all limited to it) is a response to the royal law of love - love for God and neighbour. This is also what prevents political apathy or disengagement, or a total retreat into cynicism. To write off the political authorities as irrelevant, uselessly corrupt or ubiquitously anti-Christ frequently means to abandon one's neighbour to the strongest or sneakiest bully. Of course, political engagement is neither the start nor the end of the love command, and it is a task that falls on the church community as a body, in which different members may play different roles. It is not the case that every member needs to be equally well informed or passionate about every political matter.

A significant part of Christian political responsibility will be warning political authorities when they are overstepping their jurisdiction, or when they are neglecting to protect the vulnerable and uphold justice. And so part of this task is unavoidably critical. But it is also important to seek ways forward, to offer creative suggestions, to pursue the best that it is currently possible to achieve, to engage in the often messy and always imperfectible pursuit of justice. And so it may be the case that some Christians will be called into seeking elected office, into partial and provisional loyalty to a party or cause for the sake of the common good. Being a Christian ruler is not necessarily oxymoronic.

My recent political activity
On my blog I have made positive comments about a variety of political parties and individuals and not all on one "side". I have supported particular campaigns by various groups who in some cases identify as either "progressive" or "conservative", but this doesn't mean I endorse everything they do.

I don't think that I have ever campaigned on my blog for a particular party or individual, but even if I have (or do so in future), this would represent a provisional and highly fallible position based on my evaluation of current needs and opportunities.

I am not claiming to be a swinging voter (though I have voted for various parties at various times) nor to be a centrist (though, like the "left" and "right", it has some good points). I am not saying that I have no preferences or sit on the fence.

At different times I have written to MPs, councillors, government and shadow ministers and prime ministers of many parties (in a number of countries) seeking to put forward particular policies, offer praise and humbly present criticism. Always I have promised to pray for them and I try to keep that promise.

At times I have expressed frustration at how common it is in some circles to assume that Christian discipleship entails partisan political conservatism (though I am just as frustrated by the opposite assumption, it is simply a little less prominent at this point in history). I have argued against the idea that most issues have a single and obvious Christian position; I think that it is possible for biblical Christians of goodwill and honesty to disagree on the policies that will best uphold and pursue justice. I reject the assumption that only certain issues are "Christian", or that there are a small range of issues (generally to do with sexuality) on which Christians ought primarily or exclusively to base their voting and other political activity. And, perhaps quite obviously, I believe that there are some issues (such as ecology) that Christians have generally not paid enough attention to.

So if you had me pegged, pigeonholed or stereotyped, I hope that this helps to clarify where I do (and don't!) stand politically. I am not trying to hide anything; I am sorry if I have not always been sufficiently clear on these matters.
UPDATE: a slightly modified version of this post has been included on the CPX site as part of their election coverage.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A drop in the ocean

How many fish in the sea? A fraction of how many there were a few decades ago.

Where has the oil gone? Has the BP disaster been overhyped? Or simply pushed underwater? And where are all the dead animals? And where is the dispersant?

Is it too late to save Miami? An interview with a paleoclimatologist on rising sea levels.

But really, what's climate change got to do with the price of bread? Quite a lot, actually. And the stability of food prices is related to political stability.

The current Russian heat wave is unprecedented for at least 1,000 years and likely to become the deadliest heat wave in history.

What makes a Methodist Sunday School teacher mad?

Are games a waste of time when the world is burning? Or might they be just what is needed?

Is martyrdom a repudiation of the goodness of life? Not at all, says Michael Jensen (summarising his PhD in a page).

And in a mere three part series, Ben tackles the perennially vexatious issue of gelato ethics.