The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


Climate Change and Religion

This is the conclusion of my series on climate and religion, which profiled Catholicism, the evangelical, mainline, and African-American wings of Protestant Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and American Neopaganism. These are hardly the only religions, or even the only ones in the United States, but together they are dominant voices. If anyone wants to see another religion profiled, just let me know.

Throughout writing this series, I was struck by a recurring pattern; America’s religions are mostly pro-climate, and American people are mostly religious, and yet America as a whole is decidedly climate denialist. Meaningful climate legislation won’t pass Congress.


Seriously. Leaders and representatives of every group I researched had published pro-climate statements and only among the evangelical Christians could I find any organized dissent on the issue. On the face of it, that implies that religious people are generally pro-climate, with the exception of some (not all) evangelicals. And yet, there are simply too many religious people in the country, and too few who take climate change seriously, for religion to actually be the pro-climate force that it repeatedly says it is. In polls, only 16% of Americans identify as unaffiliated with any religion. Just over 26% identify as evangelicals. Since some evangelicals are climate activists and climate scientists, as are some unaffiliated people, that means that less than 42% of Americans should be indifferent or hostile to climate. Everybody else belongs to religions whose leaders who have come out in favor of the planet. And yet fully 50% of Americans actually describe themselves as “unconcerned” about climate. Only 5% consider climate change our most important issue. Only seven US states are not currently represented by at least one climate denier in Congress; 11 states have Congressional delegations with a majority of climate deniers.

So what is going on? How and why is there such a disconnect between what American religious leaders say and what American political leaders actually do?

Part of the issue is simply that many religious groups are less interested in climate than their leaders’ public statements suggest; according to polls, only a little over a third of all Americans “often” or “sometimes” hear their clergy discus climate change. Of white Catholics, 40% never hear about climate change in church, despite Pope Francis’ outspoken environmentalism. Of white mainline Protestants, 37% never hear about climate change from their pastors, again despite public pronouncements by church leaders. Those religious people who do hear about the issue from their clergy are significantly more likely to believe in climate change and take it seriously than those who do not.

Are we looking at a case of religious hippocracy, where church leaders say one thing but do another? Possible, but I doubt it. I suspect that most American clergy, of whatever stripe, are not hostile to climate so much as uninterested in it. Those who do care, and who publish statements on global warming, are met, not with controversy but with silence. The result is that, except for evangelicals, the only voices an outsider like me hears on the subject are those of the vocal minority who are climate-concerned.

Another part of the issue is that many people who do accept climate change are happy to vote for political leaders who do not, provided they like the rest of the candidate’s presentation–but climate deniers will not vote for a candidate who does accept climate change. The result is that candidates put together winning coalitions by denying climate change.

Climate deniers are louder, politically speaking, than the climate-accepting majority, in part because many evangelical Christians have, rightly or wrongly, linked climate science (and evolution) to other issues that are also important to them. As political liberals have shown themselves more concerned over climate change, climate has become identified with the “liberal agenda,” such that a vote for climate is, by proxy, a vote for social changes conservative Christians do not want.

In contrast, people who do accept climate change seem not to have made equivalent conceptual links. Just 5% of Americans consider climate change the country’s most pressing issue, while many more consider the gap between rich and poor (18%) or health care (17%) the most important–even though climate change is closely related to both economics and public health. Only 25% say climate change is even the most pressing environmental problem, while 29% say the worst environmental problem is pollution and 23% say it is water shortages and drought–even though climate change is caused by pollution and is an important cause of water shortages and drought. It seems that many people who believe climate change is real still don’t believe that it is important because they do not see the connections between climate and the other issues they care about.

It’s also worth noting that the electoral results relative to climate change do not exactly reflect the will of the American people right now. A huge amount of money is being poured into electoral politics in support of climate denial candidates (and candidates who are otherwise in favor of big business)–and those efforts are succeeding. While liberal candidates raise huge amounts of money, too, and some of their donors are indeed very rich, no one is in the same financial league as Charles and David Koch–who get much of their money through the oil industry. The electoral landscape of the United States is now a direct result of the fact that climate deniers–of whatever religion–have substantially deeper pockets than climate activists do.

So, what is religion good for?

So, if religion in America is not the force for climate sanity that it looks like it should be, what is it good for?

The simple answer is that if religious leaders who do support climate action organize themselves better and do more effective outreach among their colleagues, we could indeed see a major cultural shift on the subject–and we may be heading in that direction. Let’s give those leaders their due.

But mobilizing congregations is only one of the possible roles of religion in climate change, and it may not even be the most important role. Not all religious people take the advice of their clergy to heart, after all, especially in areas of life not considered obviously religious. And non-Christian religions are such small minorities in the United States that mobilizing those congregations on climate will not, by itself, swing the national conversation very much.

What religious leaders can do is give the national conversation more depth of meaning. Religion can host an exploration of why climate matters.

“Religion” means many things, including a dimension of the collective human soul. By this definition, even many atheists are religious, because they wrestle with meaning, priority, and morality. Specific religions are entities dedicated to discovering and spreading particular visions of the meaning of life. Religions are places within the culture set aside for discovering what matters and why, what our ideals are, and what our standards are, just as sciences are zones within the culture set aside for discovering what exists and how it works. Science can tell us that the planet is heating up because of human activity and it can predict the kinds of disasters we face if we don’t stop warping the sky very soon. But science cannot tell us why that’s a problem or why the planet is worth fighting for. That’s what religion can do.

Science can tell you that if you point a loaded gun at somebody’s head and pull the trigger, you’ll probably kill the person, but only religion can tell you that it’s murder.

The religions, collectively, can host a discussion of the moral dimensions of climate change. They can be our conscience, and they can serve that function not just for their own adherents but for all of us. I don’t have to be Buddhist to have my conscience pricked by a Buddhist teacher who calls out climate apathy as a failure of awareness and compassion. You don’t have to be Wiccan to be inspired by a vision of the planet as an entity to whom we owe a debt of care. Neither of us must be Christian to consider that perhaps we only become most fully alive when we dedicate our lives to the service of something larger than ourselves.

Apathy, cowardice, gluttony, denial, and greed have the capacity at this very moment to render our beautiful planet something less than what we were given to care for. Fortunately, there are people who know how to cope with and combat those darker tides of human nature. We should listen to them.


The Climate of Food

This is a re-post from the original Climate Emergency Institute blog, but I have edited and rewritten it significantly.

Most of us know, intellectually, that food depends on climate.

And yet, the convenience of the grocery store makes it easy to forget the connection between food and Earth. The fact is that even well-off people in affluent countries are vulnerable to climate change through food. How many people will go hungry, and which people go hungry, depends on the decisions we make, both individually and collectively, now.

Predicting food availability

Predicting food security is not simple. Climate is, after all, only one of a whole group of interacting factors, from land management to economic policy, that together dictate how much food there is to go around.

Generally, more carbon dioxide means faster plant growth, and longer growing seasons in temperate areas should also increase yield–except that increased droughts and floods, plus more weeds and pests, will decrease yields. Livestock populations are also hit hard by extreme weather, and warming water plus ocean acidification will generally decrease seafood catches. Whether the net effect is an increase or decrease in food production will vary by region. Globally, there will likely be a net decrease in yield–the size will depend on whether we actually start reducing our emissions in a meaningful way soon. At the same time, the human population will likely continue to grow for several more decades at least, meaning we will need more food than we do now. To what extent new farming practices and other issues will influence the food supply is impossible to say.

But food security is about more than food supply.

Food does no good unless the eater receives it. For many of us, even many farmers, that means buying it. The price of food is complex, depending as it does on a complex global economic system and on lots of intersecting national and international policy. Drought in the United States can cause spikes in food prices (and therefore famine among the very poor) in the Middle East. Unstable food prices can cause political stress and even violence in poor areas–whether humans will respond to food stress by starting wars that cause further food insecurity is anybody’s guess.

The United States will likely do fairly well, at least initially. Our food production is not likely to suffer much, except in the worst scenarios, for a very long time, because our climate is temperate and much of what we grow is currently either exported or fed to livestock. More importantly, our collective wealth is likely to protect us as global food prices rise. But food prices will rise, since the food distribution system is global–drought in Africa, for example, could reverberate across the economies of the entire planet. And there are plenty of poor people in the United States for whom higher food prices will mean they cannot pay rent.

When the future gets here

Sometimes it sounds as though we face some impending, sudden apocalypse–like we’re going to wake up one day and find global warming has arrived.

Actually, we have been causing climate change for decades already, and it is already affecting our food supply. That we don’t notice is, in part, good-old-fashioned denial. But weather is variable, and that variability makes the underlying shift in climate harder to perceive–and more dangerous. It is not, after all, the average days that cause problems but the occasional extreme. If only one day in a year is hot enough to kill cattle, those animals are dead. The entire rest of the year is a bust.

What we’re looking at is not a sudden, dramatic collapse but rather an increasing incidence of local or regional disasters, all of which are connected through the global economic and political networks.

Not all of those disasters involve food production directly; for example, without certain key bridges, food does not move into or out of New England. As we have seen in recent years, New England’s bridges are vulnerable to the extreme weather of climate change. A major hurricane could absolutely endanger food security, even if not a single crop were lost. Similarly, a war over water rights in the Mideast could trigger spikes in oil prices, which would in turn raise food prices in the United States.

How we eat climate

If our vulnerability comes as a surprise it is not because the information isn’t available. Major newspapers, magazines, and websites report on the direct and indirect implications of climate change fairly often. And yet climate is still not at the center of our national agenda.

As a culture, we’ve lost the habit of thinking about the links between ourselves and the planet. We have not lost the links themselves. We say we no longer live off the land as our ancestors did, but that’s just not true. Where else could we live? What else could we eat except food that grows on the land or in the sea? What else could we drink except water that once fell from the sky?  The truth is we will never live anywhere but on the land, and we can’t get far away from nature; the laws of ecology have world-wide jurisdiction just like the laws of physics do. We drink nature, we breathe nature, and we eat nature. If something goes seriously wrong with nature, we will no longer be able to eat.

It is possible we will not run into catastrophe in this country; plausible scenarios are not prophesy. But it is also possible that we will be in real trouble. Our country can adapt to global climate change, and as a major industrial power, we can do a great deal to make sure that the climate does not change much more to begin with. We can do neither on a dime. If we do nothing until the food supply starts to break down, then Americans will get hungrier. And hungry Americans will have a reason to be very angry.

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Earlier this week I was checking Facebook , when a post from Rachel Maddow’s page caught my eye; apparently a train carrying crude oil had derailed in West Virginia a day or so earlier and was still burning. I’ve tried, but cannot re-find that post. I have found several articles about the incident, such as this one. Apparently, there are no human fatalities. It’s possible the accident was caused by snow on the tracks.

What struck me, though, was the utter lack of discussion about the fire. If I hadn’t spotted the Rachel Maddow post, I wouldn’t have known about it at all. Now, the story did make the news–my husband reports having seen the story and that the fire was still burning as of this morning. This isn’t a story, therefore, of media obliviousness. But usually disaster stories don’t just make the news, they also make social media and this fire is just not trending. Nobody, except Dr. Maddow (yes, she has a PhD), is talking about it (lest readers argue that perhaps the oblivious one is Caroline, let me point out that I do know that a small town in Kentucky has jokingly issued an arrest warrant for Queen Elsa for making it snow too much. If people are talking about a news story I do hear about it, whether I want to or not).

News reports of oil spills tend to have a vagueness to them. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the reporting, as far as I can tell, but there is little discussion afterwards and I, at least, am often left with the impression that there are a lot of spills, but without a clear idea of when and where they occur or how many there really are.  So, this morning I decided to do an internet search on “oil pipeline leak” and “oil train derailment” for each month of 2014. This, I hoped, would capture most of the news stories I might reasonably have heard over the past year. As it turned out, I also found several reports for 2013 while I was at it. Of course, I may have missed some in my search, and there are a lot of incidents that do not make the news, including a dozen or more in Alberta alone every month, but I figure this list is a good place to start:

Oil-industry-related Spills

  • July, 2013 Train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded, Lac-Megantic, Quebec. 47 people died.
  • September, 2013 Oil pipeline leak in Tioga, North Dakota began. It was not discovered and stopped for months.
  • October 2013 Train carrying crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas derailed and burned, Gainford, Alberta.
  • November, 2013 Train carrying crude oil derailed and burned, Aliceville, Alabama.
  • December, 2013 Train carrying crude oil derailed and burned, Casselton, North Dakota.
  • January, 2014 Train carrying crude oil derailed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. No injuries or fire.
  • February, 2014 Train carrying crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas derailed and spilled in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania. No injury or fire, but 3000 to 4000 gallons of oil leaked.
  • March, 2014 Oil pipeline leaked into the Oak Glen Nature Preserve, Ohio.
  • May, 2014 Train carrying crude oil derailed, caught fire, Lynchburg, Virginia.
  • May, 2014 Train carrying crude oil train, leaked, LaSalle, Colorado.
  •                   —Crude oil pipeline burst, Los Angeles, California.
  • July, 2014  Train carrying crude oil derailed, Seattle, Washington. No spill.
  • October, 2014  Train carrying petroleum distillate derailed and burned, Claire, Saskatchewan.
  •                              –Oil pipeline leak, Mooringsport, Louisiana.
  • November, 2014 Empty oil train derailed in Casselton, North Dakota.
  •                                —Oil pipeline spill, Ed Earth Creek, Alberta.
  • January, 2015 Pipeline leak released fracking fluid and crude oil, Williston, North Dakota.
  •                             –Pipeline spill contaminated Yellowstone River, Glendive, Montana.
  • February, 2015 Train carrying crude oil derails and explodes, West Virginia. Still burning.


That looks like a lot, but we really don’t have enough information to be able to put all these incidents in context. For example, it’s possible that someone familiar with the freight industry would look at this list and be very impressed that it is not much longer. That most incidents are train derailments, not pipeline leaks is in line with overall trends, though–trains do have accidents more often than pipelines do, although pipeline spills are usually much bigger. There is a national conversation underway about all of these incidents–which represents the safer way to ship oil, train or pipeline, and how trains might be made safer. I could join that conversation, but right now I’m not going to.

Instead, I’m asking whether all this oil moving around is worth it?

We can see that oil spills are not a rare occurrence. Even if the vast majority of crude oil shipments get where they are going without incident, some amount of spillage may be inevitable–and certainly is inevitable without a vast infrastructure improvement program of some kind. We can expect another incident somewhere in March or April–more land and water contaminated and perhaps more people injured, sick, or dead. Is shipping oil really worth this?

Now, risk all by itself is not a good reason to not do something. We do things all the time that could get us hurt, either because the risk is very small or because the benefit is worth the pain in some way. Human beings are fantastically bad at estimating risk, so I want to be very careful not to imply that a bunch of accidents are, all by themselves, a reason to abandon a whole industry. But when we weigh risk, we have to do more than look at how likely a problem is and how great the benefit could be.

On the “cost” side of the scale is how likely a problem is and how serious it is. Is the possibility, however remote, of blowing up part of Philadelphia (as could have happened last year, if one accident had been more severe than it was) worth anything that crude oil gives us? On the “benefit” side we must not only look at how big the benefit is, but also who gets that benefit.

Too often, the people who stand to gain from risky endeavors are not the same as the people who stand to lose. How many oil magnates live within a quarter mile of a railway freight line? Do oil pipelines ever travel over the lands of the wealthy? It’s worth noting that the US is a net exporter of petroleum products, so it’s not as simple as saying we benefit from the use of the oil.

We solve one problem and in so doing create a bunch more problems, which we then try to solve in turn….I know someone who takes medicine for high cholesterol, or something similar, and the medicine gives him dizzy spells. His doctor told him to put up with the dizziness and to keep taking the pills. When I heard this, I wondered what would have happened if he’d gone to his doctor with dizzy spells to begin with–would she have given him pills that raised his cholesterol as a side effect?

Let’s play a game. Let’s say we could approach the issue with a blank slate, with no committed infrastructure or cultural habit. If we were all offered the chance to have lots of cheap energy and for the wealthy among us to grow richer yet, and the price was that leaks or explosions would poison or burn a new part of the country every month or so, would we really say yes?


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Climate Change and Jewish People

This is the final installment in my series on climate and religion (except for a concluding post I’ll do at some point). I have already written about Catholicism, mainline, evangelical, and African-American Protestant Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Neopaganism. There are, of course, other religions out there, but as far as I know, these are the ones that have the loudest voices in American culture. There is no particular reason that I’m doing Judaism last. As always, I’m not a religious expert, only an interested writer who does her own research and shares what she learns.


Judaism is different that any other religion I’ve covered in that the word “Jewish” refers to both an ethnicity and a religion. The Jewish religion is the religion of the Jewish people, but not all Jewish people are religious.

It is relatively easy to define ethnic Jewishness; the child of a Jew is also a Jew (technically, Judaism is transmitted from mother to child, but I do not know whether Jewish communities actually exclude people whose fathers only were Jewish). Conversion to Judaism is possible but not encouraged and one cannot simply become Jewish on one’s own personal say-so. A Jew can’t cease being Jewish, either, at least not completely, meaning it is at least possible to be a Jewish Christian–though whether anyone identifies as such I do not know. There are about 6.6 million Jews in the United States, which is 2% of the total American population.

How many of these actually practice the religion of their forefathers is harder to say, since of course there is a wide range. For example, is someone who does not follow any aspect of Jewish religious law but who sometimes attends services on the High Holidays and special occasions, religious?

There are four main Jewish denominations–Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist, with Orthodox communities being the most conservative and Reconstructionist being the least. The most Orthodox, the Hasidic Jews, are essentially separatist and follow a very strict and traditional interpretation of Jewish religious law. The more religiously liberal groups also tend to be more culturally liberal–there is therefore a lot of political and cultural variation among American Jews.

All that being said, because American Jewry is so small, many writers, including me, speak of it as a single group wherever possible.

Judaism and Climate Change

What Jews think about climate change is not something one can simply look up–there is no central authority on correct belief, as there is in Catholic Christianity–the Jewish religion has always focused more on correct behavior than on correct thought. Judaism does have a concept of heresy, but has never had any authoritative body able to define which ideas are heretical and which are not. Instead, there is a generally recognized consensus of basic principles that practicing Jews must uphold. Sometimes two sects regard each other as heretical.  This isn’t a process that can issue clear policy statements on the latest controversies.

As with almost every other major religious group, American Jewish leaders have publicly stated their dedication to climate sanity, complete with theological underpinnings and emission-reductions targets. As of 2012, the only house of worship in America with the LEEDS Platinum certification is a Jewish synagogue. As with Christianity, Judaism includes a concept of religiously grounded stewardship of the Earth. Proper care of the land is also seen as intimately connected to moral rectitude; at several points, the Jewish Bible gives immoral or sinful human behavior as the direct cause of environmental disasters, as though the land were a mirror of the collective human soul. That environmental destruction might itself be a sin is therefore not that far a leap. And there is a religious mandate to “heal” the world–a concept that is not necessarily environmental but can be interpreted that way.

And yet, “the environment” is not a top concern of many American Jewish voters, according to a 2014 survey (climate change as such was not listed as an option). Curiously, the environment did come in as more important than Israel, stereotypes notwithstanding, but the two issues ranked sixth and eighth respectively. The top priorities were the economy and health care. In polls, their level of climate concern is similar to that of Americans as a whole.

It doesn’t look like there is an organized climate-denial movement within the Jewish community yet, though that could change–Orthodox Jews tend to be culturally conservative and therefore often gravitate to the same media outlets that Christian climate deniers favor–Fox News is popular, and many at least have their doubts that climate change is real.  Conservative Jewish groups also sometimes shy away from dealing with climate change because they see such issues as too secular. Environmental outreach among these communities usually works better if focused on less politically fraught issues, such as water conservation, especially if framed in specifically religious terms.

Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, on the other hand, tend to be politically and socially liberal and quite open to science–and they are often politically and socially very engaged. Many Jewish organizations are therefore working in favor of climate sanity, in one way or another, but many are silent or in active support of the KXL pipeline or fracking. It’s not, apparently, that these groups are anti-climate stance per se, but rather they prefer to support other issues, like American energy independence (not like getting off fossil fuel isn’t a better way to secure energy independence, but not everyone seems to realize that). Climate change just isn’t necessarily on everyone’s radar, although there are community leaders working hard to get it there.The picture I’m getting so far is that the Jewish community is not fully engaged yet on climate change, and that different subsets of it could well engage in different directions, depending on who does more outreach more successfully.

All of which might sound like much ado about only 2% of the population, but American Jewry has more political influence than its size alone would suggest–it’s hardly the puppet-master of anti-Semitic fantasy, but many Jewish people are politically active and many provide strong financial support to candidates. The Jewish population is also concentrated in just a few states, so while Jews are a minority everywhere, they are a sizable minority in some states–enough to be an important part of a successful candidate’s coalition. The Jewish vote could decide a close race in New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, California, or Florida. Some of these states have decided the Presidency in the past.

The Jewish vote leans overwhelmingly Democrat, and has, with some variation, for decades. There are now signs that Jewish support of the Democrats may be starting to wane, at least slightly. Since, at present, climate-sane government policy depends upon the election of Democrats, what Jewish people think of climate change has world-wide implications.



So, in case anybody didn’t know, Boston is sitting under about six feet of snow right now. Six feet.

Just to put that in perspective, if you had a ground-level door in Boston, with no porch or overhang above it,  and you opened that door, you wouldn’t see the outside. Mostly, you would see a wall of snow. Unless your indoor lights were on, most of the wall would appear black, because even a few inches of snow completely block light. The very top of the cliff would look blue or white, and you’d be able to see the sky through a six-inch gap between the snow and the top of the door. And all of it has fallen in the past thirty days.

More heavy snow is on the way this weekend.

Predictably, certain people are yammering that so much snow disproves global warming, while others point out, correctly, that climate change actually causes more snow. I agree that global warming = more snow does sound counter-intuitive, but we all know that climate change is complex, bringing floods to some places and droughts to others, etc. Perhaps snowy Boston is similar? But no. Actually, the thing with snow is not complex at all.

Here’s the deal; when the air is below freezing, precipitation falls as snow. That means that until a given area warms so much that it no longer freezes in winter, it will continue to get snow. If a big, wet, storm moves in during freezing weather, it will get a lot of snow. A giant blizzard (or several of them in a row) is what a flood looks like in New England in February.

And indeed, while the Boston area has been colder than average for February this year, it hasn’t been that much colder. It hasn’t dropped to zero (Fahrenheit) this month yet, although one below-zero night is average for February in Boston. The record lows for each day in the first twelve days of February are all below zero–and no cold weather record has been broken in early February in Boston for eighty-one years (in contrast, of the heat records for the first twelve days of this month, six were set over the last twenty-five years).

So, we’re not looking at especially cold weather right now. What we’re looking at is a flood that happens to be frozen.

And for New England, climate change generally takes the form of floods, some of them catastrophic. Temperatures have risen dramatically as well, but most of the change has involved nighttime lows, when most people are asleep. It is the flooding most people notice. The event that we’re seeing now is comparable in scope to Tropical Storm Irene, Superstorm Sandy, and all the other major floods, named and unnamed, that have wet New England in recent years. At least fifteen people have already died (and that figure is six days old), counting those who succumbed to the same storms in other areas. Snow storms typically kill through traffic accidents and heart failure triggered by the effort of shoveling. Very heavy snowfalls, like these, can collapse roofs from the weight. I have not heard of anyone being under a roof when it collapsed, but it must happen. Boston alone has or will spend over twenty million dollars on snow removal and other blizzard-related costs from just the storms of the past month. The snow season still has another month to go.

Where I live, in Maryland, we’ve hardly had any snow all year–just a light dusting a few times and a couple of flurries. We see the New England storms on the news, but the TV coverage usually makes it look like a giant pain in the neck and not much more. And my friends in New England all seem to be fine, if a little tired of the snow, so a mere inconvenience is all it is for many. But, it’s important to realize that it’s more than that for some people, and the regional infrastructure–which was not designed to deal with this much snow–is being severely strained. This is an extreme weather event and it is dangerous.

How does it relate to climate change?

Generally speaking, a warmer atmosphere carries more water and so delivers more floods. When it rains, it pours is the weather-mantra of the new age. But specifically, this series of storms is linked, not so much to warm air, but to warm water.

My friend, the science educator/weather geek explained to me that:

The snowiness is being caused by an upper level and persistent trough of low pressure. There is a strong High pressure ridge over the Western US that is bringing warm weather to the great plains and wet/cold weather to the eastern third of the US. Not sure when it will move away, probably not for another couple weeks.

The reason why this ridge of high pressure causes different kinds of weather in different places is that air rotates around it clockwise. So that rotation is pulling warm air up from Mexico into the Great Plains (and ruining Garrison Keilor’s winter), to the west of the trough, while pulling cold weather down from Canada to the East. Climate change may be making these sorts of things more common or more severe, but it is nonsensical to ask whether a single storm reflects a trend–trends are only visible across time.

In any case, so we’ve got persistently cold, damp weather in the Eastern part of the country periodically bubbling up into storm systems, some of which intensify into nor’easters along the coast. A nor’easter is an extra-tropical cyclonic storm that feeds off of cold air and a warm ocean. They might loosely be considered winter hurricanes (though they can happen in summer, too), because they bring wind and coastal flooding (with snow or rain) in a similar way.

BUT this February, sea temperatures have been abnormally high. As of a few days ago, sea surface temperatures off of Cape Cod (meaning many miles off the coast–in the Gulf Stream and beyond) were twenty-one degrees Fahrenheit  above normal for this time of year. That doubled the amount of moisture in the air, dramatically increasing the amount of snow that a system feeding in the region could dump.

Again, it’s hard to say if one pool of warm water is climate change, because climate change is a trend not an event, but we do know the ocean is getting warmer. And when it gets warmer, Boston gets buried under six feet of snow.



Climate Change and Buddhists

This is another installment in my series on climate change and religion in America. I have already covered Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism, African-American Protestantism, mainline Protestantism, Islam, and the Neopagan continuum. I am not a religious scholar, but I look at the publicly available information through the lens of climate change and I share what I find.

It is hard to say for sure how many Buddhists there are in America, in part because many practice independently or in informal groups. Also, many American Buddhists are of Asian ancestry, a group that many demographers largely ignore. Estimates vary from one to six million. Perhaps two-thirds of these are of Asian ancestry. The remaining third is mostly but not entirely white. All told, at most 1% of the US population is Buddhist.

And yet, this one percent has been oddly influential in the American environmental movement. Michael Soulé, the founder of conservation biology (a branch of science specifically applied to environmental conservation) is Buddhist. So is Gary Snyder, a major artistic and philosophical voice for the movement. So was Henry David Thoreau, after a fashion–Thoreau identified with many religions and none, being careful to remember that all religions are human constructs. But that reticence about commitment to any one philosophy is itself a very Buddhist thing. He was heavily influenced by Buddhist writings and occasionally referred to himself as a follower of the Buddha, or was referred to that way by people who knew him. And H.D. Thoreau was not only an influential writer and philosopher, a point of inspiration for many later environmentalists, he also discovered the process of ecological succession.

Some Definitions

One more reason that it is hard to say how many Buddhists there are in America is that no one needs anyone else’s permission to be Buddhist. Although there are certainly initiatory lineages within Buddhism, where certain wisdom is transmitted formally from teacher to student, it is also possible to study and practice alone, without ever identifying as Buddhist to anyone else. Not only are the latter hard to count, but the validity of their practice makes it hard to say who is Buddhist and who is not. Can a person who practices Zen meditation regularly, but ignores the rest of the teaching, properly claim to be Buddhist? What about people who claim no religion at all but, like Thoreau, live in a very Buddhist way? It is reasonable to suppose that the influence of Buddhism on American culture extends far beyond the lives of those few who are definitely Buddhist, in part because of the uncountable people (me among them) who have incorporated some Buddhist element into their lives.

Buddhism is sometimes described as a philosophy and not a religion, in part because it has no gods. The Buddha himself was a man, notable only for having achieved enlightenment first. His name was Siddhartha Gautama, and he lived in India. And yet, some sects do have gods and goddesses, or at least figures that seem analogous to them. Siddhartha Gautama certainly lived in a culture that worshiped gods and goddesses and he did not begin his teaching by attempting to convert others to atheism. Many modern Buddhist traditions are rich with stories of saints and miracles and various types and processes of reincarnation–clearly religious beliefs of a type the Buddhism the philosophy is not supposed to have, either.

Instead, it might be more  accurate to say that gods and goddesses and miracles and heavens and hells are beside the point. A Buddhist teacher might believe in all those things, but not bother to pass them on to the student because the important thing is to wake up to the reality of lived experience. Buddhist teachings and practices are, to some extent, portable, able to be adapted to other belief systems–including atheism.

Buddhism is not a belief or a faith. It is a practice.

As with other religions, Buddhism exists in many different forms. Perhaps surprisingly, not all forms involve meditation at all. Even those that do emphasize meditative practice go beyond it to include a definite moral code and a system of values. The American Buddhist perspective is also complicated by the fact that it flows through and across many different cultures; Buddhists differ not only by sect but also by ethnicity, national origin, and race, things that may be beside the point of religion but are often very much to the point for actual human beings.

Despite the variation among American Buddhism, though, I am going to treat it all as one unless stated otherwise. There are just too few Buddhists in the US for me to address the differences among them in an article this brief.

Buddhism and Climate Change

Buddhism has a reputation for sympathy to the natural world, a recognition that all life in connected. While the reality is a bit more complex, the reputation is not entirely undeserved. Not surprisingly, Buddhist leaders from all over the world have come together to issue a declaration on the importance of doing something about climate change. In some ways, this declaration is no different than those written by any other group of religious leaders I have profiled (whether or not many adherents pay attention). There are a couple of distinctively Buddhist points, of course.

In grounding their concern in specifically Buddhist concepts, the authors describe environmental responsibility as an outgrowth of the principle of non-harm or non-violence–the same principle that leads many (though not all) Buddhists to be vegetarians. In so doing, the authors recognize the inherent moral worth of non-human life. At the end of the document, they write movingly of how neither other life forms nor future generations of humans can speak up on their own behalf. “We must listen to their silence,” they say, and speak and act for them.

But this is not a specifically American Buddhist response, nor does it tell us much about what ordinary Buddhists say or do about climate change. And since polls cannot accurately assess even how many American Buddhists there are, it seems foolish to look to a poll for answers here.

It is not difficult to find people–including Americans–online talking about climate change and Buddhism. Some of these writers express frustration that Buddhists aren’t doing more about the issue. Apparently, the justifications for inaction include a desire to achieve enlightenment first before trying to help the rest of the world and the idea that “all is void” and therefore environmental destruction does not matter. Of course, there are grave philosophical problems with both assertions and either can be easily refuted with other Buddhist ideas. But, most likely, Buddhist inaction is just like Christian inaction in that neither really has much to do with the theological weight of the atmosphere.

But how many Buddhists are complacent verses active on climate change? It’s hard to say–and it may not matter, at least not in the US. There are, after all, very few American Buddhists, and whether the majority do something about the greenhouse effect or not will not swing the political center of gravity very much. What does matter is whether those Buddhists who do care about climate change find something in Buddhism that helps them become more effective in their work–and what Buddhism can offer in the way of perspective to the larger society of Americans who are “sort of” Buddhist, Buddhist-influenced, or even just know somebody who meditates sometimes.

Some time ago, I posted a discussion of an editorial on climate change by the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, a Tibetan spiritual teacher. While he is not American, the journal that published his essay is. He was speaking to Americans, among others. That essay was interesting for its description of the climate crisis as, first, a failure of compassion–and for its framing of the issue in spiritual terms able to transcend divides of religion and culture. Perhaps that is what Buddhism can give.