Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Climate Change and Hurricane Sandy

The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; 20the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep.
Genesis 7:19-20

Roger Boisjoly died suddenly last winter in his sleep. He had been diagnosed with cancer a few weeks before that, but his death was unexpected. In 1986 he was an engineer working for Morton Thiokol, a major contractor for the Space Shuttle Challenger. He had argued vociferously against the launch in January of 1986 because his research showed that the seals at the joints of the multi-stage booster rockets were subject to failure in cold temperatures. With launch temperatures predicted to be around thirty degrees Fahrenheit, Boisjoly believed it was not safe to launch. Tragically, he was right. Boisjoly spent the last decades of his life addressing engineering students on ethical decision-making.

Dan Miller, an engineer and climate change expert has compared climate change to the Challenger disaster. In their eagerness to keep the launch on schedule, NASA managers asked Boisjoly and a small number of other engineers at Thiokol to prove that the shuttle would blow up before they would be willing to cancel the launch. Miller points out that they were asking the wrong question. “They should have asked for assurance that the flight would be safe in order to launch.”

Similarly, the climate change skeptics argue that the vast body of data showing evidence of manmade climate change is not conclusive “proof.”

The computer models produced by climate change scientists have predicted an increase in extreme weather events as a result of global warming. The devastation of Hurricane Sandy is consistent with this pattern. That doesn’t “prove” that the largest storm in recorded history was caused by climate change, but it does make one wonder.

In an exchange with Andrew Revkin in the New York Times on line, Miller writes:

“Extremely Hot Summers (“3-sigma” events) have increased 50X (5000%) in the past 50 years. There is 4% more water vapor in the atmosphere than 50 years ago. Average ocean temperatures have increased (90% of global warming energy goes into the ocean). The Arctic sea ice just reached its lowest level in thousands of years and in a few years you will be able to sail a boat to the North Pole for the first time in human history.

“These documented impacts all affected the strength, scale, and direction of Hurricane Sandy. No one is saying that a Hurricane Sandy would not have happened if not for climate change. But I believe there is little doubt that the record-breaking scale and potential destructiveness of Sandy is due in large part to the amplifying effects of warmer ocean temperatures, higher atmospheric moisture content, and unusual Arctic weather patterns.

“Like the Space Shuttle Challenger’s NASA managers, waiting for scientific “proof” of disaster, rather than taking prudent (and economically beneficial) steps to avert disaster, only guarantees that our children will face catastrophic consequences.”

Climate change was one of many topics ignored in the presidential debates. But it is something we cannot ignore. One of the meteorologists predicting the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy reported on a conversation he had with a coastal resident as the storm was approaching. The man complained that the meteorologists were always hyping the next big storm and he saw no need to evacuate his home. The meteorologist said his response was approximately, “Do what the emergency management people are telling you to do, and if they are wrong you can call up and yell at me on Tuesday.”

We only have one planet. We don’t have a place to go if this one becomes uninhabitable. Maybe the 99% of scientists who believe that global warming is real are mistaken. Maybe the effects of global warming have been exaggerated. But their predictions have been accurate up to this point, and it is long past time for us to do something about it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Happy United Nations Day

2In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Isaiah 2:2-5

At the United Nations building in New York City there is a statue of a man beating a giant sword into a plowshare. The sculpture, titled, “Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares,” was created by Evgeniv Vuchetich and given as a gift by the Soviet Union in 1959.

When President Reagan addressed the United Nations General Assembly in 1987, he began by describing the journey that brought the delegates and the nations together as a kind of pilgrimage, and then he said, “We come from every continent, every race, and most religions to this great hall of hope . . .”

Near the conclusion of his address, speaking specifically to the Soviet Union as well as to the whole assembly, he asked, “Cannot swords be turned to plowshares? Can we and all nations not live in peace? In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences world-wide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world. And yet, I ask you, is not an alien force already among us? What could be more alien than war and the threat of war?”

The United Nations Charter was ratified on October 24, 1945. Today is United Nations Day. When I was a boy we celebrated United Nations Sunday in church every year.

My guess is that most people don’t know that today is United Nations Day. And we do not have many political leaders who would speak of the U.N. assembly room as “this great hall of hope.”

Over the years the United Nations has relentlessly vilified and marginalized by politicians. Some see it as simply ineffective and others see it as a threat to our sovereignty. In his new book, “The Black Helicopters Are Coming!” political commentator Dick Morris’ claims that President Obama is plotting to have the United States invaded by the United Nations. Morris admits that “it sounds crazy,” but insists that it is really going to happen.

It doesn’t just sound crazy. It really and truly is crazy. But this is where we are.

The truth is that the United Nations has not lived up to our expectations. We have avoided massive world wars, and that is no small achievement. The second half of the twentieth century was much more peaceful than the first half. And the United Nations must take some share of the credit for that. On the other hand, smaller wars have been constant and the resulting deaths and injuries have been staggering.

In spite of its obvious limitations, the world is a better place because of the United Nations, and on United Nations Day I want to touch briefly on a few of the U.N. organizations that have fostered international progress and understanding.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is organized to reduce hunger worldwide through improving agricultural productivity and raising levels of nutrition. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is similarly targeted to reduce rural poverty in developing nations by funding relief efforts.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) promotes global cooperation to improve maritime safety and decrease marine pollution.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) acts as a forum for discussing global financial issues and provides loans to developing countries.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) promotes world peace and security by fostering international cooperation in education, science and culture. They promote the fundamental freedoms endorsed in the UN Charter.

And then there are some UN organizations that require no further description: the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Trade Organization (WHO), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and the World Bank Group (WBG) which includes five sub-groups focused on promoting development and reconstruction.

It is an impressive list. Together they promote an international strategy for beating swords into plowshares. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

A young Girl Takes on the Taliban

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

So he went with him.

He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement.
Mark 5:21-24,40-42

Jesus took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha cum," which means, "Little girl, get up!"

In a perfect world, when she was 11 years old Malala Yousafzai would have been playing with the Pakistani equivalent of an American Girl doll. But in the violent and unjust world in which she found herself this schoolgirl was taking on the Taliban by voicing her passion for education. As Taliban fighters overran her town in northwestern Pakistan in 2009, Malala spoke about her plans to become a doctor and defied the Taliban’s crusade to subjugate women by denying an education to girls like Malala.

On T.uesday they came for her. Masked gunmen boarded a crowded school bus, singled her out, and shot her in the head and neck as other terrified children watched. She survived, along with two other girls who were wounded. Doctors at a hospital in Peshawar reported that she was in critical condition.

Incredibly, the Taliban claimed “credit” for the attack and promised that if she survived they would come back for her. Ehsanullah Ehsan, a Taliban spokesman confirmed by phone that the Taliban had targeted her and called her campaign for girls’ education rights an “obscenity.” Ehsan went on to say that Malala “has become a symbol of Western Culture in the area; she was openly propagating it.” “Let this be a lesson,” he warned.

In a New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof  reports speaking with Fazal Moula Zahid, a close family friend, who told him that doctors were hopeful that there has been no brain damage and that she will ultimately return to school.

“After recovery, she will continue to get an education,” Fazal said. “She will never, never drop out of school. She will go to the last.”

“Please thank all your people who are supporting us and who stand with us in this war,” he added. “You energize us.”

It would be wrong to see the Taliban as the voice of Pakistan. The government is hardly a model of progressive tolerance, but they are basically at war with the Taliban. On the other side of the political spectrum, it was a major setback for Pakistan’s progressives, who were appalled and frustrated by the attack. Nadeem Paracha, a media commentator posted his sarcastic assessment on Twitter, “Come on brothers,” he wrote, “Be REAL MEN. Kill a school girl.”

Sadly, misogyny is a world-wide problem.

Writing on “The International Day of the Girl,” Kristof linked the shooting in Pakistan to an incident in Indonesia where a fourteen year old girl was lured into captivity by sex traffickers and then raped for a week. She was finally released after her disappearance was reported on the local news.

When her school found out what had happened, the school publicly expelled her in front of hundreds of classmates. According to a report by Indonesia’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, they did this because she had “tarnished the school’s image.”

In the struggle for gender equality, education plays a critical role. That’s why the Taliban wants to silence Malala Yousafzai.

“This is not just Malala’s war,” said a 19-year-old female student in Peshawar. “It is a war between two ideologies, between the light of education and darkness.” Kristof notes that at the time he spoke with her the young woman said she was happy to be quoted by name. “But after what happened to Malala, I don’t dare put her at risk.”

Throughout Pakistan there are extremist schools financed by misogynists from Saudi Arabia and other nations. Kristof writes, “They provide meals, free tuition and sometimes scholarships to lure boys—because their donors understand perfectly that education shapes countries.”

Foreign aid from the United States is mostly directed toward the military. Less than a tenth of our aid dollars go toward education. The military aid is at best a short term solution. In the long run, it is education that will shape the country. Malala’s struggle transcends nation and gender and religion. It is about shaping the kind of world we want to live in. Her struggle is our struggle.

Jesus took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!”

It is through the education of young women in Pakistan and around the world that Jesus’ words will come alive.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Affirmative Action and the Moral Arc of the Universe

13Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
14for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
15She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
16Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
17Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
18She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy.

Proverbs 3:13-18

The Supreme Court is presently considering a case about affirmative action, “Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin.” Abigail Fisher claims that the University of Texas denied her admission because she is white. She claims that minority students were admitted whose applications were otherwise less accomplished than hers. The University is arguing that race is only one factor they consider in admissions and that they have a compelling interest in having a diverse student body. Although I don’t believe it is part of their argument before the court, the school also maintains that Ms. Fisher would not have been admitted even if race were not considered.

Affirmative action is no longer a government mandate. It is a voluntary program initiatied by many institutions because they believe their mission can better be fulfilled by enlarging opportunities for historically disfavored groups.

The Court has been clear that is unconstitutional to exclude minorities because of their race. The question before the Court is whether it is constitutional to implement a race-conscious program in order to increase the opportunities of minorities.

I think we can be reasonably certain that the framers of the constitution would have been against any racial preference that increased the opportunities for minorities. They were in favor of slavery. They would have been against the Fourteenth Amendment and they certainly would not have extended the equal protection clause to include affirmative action. Similarly, it is hard to believe that the majority voting for the Civil Rights Act of 1866 would have held together to approve the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I am not a lawyer and I won’t pretend to understand the legal technicalities. A ruling in favor of Ms. Fisher seems likely, and several of the justices are already on record against any form of “race consciousness.” Unfortunately, this will turn back the clock on diversity and move us away from a more inclusive society.

As Christians, one of our fundamental beliefs is that God works in history. In the long run, we are moving toward the Kingdom of God. In the imagery of the abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker, popularized by the greatest preacher of the Civil Rights movement, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

If the program at the University of Texas at Austin is declared unconstitutional, the arc will get a little longer and our task will become a little more difficult.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Something Missing from the Debate

17As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Mark 10:17-22

Earlier this week in his column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote about an urgent issue that was completely absent from the presidential debate, the growth of income inequality in America.

Kristof began with a parable. He invited readers to “Imagine a kindergarten with 100 students, lavishly supplied with books, crayons and toys.” There is more than enough for everyone, but one little boy has almost all the toys. Nine others each have a few toys, and the remaining 90 children have nothing at all.

One little boy has more toys than all those ninety others combined.

As a responsible adult, you want to correct the situation. “What’s going on?” you ask. “Let’s learn to share! One child shouldn’t hog everything for himself!” But the one with all the toys is unmoved. “I don’t want to share,” he says. “This is America!”

Sadly, the little boy is right. America does in fact look like the kindergarten in Kristof’s parable. The top 1% in the United States has more wealth than the bottom 90% combined. Every time I write that I think it must be wrong. It seems impossible, but it’s true. There are studies that vary slightly in their calculations, but the basic facts hold. And within that top 1% there is a steep increase as you move from the .09% up to the .01% (one in a thousand).

In the present economic “recovery,” 93% of the gains in income went to the top 1%. And last month the Gini coefficient, the standard measure of inequality set a modern record and reached the highest level since the great depression.

Last year scholars from Duke and Harvard conducted a study in which they asked Americans which country they would like to live in, one with income inequality like Sweden’s or one with income inequality like America’s. Turns out that most of us would rather live in Sweden. Of course the researchers didn’t label the countries as America a Sweden. We want to live in a more equal society and we believe that America has a much more equal distribution of wealth than it does.

For Christians, inequality is a moral problem. Kristof, who would not call himself a Christian, is nevertheless closer to the ethics of Jesus than many devout “believers.” He describes our inequality as “unconscionable.” For the past thirty years we have been redistributing income, from the middle and bottom to the top.

Inequality is not just a moral problem; it is also an economic problem. It stifles growth because those at the bottom cannot create the necessary demand for goods and services, and they cannot afford the education to train for the jobs of the future.

The answer is not for the government to play Robin Hood and take money from the top to redistribute at the bottom, but to restore a more progressive tax policy. In the 1950’s, the marginal tax rate on the highest incomes was 90%. It wasn’t until 1987 that the highest tax rate came down to less than 50%. That income could be used for education, job training, and infrastructure, investments that would create jobs and benefit all Americans.