Climate change

Features of Woodhaven

A look at Linda and Scot DeGraf's handmade, eco-friendly home in West Virginia.

Thermal mass: More than 30 tons of plaster and other mass on the inside of the house collects and stores heat from sunlight.

Forest-certified lumber: Along with local posts and beams, we used wood certified as sustainably harvested.

Recycled vinyl shingles: Located on the one "traditional" roof that holds our solar panels, these shingles are made from 80 percent post-consumer recycled material and will last more than 50 years.

Straw-bale walls: These fire-resistant, agricultural waste products (not hay) provide 18 inches of cheap insulation, keeping the house warm in winter and cool in summer.

Reclaimed doors, windows, and kitchen cabinetry: Most of the doors and windows are reclaimed from predemolition sites.

Lime plaster: This ancient material (think of the longevity of lighthouses) provides waterproofing and is carbon neutral. (Contrast this with concrete, which is the sixth largest contributor to carbon emissions worldwide.)

Earth roofs: Plants absorb sunlight, convert heat to sugar and water, and keep the roof cool in the summer. Earth roofs provide water runoff protection and hold snow well, keeping us warmer in winter.

Cordwood construction: Local, renewable building materials—such as log-ends—were used to build some of the walls.

Solar hot water: A thermal system uses solar energy to heat water.

Local clay and stone: We repurposed local stone and unwanted clay gathered from a nearby construction site.

Passive solar design: Sun comes in through ample windows on the south side, naturally warming the house during winter.

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Built to Last

"SINCE I KNOW you guys are urban/city folks like me, I was pleasantly surprised to find that you didn't build some ugly house in the woods." Reading through thank-you letters from seventh graders who had come from Washington, D.C., to work with us, we smiled at this line written by a student we had known since kindergarten.

Having lived in the Washington, D.C. area for more than 30 years, it's true we were "urban folks," but our hearts were drawn to the woods. This crazy venture of ours began more than six years ago, when the Rolling Ridge Study Retreat Community, located south of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., was poised to build Woodhaven, a new staff home, in keeping with their deep respect for the earth and their mission of nurturing people and community. As Rolling Ridge members, we began building this home as a way to teach and learn about a different kind of architecture and to explore whether it is possible to create an energy-efficient, attractive home that will use fewer resources, last longer, and be gentler on the earth.

This project required discerning the time for humility and the time for hubris: the humility to know when it's crucial to call on experience and skill; the hubris to jump in and try things we've never done before. We could not have built this house without the brilliant work of our architect, Sigi, and building contractor, John, as well as skilled carpenters, electricians, and plumbers. Nor could we have done it without the enthusiastic work of numerous volunteers.

Ever eager to learn by rolling up their sleeves (or in the case of stamping cob, their pant legs), people have come during the past few years to help stack straw bales into strong walls, apply lime plaster on the outside and clay mix on the inside, and plant living roofs. They have filled the house not only with finished walls, but also with a spirit of joy.

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For God So Loved the World

NEW YORK CITY has been bombed at least twice in the past decade. First by al Qaeda and second by Hurricane Sandy.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States launched two ground wars and a worldwide "war on terror." Within two months, Congress federalized the Transportation Security Administration to secure airports. More than 263 government organizations were either created or reorganized. Some 1,931 private companies were put to work on counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence. Rightly or wrongly, America moved heaven and earth to stop terrorism in its tracks. It was seen as both an ongoing threat and a moral affront that had to be dealt with.

What about Climate Change?
In February, a New York State Senate task force on Superstorm Sandy compared the hurricane that affected 24 states to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "[On 9/11] there were more than 3,000 souls lost, but in terms of the geographic destruction, it was isolated to Lower Manhattan," said Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island). "[After Sandy] we have miles and miles and miles of destruction. Hundreds of thousands of homes affected, 60 ... New Yorkers killed, 250,000 to 260,000 businesses affected."

Hurricane Sandy killed 253 people in seven countries. It was the second largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded—and the most expensive. It smashed into the East Coast with barely three days' warning. Like hurricanes Katrina and Rita before it, Sandy was a disaster of biblical proportions.

After 9/11, Americans knew in our gut that something was seriously wrong. Our moral intuition had been sucker punched.

Climate change—and its deadly implications—has been harder to grasp. There's a lot of complicated science involved. Instead of a single incident, we're inundated with seemingly disconnected events. And, despite the evidence, we often fail to see it as a "crime."

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Future's So Bright

EARLIER THIS YEAR, 14 solar panels were installed on my roof. Each day since—in fact, multiple times a day—I've eagerly checked our online meters, as the sun replaces coal and nuclear plants as the provider of my home's electrical needs.

I've waited a long time for this. I attended my first energy conference in the late 1970s, when I joined several other students from the hunger action group at our Jesuit college, Seattle U., for the 20-hour van ride to Denver—even then, the connection between poverty and energy issues was clear.

That conference was one of several conducted by the U.S. Catholic bishops to gather input for what became a major and still-relevant document published in 1981 under the unassuming name "Reflections on the Energy Crisis." The statement noted that "solar power can help open the way to permanent energy security, pointing beyond the end of fossil fuels."

So last summer I was thrilled to sign a contract with a company called SolarCity, which installed the solar panels on my rooftop under a lease arrangement—they own the panels, and I buy solar power from them whenever the sun shines. And there's sure a lot of sunshine to tap: Every hour of daylight on earth, the sun releases the amount of energy consumed by the entire population of the planet in one year.

ENERGY industry deregulation over the past two decades made possible the emergence of new clean-energy companies like SolarCity. But it has come with quite a cost to consumers. For example, a report released in December by the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power found that Texans have paid an extra $10.4 billion for electricity under deregulation.

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The Battle is Joined

In February, more than 30,000 demonstrated in Washington, D.C., against the Keystone XL pipeline. Photo by Rick Reinhard.

ALL I EVER wanted to see was a movement of people to stop climate change, and now I've seen it. And it looks so beautiful. It's hometown heroes like our friends in D.C. who've been fighting coal plants, and far-flung heroes like those who've been bravely blocking the Keystone XL pipeline with their bodies in Texas. It's people who understand that the fight against fracking and coal ports and taking the tops off mountains is ultimately the fight for a living planet; it's people who have lived through Sandy and survived the drought, some of whom I got to go to jail with recently.

It's the students at 252 colleges who are now fighting the fossil fuel industry head on to force divestment of their school's stock—the biggest student movement in decades. It's all of you—you are the antibodies kicking in, as the planet tries to fight its fever.

We've waited a very long time to get started, I fear. We've already watched the Arctic melt; our colleagues in 191 countries tell us daily of some new drought or flood.

Because we've waited this long, the easiest answers are no longer enough; we're going to have to make tough decisions. Our theme has to be: When you're in a hole, stop digging. Above all stop the Keystone XL pipeline. The president can do it with a single stroke of his pen, and if he does he will become the first world leader to veto a big project because it's bad for the climate. That would be a legacy—and a signal to the rest of the world that we're serious about this fight. It's his test.

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From the Archives: May 1990

IN THE summer of 1969, then-Sen. Gaylord Nelson was on a conservation speaking tour of the West when he visited the beaches of Santa Barbara, at that time despoiled by one of the worst oil spills in U.S. history. The devastation affected him deeply. Later, while reading an article about the teach-ins organized by anti-Vietnam War activists, Nelson asked himself, Why not have a day for a nationwide teach-in on the environment? Thus was born Earth Day 1970.

The original Earth Day was marked by a massive public outpouring of concern for the environment. Earth Day helped spawn new laws such as the Clean Air and Water Acts and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, but it did little to staunch the more serious wounds of our dying planet. ... Much of the activity during the 20th-anniversary celebration of Earth Day this April 22 will focus on individual acts. ... But there is a danger in an overemphasis on personal acts, when the most grievous assaults on the natural world come from corporations and nations whose self-interested policies of acquisitiveness and greed have brought us to the edge of ecological cataclysm. ...

The chair of Union Carbide, one of the planet's most notorious despoilers, understood the stakes when he said, "An aroused public can put us out of business, just like it put the nuclear industry out of business." Polluters be warned: Such work is becoming everybody's business. 

Jim Rice was an assistant editor of Sojourners when this article appeared.

Image: Planet symbol on Earth Day, justaa / Shutterstock.com

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Report: Public Concern Over Climate Change Is Rising

45 percent of Americans are alarmed or concerned about climate change, a survey from Yale finds. Photo courtesy shutterstock.com

The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has an updated version of its report, Global Warming’s Six Americasout this month. The report, which identifies and explores six major attitudes towards climate change, shows that the number of Americans alarmed about climate change has risen from 10 to 16 percent of the population over the last two years.  

At the same time, those dismissive towards the reality of climate change have decreased in size, from 16 percent in 2010 to 8 percent in 2012.  

The “Six Americas” of the title refers to six predominant postures toward climate change in the United States, grouped by researchers along a spectrum of concern and engagement, from “Alarmed” to “Dismissive.” By focusing on attitude rather than demographics, these groupings represent cohesive yet widely diverse cross-sections of the public.

At Inaugural Mass, Pope Francis Calls for Defending Environment, Poor

RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini
Pope Francis waves from the pope-mobile during his inauguration Mass on Tuesday. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis issued a powerful call for the protection of the environment and of society’s most vulnerable during his formal installation Mass at the Vatican, while qualifying his papal power as a “service” to the church and to humanity.

The pope on Tuesday celebrated a solemn Mass in St. Peter’s Square in front of an estimated 200,000 people, as well as political and religious leaders from all over the world.

During the Mass, Francis received the symbols of his papal authority over the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics: the pallium, a lamb’s wool stole that recalls Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and the “ring of the fisherman.”

In keeping with the low-key style that has been the hallmark of his pontificate so far, Francis presided over a somewhat simpler, and definitely shorter, rite than the one that marked the start of Benedict XVI’s reign in 2005.

Francis was slowly driven around a sun-drenched St. Peter’s Square in an open-top car, shunning the bulletproof, air-conditioned popemobile preferred by his predecessors. At one point, he asked to stop the car and got out to bless a disabled person.

In his homily, delivered in Italian, Francis described the church’s mission as “respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live.”

God’s Earth is Crying Out; God’s People, Responding, Must Prepare for Jail

People of Faith Join the Forward on Climate Rally, Feb. 17. Sojourners Photo
People of Faith Join the Forward on Climate Rally, Feb. 17. Sojourners Photo

God’s creation is in danger; and to call upon the powers of the world to heal it, God’s people are prepared to go to jail. 

Perhaps most famously in our recent history, the startling sight of a religious leader in jail was embodied in the willingness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to go to jail more than 20 times in order to embody his religious commitment to racial justice, peace, and nonviolence.

As we approach the Holy Week of Christianity and Passover, we should be aware that this tradition goes back thousands of years. The movement of ancient Israelites seeking freedom from a lethal Pharaoh began even before Moses, when two midwives – the Bible carefully records  their names, Shifra and Puah – refused to murder the boy-babies of the Israelites as Pharaoh had commanded. The recollection of that moment is the first recorded instance of nonviolent civil disobedience.

When that cruel and arrogant Pharaoh, addicted to his own power, refused freedom to his nation’s slaves, his arrogance forced the Earth itself to arise in what we call the Plagues – ecological disasters like undrinkable water, swarms of frogs and locusts, the climate calamity of unprecedented hailstorms. 

Passover has kept alive and lively the memory of that uprising. So it is not surprising that the Gospels record that just before the week of Passover, Jesus led a protest against the behavior of the Roman Empire, its local authorities, and a Temple he and his followers thought had become corrupted from its sacred purpose. 

To protest against the Empire of his era, Jesus chose a time that was both appropriate and dangerous, since Passover celebrates the fall of Pharaoh. His challenge resulted in his arrest and imprisonment, and then his torture and execution.  

Both Judaism and Christianity can trace their origins to acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. Indeed, for several centuries of Imperial Rome, the very persistence of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity were collective acts of civil disobedience. 

Today, religious folk face modern plagues imposed upon our countries and our planet by a new kind of Pharaoh.

Connecting the Dots

OVER THE PAST few years, we have seen tangible proof that creation is terribly off balance. Global warming is causing droughts and heat waves around the world and is making hurricanes more powerful. In my hometown of New York City, we have experienced the effects of severe weather: Hurricane Irene in 2011 and, most recently, the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Sandy was an eye-opening demonstration that climate change is a poverty issue, a race issue, and an immigration issue.

Though neighborhoods of all socioeconomic statuses were affected by Sandy, poorer communities are taking longer to recover. Many of them were without electricity, heat, and water longer than were more affluent communities. For instance, residents of Red Hook's public housing projects in Brooklyn were without power and water for two weeks after the storm. My cousin Dabriah Alston, a Red Hook resident, told me that the city ignored residents' repeated requests for information about when the heat would come back on: "The bottom line is, they don't care about us. Projects are filled with poor folk, and as we all know, the poor are seldom a priority."

Hurricane Sandy shone an uncomfortable light on racial and economic disparity in New York City. As someone who was born and raised in Brooklyn, I am very familiar with Red Hook's history of poverty, and the neglect by local government. For example, only when the community near the housing projects began to gentrify did the city start to repair the nearby subway station.

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