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God, GOP and climate change; are beekeepers poisoning their hives?

Not so long ago, voices of faith and conservatism were raised in favor of environmental protection, not against it.

Environmental stewardship was once taken for granted in America's churches.

It’s not every day, and certainly not every Holy Week, that you hear the carbon cycle described as a cornerstone of Creation.

Yet there it was, in Thursday’s edition of the Stillwater Gazette:

In the book of Genesis (3:19), God told Adam that his body would return to the ground when he died, saying, “… out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and unto dust you shall return.” God was describing one of the fundamental processes in the earth’s design: the carbon cycle.

The writer, David Jenkins, was taking the occasion of Easter to lay out religious reasons for better stewardship of the planet in general, and more particularly for reining in the globe-warming emissions that are driving climate change.

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Climate skeptics particularly those on talk radio – like to peddle the notion that the earth was created on such a grand and complex scale, it is impossible for mankind to mess it up. In other words, we can do anything we want without serious consequence.

Does that sound like something God would say? Actually, it sounds a lot more like something the snake in the Garden of Eden would say. …

God gave mankind the ability to reason, and the experts are telling us that too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere disrupts the climate and causes the earth to overheat. … With the record warmth and other weird, unprecedented weather events we have experienced over the past year – in the U.S. alone we have broken over 130,000 weather records – it is hard not to conclude that something is amiss with our climate.

If we broke it, it is probably safe to say that God expects us to fix it.

Jenkins’ Christian reasoning doesn’t make his piece more “right,” of course, and it may not even make his conclusions more persuasive to most.

When conservation was conservative

But the piece struck me as noteworthy, first, because it’s something of an outlier in a time when the loudest religious voices are lined up against rational climate policies and, second, because it recalls a line of thinking that used to be utterly ordinary in American churches, American life and American politics.

In fact, many would trace the notion of environmental protection as a moral/ethical responsibility to conservatives and Republicans, two other affiliations that David Jenkins proclaims.

Jenkins has been a national leader in the organization known until last week as Republicans for Environmental Protection, or REP. Now it will be known as ConservAmerica, in hopes that the rechristening will help it “hammer home the connections between conservation and traditional conservative values.”

Martha Marks, a founder of REP, was one of our favorite visitors on the Strib editorial board, as she traveled the country to remind folks there were still Republicans who believed in conservation and environmental protection as conservative principles.

Sometimes she even brought along a living example, like the New York investment banker Ted Roosevelt, often called TRIV, which is pronounced TR 4, as in Theodore Roosevelt IV. You remember his great-grandfather.

‘You don’t eat your seed corn’

That particular visit was in 2004, and Roosevelt addressed the Westminster Town Hall Forum on the need for a new land ethic and a new political center on environmental matters especially. Afterward, in a Q&A, I asked him what his message to his own party might be, and he said, memorably:

There has been an ethic in the Republican Party that you are conservative and you don’t eat your seed corn — you don’t consume your capital. But that’s exactly what we’re doing. The definition of an immoral society is one that passes its debts down to the next generation. Well, that’s what we’re doing. That’s not what we stand for as a party. 

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Even  as late as 2004, REP didn’t have to reach back to TR or even to Barry Goldwater, Bill Ruckelshaus and  Russell Train to make the point that Republicans have been prominent among the makers of America’s environmental law and policy. They could still point to John McCain and Tim Pawlenty, who took leadership roles on global warming until it became an intraparty liability.

But times were changing, and I remember well Marks’ recounting of how the Republican National Committee was pounding on REP to take the R-word out of its name, lest voters be duped into thinking the GOP endorsed REP’s unfailingly modest, middle-of-the-road positions.

Eight years on, Jenkins has explained the name change to Huffington Post by saying that Republicans for Environmental Protection was “a mouthful,” while ConservAmerica will be a more accessible brand:

Our mission is staying exactly the same. It’s more of an emphasis issue, switching from the emphasis being on Republican — not that we’re separating ourselves from that at all. It’s just putting the emphasis more on connecting conservation and conservative, which are born of the same root.

Jim DiPeso, another longtime REP leader, told Grist that the group has not given up on the party by any means, and that it will continue to spotlight Republican candidates who favor progressive environmental policies.

But first they’ll have to find some. Volunteers?

(For more on how Jenkins sees the GOP’s environmental calculus today, see Andrew Revkin’s blog of March 14.)

Another vanishing species: honeybees

One more study on the mysterious collapse of honeybee populations has come along, this time from the Harvard School of Public Health, and it would seem to implicate neonicotinoid insecticides even more strongly than the French and British research I described last week.

Most scientists seem to think the “neonics” are at least one cause among many that may be driving “colony collapse disorderr,” or CCD, a syndrome in which honeybees desert their hives for no apparent reason and vanish without a trace. But the timing has been a tricky thing to explain. As Janet Raloff writes in ScienceNews:

CCD tends to occur in winter or early spring, often when bees begin their first foraging trips of the year. In affected colonies, bees leave but fail to come home, despite their hives having adequate food. One suspicion, which is supported by [the French and British] studies released March 29, is that pesticides or some other poison might impair a forager’s memory or behavior.

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But Chensheng Lu, an environmental scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, was puzzled as to when and where the critical exposures occured. After all, affected bees were disappearing after months without exposure to toxic agents outside the hive. Lu now argues that bees can undergo a chronic poisoning if their hives’ honey was tainted by insecticides that the pollinators encountered months earlier.

During winter, he charges, what looks just like colony collapse disorder largely emptied 15 of his team’s 16 test hives in central Massachusetts. Each had been exposed experimentally for 13 weeks during the summer to low doses of imidacloprid. Growers rely on this and related neonicotinoid insecticides to protect their crops.

How long a hive’s colony survived after treatment diminished with increasing exposure of its bees to the insecticide the previous summer, Lu and his colleagues reported online April 5 in the Bulletin of Insectology.

Lu and his colleagues also believe CCD’s sudden emergence in 2006 and 2007 had to be related to recent change in the honeybee world, and their leading candidate was the widespread adoption of neonics by corn farmers starting in 2004 and 2005. Another was beekeepers’ rising use of high-fructose corn syrup to feed their bees, both as a necessary supplement during the pollination season and as a post-season replacement for honey taken out of the hives for sale.

You might think Bayer CropScience, the inventor and major manufacturer of these insecticides, would jump at the chance to speculate that Lu’s study lets it off the hook by suggesting that beekeepers are poisoning their own colonies. Instead, the company offered the usual rebuttals that the study design wasn’t a perfect replication of real life, the exposure levels were unrealistically high, and so on.

That’s a tough sell. High-fructose corn syrup is not routinely monitored for residues of these insecticides, but the levels selected by Lu’s team for testing – four concentrations ranging from 20 parts per billion to 400 – were below federal limits and not out of line with residues typically found in corn pollen.

And the results were not ambiguous. All but one of 16 hives treated with neonic-laced corn syrup suffered CCD-like population collapse; all but one of control hives given untreated syrup stayed healthy (the fifth was hit by dysentery, not CCD).

Other good coverage of the Harvard study is available at Scientific American’s Observations blog and in the Christian Science Monitor; the Monitor offers this link to a prepublication proof of the paper itself.