Both locally and globally, the church’s work and welfare is bound up with environmental stability. As part of my work in the area of environmental stewardship, I send periodic summaries or updates to Bishop Barker to help him stay informed about what is happening with the environment, and particularly what is unfolding in the world of climate science. We are sharing this summary more widely as there has been lots of new information recently that will continue to have big impacts on things such as food production, health, the world economy, and the spiritual needs of people in the 21st century.
Environmental Summary Update November 2013
The original document from October 28, which begins below, includes information from the first part of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report around the physical basis for climate change. Since then, information from the upcoming second part of the report about the predicted impacts of climate change was leaked and shared in a November 1 New York Times article with the headline Climate Change Seen Posing Risk to Food Supplies. The article says that the second part of the report will tell us that food supplies are expected to decrease by 2% each remaining decade of this century. Elizabeth Kolbert posted Is It Too Late to Prepare for Climate Change? in response to the leaked information, writing: “The force of the report comes simply from assembling all the data in one place; the summary reads like a laundry list of the apocalypse—flood, drought, disease, starvation.” She goes on to talk about the even more dire impacts for non-human species of animals and plants. (Our lives are of course inextricably bound up with theirs, so these are indirectly dire impacts for humankind as well.)
Then Typhoon Haiyan came along and devastated the Philippines. It’s wind speed at landfall was 195 mph, the strongest winds at landfall ever recorded. We can’t say what influence global warming does or does not have on any particular storm, but we do know that the overall pattern of severe weather is changing and that global warming provides the conditions in the oceans and the atmosphere that are known to amplify severe storms. At the UN climate conference now meeting in Warsaw, Philippine representative Yeb Sano gave an emotional plea to “stop the madness”. Knowing that people at home had no food after the storm, he vowed to fast during the climate talks until significant progress is made to help the nations most immediately vulnerable to the effects of climate change. (A video of his speech is available on YouTube here.)
October 28 summary
September was the 343rd consecutive month with global temperatures warmer than the twentieth century average.
Two reports in recent weeks have given us updated information about climate change and predictions for the future.
IPCC Fifth Assessment Report
The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 5th Assessment Report for the group of scientists looking at the physical science basis for climate change got a lot of popular press for saying that there is a very high probability (approaching certainty) that climate change is for the most part the result of human activity. The version of the report published for policymakers is found in PDF form here.
But there are other things worth the attention of non-scientists. One is the mention for the first time of geoengineering as a possible way to prevent catastrophic warming now that certain tipping points have either been reached or are soon to be reached. Along with the unknowns about the long-term effects of geoengineering – either finding a way to remove significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester it or “solar radiation management” (constructing ways of reflecting enough sunlight away from the earth to cool the planet) — this addition is noteworthy because it signals something about the critical nature of climate change at this point. Enough feedback loops are in play that even if governments and industries were inclined to make huge cutbacks in greenhouse gas emissions, there would still be some degree of temperature rise. And the political reality is that those cutbacks in emissions to any truly significant degree are not in the works.
Some other key findings were summarized well in Mother Jones magazine in an earlier article entitled 5 Terrifying Statements in the Leaked Climate Report. The five, which the article discusses in some detail, are these:
• We’re on course to change the planet in a way “unprecedented in hundreds to thousands of years.
• Ocean acidification is “virtually certain” to increase.
• Long-term, sea level rise could be 5 to 10 meters.
• This also implies a substantial melting of the Greenland ice sheet.
• Much of the carbon we’ve emitted will stay in the atmosphere for a millennium…even after we’ve stopped emitting it.
One more thing to note about the IPCC report is that their findings are very conservative as the work is done by reaching consensus among scientists. Many individual scientists see things deteriorating more rapidly and more severely than the IPCC report indicates.
“The projected timing of climate departure from recent variability”: Within a generation, sooner for the tropics
Camilo Mora and others from the University of Hawai’i published a report in the October 10 issue of Nature that predicts when various locations in the world will reach the point of climate departure from recent variability – i.e. when the average temperature of that location’s coolest year will be greater than the average temperature of its hottest year for the period from 1860 to 2005. In the University of Hawai’i press release about the report, Camilo Mora says: “The results shocked us. Regardless of the scenario, changes will be coming soon. Within my generation, whatever climate we were used to will be a thing of the past.”
This graphic from The Washington Post shows expected dates of this big change for several cities. If little changes, the average year for climate departure overall will be 2047 (yes, only 34 years from now); if greenhouse gas emissions were to be stabilized, the average year becomes 2069. Of particular concern to us in the Diocese of Nebraska given our companion dioceses in the Dominican Republic and South Sudan, tropical areas are expected to experience this change within the next decade. Chicago has a date of 2052 without mitigation and 2081 with stabilization of emissions.
With “business as usual” (click on image for full size)
With mitigation: (click on image for full size)
There is debate now among environmentalists about exactly how dire all of this is: do we face a very changed world that still supports human life, or are we looking at total human extinction? (Guy McPherson is a scientist who thinks the most recent evidence points to the latter. While I’m not yet convinced, his moving reflection on how we live that is the second half of this short video (starting around 2:17) can really speak to either option.) That we are even asking the question, though, is certainly cause for theological reflection that may help the church be an effective pastoral presence as the reality of climate change breaks through to increasing numbers of people.
Effects on people living in poverty
The Yale Environment 360 Digest reports on a study by the U.K.’s Overseas Development Institute that says that increased extreme weather events will make poverty worse in parts of the world that already are among the poorest. The study suggests that aid money should be spent on reducing the risks to people from extreme weather events instead of only on humanitarian relief after a disaster.
As the church looks at ways to respond to the challenges of climate change, this sort of study should be useful.
And lest we think the phenomena of climate refuges and of climate change affecting the poorest people first and worst are things that happen only in other countries, the Huffington Post ran Life on the Edge of Climate Change this week. The author, Babs Roaming Buffalo Bagwell, is the senior public relations and media liaison for The Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians. She describes how climate change affects her community every day, writing: Some may be ignoring this reality, but we don’t have that luxury. When the water’s edge is at your doorstep, sea level rise and extreme rainstorms aren’t political, they’re personal.
What do we have for this? And what/how do we teach our children?
At our Annual Council Eucharist, Bishop Barker brought our environmental reality into the homily: “We are in fact living in a moment of unprecedented challenge and change for humankind. We are hastening towards global environmental disaster. In the lifetime of the youngest people now dwelling on earth, everything changes.” Bishop Barker’s question from the show The Book of Mormon – “What do you have for this?” – is a question that we might ask repeatedly as we learn about climate change and reflect on the church’s response to this most urgent and global issue.
As I was writing this summary, Wendy Bell, a Unitarian minister I met at the Climate Reality Leadership Training this summer, posted on Facebook that she had just read the most pessimistic climate report she had yet seen. A little later, she posted this question:
Ministers: If you had been a chaplain on the Titanic, how might you have understood your role? DRE’s [Directors of Religious Education]: What would you have taught the children?
What are our roles as ministers – lay or ordained – in the Episcopal Church? How do we best live as the Body of Christ in a world that is in big trouble that is so seldom acknowledged? To use Walter Brueggemann’s term, how do we break through the numbness? And what do we do then?
And in light of what we know we can expect in their lifetimes, what do we teach the children? The latter is a huge question for the church that is seldom if ever discussed. What can we teach them about God and the world and their relationship with Christ and with one another that can prepare them for today’s world and for whatever the remainder of this century brings? How do we best model and teach the classic Christian disciplines of prayer, study, and love for God and one another so that our children are well-equipped spiritually to be the Body of Christ in a changed and changing world?
In many ways, it’s no different from what we’ve always done, preparing our children for whatever life might bring them. At this point of human history, though, when we know how fragile the future is for everyone (and when the adults in leadership positions are doing so little to ensure their future), it seems to be especially important to equip our children with the spiritual practices, traditions, and knowledge that will help them develop spiritually resilience that can last throughout their lifetimes.
– Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett
Note for Nebraska Episcopalian readers: Both locally and globally, the church’s work and welfare is bound up with environmental stability. As part of my work in the area of environmental stewardship, I’ve been sending periodic summaries or updates to Bishop Barker to help him stay informed about what is happening with the environment, and particularly what is unfolding in the world of climate science, and the ways in which Nebraskans and people of faith in various places are responding to our changing environment. Bishop Barker and I have decided to share these summaries as I send them to him.
Mid-September Environmental Summary
August 20 was “Earth Overshoot Day 2013”, the estimated date on which humankind’s ecological resource consumption for the year exceeded the earth’s ability to replenish those resources. According to the Global Footprint Network , Overshoot Day fell on October 21 in 1993 and on September 22 in 2003. This website and several others on the internet provide ways to calculate a personal environmental footprint or a carbon footprint, good exercises for church groups interested in taking a look at stewardship.
July 2013 was the 341st consecutive month of above average global temperatures. (August is expected to go into the record books as the 342nd, but that’s not official yet.) This means that people who are 28 years old or younger have never experienced a full month of average global temperatures.
People my age (baby-boomers) grew up with an assumption of climate stability; given the feedback loops already begun and the failure of governments to adopt effective climate policies, the assumption – conscious or not — for people beginning their adult lives now is that the world will continue to warm and the climate will continue to be less stable throughout their lifetime. Simply acknowledging that reality in our conversations, decision-making, and preaching in our churches is one simple way we can connect more deeply with younger adults.
We are well aware of the Colorado floods. The damage from this record-setting rainfall was worsened by areas where wildfires have left bare areas. Heat and drought created the conditions for wildfires, and the presence of trees killed by bark beetles worsened that situation. Warmer winters have allowed bark beetles to thrive and do large-scale damage to forests. This sort of scenario – heat and drought alternating with torrential rainfalls – is what climate scientists have predicted.
There is also flooding recently in Mexico and Japan. Mexico had Tropical Storm Manuel hitting its Pacific coast at the same time Tropical Depression Ingrid hit the Gulf coast. According to Reuters, 41 people died in the flooding, and tens of thousands of people have been evacuated in “historic” flooding. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated in Japan when Kyoto and surrounding areas were hit by a typhoon. The AP story reports:
The Meteorological Agency said the storm dumped an “unprecedented” amount of rainfall in Kyoto and two neighboring prefectures, dumping as much as 8 centimeters (3 inches) per hour.
Episcopal Relief and Development’s Disaster Risk Reduction program is a good example of the sorts of ways the church can respond to increasing climate instability.
Rising Seas and the People Affected First
Rising Seas is the cover story for the September issue of National Geographic. Tim Folger’s article starts out describing Superstorm Sandy’s effects last fall before turning to a general discussion of sea level rise, including what we know with some certainty and what remains unknown about the scale and timing of sea level rise. Folger reports that given what we know now “Many think sea level will be at least three feet higher than today by 2100. Even that figure might be too low.” There’s a good discussion of how some places might adapt by building various kinds of barriers. There’s also a very sobering discussion about the geological realities of Florida that make barriers useless for protecting Miami and many other places in Florida. Folger writes:
By the next century, if not sooner, large numbers of people will have to abandon coastal areas in Florida and other parts of the world. Some researchers fear a flood tide of climate-change refugees. “From the Bahamas to Bangladesh and a major amount of Florida, we’ll all have to move, and we may have to move at the same time,” says Wanless. “We’re going to see civil unrest, war. You just wonder how—or if—civilization will function. How thin are the threads that hold it all together? We can’t comprehend this. We think Miami has always been here and will always be here. How do you get people to realize that Miami—or London—will not always be there?”
At the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in the Marshall Islands early this month, fifteen nations in the southwestern Pacific signed the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership. The declaration begins by stating that climate change is “the greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific and one of the greatest challenges for the entire world.” Member nations committed to specific targets or actions that contribute more than previous efforts to “the urgent reduction and phase down of greenhouse pollution.” Nations that are built on low-lying atolls are keenly aware of the urgency of mitigating global warming and sea level rise. Their neighboring nations that are most likely to host refugees from islands made unlivable by rising sea water are also keenly aware of the situation.
National Geographic has online interactive maps that show what each continent would look like if all the ice now covering land were to melt. This is, of course, not an imminent event, but the maps give some idea of where the more vulnerable places lie for much lesser degrees of sea level rise.
Other effects of global warming like drought can also make communities vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change. A new world map originally published in the journal Nature Climate Change shows the comparative vulnerability to the effects of climate change in places around the world.
The map illustrates the global distribution of the climate stability/ecoregional intactness relationship. Regions with both high climate stability and vegetation intactness are dark grey; those with high climate stability but low levels of vegetation intactness are dark orange. Regions with low climate stability but high vegetation intactness are dark green, while those with both low climate stability and low levels of vegetation intactness are pale cream. Credit: WCS
Good Things to Read…
I really appreciated an Orion magazine blog post by Kathleen Dean Moore of recommended reading. She celebrates “broken-hearted hallelujah” books that acknowledge the reality of what is happening to our biosphere and yet still celebrate the beauty of the world. I’m ready to start one of the books she recommends, Apocalyptic Planet: A Field Guide to the Future of the Earth by Craig Childs. I was especially drawn to it because one of the “apocalyptic” places he visits is central Iowa. It is included for a lack of genetic diversity.
The “broken-hearted hallelujah” is related to the sort of real hope we in the church can offer the world at this time. We can celebrate God’s creation even as we acknowledge what we are losing and grieve its passing.
Right now I’m reading a book not on this list, Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible by Debbie Blue. So far, I’m finding it a great addition to my shelf of books about creation and spirituality. Along with exploring the biblical metaphors related to birds, the book brings in knowledge about the natural world for us to consider. She writes about being struck by the vulnerability of birds and says: “Many birds are on the brink of extinction. Without human influence (habitat destruction, climate change), the expected rate of extinction for birds would be around one species per century. Some reports say we are losing ten species a year. I hope considering the birds will motivate us to press for more responsible human behavior. If, as Emily Dickinson wrote, ‘hope is the thing with feathers,’ you’d think we’d be passionate about keeping it alive.” It’s been a great companion to our Diocesan Bible Challenge reading!
– Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett
“Environmental stewardship” is basically caring for the earth. Stewardship in general involves the careful and wise use of the gifts God has given us. In our traditional understanding, environmental stewardship involves the careful and wise use of a particular set of those gifts: the air, land, and water that support all living things. God’s placing Adam in the garden to till it and keep it is a story that reminds us that God expects us to be tillers and keepers of the earth, good gardeners. With a long history of conservation practices from soil conservation to Arbor Day and everything in between, Nebraskans are natural environmental stewards.
In most parishes, fall is the season for committing ourselves to a pledge of stewardship for the coming year. I remember the first time (I think in the late 1970′s) that I saw a pledge card with spaces for more than name, address, and number of dollars pledged. Various ministries of the parish were listed on the back, and we were asked to write down the ministries to which we pledged our time and talent. Seeing that card expanded my notion of stewardship in the church.
These sorts of pledge cards are common now, usually distributed after several reminders that gifts of time and talent are at least as important as monetary gifts. For those of us who have been around for many stewardship seasons, “time, talent, and treasure” is a familiar phrase.
Recently I was at a gathering of people committed to telling people about the reality of climate change and to advocating for practices to address climate change before we reach a point where catastrophic consequences become inevitable. We talked about ways to share the reality of “dirty weather” (extreme weather caused by carbon pollution from human activity) and its effects, but we also talked about happier news. While the reality of climate change and its effects can be alarming, we do have the technical know-how that would allow us to cut our use of fossil fuels dramatically. If we can find the will to do the right thing, there is great hope for a future with perhaps an even better way of life than we enjoy now.
One of the speakers said that the way to get from our present climate crisis to a brighter future is for all of us to use our “time, dime, and voice”. I had no more than noticed how catchy it was to couple ‘time’ with ‘dime’ when I realized the phrase also resonated with me because it was awfully close to that old, familiar “time, talent, and treasure” phrase. Especially when the speaker emphasized that ‘voice’ wasn’t limited to words — it could be art, music, presence — I realized it was really just another way to talk about talent.
Yes, environmental stewardship does involve traditional conservation practices and more recently learned recycling practices. But to count as stewardship in the way we understand it as Christians, it has to stretch beyond conservation of resources. Especially when the future of most species of plants and animals and even the future of human civilization as we have known it face a very real and very present threat from climate change, stretching ourselves to commit our time, talent, and treasure to the long-term sustainability of a planet that can support life is an essential piece of environmental stewardship for Christians today. A gift of time can help us learn more about what is happening, digging beyond what news headlines tell us. We can give our time to do something such as writing a letter to a political leader spelling out particular concerns about our inadequate response to climate change. Our talents can help us find ways to help others understand the importance of paying attention to what is happening, to help develop economic, technological, and political solutions to various aspects of climate change, and to find all sorts of creative ways to advocate for the earth or to support those who are doing this work. A commitment of treasure involves buying and investing in environmentally friendly products and companies rather than more harmful alternatives even if the environmentally friendly products cost more or yield a lower return on investment.
A devoted gardener cares for the garden not only through traditional good gardening practices such as weeding, watering, and conserving the soil, but by protecting the garden when something threatens to overrun or destroy the garden. Fr. Thomas Barry called tending to our relationship with the earth so that the relationship is mutually beneficial rather than mutually destructive The Great Work. Being tillers and keepers of the earth in this century calls us to The Great Work of environmental stewardship. If we do this work well, future generations will look back on our work with gratitude. It is morally essential for us to do our best while we have the opportunity.
Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennet
The weeks since the last summary I sent you have been filled with news about the environment and especially about climate change. I’m sure you are aware of some of the biggest items, such as the President’s major speech about climate change last week, the incredible record-breaking heat in the west and southwest, heavy rains and floods in India, Eastern Europe, and Alberta, and the storms that knocked out power many places on and near the East coast. The Association for Episcopal Deacons conference that I missed was without power for more than 24 hours.
In May the official readings of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from the Mauna Loa observatory passed 400 ppm for the first time (with 350 ppm or less being the target for sustaining our biosphere). The rapid melting of the Arctic sea ice and its effects not only on the polar region but also on weather patterns in lower latitudes (see record heat in the west, cold and wet spring here and in western Europe, etc.) remains a concern. The film Chasing Ice is now available on Netflix and elsewhere after being shown in theaters and then on the National Geographic channel; it’s a great way to get a feel for the magnitude of the changes taking place at the Arctic. I was able to catch it a couple months ago on the Lied Superscreen at the Hastings Museum, and count it as a deep spiritual experience. If you haven’t seen it and can make the time, I recommend it. Look at the Chasing Ice trailer for a 2.5 minute peek at it. It helped spur me to sign up for the Climate Reality Leadership Corps. I’ll be away at the end of July for that training.
Jeff Goodell wrote a major piece for Rolling Stone, Goodbye, Miami, about the underwater future of Miami. The combination of more intense rainfalls, hurricanes powered by warmer water, and Miami’s geology and geography make it especially vulnerable. The article does a good job of describing what people in Miami may experience by the middle of this century. There is an accompanying article about what some other coastal cities will be facing.
It’s of course only one dramatic example of what coastal cities face to some degree as sea level rise increases.
I’ve been on the board of Nebraska Interfaith Power and Light through its 4-5 year history. We have had some ups and downs in our work as we have tried to get our feet on the ground. Kim Morrow, a current GreenFaith Fellow and pastor at First Plymouth UCC in Lincoln, is working to merge a new religious environmental group she had begun with Nebraska IPL. I hope to make it to Lincoln on July 18 for a meeting to discuss restarting Nebraska IPL and reframing some of its work. Working closely with IPL, especially the national organization, can save us and other faith communities in Nebraska from reinventing the wheel in some areas, and the national organization has some good resources for churches to use.
Mary Pipher launched her new book, The Green Boat. I heard her speak the week it was published, and I was delighted to know that she is thinking from her perspective as a psychotherapist and a grandmother about some of the same things I’ve been thinking about from a spiritual perspective. She talks about facing the realities of climate change and other big, difficult issues in today’s world while keeping ourselves healthy and reasonably happy by engaging in action and staying connected in community. It’s a very accessible book and may reach some readers who wouldn’t pick up any other book about climate change. This morning her group of Lincoln grandmothers, The Apple Pie Brigade, was holding a press conference at the Capitol to announce that they are going global, intending to connect like-minded people across the country.
The Summer Heat actions around the climate are still planned around the country, most for the latter part of July. The Nebraska plan, a joint effort of Bold Nebraska, Farmers Union, and the Sierra Club, is planned as a different sort of advocacy action. Instead of protesting somewhere, the plan is to build a windmill and solar-powered barn in the path of the planned Keystone XL pipeline. The official plan is still to do this on weekends beginning at the end of July, but I’ve heard nothing about either the exact location or dates. I know that Bold Nebraska is still trying to raise money for building materials. Groundbreaking is August 17 with two build dates scheduled in September. Seehttp://boldnebraska.org/summer-heat for details.
President Obama keeps kicking the decision date for the Keystone XL down the road. Now the word is “late fall of 2013 or maybe even 2014” for a decision. Despite what he said in his speech, my guess is that it will get approved sometime. As I’ve said before, my guess is also that it will never get built in Nebraska. TransCanada is losing money on it already because of the delay; the longer it is delayed, the less profitable the project is for them. Best case – but unlikely – scenario is that they cut their losses and withdraw the proposal.
President Obama surprised the environmental community when his big climate speech at Georgetown included these words: “Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.”
It seems I’m not alone in having experienced an internal shift as a result of the extreme weather events in recent weeks and the symbolic though significant reaching of the 400 ppm CO2 readings. Except for those who are able and willing to devote their time and energy to living isolated lives completely off the grid, we are necessarily part of the problem whenever we do anything that requires energy. (And even those off the grid can’t completely escape.) But I do think it is time for the church to consider divesting our portfolios of investments in the fossil fuel industry. I’m obviously not an economist, but along with the morality of the situation, it is inevitable that these investments will cease to be the safe and sure investments we have known as more support goes to better energy alternatives.
This Sunday’s lectionary brought some of these thoughts together for me, and I wrote a little about it in the Green Sprouts blog post Discipleship and Abandoning Business As Usual.
Yesterday the United Church of Christ voted to move toward divestment from fossil fuel companies. GreenFaith is offering a webinar the evening of July 15 on “The Bible, Divestment, and Reinvestment” with the Rev. Richard Cizik and Rabbi Larry Troster. I’ve signed up for it. We may have houseguests that evening, but it will be available as a recording to anyone who signs up for it. I’ll send along the invitation for you to see, and you can add your name on if you might want access to the recording at some point.
Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett