Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
From the Fourth National Climate Assessment, US Global Change Research Program:
“Humanity’s effect on the Earth system, through the large-scale combustion of fossil fuels and widespread deforestation and the resulting release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as well as through emissions of other greenhouse gases . . . is unprecedented. There is significant potential for humanity’s effort on the planet to result in unanticipated surprises and a broad consensus that the further and faster the Earth system is pushed toward warning, the greater risk of surprises. . . .
“The probability of such surprises – some of which may be abrupt and/or irreversible – increases at eh influence of human activities on the climate system increases.”
From Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
We are nature, long have we been absent, but now we return.
We become plants, trunks, foliage, roots, bark,
We are bedded to the ground in the openings side by side
We browse, we are two among the wild herds,
We are two fishes swimming
We are what locust blossoms are, we drop scents around lanes mornings and evenings
We prowl fang’d and four-footed in the woods
We are clouds driving overhead
We are seas mingling
We are what the atmosphere is, transparent, receptive
We are snow, rain, cold, darkness
We have circled and circled
till we have arrived home, again.
It was an early summer afternoon a year ago when my wife, Debbie, and I were touring the historic district of Charleston, South Carolina. I had seen dark clouds on the horizon, so I made sure to pack an umbrella for our walk.
Sure enough, on leaving some music venue we were greeted by an intense rain shower. We waited for a while, hoping the storm would let up, but, if anything, it intensified. We needed to get back to the apartment we had rented. So, we just decided to hoof it and hope we didn’t get too wet.
After walking a few blocks, though, we were startled by what we found. Reaching Market Street, a central east-west street that marked the site of a historic slave market, we found not pavement, but a river. This is no exaggeration. The murky brown water was moving fast and had climbed over the curb onto the sidewalk.
We watched as some daring folks tried wading across, walking in water that was knee-deep, and deeper in places. As the rain began to let up, we decided to chance it, and slowly slogged across. In a bedraggled state, we eventually made it back to the apartment.
Now, sudden rainstorms are nothing new for Charleston. But what we experienced was something that is. Sea levels in the area have risen so high that street sewers that empty into the river get quickly overwhelmed in a strong rain, and the water has no place to go other than the streets.
These events are now common, and storm surges from hurricanes like Irma last fall regularly flood almost the entire district. Charleston, together with other low-lying cities like Miami and New Orleans, are ground zero for a great storm that’s rising: a storm that promises not just wet feet for tourists but the transformation of our country, of the world.
It is pointless now to argue about the truth of climate change. It is an established fact, as is the role that we humans have played, are playing to bring it about. The question before us now, the ethical demand, is how we, the inheritors of this legacy, will turn this juggernaut that has enriched us in so many ways and yet also threatens our very existence.
As you heard James read from the Fourth National Climate Assessment, published last fall, the urgency for action comes as much from what we don’t know as what we do. First, though, a few details.
The way that we humans are altering the climate, through the burning of fossil fuels and development that strips forests and other landscapes, the report says, “is unprecedented.” The result is that we are living in the warmest period in the history of modern civilization. Sixteen of the warmest years on record were the last 17 years.
But it’s not just average high temperatures that are the trouble. There are more extremes of temperature and precipitation – more heat waves and violent storms – that are playing havoc with agriculture, and damaging homes, cities, landscapes and infrastructure – things like the fire – flood cycle in California.
Also, the effects of warming vary dramatically. In the last 50 years, for example, average air temperatures in Alaska and the Arctic have risen twice as fast as average global temperatures. One result is that Arctic ice is melting at a rapid rate, having thinned by 4 to 7 feet since the 1980s and is melting at least 15 more days per year. It also results in the melting of permafrost, which adds heat-trapping methane to the atmosphere. Even more, it is disrupting massive weather patterns, such as the path of the jet stream and El Nino events.
And, since most of the excess heat we create – 93% of it – is absorbed in the oceans, it warms the water. That’s a problem because warming water expands, creating a 5- to 10-fold increase in coastal flooding since 1960. Warmer water also absorbs increasing amounts of CO2, making the ocean more acidic. That, in turn, endangers shellfish and other sea life.
All of this is so new, the scientists tell us, we’re not entirely sure what it’s effects will be. But there is, they say, “significant potential” that “unanticipated surprises” await us, and that, likely, “the further and faster” that we are pushed toward warming, “the greater the risk of surprises.”
What kind of surprises? Among the possibilities, the report says, are “shifts in the Earth’s climate system.” This could mean such worries as collapse of polar ice sheets, changes in ocean currents, widespread heat, drought and wildfires. None of these changes are academic. They would result in inundated coastal cities, massive extinction of species, agricultural collapse and, with it, starvation, epidemic illness, and, likely, war. Yeah, pretty darn gloomy stuff!
The problem is that we humans are not especially adept at responding to hazards that loom in the distance. We like our emergencies smack in the face, up close and personal, where we can save the day with heroic action.
The problem is that factors driving climate change take many years to build up. What scientists are telling us is that waiting until the worst effects are upon us will make it too late for our responses to have much impact. Instead of reducing the impacts of climate change, we will be left merely to respond to them, and meanwhile, endure the enormous losses they bring.
Oddly, to remedy this, what they are asking for is something a little bit like faith. They are asking that policy makers and ordinary folks like us take the risk of trusting in the discipline of science that has brought humankind such bounty and act now to heed its warnings.
But we can’t expect that will be easy. It will require discomfort, sacrifice, and loss. Dialing back the fossil fuel economy and scaling back our heedless pace of development zero in on the engines of wealth of our time. And both those in charge and those who depend on those engines for their livelihoods will be loath to change. However earnest our pleas, however artful our science, we face a tough time turning the battleship of commerce.
But there is also a spark of hope: Many creative people are at work on technologies, spawning businesses and organizing communities in ways that help us live better in tune with the Earth’s living systems. We just need to be prepared for when the hard push-back comes. The current administration in Washington gives us a good picture of what that looks like.
Meanwhile, what is required of us, may be something like a Palm Sunday spirit: a willingness to enter challenging spaces – the marketplace of ideas, the halls of debate, heck, conversations with our neighbors – guided by our faith in a greater world and a greater love.
These are places where communicating our commitment to the web of life that embraces us, that sustains us, of which we are inescapably a part, is so important. So is our respect for human ingenuity that has helped us make sense of and make a home on Earth – in other words, science.
Think your words will make no difference? Don’t bet on it. Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist who is married to an evangelical minister and spoke recently in Asheville, was asked recently what was the most important action that people concerned about climate change could take. She said: talk about it. Most people don’t, she added. Maybe you don’t want to pick a fight or start an argument. But, she said, “there are lots of positive ways to connect with people on things they already care about and why it matters to us and what we can do about it.”
It’s hard to overstate the importance of this work. For what’s at stake truly is our salvation and the salvation of the Earth as we know it. None of this work is new to us as Unitarian Universalists. Respect for the natural world has been central to us for centuries.
One example who my colleague Susan Ritchie points to is the work of UU theologian Bernard Loomer. Loomer argued that interdependence is the condition of all life. And this interdependence, he said, is what gives rise to love. Love is sparked when we see how we are connected to another, and it grows as we see the unfolding interconnection of all things.
In time, we see that all of the ways that we have sought to insulate ourselves from the Web of life, to proclaim our uniqueness over and above it, have only done us damage.
With Walt Whitman, “we are nature”: joined with flowers and roots and foliage, with wild herds, fishes swimming, seas mingling, with snow and rain, with deserts and ice, with forests and plains. We have circled and circled till we have arrived home. And having arrived we are called to act. We are called to truly know the world and ourselves.
It is something, as Mary Oliver suggests, that we know we need. Little by little, she says, we let go of our fears, our misgivings. And we hear a new voice that we recognize as our own, one that keeps us company as we stride deeper and deeper into the world determined to do the only thing we can do determined to save the only life, the only world that we can save.