Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Disappearing Homes

“Abandonment and Retreat”

Yesterday’s Washington Post told about the collapse of the last remaining house on a disappearing island in Chesapeake Bay.  The article explains that sea levels in Chesapeake Bay are rising more quickly than in most other coastal regions because the fairly recent phenomenon of overall rising oceans is combined there with an ancient geological phenomenon that is causing an overall sinking of the area. The two factors working together have produced some dramatic results on islands where villages were home to people in the 20th century.

Toward the end of the article is mention that the disappearance of this one house isn’t an isolated event; the entire Chesapeake Bay is expected to be affected by this. “And Maryland is contemplating how to, in one official's words, ‘facilitate abandonment and retreat’ when faster-rising waters eventually threaten towns on the Eastern Shore's mainland.

I came across this article after reading something with less immediate human interest but of great significance, pointing to the greatest melting in Greenland since records were first kept in the 19th century. Meltdown in Greenland: inland ice drips away at record speed is an article posted on www.denmark.dk, the official website of Denmark. “New calculations show that the amount of melted inland ice in Greenland is 25-50% higher in 2010 than normally,” says the report from a Danish research scientist, Sebastian Mernild, working at the Los Alamos lab. The accelerated melting in Greenland this summer is further evidence that Arctic melting is proceeding faster than expected. This is the same summer in which the notoriously big – four times the size of Manhattan -- piece of the Petermann glacier break off.

As oceans rise, huge numbers of people all around the world will be displaced. Homes have already disappeared some places. This article from Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald tells about the work of photographer Rodney Dekker who traveled to Bangladesh to show others the human cost of climate change. The article notes that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that the rising sea will cover 17% of Bangladesh by 2050, which would displace 20 million people. An unimaginable number of homes will disappear in that country alone! Given the acceleration in Arctic melting, the IPCC report is now generally considered to be conservative in its predictions.

For Nebraskans, this can all seem very far away. But if huge numbers of homes disappear in coastal areas, there will be huge numbers of climate refugees. Immigration reform is already a major political issue in Nebraska; when millions of people’s homes have disappeared, moving somewhere else will be their only option. Add to that people forced to move from our own nation’s low-lying coastal areas – think about the people fleeing New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, for example – and it’s easy to imagine that we will feel the effects even if we were to try to isolate ourselves from them. And as Christians, we are called away from selfish isolation to serve those in need. We are called to welcome the stranger, to love others whose homes have disappeared the way we would want to loved if we were the climate refugees.

We are good at helping our neighbors in Nebraska after a tornado or fire destroys a home. When Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. Our neighbors might be strangers, people on the road who need our help. When we see our global neighbors, Jesus calls us away from abandonment of their needs and retreat into isolation.

Given all of this, we are called to be good stewards, to promote a sustainable environment. It seems that another good role for the church now – as always – is truth telling. Jesus told the truth about the cross even though the disciples didn’t want to hear it, and he also told the truth about the resurrection. Thinking about the possibilities of climate change and what that means in terms of human needs takes most of us outside of our comfort zone; we would rather not hear it.

Along with rising sea levels are the unknown effects of climate change on agriculture, on food supply chains, on our economy as a whole. The security of our metaphorical home, that mental place where we assume a certain level of stability in the essentials of life in the middle of the United States, may also disappear. Finding our true home, our true security, in God – always a sound spiritual practice – will be more essential than ever. Flexibility and adaptability as people and as a church will be essential if we are to continue serving as the Body of Christ. Openness to the truth and to abandonment of our false securities points to the hope in all of this, that at home in Christ we will continue to find nourishment and meaning.

For more about climate refugees, see this recent National Catholic Reporter review of the book Climate Refugees.

The documentary Climate Refugees is described on the Sundance Festival website here.  This is a trailer of the film:

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