While sitting and waiting for my turn to vote in the election of our new bishop last Saturday, the idea came to me of writing an open letter to whomever we elected that day, a letter that would talk about the importance of our diocese putting and keeping environmental issues before us in a more intentional way. Like most everyone who was at the election, once we elected The Rev. J. Scott Barker , turned in our credentials, and got home (though my getting home, unlike that of others, was an easy and happily eco-friendly matter since I live near the Pro-Cathedral), I was exhausted. The idea of an open letter was forgotten.
Sunday morning, I woke up eager to get up to Grand Island and share the news of the election with folks at St. Stephen’s. It was exciting to think about the new possibilities for ministry in several areas that might emerge in our diocese under Scott’s leadership. As I do most Sundays, I got up early enough to have a leisurely breakfast and check the weather report and news headlines before heading to church. The news of the day quickly reminded me that there are things about which we – all of us, in the church and out of the church – need to be talking much more than we are. There are things we need to be thinking through and doing that we are instead putting out of our minds and neglecting doing. I remembered my idea about writing to our bishop-elect about these issues.
From Sunday on the news stories brought the issue of climate change both closer to home and closer to a place where ignoring the issue was becoming more difficult for many people. When I picked up the Sunday papers from our porch, the Omaha World Herald featured a story about the Missouri River flooding: Even tamed, river a threat. When I checked the weather forecast on The Weather Channel website, there were links to articles such as Expert says Tornadoes 106% Above Average and California’s June Oddity about the highly unusual amount of rain in California in early June. The New York Times online ran an article with the headline Food Supply Under Strain on a Warming Planet.
As the week went on, records for high temperatures were broken in many American cities, fires burned in Arizona (the maps and photos on Wildfire Today give some idea of the size of the affected area), people along the Platte River as well as the Missouri were warned of flooding, and temperatures continued to be high in the eastern part of the country.
It seemed this week that more people were making a connection between all of these “extreme weather” events and climate change. There was news of a timely Stanford University study predicting that “large areas of the globe are likely to warm up so quickly by the middle of this century even the coolest summers will be hotter than the hottest summers of the past 50 years.” The study talks about an “irreversible rise” – yes, irreversible – for the tropics and much of the Northern Hemisphere if – and our hope is tied to negating this antecedent ‘if’ clause – greenhouse gas concentrations continue to increase. On Wednesday, Plomomedia put this illustrated and narrated version of Bill McKibben’s essay A link between climate change and Joplin tornadoes? Never! on YouTube:
And today Richard Black of the BBC reports that the observed climate warming since 1995 – the warming that seemed to match the predictions of climate scientists – has now, with the accumulation of one more year of data, reached the point of statistical significance.
With that sample of the kinds of things we know about and are thinking about with regard to the climate, we come to the idea of an open letter to our bishop-elect, Scott Barker. While I hope to see the sort of leadership from Scott that would be helpful as we work with this issue, it hardly seems right to address a letter to a bishop-elect asking him to take on the task of leading us into the coming years with our eyes wide open to the realities of the world around us as if the bishop is the only one with any responsibility for this work. Rather, it seems better to have people already in the Diocese of Nebraska ready to talk with our new bishop about the impact of these issues in this place and to present creative ideas for him to consider as he gets his feet on the ground. Instead of an open letter to our new bishop, then, consider this an open plea to the diocese as a whole to be ever mindful of climate change and other environmental issues as we do ministry in our diocese and in our parishes. Given the lack of questions during the walkabout about either the effects of climate change on our programs or the church’s response to this pressing need in our world, we have some work to do to get to that level of awareness.
I don’t know off the top of my head the particulars of what these radical changes in our world might mean to our planning, to our living out our mission. That’s something we have to tackle as a diocese. What is clear to me is this: we can discern where we go with our knowledge about these changes only if we truly know and accept the reality of where climate change leaves us. Climate change is no longer a separate issue. It isn’t something that a handful of people in the diocese think we should address because it relates to the Millennium Development Goals or because it shows that the Episcopal Church cares about the world. All of those are still among the reasons to do this work, but the failure of our institutions – governmental, religious, civic – as a whole to have done this work early enough and well enough leaves us with something much more urgent and much bigger, something we can’t continue to leave unacknowledged most of the time.
We must do some triage; we must ask which elements of our current life as a diocese are essential and which things might be, while good and worthwhile in themselves, expendable or open to revision in this time of rapid change. We need to ask what new elements of ministry might help us better minister to the world and to our own faith community in this century. The whole of what we are doing now is at best unsustainable. Insofar as it lulls us into assuming that the way we are living is spiritually sound it is worse than unsustainable; insofar as it leads us to think that the way we have lived and the way we have done church in the past is still the way to follow Christ today, we are leading people into sin.
We will change in this century, while many of us are still living on this earth. Staying the same is not a long-term option. We can choose to make significant changes (and some of these will be difficult changes) now in order to mitigate the effects of climate change on our lives in the future, or we can choose to continue to do business as usual, church as usual, for a few more years until change of a graver nature is ours with no more choice in the matter. The first choice gives us opportunity to do a new thing with joy; the latter choice might give us some short-term comfort. As we sang at the Election Council Eucharist, "Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days."