Friday, November 15, 2013

Climate Update and Questions for the Church

Environmental Summary: Introduction

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.

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. Its 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. 

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 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”

With mitigation:
There is debate 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.