Comedian Red Green of Possum Lodge fame authored the man’s prayer:
I’m a man.
I can change.
If I have to.
Humanity doesn’t take well to change. Scholars point out that significant historical change is usually the result of either catastrophe, financial disaster, or social upheaval. To use Red Green’s framing, we change when we have to.
Human foibles, of course, have long been the grist for comedy and those giggles do serve a purpose: they’re the backdoor to honesty. The comedian can expose the human quirks which nobody is supposed to acknowledge out loud — the emperor has no clothes! A good laugh is therapeutic.
These days I spend a lot of time volunteering with Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) where the laser focus is on the need to address climate change.
Not everyone agrees. Natural cycles they protest. True, climate has always changed. The Earth is never static. Geologic ages respond to the Earth’s tilt about its polar axis and elliptical orbit around the sun. Throw in some volcanic eruptions and oscillations in plant life and you get changing climate. The geologic record indicates a 100,000-year cycle between ice ages and temperate eras.
Here’s the rub — human activity is altering the cycle. If the geologic cycle were holding, Earth would now be moving into a glacial phase but it isn’t. Instead, the climate is heating up. That fact actually has some appeal. The lovely Elsa of Arendelle notwithstanding, most of us don’t want to live in a frozen world.
The problem isn’t warming, however, but out-of-control, accelerating warming. Scientists are telling us that the continuous addition of carbon pollution into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels is destabilizing the natural systems which undergird our lives. We’re in a car recklessly rolling down the mountain. Unchecked, this won’t end well.
It’s time to put on the brakes. We need to change. Science is telling us that we still have a window of opportunity but we need to make a deep and rapid reduction in our use of fossil fuels. That simple statement is a mind-boggling prescription. This feels like a COVID-19 scenario. We need to lock down in order to stop the virus. But if we do that, we’ll tank the economy. If we destabilize the economy…?
Unlike COVID-19, climate change isn’t a sudden onset phenomenon. Scientists have been studying and calling this out since the 1830s. The 2018 IPCC report brought all that study to a crescendo, highlighting the urgent need to respond now. Humanity has a 10 to 12-year window for action. Think of science as the backdoor to honesty, telling us what we dare not say out loud.
COVID-19 gave us an unexpected peek into what the future could be if we decarbonize. Temporary suspension of flying and driving cleared the air. Los Angelenos could see the mountains, Indians could see the Taj Mahal. Asthmatic children breathed easier.
The economic news isn’t bleak either. Conversion to a green economy creates millions of stable jobs, democratizes energy supply, minimizes global conflict, and improves public health.
At Citizens’ Climate Lobby, we say that our job is to create the political will for a livable world. We don’t casually advocate for change. We’re not cheerleaders. We ask for change because we have to. The truth is that we all have to. Katharine Hayhoe, world-class climate scientist and evangelical Christian says that the task is 60/40. Sixty percent of the job is in shaping public policy and forty percent is in changing our own personal energy habits. Putting on the brakes means finding your place in that formula.
There’s an old adage which says that the best way to clean up a mess is to prevent it. Beyond adage, however, there exists an old wisdom which predates even our psyche. In tapping that deep well, Jesus once said: What king on his way to war with another king will not first sit down and consider whether he can engage with ten thousand men the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace (Luke 14).
In the context of climate change, we’re up against a force which we can’t resist. We need to ask for terms of peace and move into prevention mode. The consequences of not doing so will be severe. Ecosystems pushed beyond their tipping points will be lost forever. The time to reverse course is now.
Social scientists are accurately insightful in identifying their three drives of change.
Christian people, however, know that there is a fourth. We know that change is what God calls us to do. We joyfully declare change in our confessions — I was lost but now am found. My life changed. Brokenness was my beginning but now change is the way of reconciliation and restoration.
Christian ears can hear the old wisdom. It’s there in one of our old hymns:
This is my Father’s world,
and to my listening ears
all nature sings and round me rings
the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world,
I rest me in the thought
of rocks and trees, of skies and seas
his hand the wonders wrought.
A timely reminder and an inspiring call to action.
Two reading suggestions for those seeking a deeper understanding of the pickle we have placed ourselves in:
–David Wallace-Wells, Uninhabitable Earth — a very wide-ranging and sobering but not polemical overview of numerous climate systems
–the July 26 issue of the NY Times Magazine, which is entirely devoted to a NYT – Pro Publica research collaboration on climate migration
Link to this week’s NY Times Magazine:
Link to a review of Wallace-Wells (pardon the personal plug):
I appreciate this very important issue. I also think that it isn’t partisan. There are “republican” (see conservative, free market) responses to climate change and “democratic” (see liberal/progressive, free market with constraints) responses to climate change. The key is a response. For me the only issue that I take with you writing is that I can’t see it as a 60/40 proposition. Reports show that it is more like a 80(90)/20(10) response. There must be personal changes to address climate change, but until we recognize that the major users of fossil fuels are businesses and the structural changes that must take place in how we do business, we’re never going to address climate change in a significant way. There are answers. Do we have the will?
I think it is unfortunate that the responses you mention have become associated with certain political parties. All these responses are needed and we should have started them thirty years ago when the climate change issue become quite well understood. The responses also need to be treated as part of an integrated program. If we do not do that, particular responses can actually work against each other as people try to game the system. For example, market solutions such as a carbon tax require that the tax be set high enough to make other forms of energy production competitive and drive energy conservation. Mandating ethanol addition to gasoline without considering other costs pushes one kind of alternate energy without considering its overall cost to the environment and food security.
With regard to the climate change issue, the single largest problem we have in the United States is the refusal of one political party to even admit that there is a problem. Until that party and its adherents in Congress are willing to a) admit that there is a problem and b) commit to creating a bipartisan, coherent US energy plan, we are not going anywhere.
Thanks for writing this. The Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church have the theology and the official positions that we need to address the issue of stewardship and social justice regarding climate change. What we lack is the will as individuals and as church communities to take the stand that we should. Katherine and I are friends and I respect her tremendously, but I also think the 60/40 split is incorrect. We need systemic changes in how we create, price, and use energy. I cannot do this as an individual. I can only pressure my elected officials to enact the systemic changes that we need. I can practice conservation in my life style, and doing so is a Christian virtue, but we need a collective change.
Rodney & Tom,
I don’t object to your questioning about the proportions of the 60/40 formula. I agree that the key change must be in public policy, that’s why I’m active with CCL. We can debate about where to draw the line, but good public policy will be determinative. That said, I won’t minimize the importance of individual action. Integrity demands it because you can’t legitimately ask for changes that you yourself aren’t pursuing. I’d also add that as James & Deborah Fallows note in Our Towns, change, in America, is being driven at the local level and by individuals and small groups who have a vision and won’t take no for an answer. Good public policy will reflect concensus and establish the rules-of-the-road, but in the end, it’s not enough. People don’t follow laws, they follow leaders.