response: December 2013 Issue

Climate Change and the Church

Climate Change and the Church

“I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.”
- Deuteronomy 30:19

We have it on high authority that we were given a choice between life and death; and that we were asked to choose life. Without being overly dramatic or pessimistic, no one looking at the environmental trends could say we have chosen life. So, I want to talk about climate change, the issue of our time, and our obligation as a church. I don't want to get into all the science, but as church members and as followers of Christ, as people who profess to care for the creation, we have to understand how the creation works and how human actions affect the creation. We've got to understand enough earth system science to counter those who seek to confuse the issue.

The science

If I showed a picture of the Coke banner or the McDonald's "m" or the Nike swoosh, everybody around the world would know them, but most people don't know the numbers of the Keeling curve, a record of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (see graph). When David Keeling went to Mauna Loa in the Hawaiian chain in 1958 to measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it was 315 parts per million. If you extend the left side of the Keeling curve graph out about 640,000 years, it doesn't go above 280 parts per million. We just crossed 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere in May of this year. That's a complicated way to say we've never been here before, not as a species-the planet has been, but that was millions of years ago. And there is no plan to stop this before it hits 450 or 500 parts per million.

We know from the science that C02 in the atmosphere and temperature go kind of in tandem: one goes up and the other goes up. There could be a bit of a lag, but these are related, as is methane and some other things. It's not entirely clear about cause and effect, but these run in tandem.…

As a society, we've acted as though you can raise the temperature of the planet and nothing else happens, but that's not how this black swan world we read about in the morning paper works. Small changes have very big effects. The earth is a complicated system. The earth warms unevenly. The oceans have been the big thermal anchor, so the earth doesn't warm immediately. You don't emit carbon from your car or smoke stack, and all of a sudden the earth warms at some predictable level. They are not that tightly coupled, but they are closely coupled.

There's about a 30-year lag between what comes out of our tailpipes and smoke stacks and the climate-change driven weather effects that we experience. For years now, all around the world we're seeing hottest hots, wettest wets, driest dries and windiest wind conditions. We're looking at the oceans warming, and as the oceans warm and acidify, where they do not absorb carbon, then we will see a large spike in temperature. There are some signs this is beginning to occur. In other words, we're seeing the planet not just get warmer, but it is destabilizing in all kinds of ways. We're seeing you don't just raise a thermostat and nothing else happens.

Because of that 30-year lag, the effects we're seeing now have nothing to do with 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere today. Rather, they have everything to do with what we did in 1982 and 1983. Since we've already hit 400 parts per million and the rate of increase is rising, the effects are now locked in for 30 or so years. Carbon tends to stay in the atmosphere for a long time, so once we've changed atmospheric chemistry, it's a long-term change.

If you follow the science, it wasn't long ago when we were told that 2 degrees centigrade warming was the ultimate we could handle, and beyond that all bets are off. Yet we're already at about a .9 degrees centigrade increase. Given the lag, we are probably locked into another .4 to 1.2 degree warming, a substantial warming.

That's the future we are to live in-and that's the toughest messaging problem ever. Do we tell people the truth and risk paralyzing them, or do we soft-peddle this message and describe it as a "solvable problem?" A broken carburetor on a pickup truck is a solvable problem, and Americans are good at solving problems. But this is not solvable in the same sense.

So what do we tell people?

Remain hopeful. Do everything that you can where you are, in every way possible. Don't be locked into despair, but there is a different world coming. Optimism is a prediction that you're going to win, and pessimism is a sin. Hope is that middle ground, a verb with its sleeves rolled up. If you're optimistic or pessimistic, you don't have to act. If you're hopeful, you must act.

Read the rest of Dr. Orr's provocative plea for the church to act on climate change in the December issue of response

Dr. David Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics and senior advisor to the president at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. This article consists of edited excerpts from his address at the United Church of Christ General Synod in Long Beach, Calif., July 2, and is printed with that church's permission.

Posted or updated: 11/30/2013 11:00:00 PM