By Fr. John Rausch, Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace
Science got it wrong. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading international body for the assessment of climate change, thought the earth had more time to respond, but the polar ice sheets are melting 100 years ahead of its 2001 forecast. The rate of sea-ice melt in the Arctic is currently 30 years ahead of its 2007 projection, and ocean acidity caused by carbon dioxide pollution is rising 10 to 20 times faster than models predicted. If carbon dioxide levels reach their projected 450 parts per million in two decades, the U.S. Southwest, southern Europe, northern Africa, southern Africa and western Australia could become dust bowls.
Climate change is occurring. For many people the question is whether it’s natural or human-induced. If natural, then people will adapt. Uncomfortable Floridians can move to northern Alberta, and folks in the arid Southwest can migrate to Michigan.
If human-induced, then we need to mend our ways and fix the problem. Indeed, human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, are resoundingly recognized as the principle cause of climate change.
In the next century the enormous melting ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica will raise sea levels one to five feet endangering nearly 650 million people living in low-elevation coastal areas around the world. The rich will leave, but the poor will be left behind. Already according to the Global Humanitarian Forum climate change is killing over 300,000 people annually, mainly in developing nations, by drought, stronger storms and severe water shortages leading to loss of crops and livelihoods. Hereafter, for people of faith the option for the poor has become intertwined with our lifestyle choices.
But climate change is not politically popular. Between 1998 and 2002, consistently 30 percent of Gallup poll respondents said the seriousness of global warming was “generally exaggerated.” By 2010 that number jumped to 42 percent. President Obama mentioned “climate change” only once in his 2012 State of the Union address, but mentioned “energy” 23 times.
The energy corporations, heavily invested in fossil fuels, want passage of the Keystone XL pipeline to move tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. However, turning bitumen-soaked rock into refined gasoline for our cars involves 30 to 60 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than emissions for an average barrel of oil.
Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and evangelical Christian at Texas Tech University, sees three reasons for the disconnect between believers and the findings of science.
First, “the evidence is not easy to see.” With air conditioning and adjustable thermostats, everything looks and feels fine. But, recall the photos of birds and shorelines caked in oil after the Exxon Valdez and the BP oil spills. Weep with community people flooded because of mountaintop removal. We run oil and strip mountains to support our lifestyles that produce some extremely graphic effects on the environment.
Second, “confusion is rampant.” Those with a vested interest in the status quo promote a doubt about climate change, but 97 percent of peer reviewed climatologists agree about its impending threat. Carbon dioxide can be measured; rising temperatures can be tracked.
Third, “the truth is frightening.” Denial is our first defense against impending doom, but people of faith know a converted heart coupled with the resolve of community can create ways of living more lightly on the earth. We can emphasize relationships over things and spirituality and study over adventure.
Perhaps climate change will remind us about how critically interdependent we are to one another and God’s creation.