Hope and the Climate Crisis

Humanity today is facing a grave crisis. Unfortunately, it seems that its gravity is not yet sufficiently grasped by enough of us, so collectively we are not taking sufficient steps to avert the worst consequences. In this talk I will try to outline some of the aspects of this crisis as I understand them. But there is another issue I want to talk about also, and that is hope.

The Earth’s climate is changing. It is getting warmer. Unlike major changes in the climate that have occurred in the past, the current change is largely brought about by human activity since the beginning of the industrial revolution. And this man-made change is occurring faster than previous climate changes that came about through natural causes.

Global warming is caused by the trapping of energy of the sun by greenhouse gases. The sun radiates across the electromagnetic spectrum, including visible light, ultraviolet and infrared. About a third of this energy is reflected back into space. The rest is absorbed by the Earth, especially the oceans. The Earth reradiates the energy it has absorbed. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, including water vapor, carbon dioxide and methane, let visible light escape but trap certain types of infrared radiation. The net effect of this process, called the “greenhouse effect,” is to heat up the planet.

95% of greenhouse gas is caused by water vapor, but virtually all of that is of natural origin, and we can do little about it. The primary greenhouse gas caused by human activity is CO2, which is emitted by the burning of fossil fuels. CO2 remains in the atmosphere for a long time, thousands of years. Thus its effect is cumulative. At the beginning of the industrial revolution (1780) the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million. In 1990 concentration had risen to 354 ppm and was increasing at a rate of 1.3 ppm per year, reaching 367 ppm in 2000. Between 2000 and 2010 the yearly increase was 2.4 ppm, and in 2017 the concentration has reached 406 ppm, with a rate of increase at 3 ppm per year.

Over the first nine months of 2015, global mean warming reached 1°C above preindustrial for the first time. At the 2014  IPCC international conference in Paris, countries agreed to take steps to hold the warming to 2° C by 2100. In the absence of steps the projected change by 2100 is 4° C or even higher.

What are the effects of the global warming that has already occurred? Heat waves in many parts of the world have already killed thousands. In August, 2017 parts of Europe experienced their most extreme heat in more than a decade as temperatures hit 44° C (111° F). Several countries issued health warnings as the record-breaking weather conditions continued to affect swathes of the continent. Sweltering temperatures in Italy have sparked wildfires, and dozens of towns and cities are on the health ministry’s maximum heat alert. The heat wave has left some regions facing the threat of severe drought.

An especially deadly form of heat is the combination of heat and humidity. The “wet-bulb” index puts a limit to human survivability. At an index about 35° C the body can’t cool itself and humans can survive only a few hours, the exact length of time determined by individual physiology. This threshold is reached when the air temperature exceeds 35° C (95° F) and humidity is above 90 percent. Higher temperatures require less humidity to become deadly. At an air temperature of 100° F the web-bulb survivability threshold is reached at a humidity level of 85 percent. A recent study projects that if greenhouse emissions are not curbed, by the end of the century temperatures in parts of India and most of Bangladesh will exceed this deadly threshold during seasonal heat waves.

Another impact of climate change is an increase in the frequency and severity of droughts in some parts of the world, while there is increased flooding elsewhere. This comes about because higher temperatures cause water to evaporate more quickly and dry out surfaces. At the same time, air can contain more water vapor so that when rain does occur it comes down in heavy downpours. Droughts are also impacted by land uses changes, such as deforestation. This is happening in the Amazon rain forest, which has experienced three 100-year droughts in the decade 2005 – 2015.

Not only heavy downpours and flooding can occur from climate change but also extreme weather in the form of severe storms. Super typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, the most intense storm to make landfall, and killed many thousands of people. This event occurred during the 2013 IPPC climate talks and caused Philippine climate representative Yeb Saño to embark upon a fast, appealing to the world to take steps to deal with the climate crisis.

It is not only human life that is impacted by climate change, but the whole ecosystem of the planet is changing, with species becoming extinct at an increasing rate. The world’s oceans are virtually choking on rising greenhouse gases, destroying marine ecosystems and breaking down the food chain — irreversible changes that have not occurred for several million years. The oceans are the Earth’s heart and lungs, producing half the world’s oxygen and absorbing 30% of man-made CO2. The world’s oceans are more acidic now than they have been for at least 300 million years, due to CO2 emissions. A mass extinction of key species may already be almost inevitable as a result.

Coral reefs are the most diverse of all marine ecosystems. They teem with life, with perhaps one quarter of all ocean species depending on reefs for food and shelter. This vast resource of the planet is in peril. Coral bleaching has killed 70% of Japan’s largest coral reef, and the Caribbean has lost 80% of its coral reef cover in recent years. Asia’s corals are dying en masse.  The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest living structure, is seriously injured and slowly dying.

One aspect of climate change is that its consequences will fall most heavily on the poorer people on Earth. The wet-bulb survivability threshold may be breached in India and Bangladesh. Hard hit are regions in sub-Saharan Africa. All religions and ethical traditions tell us to care about others. Jesus said,

“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Gandhi said that if you are in confusion about what course of action to take, then visualize in your mind’s eye the poorest and most wretched person you have even seen and ask yourself ‘how will what I propose to do affect him?’, and then your confusion will melt away and you will know what to do.

As relatively privileged people living in a rich country, we are personally isolated from much hardship. As the climate gets warmer, we can crank up our air conditioners. But right in our midst in our own cities are homeless people. A number of years ago I was attending a computer conference in San Francisco and on the way to the conference hall I saw a piece of street art showing a homeless man. I was so struck by contrasts and wrote this poem:

            Waiting to Die

His face is grizzled and weathered
He has known the trials of life
He is not weak, he has survived much
His strength will carry him
But he has lost the spark of hope
And he is just waiting to die.

His picture is by the gleaming buildings of the city
The comfortable go about their important business
They gather for their convention
They are welcomed by great banners
And the hospitality of food.

A world of movement and enterprise
Of new ideas and challenge
A world of plenty.
Another world so near
A world of hardship and loss
Or of not even having had a chance.

Two worlds on this bright June morning
One world for those with hope
Another for those who are waiting to die.

How many people in the world today are losing hope? On a personal level loss of hope and the resulting despair can lead to suicide. A number of years ago I was touched by a news story about more than a thousand farmers in India committing suicide because they were in despair over the low price of their cotton crop on the world market, resulting in their being unable to provide for their family. I wrote this:

             You Are Not Alone

O my brother
On a small farm in a distant land
You own some land
You work hard to survive
And to support your family.

You have lovingly planted your cotton
You have cared for it
You have harvested it
Now you sell your crop
But the price is too low
Your family cannot survive.

Thirteen hundred of your brother farmers
Have killed themselves in desperate sorrow
You too now think about saying goodbye
You love your family
But you cannot provide for them
You are in despair.

Please, my brother, do not do it
Your family needs you
Hang on a little longer
You have friends you do not know
We will find a way
You are not alone.

And this story about suicide among farmers in India has an update. A recent study links the suicides of almost 60,000 Indian farmers to climate change.

Despair is a terrible thing. I have seen it in friends. What is to be our response to the looming climate catastrophe. One response is a kind of “hope” that things will turn out OK and we do not need, personally, ourselves, to face into the climate challenge. People that are involved with it will find solutions. And so we go forward with our usual concerns.

I do not believe this to be an acceptable response. At present the world is not on course to avert the catastrophe that has already begun. We as individuals need to respond and not let “hope” lead us into denial.

But I believe there is another kind of hope that is vital. It has been called “mystical hope” by the theologian Cynthia Bourgeault in a small book of that name.

She quotes the prophet Habakkuk:

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to go on the heights.

Even in the midst of such a dire outcome, the prophet vows to go on. Moreover, his survival does not sound like a dreary, stoic endurance. He speaks of a lightness that comes into him in spite of the hopelessness of the situation on the ground. There is a spring to his steps like “the feet of a deer,” and he is enabled to “go on the heights.”

Bourgeault goes on to describe three characteristics of mystical hope:

  1. Mystical hope is not tied to a good outcome, to the future. It lives a life of its own, seemingly without reference to external circumstances and conditions.
  2. It has something to do with presence—not a future good outcome, but the immediate experience of being met, held in communion, by something intimately at hand.
  3. It bears fruit within us at the psychological level in the sensations of strength, joy and satisfaction: “an unbearable lightness of being.” But, mysteriously, rather than deriving these gifts from outward expectations being met, it seems to produce them from within.

I believe this “mystical hope” is precisely what is needed to face the current climate crisis, where the facts on the ground may become worse than those described by Habakkuk. But if we are to get through this challenge, we must find within ourselves the strength to go on. And that strength will be far greater by tapping into the divine presence that these words attempt to hint at.

My friends, what will you do?

If not me, who?
If not now, when?
If not for others, what am I?

Bob Oberg
Founder, MOFSA