Overview of the Climate Crisis
What follows is an overview of the climate crisis. I know this material is hard to face but I will not apologize for being an alarmist – the alarms have been going off everywhere for years and now they are screaming. The debate over whether climate change is happening is over. It's happening and it's bigger than we ever imagined. If we are going to confront this crisis, we have to face it.
So here goes: As you know, the Earth is getting hotter every year. Heat-trapping CO2 is higher than it's been in 3 million years and the last five years have been the hottest ever recorded. In fact, 20 of the hottest years on record all came in the last 22 years. This June was the hottest month on record, July just broke that record, and we just experienced the hottest January on record. Fifty heat records were broken this summer on the east coast, Alaska was hotter than New York City, Australia reached 105 degrees F for the entire country with bush fires raging outside every major city, and Antarctica reached a record 69 degrees Fahrenheit – that's t-shirt and shorts weather!
Things are clearly heating up and the Earth's normal homeostasis is beginning to fail. It's all about the Green House effect: the overproduction of gases like carbon dioxide and methane that trap heat on the Earth rather than letting it dissipate into space, and the rapid disappearance of glaciers that normally reflect the sun's energy. The whole Earth is getting warmer; it's already risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 1800s. The proposed 2016 UN cutoff was 2 degrees C which equates to 3.6 degrees F. Even with immediate action, runaway heat could continue for decades because as melting snows expose tundra in Alaska and elsewhere or is the tundra is uncovered by wildfires, it releases vast amounts of stored CO2 and methane.
What are the consequences of global warming? Rising heat radically changes weather all over the Earth, creating dangerous heat spells; ferocious hurricanes, tornados and forest fires; monsoon rains; expanding deserts; dying oceans; coastal flooding; inland draughts leading to "Day Zero" moments when water runs out for entire cities and towns (in fact, 1.9 billion people would lose their drinking and farming water if glaciers melt in Asia, Europe and South America; 45 million people in southern Africa are suffering serious drought and crop failure and in urgent need of water and food; and the Colorado River supplying 40 million Americans is down 20% amounting to 1.5 billion tons of missing water); an escalating tide of climate refugees (currently forcing 20 million people a year from their homes and certain to rise rapidly); a 60% decline in mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970 (including major heat-related bumble bee declines), and massive species extinction (150 species of plant or animal go extinct every day – it's called the 6th Extinction).
Our oceans, too, are suffering. Warming ocean waters and chemical runoffs are reducing oxygen levels in the sea, threatening fish like tuna, marlin and sharks who swim closer to the surface and are overfished, resulting in a 16% loss of fishing jobs in New England. In 1960, there were 45 sites identified as low oxygen, now the number is over 700. And human tragedies are everywhere. The Arctic landscape, home to 70 Indigenous communities, is changing rapidly costing people their homes and ancient way of life, and whole fishing villages in South American had similarly been deserted.
World economies represent another uncontrollable factor. Excessively high temperatures can disrupt agriculture, harm health, and shut down energy webs; extreme weather can threaten water and transportation delivery; loss of property in storm disasters can bankrupt insurance companies; and coastal flooding can overwhelm vulnerable oil refineries like those on the Gulf Coast and Northern California. Because these economic risks represent collective vulnerabilities, no one and no place is immune to the resulting systemic breakdown nor can they be reliably predicted. But a recently leaked report for the huge investment firm J.P. Morgan, the world's largest fossil fuel financier, admitted that the climate crisis driven by fossil fuels now threatens the survival of humanity.
Many scientists believe we have already passed the tipping point. Others have said that we may still have 18 months to forestall the worst outcomes. The most immediate goal is reaching net-zero carbon emissions to prevent millions more species going extinct and the world becoming increasingly unlivable.
So far we are failing badly. In November 2019, a grim U.N. climate report said that levels of greenhouse gases had hit a record high, U.S. CO2 emissions actually rose 2.7% last year, we've had three straight years of rising emissions, and the pledges to cut emissions nations made in Paris in 2016 are now completely inadequate to meet their original goals. In other words, there is no significant decline toward the goal of zero emissions set by the 2016 UN Paris Climate Agreement.
Adding to this nightmare, we have the mounting pressure of population growth. When America was founded, there were less than one billion people on Earth. When I was a kid in the fifties, the world had 2.6 billion people. Now it's 7.7 billion. By 2050, we will exceed 9 billion people on Earth. Because we lack the sustainable resources to feed this growing population, we borrow dangerously from the future - draining aquifers, cutting down forests, over-fishing the oceans, and poisoning nature with pesticides. Earth's growing overpopulation will result in polluted water and air; superbugs and new parasites (mosquitos will expand with warming climates and longer summers, bringing Dengue Fever, West Nile Virus, Flesh-eating Bacteria, Brain-eating Amoeba, Tick-borne diseases, Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus); microplastics in our oceans, soil, air, snow, and bodies; overwhelmed hospitals; rising crime; more deforestation and wildlife deaths; widespread food shortages; regional conflicts over food and clean water; desperate migrations, and war. All this greatly multiplies the burden of global warming on the Earth's diminishing resources.
And one more thing - the corruption, ignorance, passivity and denial of many elected officials still represents a horrifying obstacle to climate action. Our own president has called climate change a "hoax," plans to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, and deregulates environmental protections everywhere. Another example is the Amazon rain forest which plays a critical role in climate regulation. It's being deforested at a rate of over three football fields a minute because its president has given the green light to illegal land invasion, farming, logging and burning.
And, of course, we, too, are the problem because of wealth inequality, consumer habits, and CO2 footprints: when we fly, drive gas-powered vehicles, eat meat and dairy, and live high-carbon lifestyles, we are the wealthy 10% that generates 50% of the greenhouse gases. A single Westerner produces as much CO2 in two weeks than an average citizen in any of seven African nations.
It should be obvious by now that we are in terrible trouble. Climate activists say we are potentially facing a collapse of biological and social systems threatening civilization as we know it. In fact, a consortium of 11,000 scientists from 153 nations made this announcement in November, "We declare clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency…The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected. It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity." In their words, humanity faces "…untold suffering…" unless major transformations of society take place. And we're not making much if any progress. And the lead negotiator for the Paris climate agreement added in February, "What's at stake over the next decade is nothing less than the future of the planet and of humanity on the planet. That's no exaggeration, that is no hyperbole. That is actually scientific fact."
To summarize, the existential crisis of global warming will affect every living thing and every aspect of our lives. We don't know where this nightmare is going and can't simply stop or reverse it. While science and grassroots organizations are working on it, individuals are trying to change their patterns of consumption, and the news cycle is finally admitting the crisis is real, major governments are still fumbling badly despite now widespread pressure from popular opinion. But this disaster is already happening and it's coming right at us. What we do – or don't do - now will affect countless generations to come.
Handouts for Climate Change Activism
Global Changes Necessary to Combat Global Warming
At the very least, world governments need aggressive climate legislation to radically transform their economies by:
1. Declaring a world-wide climate emergency and demand that
2. Abandoning coal, banning oil and gas exploration, and focusing on renewable energy
3. Replacing gas-powering cars with electric, investing in public transportation, and farming locally to eliminate long haul routes.
4. Building smaller housing closer to food sources
5. Planting trees, restoring coastal wetlands, forests, and natural habitats, and preserving larger tracts of land for non-development – in effect, rewilding large swaths of the planet
6. Reducing personal flying (skipping one transatlantic flight is the third most effective step you can take - the first is having one less child and the second is living entirely car-free; and it's more effective than eating a plant-based diet and recycling)
7. Ceasing deforestation and providing other avenues of livelihood where it is taking place
8. Creating more sustainable agricultural methods
9. Learning how to personally live off the land
10. Modifying our diets and reducing food waste
11. Recycling organic waste (fertilizer, medicines, chemicals)
12. Protecting and nourishing biodiversity
13. Going to all-electric kitchens (natural gas is a fossil fuel, mostly methane, and produces 33% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions)
14. Implementing a Green New Deal with investments in clean energy jobs, infrastructure, social justice
15. Cutting fossil fuel subsidies and seeking damages from energy companies to cover costs of change
16. Abandoning the fairy tale of constant economic growth
17. Organizing local communities where food, goods and services are exchanged in cooperative agreements and we survive by taking care of each other, like large extended families
18. Replace despair with hope, and climate change with system change.
19. Examine your political beliefs: 70% of Democrats believe climate change is not an expensive hoax compared with 17% of Republicans
Coping with Climate Despair
It's normal and appropriate to feel grief, anxiety, anger and helplessness in the face of escalating climate disruption because it's a reality threat to all we hold dear and our whole way of life. But don't get paralyzed by negative thinking and emotion. Here are things you can do to manage stress:
1. Exercise – Always helps with stress
2. Meditate – Quiet frightened or obsessive thoughts
3. Find meaningful spiritual practices – yoga, tai chi, contemplation, prayer, gratitude
4. Talk with friends
5. Find or start a support group, get a therapist, write in your journal: express your feelings out - cry, be mad, be sad – don't bottle up your emotions
6. Educate yourself and others
7. Take constructive action – e.g., reduce your carbon footprint, buy Carbon Offsets, create a more sustainable lifestyle, join activist organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund or Elders Action Network, become politically active.
8. Prepare for crisis times (food, water, medicines, first aid kits, neighborhood organizing) and be ready to work together with others
9. Appreciate all you have; practice gratitude
10. Do normal things, play, garden,
11. Create - art, music, poetry, dance – it will bring you alive again
13. Seek to understand the larger meaning of life, clarify your priorities, explore your spiritual beliefs
14. Recognize that life is a temporary gift; face the existential reality of your own death so you can take risks
15. Be with loved ones and love the ones you're with
16. Connect with nature (walks, gardening, animals, communion)
17. Keep falling in love with Creation – with all our brothers and sisters in the plant and animal world
Having difficult climate conversations with family—from green Faith
Here are 12 tips that can help you have a climate conversation that brings you closer together rather than driving family members apart.
- Share why you care. Talk about how your faith calls you to love the earth and all the people on it. Share a favorite story from your religious texts.
- Share your feelings. Talking about the climate crisis elicits difficult feelings. For some folks, the topic is too big and too far into the future to think about and so they turn away and try to ignore it. Many have anxiety, fear, even shame for not doing more. Most of us have all of the above. Share what's coming up for you and make space for your family members to share how they are doing.
- Connect with family memories. For example, ask about the special places in their lives, or in your shared family past - and how climate change will affect these places. Sites showing how much hotter someone's home town has become since they were born can also be very interesting to share.
- Connect with family interests. Talk with your sister who loves to garden about how the seasons have changed in her lifetime. Mention to your NASCAR-loving uncle that the Pocono Raceway has been totally solar-powered for almost a decade. Having a beer with your father before dinner? Even the beer supply is affected by climate change!
- Stories -- not facts -- move people. What stories about climate change have broken your heart or given you hope? I'm inspired by the thousands of people of faith and spirit across the globe who are turning towards each other and creating GreenFaith Circles, communities of care and resilience.
- Focus on solutions and the beauty of people coming together. Neighbors are helping neighbors who are losing their homes to wildfires and flooding. Renewable energy is spreading rapidly and creating jobs. Children who get to breather cleaner air are having fewer asthma attacks - including the children in your family. Together, we can create a better future.
- Share how your faith and values help you face this problem. I'm a Presbyterian minister and my faith reminds me that God is always doing the impossible through us. Our beliefs give us the strength to come together in the face of great adversity.
- Know your family! Some of your cousins might be interested when a climate change conversation is focused on issues of security and safety. Pointing out how the American military perceives climate change as a major risk might be interesting to them.
- Avoid potentially contentious language. Consider avoiding words such as crisis, emergency, movement, and revolution with family members. Sometimes it's best to talk simply about the 'climate changing'.
- Listen more than you talk. Don't lecture, ask non-leading questions, and seek to collaborate. Don't argue!
- Remember - climate change is hard to talk about. People you love may get frustrated or upset by the conversation. Acknowledge how hard this issue is and that you believe it's important to face it directly.
- Be patient and kind. You are not going to convince someone in just one conversation but it might open a door for many more.
- When I think about my family, I remember my 3-year old niece Cordelia. She reminds me of what is at stake for the future, and for our shared earth.
How to Help in the Climate Crisis
First of all, fall in love with Creation again: Go outside, leave your cell phone behind, sit for an hour in nature, open your senses, and fall in love with Creation! You knew the miracle of this world as a child, find it again. Let it stir your love for the Earth so you know why you want to help.
Then, if you're wondering how you might help in the climate crisis, here's a list of possibilities in no particular order. Check the ones that kindle your inner fire and see what you discover. You could be a…
· Climate warrior defending Creation against the continuing assault of development, pollution, and exploitation through political protest and civil disobedience
· Citizen Lobbyist pressuring local, state and national governments to declare a climate emergency and adopt immediate climate legislation
· Gardener or Animal Lover nourishing and supporting life in all its forms
· Healer of physical, emotional, mental or spiritual wounds in human and non-human beings, nurturing the hurt and broken back to life
· Artist nourishing, expressing and welcoming the Spirit's powerful message of creativity through your own work
· Lover of Creation blessing every living thing with kindness, gratitude and praise
· Skillful Builder for a New World as an enlightened craftsman, engineer, laborer, farmer, planner, chef, inventor, lawyer or educator
· Contemplative immersed in prayer and unitive consciousness sending healing energies throughout Creation
· Scientist, professional or amateur, seeking to understand the nature and causes of climate damage and its repair
· Spiritual Leader creating or revitalizing sacred ritual, celebration and theology in service to Creation
· Social Organizer inspiring and mobilizing community planning for long-term local sustainability and immediate climate action.
· Conflict Manager skilled in compassionate non-violent communication and community problem-solving, guiding fractured groups through difficult choices toward unifying values and action
· Volunteer donating time, energy, skills, and money to political or climate action organizations
· Nature Mystic going outside and falling in love Creation for continued support, inspiration, and motivation
· Last but not least, Reducer of your own Carbon Footprint through lifestyle changes and carbon offset programs (I have some handouts on things you can do). And remember, the word "sacrifice" comes from the Latin and means "to make sacred." What you give up helps restore the sacred world.
While we may engage these roles in different degrees and combinations, each of us has been chosen, by temperament, passion, interest or soul-work, to help the world in a unique way. As Howard Thurman said, "Don't ask what the world needs, ask what brings you alive and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive." Recognize your gifts and find your work.
· Reduce red meat consumption – cattle are terribly hard on the environment (also milk and cheese if possible)
· Reduce electricity usage, unnecessary buying (buy second hand), air travel, car usage (get an electric car or hybrid), food waste (grow your own)
· Buy local produce to avoid long haul transporting
· Educate yourself, especially on your own carbon footprint
· Buy carbon offsets (terrapass)
· Compost your waste
· Lobby governments to enact declare a climate emergency and enact legislation to radically transform their economies, abandoning oil and coal, and focusing on renewable energy
· Push supermarkets and corporations for non-plastic packaging
· Plant trees and restore coastal wetlands, forests and streams
· Lobby for a change in agricultural methods to produce more rapid and sustainable foods
· Recycle organic waste (fertilizer, medicines, chemicals) keeping them out of landfills and water
· Increase biodiversity
· Push to implement a Green New Deal with investments in clean energy jobs, infrastructure, social justice
· Abandon the fairy tale of constant economic growth
· Find out which local agencies regulate environment decisions and contact board members, or get on the board yourself.
· Don't retreat into denial, cynicism, or despair.
· Join climate activism organizations