Sermon at Foothills Unitarian Church April 30th 2017
Eight years ago, my life was spinning out of control. Through my own failures, I was losing my family. There was a lot of pain and sorrow and fear. Working for a better future was a real struggle, one day at a time. But the fear of losing those I love provided tremendous energy and focus. I channeled that energy into healing.
I had just moved back in after six months of separation when my son Nate, then 16, was in a horrific accident. He was ejected from a spiraling tumbling vehicle at over 75 mph across a frozen field at 2 AM in total darkness. Physics controlled the way his fragile flesh crashed through the blooming ice petals of the shattering windshield, the arc of his trajectory through the night, his rotation in the air, and the twisting bounces of the following van. Like dice they tumbled through pitch darkness, coming to rest nearly 200 feet from the pavement. Nate’s broken spine was dislodged from his pelvis. He lay unconscious in the blackness on the frozen ground, in a T-shirt and bare feet. It was 7 degrees Fahrenheit.
The phone rang at about 2:25, and I answered from a deep sleep. A voice told me to go to PVH immediately, that Nate was badly injured. I could hear ambulance sounds and radios crackling in the background. I felt the icy fear close around my heart.
Nate is now 23 years old. We’re both doing pretty well. We will certainly struggle all our lives, but we’ve all come a long way in the past seven years.
I’ve spent half my professional life telling a powerful story about climate change. The story has three parts, and they all start with the letter S. The three S’s of Climate Change are: Simple, Serious, and Solvable.
Sometimes I tell the story of Three S’s in 20 minutes, or 45. Each Spring I teach it for 45 hours to a bunch of CSU students. Sometimes I tell the story in 30 seconds to somebody I’ve just met on an airplane. Starting this coming week, I’ll do it here for an hour every Wednesday evening over four weeks.
The second S is for “Serious.” It might as well be called “Scary.” It’s depressing and enervating and can even be paralyzing. So I never, ever stop at the second S. It’s absolutely critical to help people see that climate change is Solvable.
So of course, after the election, I was devastated.
The stakes are so high! Failure is not an option, and yet I can feel the hot breath of failure in our wildly polarized political poison. Do you feel it too?
Like our family’s awful struggles in 2009-10, climate change is worse than you think, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the world.
Remember that movie “The Perfect Storm,” about the crew of a fishing boat driven by desperation into the raging North Atlantic as three storms merged into an almost unthinkable maelstrom?
The philosopher Stephen Gardiner, in his book “A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change” argues that global civilization is similarly being swept into the maw of three separate but merging moral storms that threaten us with terrible moral corruption on top of environmental and economic devastation.
Gardiner’s three storms are: (1) the global storm; (2) the intergenerational storm; and (3) the moral hazard arising from the geographic and temporal separation of causes and effects. These three, he argues, form a perfect storm of moral corruption that threatens us all.
Gardiner’s “Global Storm” arises from the extremely unfair geographic distributions of both the emissions that cause climate change and the impacts that are disproportionately borne by poorest people in the world.
Sure, there are lots of things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint. All that stuff my Mom used to tell me: turn out the lights when I leave the room. Shut off the water while I brush my teeth. Take shorter showers. Recycle.
Lots of other stuff too that’s perfectly sensible and makes a difference: riding my bike to work, driving a more efficient car, wearing sweaters in the winter and opening windows at night in the summer. Webinars at work instead of airplane flights. Eating lower on the food chain. Solar panels. Insulation. LED bulbs.
But all of those things aren’t enough. They’re not even close to being enough.
There are 7.5 billion people in the world but there are only 1 billion people like us. By this I mean people who use a lot of energy. By the time my kids are very old there may be as many as 4 billion of us energy users.
If we all got really serious about doing all those sensible things, we could conceivably reduce our energy and carbon consumption by maybe 75%. But if those other 6.5 billion people were able to increase their consumption up to that virtuous ¼ of where we are today, global carbon emissions would go up, not down.
When I was a kid, world population was exploding! Population has doubled since I was born, but population growth has slowed dramatically and will never double again. World population is only expected to grow 35% in this Century, but world energy consumption is expected to grow by 350%!
Let me say that again: world energy use is growing 10 times as fast as population!
There is no doubt that there is overconsumption in the world, and on the political left we are likely to see climate change as a problem of overconsumption.
But there is also far more rampant underconsumption.
Climate Justice includes billions without electricity. Billions and billions of hungry people who don’t have safe water to drink. Billions without toilets or sanitation.
Worse, those same people who desperately need energy to climb out of the most abject misery are the ones who get hit hardest by the effects of climate change.
Just as it’s deeply wrong for a billion energy users to impose privation and devastation on 6.5 billion in the developing world, we also dump the costs of this problem on future generations. Gardiner calls this the intergenerational storm.
It turns out that our global thermostat only turns one way. Every time anybody anywhere burns a lump of coal, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere goes up. And that extra CO2 stays up there in the air, absorbing infrared heat and raining that heat back down on us. But unlike air pollution, the CO2 won’t go away when we stop burning carbon.
Carbon dioxide is the dead thermodynamic ashes of the carbon cycle. It’s the last link in a chain of reactions that release energy. It’s fully oxidized and there’s no more energy left to wring out of it. It’s chemically inert. The CO2thermostat has a ratchet in it. You can turn it up, but you can’t turn it back down.
Eventually some of that extra CO2 will dissolve into the oceans, which is another problem because it makes the oceans acidic, like Perrier or Pellegrino. The oceans are not well mixed. In the months-long polar night, the water gets super cold and it sinks into the “cold black abyss of Davy Jones Locker.” It takes 1000 years for that frigid polar water to fill the oceans from the bottom up. Everywhere else the Sun warms the surface water so that it floats on top like a big buoyant raft. The warm surface water can dissolve atmospheric CO2, but it’s only a few hundred feet thick. The cold deep water beneath is 95% of the ocean and it hasn’t touched the air since the high middle ages. It doesn’t know we’re here yet.
Because the oceans can’t mix that cold water up to the surface, it will take many millennia for the CO2 that we emit this week to dissolve.
Joanna Macy writes:
[the] role of ancestors is to look out for those following them in time. Those living in the future will look back on us as their ancestors. Recognizing future beings as our kin brings them closer to us. Within the narrow timescape of Business as Usual, they are a forgotten people whose interests have disappeared from view. When we recognize that we are their ancestors, a sense of care and responsibility arises naturally.
So it’s not just our kids and grandkids that we worry about. The way we crank up the global thermostat over the next few decades will be felt for hundreds of generations, impacting hundreds of billions of people yet to be born.
As if the confluence of the global and intergenerational storms weren’t bad enough, Gardiner warns of the moral hazard of throwing up our hands, of turning away from the truth because it’s just too depressing.
Joanna Macy explains that the resulting frustration and paralysis “generates a peril even more deadly, for the greatest danger of our times is the deadening of our response.”
We retreat into distance and distraction. We look away. We limit our response to symbolic gestures that make us feel better.
This is the perfect moral storm of climate change.
The parallels to my own personal crisis of pain and fear and despair eight years ago are too strong for me to miss.
After I answered that call that no parent wants to receive, I stumbled into the bathroom in my underwear. I fell to my knees on the cold tile. I begged for strength and serenity, asking to be the best person I could be as I faced what the next minutes and hours would bring.
SORRY! HELP! THANKS! WOW!
And my prayer was answered.
I felt the fear drain from my heart through my bowels and down through my legs. I calmly drove through the winter night to PVH, arriving just before the ambulance did. Nate was wheeled into the ER strapped down hard to immobilize his spine. His face was hamburger, his teeth covered with mud and blood, but he smiled at me out of that awful mess and his eyes were impossibly, perfectly normal. As doctors and nurses swarmed around us, we shared an unbreakable connection, from his sparking eyes to mine. We held hands. He asked me “Dad, am I going to die?” I told him that I didn’t know, but he was alive right now, and that I was here and I loved him with all my heart.
Joanna Macy reminds us that pain and fear and sorrow are appropriate responses to the state of the world! Rather than deadening our sorrow, we need to feel authentically, and to be honest with ourselves and with one another. Pain is how we know we must do something different! Facing the truth provides the power to act.
Whatever situation we face, we can choose our response. When facing overwhelming challenges, we might feel our actions don’t count for much. Yet the kind of responses we make, and the degree to which we believe they count, are shaped by the way we think and feel about hope.
Passive hope is about waiting for external agencies to bring about what we desire. Active Hope is about becoming active participants in bringing about what we hope for. Active Hope is a practice. Like tai chi or gardening, it is something we do rather than have.
Since Active Hope doesn’t require our optimism, we can apply it even in areas where we feel hopeless. The guiding impetus is intention; we choose what we aim to bring about. Rather than weighing our chances and proceeding only when we feel hopeful, we focus our intention and let it be our guide.
Back in 2010, my life was a mess. There were so many things I should have done differently. Our family needed so much TLC.
But on that awful early morning when Nate and I faced our dark night of the soul, it was time to attend to first things first.
We didn’t need family therapy that night. Nate needed nurses, an IV, a heated blanket, a spinal surgeon. They reconstructed his pelvis inside a CAT scan machine! He spent a month in the hospital and three in a wheelchair. Without incredible 21st Century medical care, we never would have had the chance to heal our spirits as a family.
Sometimes people tell me we’ll never be able to deal with climate change until we vanquish greed — that technology can’t save us from ourselves. And there’s no doubt that our world needs radical reorganization around care and compassion.
Like Nate’s broken body, climate change is requires immediate treatment of our acute problem so that we can preserve the opportunity to work on our chronic social problems later. More than 190 countries formally agreed in Paris in 2015 to limit global warming. Meeting that commitment gives us only about another 20 years before we have to stop burning carbon altogether.
We don’t have time to wait until we have created a just and peaceful world before moving on to new ways to make and use energy. Global civilization must provide abundant energy so that billions of people can climb out of abject misery without destroying the climate for the next 100 generations!
The good news is that we have the technology to do this. From an engineering point of view we already know how to make 3 or 4 times as much energy as today without setting carbon on fire. Sure, it will be expensive, but not any more so in a relative sense than the awesome achievements of the past century: indoor plumbing; rural electrification; the internet.
Climate change will get worse and worse until we stop making it worse, and then it won’t get better for a very long time. This simple fact will have to motivate the political will to do what must be done.
We are the ancestors. We’d better start acting like it.