This Week: Climate Change

Last week on HBO’s series The Newsroom the fictitious news team scooped the story of an embargoed EPA report; the EPA official interviewed as part of that story claimed that the window for avoiding catastrophic consequences of climate change has passed. “It’s like you’re sitting in your car in your garage with the engine running and the door closed and you’ve slipped into unconsciousness,” says the guest — he offers no words of hope.  Since then the “facts” of the Aaron Sorkin series have been scrutinized on blogs and social media. The Newsroom report is, of course, sensationalized; it basically gets it right, though.  The show is set approximately 18 months ago — a technique that enables Sorkin to comment on the media’s handling of recent current events.  In this case, the show was referring to the undisputed fact that according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), measurements of CO2 in our atmosphere hit a critical point of 400 parts per million in May 2013.

In April 2014 we saw numbers above 400ppm for the whole month.  While the number is not, in and of itself, a predictor of human demise, it is a threshold that has been an emblematic mark of the rising threat and reality of climate change.  A “healthy” level of CO2 for the planet is about 350ppm; this higher level is directly contributing to a rise in the earth’s temperature, and that warming is already leading to dramatic and catastrophic weather — hurricanes, typhoons, wild fires, drought, etc.  The existence of climate change is not a scientifically disputed fact; it has been both observed and predicted as a direct result of the industrial revolution for over 100 years.

Climate change is, however, the biggest and most complex problem we have ever had to face as a species.  So it’s no wonder that we’ve had a difficult time admitting the challenges and working toward a sustainable future.  First we have to realize that this is a global crisis.  We have to figure out a way to work together as a planet and as a species in order to begin to make an impact.  Secondly it’s a crisis that crosses generations.  The decisions we make today will have a dramatic impact on those who are not yet conceived.  It’s a slow moving crisis; so the dangers are not as apparent to those of us living in the midst of it.  Like the proverbial frog in the kettle we’re likely to cook to death before we realize we’re in boiling water.  Finally, the fossil fuel use that leads most directly to climate change is at the core of our global economy.  The most powerful corporations of the world are in the energy sector.  Four of the top ten Fortune Global 500 (2014) are in the energy/chemical sector of our economy (seven of the top ten in 2013).  These companies have huge political power and they make huge profits by our dependence on fossil fuel.

To effect the political and social impact of the oil/energy companies, the 221st General Assembly of the PCUSA was overtured by the Presbytery of Boston and others (including Monmouth Presbytery) to consider divesting from the fossil fuel industry.  The motion was ultimately referred to the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) and they were instructed to make a report to the 222nd GA in 2016.  After hearing a report from MRTI to the directors of the Board of Pensions, I am very impressed with the work of the committee in assessing the best ways to leverage our financial investments to effect the changes we want to see.  The power of our divestment, even with the substantial investments of the PCUSA, is mostly a symbolic, political statement.  And with the presence of the oil industry among individual Presbyterians, this will be a huge battle.  If we think Israel/Palestine was controversial, I can only imagine what the reaction will be to a symbolic gesture of divesting from ExxonMobile, Chevron, BP and/or Shell.  Is it a good idea?  It could be; though, the fiduciary responsibility to our pastors’ retirement savings is also a concern.  Ah, the complexities.

Making a substantial impact on climate change involves a complex strategy, involving not just where and with whom we invest, but how we live, how we all make our living, how we spend our leisure time, what we value, and how we influence our policy makers.  California has taken a huge step to reduce its carbon emissions by 80% by the year 2050.  This is a huge step forward.  They are using a three pronged approach: 1) by encouraging the development and use of highly energy efficient appliances, vehicles, lighting etc.  2) moving to sustainable and renewable energy production, that is moving to wind and solar power to power the electrical grid, and 3) shifting to other fuels or electricity in our homes, methods of transportation, and industry.  California believes its goals are attainable.

So what can the Church (specifically Presbyterians) do to make a difference?  The 2008 policy statement and study booklet, The Power to Change: U.S. Energy Policy and Global Warming, gives some recommendations that deserve our attention, including:

  • study energy sources and climate change
  • practice energy conservation at home and in church buildings
  • purchase Green-e certified energy or offsets
  • make personal investments in renewable energy
  • advocate for the reduction of emissions on local, state, national and international levels
  • when building or renovating church buildings, be sure they meet high-efficiency energy standards or be LEED certified
  • Celebrate Earth Day Sunday or become an Earth Care Congregation like Trinity Presbyterian, Jacksonville Presbyterian, and Plumsted Presbyterian in Monmouth Presbytery.

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