Magazine article The Christian Century

Meltdown: Running out of Time on Global Warming

Magazine article The Christian Century

Meltdown: Running out of Time on Global Warming

Article excerpt

WE NEED A MOVEMENT to combat climate change, we need it fast, and we need it to involve as many churches as possible. And you can help make it happen the Saturday after Easter.

How's that for a blunt and artless beginning? But that's the point. The time is so short, and the task so large, that eloquence seems almost frivolous. I wrote the first book about global warming for a general audience way back in 1989, and I've been writing about it ever since. But now--though I'm not very good at it--I'm trying to organize. And I need help. Here's why.

The climate crisis is bearing down on us much faster than most people realize. A decade ago most experts thought of global warming as the largest challenge civilization faced--but they also thought that it would happen relatively gradually. So far, by burning coal and gas and oil, we've released enough carbon dioxide to raise the temperature of the planet about a degree Fahrenheit. Which doesn't sound like much, and indeed the early computer models predicted that such an increase would just bring us to the threshold of noticeable change--really big impacts seemed still a few decades down the road. But that cautious optimism has faded in the past few years as one study after another has proved that the earth was more finely balanced than we'd understood.

For instance, the temperature rise has been enough to start melting every frozen thing on earth, which in turn creates its own problems. In the Arctic Ocean, nice white ice that reflected lots of the sun's rays back to space is quickly turning into nice blue water that absorbs much more of the sun's heat, amplifying the warming. The thawing tundra is releasing huge quantities of methane, which is another potent global warming gas. Scariest of all, the great ice sheets above Greenland and the West Antarctic appear to be melting faster than predicted. There's the very real chance of a catastrophic rise in sea level, one that would endanger the world's coastal cities, inundate much prime farmland, and drive hundreds of millions from their homes.

The bottom line: we have much less time to act than we thought, and that action has to be dramatic. James Hansen is the country's foremost climatologist, a man who will doubtless win the Nobel Prize for his decades as a NASA researcher running the most powerful computer model of the climate, and he said last year that we have a decade to reverse the flow of carbon into the atmosphere or else we will live--his words--on a "totally different planet." There's enough theology in that phrase for a month of sermons, but let me concentrate on the politics. It means that the changes we make in our homes and churches as individuals and congregations, vital as they are, can't deliver the speed or magnitude of change that will slow climate change. It means that we need to change light bulbs--but we also need to change laws. It means that Washington, after two decades of a very successful bipartisan effort to do nothing, needs to spin on a dime.

It would be easier, nicer and in many ways more reasonable to put in effect the kind of tepid and gradual program envisioned a few years ago by politicians like John McCain. But "politically realistic'" turns out, with what we now know, to be scientifically unrealistic. By Hansen's calculation, and that of many other scientists, we need to be reducing carbon emissions more than 2 percent a year in this country to have any chance of staying on the right side of catastrophe. We need--at the very least--a federal commitment to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.

That's a hard target, but by no means an impossible one. New technologies are steadily appearing--second- and third-generation solar and wind systems, ever-better hybrid cars. We understand how to make appliances far more efficient than the ones we use today, and how to change building codes so that new construction stops wasting energy and indeed begins to produce it. …

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