First, the scientists spoke. Using lay language and simple Power Point graphs, they conveyed the message about global warming that scientists have tried to get the world to take seriously for decades: global warming is real, global warming is getting worse and global warming is caused by humans.
Then, the theologian, who said that we need to expand our definition of the golden rule inherent in all world religions—treat thy neighbor as thyself, or, do undo others as you would have them do unto you—to include not just the person sitting next to us in the church pew, but future generations of our unborn children.
On Sunday afternoon, March 18, the First Congregational Church of Falmouth, in collaboration with the North Falmouth Congregational Church and the Waquoit Congregational Church, hosted a panel forum called, “Our Warming Planet: What Should We Do?”
The forum, which will be followed by small-group discussion meetings in April and May, was the opening event of an initiative undertaken by the three churches to promote an understanding within the Falmouth community of the role that Christian values can play in response to the issues of climate change.
“Our goal today is to educate and inform,” the forum’s moderator, Gregory B. Mills, Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC, and a member of First Congregational Church of Falmouth, said in his opening remarks before introducing the forum’s guest scientists:
- Thomas A. Stone, environmental geologist and scientist emeritus at Woods Hole Research Center;
- Margaret K. Tivey, vice president for academic programs at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, whose research as a senior scientist focuses on sea floor hydrothermal systems; and
- John W. Farrington, dean emeritus at WHOI and an adjunct professor at the School of Marine Science and Technology at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Science, through a continuing process of observation, modeling, testing, and prediction, tells us this about the earth’s changing climate, these experts said:
The earth’s level of CO2 (carbon dioxide) is higher than ever before in human history. This is caused by the use of fossil fuels—coal, oil, and gas. Our atmosphere, lands, and oceans are warming. The oceans are becoming more acidic.
Heat waves and wildfires are happening more often, storms are stronger and longer, and downpours are heavier. More extremes are coming. We will see massive mid-continental droughts.
Ninety percent of global warming has gone into the ocean. Sea levels are rising; in Massachusetts, for example, the sea level has risen 10 inches.
Arctic ice is melting. “Within the next decade, we will see an ice-free artic,” Dr. Tivey said. “No one knows what this will mean.”
At risk right now are 136 large coastal cities around the world, 40 million people, and $3 trillion in assets. As coastal cities flood, a “climate migration” will number in the millions, perhaps the billions of people.
At a conference in Singapore five years ago, Dr. Farrington saw models on global warming, which projected that in 25 to 45 years, there will be many days when it will be too dangerous for humans to be outside in Singapore.
“If we have a rise in our body temperature of two to three degrees, we know we are sick,” Mr. Stone said. “Likewise, we know the Earth is sick.”
Reducing CO2 emissions is not a technical problem, Mr. Stone said. That is, we know how to do it. Rather, it is a “social and political problem.”
The information on global warming, and the urgent need to address it, can feel so overwhelming that many people—even those with the best of intentions—find it easier to look away and focus on smaller, more manageable ways to do good in the world.
Sunday’s forum let the audience know that they no longer have the luxury of avoiding the truth.
The Reverend James M. Antal, a fiery, compelling climate change activist whose “day job,” as he called it, is minister and president of the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ (the closest thing the Congregational Church has to a bishop), was introduced last, and stepped up to the lectern.
“No one can effectively claim to be a religious leader today who isn’t addressing the greatest challenge the world has ever faced,” he had said in a quick interview before the forum started.
Asked to discuss the broad ethical issues raised by the evidence on climate change, Dr. Antal began his remarks by pointing out the concept of the “triple injustice” of climate change: that climate change is hitting the poorest first and worst; that those most affected by climate change did not cause it and are powerless to stop it; and that those who are profiting from the extraction of fossil fuels are not paying the full costs.
In the introduction to his new book, “Climate Church, Climate World,” Dr. Antal states, “One of the bedrock recognitions that must be embraced by the thousands of human tribes is that we’re all in this together, and that climate change intensifies every system of injustice, discrimination, and disadvantage.”
On humanity’s “inadequate focus on, and acceptance of, intergenerational responsibility,” he said, “Scripture is full of an emphasis on intergenerational responsibility, but because we have such a short time horizon, we are focusing on our current generation’s profits and we ignore our intergenerational responsibility.”
On our “flawed relationship with nature,” Dr. Antal stated, “The Bible is pretty clear that ownership of nature is not a biblical principle.” He challenges churches to turn church property into land trusts, and church-goers to do the same with their personal property. “It is an inadequate expression of Christianity to hold land,” he said.
Our capitalist system, Dr. Antal pointed out, focuses solely on short-term profit, and does not factor into the equation the impact of burning fossil fuels for the last 200 years. “We have an economic system which has, at best, a three-month outlook. We need an economic system that has a seven-generation outlook,” he said.
We are in a period of transition, Dr. Antal said. Just as we transitioned 200 years ago from using whale oil as fuel to using oil found in the ground, we now need to transition to using sustainable, renewable, energy sources.
“If humanity is going to go forward,” he said, “we must keep fossil fuel in the ground.”
Further, he said, we need to stop investing in fossil fuel stocks (and allowing our pension funds to do so) and we need to stop electing politicians with ties to oil companies.
“Climate change, more than any other issue, not only exposes the short time-horizon of investment practice, it exposes the short time-horizon of elected officials,” Dr. Antal said.
So, what to do?
Solutions run the gamut from simple to radical (have fewer children). Every action counts: Schedule an energy audit; replace all bulbs with LED lights; have solar panels installed on the roof; walk, bike, take public transportation, and share rides; recycle/reuse; invest in companies taking action on climate change; eat less meat; get an all-electric or high fuel economy car; talk to politicians.
To mitigate damage already occurring: Avoid new construction in coastal areas; provide hurricane and storm barriers for high-value sites; plant trees on marginal lands (trees absorb carbon dioxide for free); plant massive forests—conservation lands could be used for this; improve/vegetate coastal dunes; restore wetands, which absorb storm action; put more land into protection.
To reduce carbon dioxide emissions, use renewable resources such as wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear. Institute a “carbon tax.”
Faith communities, Dr. Antal said, should focus on their major asset, their people.
“Become an Acts 2:42 congregation,” he said, referring to The Book of Acts, Chapter 2, Verse 42, which teaches valuing the common good above the personal: Share rides and other resources, find one another jobs, help one another conserve. Share all things in common. See oneself as part of a community and realize that the church community can leverage its assets and wield influence, he advised.
“Bear witness,” Dr. Antal urged, suggesting that congregations take one minute out of every Sunday service for personal testimony from those who have done something during the week to make Earth more sustainable.
Churches should not be afraid to “have the conversation” about climate change for political reasons, Dr. Antal said. “The Church is the place to have the conversation about the truth. Three-quarters of Americans believe in global warming, and two-thirds of them do not talk about it. The Church can change that.”
To keep discussions on climate change feeling safe for those with differing political opinions within the congregation, Dr. Antal recommended the “truth and reconciliation” approach initiated by Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu.
“If all faith communities were to come to terms with the grief we are now experiencing over the loss of God’s creation and turn that grief into action, then we would unify and lock arms and climate denial would be a thing of the past,” Dr. Antal said.
“No person would be elected who was supported by the fossil fuel infrastructure of our country, and the shift from our dependence on fossil fuels to 100 percent dependence on renewable energy could take place in the course of no more than 15 years,” he said, referring the audience to Mark Z. Jacobson’s research at Stamford University.
Dr. Antal posited that we have been born on the “hinge of human history”; that no other human beings have ever lived when “the whole shooting game” is at stake. “It is up to our generation to swing that hinge of history toward hope,” he said.
One of the actions that gives Dr. Antal great hope, which is featured in his book, is Our Children’s Trust, a lawsuit brought against the federal government by 21 minor-age children around the country alleging that the government’s failure to protect their right to a future not wrecked by climate change is a violation of the Constitution.
In April of 2016, a US magistrate judge in Eugene, Oregon, decided in favor of the young plaintiffs, thus mandating that their federal case, Juliana v. United States, be heard, despite intense efforts by fossil fuel interests and the Trump Administration to block the case. Dr. Antal said it will be “the trial of the century.”
Dr. Antal believes that we are living amidst a great awakening, and that the prospect of this awakening carries with it as much promise as people have ever known.
A cartoon shown in the Power Point presentation went like this: Two people are among a crowd at a climate summit. One says to the other, “What if it’s all a hoax, and we create a better world for nothing?”