Religious Response to Global Warming

Rev. Mark Hayes of (PA IPL member congregation) Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County has generously shared the sermon he preached for the National Preach-in on Global Warming.  
            Let me start by saying that this service this morning takes place in the context of a growing interfaith religious commitment to address global warming and climate change. The National Preach-in on Global Warming, in which we are participating today, is an initiative of Interfaith Power & Light, a national organization whose mission is “to be faithful stewards of Creation by responding to global warming through the promotion of energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy.”
            IPL works to educate people in the pews about the important role of people of faith in addressing this most challenging issue. They also bring the voice of the faith community into the policy-making arena, and advocate particularly for vulnerable people and communities that are the most heavily impacted by climate change. Our congregation has been involved with, and is a member of the Pennsylvania chapter of IPL, and I’m happy to say that my son, Andy, works with them as an AmeriCorps member on various educational and organizing activities. Given these ties with IPL, and the importance and urgency of the issue, I was glad to be able to participate in this week-end’s focused attention to global warming and climate change.
            This is not a new issue. Steven Rockefeller, one of the authors of the Earth Charter, said in a 1998 interview, “Our environmental problems will not be fully addressed until we come to terms with the moral and spiritual dimensions of these problems, and we will not find ourselves religiously until we fully address our environmental problems.” That is, our relationship to our environment – our ecosystem – our planet – is deeply tied up with our spirituality and our faith. It is a relationship of deep connectedness, of interdependence.
            Deeply embedded in our human consciousness is a primal awe and gratitude for the air, water, solid ground, sunlight, and nourishing life forms that sustain our species. Spiritually speaking, that is where we begin: with awe and gratitude. As Joanna Macy writes in her book, Coming Back to Life:
       We have received an inestimable gift. To be alive in this beautiful self-organizing universe – to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it – is a wonder beyond words. And it is, moreover, an extraordinary privilege to be accorded a human life, to possess this self-reflexive consciousness, which brings awareness of our own actions and the ability to make choices. It lets us choose to take part in the healing of our world.
            I say all this in order to encourage us to remind ourselves continually that whatever study, discussion, debate, advocacy, or action we engage in around issues like global warming, we should remain aware of our fundamental spiritual grounding. May our awe and gratitude for our world, our awareness and experience of our interconnections with the earth and each other, continue to be primary motivations in all that we do.
            One of the challenges of addressing global warming is the complexity of interwoven factors involved.  And so I think that, in order to get a firmer handle on the situation we face, it may be useful to simplify the picture. Now, I don’t mean simplifying in the sense of taking a superficial view, but rather in the sense of distilling the situation down to some of its essentials.

            Bill McKibben, who has devoted his life to study and activism on global warming, took this approach in an article last summer called “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” He presented an analysis that, in his words, “allows us to understand our precarious – our almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless – position with three simple numbers.

            The first number: “2 degrees Celsius.” This number comes from Paragraph 1 of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, which formally recognized “the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius.” This language was adopted despite the assertion by many scientists that that is much too lenient a target, which could spell long-term disaster, particularly for many island nations and much of Africa. Nevertheless, 167 countries have signed on to the accord, endorsing the two-degree target. Incidentally, the Accord is not legally binding.

            The second number is “565 Gigatons.” That’s how much carbon dioxide scientists estimate that we can pour into the atmosphere by mid-century and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees.

            The third number – and this is where it starts getting scary – is “2,795 Gigatons.” That is the amount of carbon contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies and petroleum producing countries. That is, essentially, the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn. McKibben concludes that
       We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid [a terrible] fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.
            Before I go on, I want to mention one more important number that Bill McKibben has helped make a household word with his organization 350 parts per million is the upper limit of the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere estimated to be sustainable in the long term. The current level, incidentally, is about 394 ppm. Of course the entire situation can’t really be reduced to a single number, but monitoring this one measurement over time can give us a rough idea of how we’re doing. And it can give us a concrete goal to work toward.
            Now that I’ve underlined the gravity and the urgency of the situation, you’re probably wondering, “What can we do?”  Well, as President Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, put it a few years ago, “We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. We’re already doing some of each and will do more of all three. The question is what the mix will be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required, and the less suffering there will be.”
            We know there is already suffering going on. Extreme weather events triggered by global-warming-fueled climate change have wrought death and devastation. Mass extinctions have begun and will continue.
            As conditions change – as they get worse – we will adapt as best we can, because we have no other choice. It’s “adapt or die.” But as the health of our ecosystems deteriorates further, the choices for adaptation narrow as well. And so, we definitely need to focus more attention and energy on the option of mitigation. How can we make a difference?
            It’s estimated that the average U.S. household could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent within six months by making a few simple changes in daily routines. Of course, you’re probably thinking that an individual really can’t make much of a difference. That’s right, but populations of individuals can make a difference. Both in terms of their own habits and practices, and in terms of their ability to influence public policy.

            Perhaps the most important foundational step toward saving the planet is a widespread shift in consciousness. Recycling your paper and plastic, riding your bike to work, using less air-conditioning, etc., etc., will not, in and of themselves have a great impact. But the fact that you are thinking about, and always seeking additional ways to reduce your carbon footprint, is important. It will also help prepare you for the sacrifices and adaptations that will be forced on you as conditions worsen over time.

            Of course changes in public policy have the potential for much greater impact than our individual habits. And so, let me give you just a few small things you can do in the immediate future to lend your voice in support for such changes. First, IPL has furnished us with a letter to President Obama, encouraging him to follow up on his promises to address climate change. There will be copies in the Social Room that you can sign. Another thing you can do today is attend the Social Action Committee’s meeting after the service, which will include a couple of relevant agenda items.
            Another imminent opportunity to speak out is next Sunday’s “Forward on Climate” rally in Washington, D.C., which organizers expect to be the largest climate rally ever. Buses are being organized locally, and there is some information in the Social Room.
            An important part of being an effective advocate for sustainable policy is being educated and informed on related issues, and then sharing your knowledge with others. There was an event here in State College a week ago Thursday designed to foster that kind of information exchange. It was sponsored by Grace Lutheran Church’s Green Team and Transition Town State College. About seventy people from twenty-five local faith communities and environmental organizations shared food, experiences and ideas, in the first of what will probably be an ongoing series of collaborative events. Also on the educational side, I understand a number of people are lobbying the State Theater to bring the 2012 documentary, Chasing Ice to town. If this is of interest to you, you might want to give the State Theater a call. [Editor’s note: Please use the Chasing Ice request form.  The State Theater has made an initial inquiry to Chasing Ice, and needs to see that the State College community can be a strong market for the film.]
            Meanwhile, there are always opportunities to speak out. I hope you all saw Dorothy Blair’s letter to the editor in the Centre Daily Times this week advocating for a carbon tax to encourage development of carbon-neutral energy sources and broader conservation efforts. And as she closed her letter: “Why are we waiting? Give your legislators a call.”
            As far as practices in our personal lives, we can work on reducing our use of energy and our consumption of manufactured goods that become waste. We can eat and serve energy-efficient food that is locally produced and low on the food chain. We can educate ourselves about more sustainable ways to live interdependently. And you don’t have to do it alone. We have a Voluntary Simplicity group that meets regularly to encourage one another in efforts to live more simply and sustainably. They meet after the service today as well.
            There are other groups in the larger community, like Transition Town and Spring Creek Homesteading that focus on the use of local resources and the development of the skills and resilience that will be needed to adapt to a post-petroleum world.
            Those are just a few of the opportunities that are available. And I have one more thing to say about the place of religion in all this. Last fall I gave a pair of sermons about religion’s roles of “afflicting the comfortable” and “comforting the afflicted.” Well, that applies here. Our religious faith can afflict those of us who are relatively comfortable with the awareness of our responsibility to weigh our personal comfort against the needs of humanity as a whole to have a sustainable future. Our faith also calls on us to cultivate compassion so that we might bring comfort and care to those most sorely afflicted by the ravages of global warming and climate change. If the current trajectory continues, more and more of us will be needing that mutual comfort and caring, and so it is incumbent on us now to marshal the spiritual resources and strength that that will require.
            And so I repeat once more that we need to pay attention to our fundamental spiritual grounding, and continue to draw strength from our awe and gratitude for our world and our awareness and experience of our interconnections with the earth and each other.  As Bill McKibben said in a speech a couple of years ago, “We fight not just for ourselves, we fight for the beauty of this place. For cool trout streams and deep spruce woods. For chilly fog rising off the [ocean] and deep snow blanketing the mountains. We fight for all the creation that shares this planet with us. And now, more than ever, we fight together.”
So may it be.
Religious Response to Global Warming
Rev. Mark Hayes


February 10, 2013