Saturday, November 28, 2015

On Pope Francis and Climate Change... "UNCOVER THE LIFE BOATS" by John Bos

On Pope Francis and Climate Change...
By John Bos
(The following is a talk delivered by John Bos as part of the Village Lyceum series at the Petersham, MA Unitarian Church on November 12, 2015)
Good morning!
First, I’d like to thank Gen Fraser for inviting me to speak to you today. (Full disclosure, as they say in the news media); I met Gen about seven or eight years when we were each working in our separate ways to promote waste wood biomass as a renewable energy resource. We’ve been corresponding ever since about our mutual environmental concerns.
I returned home last night from Nashua, New Hampshire where I attended the Northeast Region Citizen’s Climate Lobby conference. I participated in a teach-in yesterday that included a presentation by Dr. James Hanson who now teaches at Columbia University after many years as the former NASA Chief Climate Scientist. Hansen, as most of you may know, is best known for his research in the field of climatology and his testimony on climate change to congressional committees in 1988 that helped to surface awareness about global warming. Hansen appeared on 60 Minutes in June 2006, noting that the Bush White House had edited climate-related press releases reported by federal agencies to make global warming appear less threatening. This was not the first and only attempt to minimize and “dis-lead” the public about the impacts of global warming.
My credentials for standing before you this morning are not rooted in environmental science, but rather as a retired person who has had the time to slowly come to grips with what Pope Francis spoke to in his June 18 Encyclical as the destruction of “our common home.”
I am a columnist for the Shelburne Falls & West County Independent and frequent op ed contributor to other media. I have been writing about environmental issues for the past seven years. My column in the Independent is entitled “Connecting the Dots,” not an especially unique title, but one that describes what I hope to achieve here this morning with respect to our survival as a species.
I’d like to begin with a parable...
Five days after departing from Southampton, England, the “unsinkable” Titanic grazed an iceberg in the North Atlantic. The incident passed unnoticed by most passengers – a mere trembling according to one.
Having heard reports of water entering the hold, Captain Edward Smith and Thomas Andrews, a ship designer who was aboard representing the Titanic’s builders, went below to conduct an inspection. Upon returning to the bridge, Mr. Andrews made some rapid calculations, then broke the news to the captain: “The ship is doomed; at best you have one and a half hours before she goes down.” An immediate order was issued: uncover the lifeboats!
The Titanic’s passengers were not seasoned sailors. The ship was large and reassuring; it had been their home for the better part of a week. Bankers still intent upon returning to their New York offices continued to plan upcoming business deals. Professors returning from sabbatical leaves still mulled over lesson plans. Eventually, many preferred to stay on board rather than disembark on a tiny lifeboat.
Grasp of an altered reality comes slowly, not as much the result of denial as of not comprehending. When the truth could no longer be denied, the passengers exhibited the entire range of human qualities – from bravery and heroism to cowardice. Some panicked or gave up hope entirely. Others achieved comfort by maintaining the status quo: third class passengers were prevented by many crew members from leaving the flooded steerage quarters below for what turned out to be the temporary haven of the upper, higher-priced decks.
In the end, reality could not be denied. Early on the morning of April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank with a loss of over 1,500 lives.
It is not difficult to grasp the deeply disturbing parallels between our comprehension of what is happening to and on our collective home – the Earth. Unless, like some of those on board the Titanic, we cannot possibly conceive that the Earth can become inhospitable to life as we have known it.
The fact is that few today understand the magnitude of our planet’s coming climate catastrophe. Or, as the Worldwatch’s Lester Brown writes in the book “Saving the Planet,” “fewer still have a good idea of what to do about it.”
Brown, along with his co-authors Christopher Flavin and Sandra Postel, state with some certitude that “Environment awareness has reached new heights in most countries...but the world has a long way to go in raising environmental literacy to the point where the process of reform becomes self-sustaining.”
That statement was made 24 years ago in July 1991. 24 years ago!
Three years earlier - 27 years ago - Time magazine chose for its January 2, 1989 issue, instead of its usual annual “Man of the Year” cover for the year 1988, a graphic image of the earth bound up in twine with the sun setting darkly in the background. The cover title read “Planet of the Year: Endangered Earth.”
Thomas Sancton, who wrote the essay accompanying the Time cover, said: “This year the earth spoke, like God warning Noah of the deluge. Its message was loud and clear, and suddenly people began to listen, to ponder what portents the message held.”
In her best-selling book, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate” (which has caused the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have hissy fits), Naomi Klein quotes Sancton as saying the message “was so profound, so fundamental, that it called into question the founding myths of modern Western culture.” She then quotes at length, Sancton’s description of the roots of the climate crisis. “In many pagan societies, the earth was seen as a mother, a fertile giver of life. Nature – the soil, forest, sea – was endowed with divinity, and mortals were subordinate to it. The Judeo-Christian tradition introduced a radically different concept. The earth was the creation of a monotheistic God, who, after shaping it, ordered its inhabitants, in the words of Genesis: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’ The idea of dominion,” Klein writes, “could be interpreted as an invitation to use nature as a convenience.”
Nature as a convenience...or as a profit center; take your choice. “Well before one hottest-year-ever was followed by yet another record-breaker, before Arctic ice vanished in real time and Pope Francis made a plea to save our troubled home,” Timothy Egan wrote recently in the New York Times, “the world’s largest private oil company discovered that its chief product could cause global havoc.”
A recently discovered email from one of its own scientists reveals that ExxonMobil knew as early as 1981 that its business model was a major cause of climate change.
“It’s not surprising,” Egan wrote, “given its army of first-rate scientists and engineers, that Exxon was aware as far back as the 1970s that carbon dioxide from oil and gas burning could have dire effects on the earth. Nor is it surprising that Exxon would later try to cast doubt on what its experts knew to be true, to inject informational pollution into the river of knowledge about climate change.”
This was at least a decade before Time magazine noted that 1988 was the “year the earth spoke, like God warning Noah of the deluge.” ExxonMobil spent millions over the next 27 years to promote climate denial, but that’s another story.
I like to tell people who either comprehend what lies ahead for us all is that the dire climate change projections don’t only come from left-leaning liberal organizations. Here are two examples of what I mean.
“Climate change could push more than 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030 by disrupting agriculture and fueling the spread of malaria and other diseases.” That projection is from a November 8, 2014 World Bank report. “All development is now taking place in a world shaped by climate” the report stated: “Climate change is happening now and impacting countries and people, with the poor the hardest hit.” Taking the necessary global action to resolve the problem will require “economic transformations and a path to net zero emissions before the end of the century.”
Then there’s the Pentagon, hardly a liberal organization, which released a report this past October, asserting decisively, according to the New York Times, “that climate change poses an immediate threat to national security, with increased risks from terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty and food shortages. It also predicted rising demand for military disaster responses as extreme weather creates more global humanitarian crises.
The report lays out a road map to show how the military will adapt to rising sea levels, more violent storms and widespread droughts,” said the Times. “The Defense Department will begin by integrating plans for climate change risks across all of its operations, from war games and strategic military planning situations to a rethinking of the movement of supplies.”
Now, let’s back up a bit to this past summer, to June 18.
Pope Francis’ Encyclical was, and is, a worldwide wake up call to help humanity understand the destruction that man is rendering to the environment and his fellow man.
He began by saying “In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.” In saying this the Pope reminds me of what America’s preeminent biologist, E. O. Wilson wrote in his 2006 book “The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth.” “If there is any moral precept shared by people of all beliefs,” Wilson said, “it is that we owe ourselves and future generations a beautiful, rich, and healthful environment.”
He continues with “I am puzzled that so many religious leaders, who spiritually represent a large majority of people around the world, have hesitated to make protection of the Creation an important part of the magisterium.” My personal experience is that, in fact, churches have begun to step up to the plate.
A few years back, Mary Schreiber, a good friend and retired Episcopal priest, and I screened Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” at a number of churches under the aegis of Interfaith Power and Light. Interfaith Power and Light began in 1998 with Episcopal Power & Light and has built a national network that now has affiliated programs in 40 states, supporters in all 50 states and 18,000 participating congregations. That’s a lot of people...but we need more, lots more.
On April 27, 2013 I traveled with others to Boston in the wake of the Boston Marathon tragedy, to attend a day-long “Climate Revival -  An Ecumenical Festival to Embolden the Renewal of Creation” organized by United Church of Christ and Episcopal leaders in Massachusetts. More than 600 people from all over New England and from a number of Christian traditions gathered to attend the “revival.”
You can Google “Religious Statements on Climate Change” and will find more than a dozen descriptions of positions on climate change from Baptist, Catholic and Lutheran to Muslim, Sikh and Quaker spiritual traditions. And, of course, the UUA call to action on behalf of the Earth.
 “The ecological crisis,” the Pope continued, “is also a summons to profound interior conversion. It must be said,” he continued, “that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive,” the Pope said; “they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an ‘ecological conversion.’”
The Pope underscored what Charles DiCapua said when he spoke to you here on September 27 on the topic of “Understanding the Roots of Climate Change.” DiCapua observed that “The outer causes of climate change are clear and obvious to us now. Yet, for there to be any real mitigation and reversal of climate change, we need to come to understand the inner terrain of the heart and mind that are the genesis of this human crisis. This requires forthrightness, courage and above all, a willingness to own our common humanity.”
So it comes down to all of us and each of us to wade into what is so huge, so complex, so daunting and so fearsome that it is difficult to know how to start living consciously and in relation to the Earth. Those were my feelings a few years ago. But I have been encouraged and emboldened by what I see happening the world over, by the examples of individuals who are living with open eyes, open hearts and open minds.
I’ll give you one wonderful example. I met Miriam Kashia this past summer at my sister’s UU church in Iowa City. Now 72 years young, Miriam walked every step across America with the Great March for Climate Action from Los Angeles to Washington, DC between March and November 2014. Kashia has been a social justice activist for over 40 years. She told me that when she was a freshman in college she wrote a paper for some class about over-population. That’s when Paul Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb, came out. Miriam said that it absolutely woke her up to the fact that the direction in which we were heading wasn’t good.
In a recent guest editorial in the Iowa City Press Citizen, Miriam wrote “Last month, a small group of concerned citizens representing an activist organization called Climate Mobilization staged a fun demonstration at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines as supporters lined up to enter a dinner event attended by eight of these GOP presidential hopefuls.”
“The women in our group,” she wrote, “were dressed as the iconic ‘Rosie the Riveter’ to remind the crowd that America has the capacity to respond quickly and powerfully when threatened.  In 1942,” she reminded her readers, “we tightened our belts, and changed our entire manufacturing sector and economy for the war effort in less than a year.”
Here’s my favorite part of Miriam’s op ed: “Then,” she wrote, “during a media interview with Sen. Ted Cruz speaking about the terrorist threat, I jumped in and asked him, ‘What is your response to the fact that the Pentagon tells us that climate change is the biggest threat to America’s security? His response, ‘You don’t have the right to ask any questions, because you’re not a member of the media.’ The media, meanwhile,” she wrote, “was not doing its job.”
I have brought some copies of her Rosie the Riveter essay for you to enjoy. When you see the photograph of Rosie in the article, you are looking at Miriam Kashia!
Miriam and I are now in constant communication as I float ideas by her, the most recent being my desire to start a book club that only reads and discusses books about the environment. She has already done that and has developed a kind of syllabus to guide and motivate the discussion about Naomi Klein’s book.
Miriam’s actions have motivated, provoked and forced me to look at my own life style and my individual carbon footprint. How does one determine what she or he can do to become part of the solution instead of part of the problem? On the face of it, the question feels overwhelming.
None of us has the worldwide platform that Pope Francis can speak from. And many of us may not have the strong calling that Miriam Kashia does.
But consider this approach; what do you feel most passionately about, love and care the most deeply about? My question is prompted by a quote my sister sent me by Christian theologian Frederick Buechner. He wrote that "The place God (call it Life or the Mystery) calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
If you love the water, love to kayak or canoe, or fish, get involved, even in some small way to support The Connecticut River Watershed and volunteer to help in the annual river cleanup.
If you love to hike, camp and appreciate the forest, stop unnecessary clear cutting of forests, support reforestation, plant trees, support the Appalachian Mountain Club.
If you love the wind that fills your lungs and maybe your sailboat, get involved in efforts to curb pollution and auto emissions, work to support the revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend proposal by the Citizen’s Climate Lobby. It is the one legislative proposal that could attract bipartisan support and move us away from fossil fuels to all renewable energy.
If you love children (and who doesn’t?) teach your kids, their kids and your neighbor’s kids about gardening, where food really comes from, the difference between corporate food and real food, and between the 3,000 mile strawberry and one grown locally.
Driving a car, using electricity to light and heat your home, and throwing away garbage all lead to greenhouse gas emissions. You can reduce emissions through simple actions like changing a light bulb, powering down electronics, using less water, and recycling.
Become really informed about what is happening to our environment locally and spread the word. Write letters and op ed pieces. Work to stop the Kinder Morgan pipeline and stop the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage hydro station from increasing the capacity of its reservoir by 25%.
Host a potluck for the purpose of talking about climate change with your neighbors and friends.
There’s so much more...if you care about our communal home.
In my own case, I find that the more I think, research, discover and write about the damage humankind is causing our planet the more I want to take on the denial industry that values profits over people. My own “deep gladness” is having found a way to vent, critique, and I hope, to educate my readers about what I often refer to as the “crimes against humanity” being perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry. This includes far too many of our elected officials. I like connecting the dots that I hope will clarify the bigger picture.
“By the end of this decade,” Diane Ackerman writes in her stunning new book -  “The Human Age; The World Shaped by Us,” the history of planet Earth will be rewritten, textbooks will slip out of date, and teachers will need to unveil a bold, exciting, and possibly disturbing new reality. During our brief sojourn on Earth, thanks to exhilarating technologies, fossil fuel use, agriculture, and ballooning populations, the human race has become the single dominant force of change on the planet. For one species radically to alter the entire natural world is almost unprecedented in all of Earth’s 4.5 billion year history.”
Conservative politicians and global warming deniers have criticized the Pope for mixing politics with religion. Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican Senator from Oklahoma is the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and a fervent supporter of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Disagreeing with Diane Ackerman, Senator Inhofe paraphrased Genesis by saying in 2012 that “As long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night. My point is,” said Inhofe, “God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.” So much for the arrogance of mixing religion with politics.
Look; the bottom line is that we can no longer sit on the deck of our sinking Titanic playing “Nearer my God to Thee” hoping that somehow we will get by, that somehow our family and friends will be spared the impacts of rising ocean levels and increasingly violent weather patterns. There is no one captain, no one technological fix, that will see us all to safe harbor. It’s sink or swim. We need, each of us, to uncover and get on board our collective lifeboat, set a course for survival, and paddle as if our lives and the lives of others depended on it.
# # #

John Bos – November 12, 2015

1.    Time Magazine cover from Jan. 2, 1989
2.    Cover of Naomi Klein’s book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate”
3.    Noah image I used on the print version of my Sunday address “Uncover the Life Boats”

4.    Cover of Diane Ackerman’s book “The Human Age: the World Shaped by Us”

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