Caption: United Church of Chapel Hill’s April 23rd Celebration of Creation Day. With thanks to Rev. Susan Steinberg.
A couple months ago there was a report on the evening news about a series of
storms that had torn through the southeast. Forty-four tornadoes were reported to have
touched down in six states. Twenty people died. More were injured. Trees had
toppled. Cars and homes were crushed. One police officer described a neighborhood
in Mississippi. “It looked like a bomb had gone off here,” he said. The NBC News
reporter stood in front of a house in Albany, Georgia. The roof had been shorn off and
all that remained were scattered walls here and there. Inside, an 81-year- old retired Air
Force pilot had died. The reporter spoke with his daughter. “It came on so suddenly,”
she said. “We have a basement. If he had known, he could have gone down there.
He would have been safe.” Inside this house without a roof, the daughter opened a box
of medals her father had earned. Then, inside a closet where his clothes inexplicably
remained hanging on a rack, his daughter found his Air Force dress uniform wrapped in
a protective plastic cover. With tears in her eyes she opened it and said, “I think we’ll
bury him in this.”
It was a sad and tragic story, but it’s significance was amplified by the fact that,
during that same period, almost every day for nearly two months, essentially the very
same story was repeated. Different storm, different location, but often the same
Then, last weekend, there was another story on the news. Traffic jams had
started to appear in a tiny village on the coast of Newfoundland. Tourist were pouring
into town. A few hundred yards off shore, a 150-foot tall mountain of ice had run
aground. It had broken off a larger iceberg somewhere in the warming waters pf the
north Atlantic and came to rest near a village called Ferryland, of all things!
You and I didn’t use to see weather events like this with any regularity, but now it
seems like they’re happening with all too great a frequency.
Yesterday was Earth Day. It was also a day on which scientists around the world
stepped out of their labs and onto the streets to stand up for scientific research at a time
when science has come increasingly under attack. I’ve spoke of environmental issues
in the past, but as things seem only to be going from bad to worse on the climate front,
it’s a topic that may be worth revisiting.
A few basic facts: concentrations of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere today are
35% higher than when those levels peaked some 800,000 years ago. How do they
know that? They study ice cores drilled at the polar caps and run tests to determine the
composition of the atmosphere at various points in history. Today, when it comes to
CO2 in an atmosphere, we’re at historic levels. Then there’s sea level rise. Today,
oceans are higher than they’ve been in 115,000 years, and experts expect that rise in
ocean levels to accelerate.
Over the past 50 years, average global temperatures have increased at that
fastest rate in history. And 16 of the hottest years since daily temperatures have been
recorded, except for one outlier year – essentially the 16 hottest years in recorded
history have all been in the last 16 years. And 2017 is on track set to break all records.
What does all that mean? Extreme weather like that storm on the evening will
become more the norm than the exception. There’ll be increased coastal flooding as
sea levels continue to rise, especially during storms. There’ll be more torrential rain in
some regions while others will experience extended droughts. There’ll be longer and
more damaging wildfires. There’ll be floods, tornadoes and hurricanes and,
counterintuitively, there will also be more severe winter weather as our changing climate
messes with the jet stream and bring more “polar vortexes” our way. Even the largest
living organism on earth is slowly dying – the Great Barrier Reef. As waters warm and
become increasingly acidic because of all the CO2 that’s being absorbed from the
atmosphere, reefs everywhere are threatened. And as reefs wither, so also does the
sea life that depends on them and the people who depend on that sea life as an
essential source of nutrition.
The Department of Defense has labeled climate change as one of the major
threats to our national security because of the social upheaval it will bring. As one
social scientist put it, if countries are concerned about immigration now, wait till a large
swath of sub-Saharan Africa turns to desert.
Someone once said, “God always forgives. People often forgive. But nature
But that wasn’t always the case. Most of our lives, you and I have been
hardwired to believe that, no matter what we did, the environment would absorb it and
life would continue unchanged. Sure, there have been the occasional Love Canal toxic
swamps and Chernobyl nuclear meltdowns but, by and large, nature has been ready
and willing to forgive our environmental sins. But, as that story on the evening news
testifies, along with any number of reports like it, things have changed. Mother Nature
has become much less forgiving and you and I, environmentally speaking, are quickly
approaching the point of no return.
In the passage I read earlier from John 20, one day after the Resurrection, Jesus
appeared to his disciples as they hid behind locked doors. All were present except for
Thomas. When his colleagues told him the joyous good news, he refused to believe
them. “Unless I see for myself,” he said, “I will not believe.”
Yet, when it comes to the environment, you and I have seen for ourselves, but
many refuse to believe. “This is just cyclical,” they say. “It’s just a part of nature. It has
nothing to do with what we have done.” And yet, this is the only home that you and I
have – this beautiful, wonderful gift that has been entrusted to us by God. If climate
skeptics are wrong and you and I don’t get it right, there will be no second chance.
But here’s what’s crazy about all of this – there are things that you and I can do
to help turn this situation around. If for generations, even unintentionally, we have been
part of the problem, dumping massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, why
shouldn’t we be part of the solution?
Columnist, Tom Friedman, put it this way.
We [as a people] have been great at rising to the occasion after big
geopolitical upheavals – after Hitler invaded his neighbors, after Pearl
Harbor, after 9/11. But this is the first time in human history that we have
to act on a threat we have collectively made to ourselves…. We could
rebuild Europe after World War II, rebuild on the site of the World Trade
Center, even rebuild the economy after the 1929 and 2008 crashes, but if
we cross Mother Nature’s planetary boundaries, … there are things that
can never be rebuilt. We cannot rebuild the Greenland ice sheet, the
Amazon rainforest, or the Great Barrier Reef (Thank You For Being Late,
The cost of solar panels has dropped 80% in the past decade. In much of the
world, wind power is the cheapest way to generate energy. 50% of Denmark’s power,
for instance, comes from the wind. Costa Rica’s power system is almost entirely run off
renewables. It’s estimated that if we as a nation made a commitment to solar energy,
that industry alone would generate four million new jobs!
Yet, in North Carolina, our legislature has passed laws restricting solar and wind
sourced energy. They say wind turbines pose a threat to military aircraft, even though
the military itself says that wind turbines pose no threat.
At the national level, our new Secretary of State is the former head of Exxon
Mobile. The Department of the Interior recently revised the homepage on the web.
They took down a picture of a family camping and replaced it with a picture of an 80-foot
seam of coal. The President’s proposed budget for the coming year slashes the
Environmental Protection Agency’s funding by 31%, and de-funds weather satellites
that track climate change altogether. They’ll just turn them off. They’ll no longer collect
the data. But our planet is still warming and the oceans are still rising. Wouldn’t it be
prudent to keep track of such essential information?
Why would we do this – pass laws against renewable energy and turn off weather
satellites? It seems crazy. Well, in the last election, special interests, especially from
fossil fuel industries, set aside nearly a billion dollars to influence elections at state and
national levels. That’s essentially as much as either the Democratic or Republican
Parties themselves individually spent. And beyond that, hundreds of millions of dollars
more were spent on previous elections. Now, as laws are passed and budgets are
crafted, it would seem that those special interests are getting a healthy return on their
investments, but it’s you and me and our children and our children’s children who are
left dealing with the consequences.
One week after Jesus had come to the disciples in that back room behind closed
doors, he visited again. This time, Thomas was there. Jesus said to him, “Thomas, put
your fingers in my hands. Place your hand on my side. Touch the wounds, Thomas.
They’re still raw.”
In response Thomas cried out, “My Lord and my God!”
“Have you believed because you’ve seen?” Jesus asked. “Blessed are those
who have not seen and yet, have come to believe.”
On this second Sunday of the season of Easter, may Jesus come to each of us
as well. May he open our spiritual eyes so that we might know his presence among us
even now. May he help us see the full power of new life that is his gift. May you and I
look at all the blessings that are ours as a gift from God: the majestic skies; pounding
waves; soaring mountains; the air that we breathe; the food that we eat; the first cry of a
newborn babe; the gift of community that we share together as a church; those we have
loved and those who have loved us – and especially the gift of our own life!
For these blessings and so many more, let us give thanks to God. May we
cherish, protect and preserve them all, for they have been entrusted to our care by God.
They are all invaluable. And they’re all irreplaceable!