It’s time to dress for a funeral.
That’s what Joel told the priests and farmers of ancient Israel. They had turned to their prophets for a hopeful word about the future, and Joel replied, “Actually, it’s worse than you think.”
Those words are ours today as we look at the reality of global climate change. The years ahead of us will be the most challenging our species has ever faced. For many of the other species that share this planet with us — and for some of our own people — it will be too much to survive.
The loss of biodiversity will be staggering. In 2015, The Guardian reported that one-in-six species will go extinct by the end of the century if emissions continue at their current rate. Even now, the tiny nation of Kiribati is facing total flooding of its 33 islands because of ocean level rise, attributed to melting ice. The people living there, in the middle of the ocean, will have no fresh water to drink.
Dressing for a funeral doesn’t begin to prepare our hearts for this kind of devastation.
The period we are now entering is set to become the sixth great extinction in our planet’s history, even if we were totally unified and putting our best effort into this work. But the fact is we are not. Sec. of State Rex Tillerson’s appointment means that a former executive of the industry which has caused the climate crisis is now the top diplomat of the nation most critical to leading the world in climate justice. The fossil fuel industry — and Tillerson’s Exxon, specially — has understood the science behind climate change since the 1970s. Instead of being chastened by that knowledge, Exxon chose to wage misinformation campaigns to confuse the public. But the science of climate change is pretty simple — simple enough that Abby would quiz third graders about it when she taught environmental education on the Southside of Chicago. The effects of the broken carbon cycle are all around us right now, obvious to those with only an elementary school education.
And yes, it’s even worse than you think. Last year we permanently passed the 400 parts-per-million threshold for measuring carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. It’s an important number, because it points to one aspect of our climate reality: There is no going back. No one currently living will be around by the next time our atmosphere gets below that threshold again, even if we were to stop emitting carbon dioxide tomorrow.
We have already changed our planet, irrevocably. And we’ll face climate chaos on a variety of fronts, including warming temperatures.
In order to minimize damage we would have to close all of our coal mines and most of our oil and gas mines long before they are exhausted. In other words, we have to leave fossil fuels in the ground.
Contemplate what leaving fossil fuels in the ground means. Economically, it means that fossil fuel companies stand to lose trillions of dollars.
It is not the first time an industry on the wrong side of an ethical struggle has faced this kind of loss. In April 2014, The Nation ran a story about the economics of slavery. As the Civil War was beginning, slave owners faced the loss of billions of dollars in assets (ahem, people). Specifically,
Today, we rightly recoil at the thought of tabulating slaves as property. It was precisely this ontological question—property or persons?—that the war was fought over. But suspend that moral revulsion for a moment and look at the numbers: Just how much money were the South’s slaves worth then?
Anyone who knows our nation’s story knows that the system of slavery didn’t end without a bloody battle, and that even now the lingering effects of that system infects our society through rampant racism. Frederick Douglass wrote, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
The power of those trillions of dollars in resources is not something we should expect fossil fuel companies to willingly walk away from. Keeping that carbon in the ground is going to require an overwhelming demand.
While the devastating losses from climate change cannot be tabulated in dollars and cents, just as we cannot ever put a full cost on the devastation of generations of enslavement of human beings, looking at the economic costs of climate change will necessarily be part of making the demand to leave it in the ground. What price will we put on the variety of changes that will accompany effects of a global rise in temperature of just two degrees?
The fossil fuel industry will lose trillions of dollars in their investments. How do we put a price tag on people’s lives?
This is not just a funeral. It’s an epidemic.
We can’t afford to wait for fossil fuel companies to behave as though they’re accountable to this situation. It is our responsibility as consumers to use fewer fossil fuels and to pay carbon offsets. It also our moral and theological imperative to insist that the industry offer better ways to live.
The crisis is upon us. As John the Baptist said, “The axe is at the root of the tree.” We must act, and we must act quickly.
First, we must pray. We have to be ready to repent from our destructive relationship with creation.
Second, we must see our work for creation as intersectional work that does not leave behind the voices and experiences of people of color, indigenous persons, women, immigrants, people who are poor, and children. Systems of oppression like racism, sexism, classism, and xenophobia must be addressed in the fight for God’s good creation. In order to do that, we have to be ready to repent from our destructive relationships with each other.
Third, we must resist responding to climate change in capitalist ways alone. We cannot buy our way out of this crisis. Instead, we must be voices — perhaps in the wilderness — ready to cry out for new systems that challenge the old ways. In order to do that, we have to be ready to repent from our destructive relationship with God.
Finally, we must cease seeking and creating false comfort. Like Joel, and John the Baptist, we must be clear-eyed and unflinching in describing the real crisis our society is facing. But it’s time to rediscover the doom oracles of the prophets as the deeply hopeful messages they really are. To build the public desire necessary to overcome the entrenched power of industries with a vested interest in destroying our climate will require a courageous hope, a hope that can face a bleak future and choose resistance instead of retreat.
May we create that hope soon.