As the world looks toward the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris in December, it would serve us all to reflect on California.
When I moved to California in August 1991, the state’s five-year drought changed the most mundane aspects of life. Throughout my East Coast childhood, this is how I learned to brush my teeth: Turn the knob on the sink, place the toothbrush under the running water, brush, spit, brush again, spit again, place your Dixie cup under the running water, rinse your teeth, gargle, spit, use the running water to rinse the sink of all your spit, then — and only then — turn the water off.
I performed that basic ritual during my first week in Los Angeles. My roommate scowled. She had moved to LA years before and had lived through the state’s drought. Over the course of those five years, every resident of California had taken ownership of the state’s dire situation by altering the daily routines of their lives.
Common measures included: placing bricks in the backs of toilets to use less flushing water, only flushing once or twice a day, only using the absolute minimum amount of water necessary to brush one’s teeth, cooler time-tight showers, and the list goes on.
History records my first months in Los Angeles as the tail end of the state’s late 1980s drought. People danced in the streets of South Central, East LA, and Santa Monica as El Niño’s waters soaked cracked earth in late 1991. But as citizens of a state in crisis, our shared sense of duty had transformed small changes in daily routines into a collective culture of conservation. In fact, to this day, many Californians still practice those same measures.
But it’s been 24 years since those dire days and California is fighting again, slugging into its fourth year of another drought. But this one is different. This is the worst drought in 1,200 years, according to a study published in the American Geophysical Union journal.
Standing in a brown field that should have been packed with several feet of snow on the first day of Earth Month, California Gov. Jerry Brown said: “It’s a different world. We have to act differently.”
Then he ordered a sweeping set of mandatory drought restrictions — the first in the state’s history. The restrictions call for a 25 percent cut in water use by cities and towns across the state in 2015.
As the world looks toward the December UN Climate talks in Paris, we understand California is an object lesson on the impacts of climate change for the world. It is one of the most diverse swaths of land in the world, boasting mountains, beaches, deserts, and forests; rural, urban, and suburban sprawl; the super-rich and the super-poor. Among the poorest, California’s farmworkers have borne a heavy brunt of the fallout of California’s bout with climate change as farmers have had to lay off 17,000 workers in the wake of climate-related losses.
California is past asking whether climate change is real or whether human action is its cause. Those questions fall moot in the face of sustained devastation impacting an entire state. The only questions that matter for California’s governing bodies are these: Are we willing to recognize that we live in a different world? And are we willing to live differently?
And these are the same questions that now face the world.
The Paris Conference will gather nations committed to curbing the global impacts of climate change. It does not propose to end climate change, but rather to chart the course for countermeasures that can be scaled up over time, according to UN Climate Chief, Christiana Figueres. But considering that 14 of the last 15 hottest days on record occurred in the past 15 years, it is significant that these talks will mark the first time all nations will make commitments to take measures, not just industrialized ones.
The nations are coming to the table. California leaders and residents have come to the table. The only question that remains: Will the church come to the table?
We must come to the table. And when we get there these are the questions we must ask:
Are we willing to recognize that we live in a different world?
Are we, the church, willing to own the impacts of our inadequate (and often sinful) stewardship of God’s creation in the industrial global era?
Are we willing to face God and admit that we have failed to fulfill our Genesis 1:26-27 calling to steward, care for, serve, and protect the wellness of the rest of creation?
Are we willing to open our eyes and see the reality that we are all connected — citizens of the only planet we have — with a shared destiny? The condition of our planet shapes our common future.
And are we willing, like the people of California, to take measures to live differently — and vote differently? Are we willing to press our leaders to exercise the kind of governance that reflects God’s kind of leadership — the kind that serves and protects all of creation?
Are we willing to exercise our global citizenship to press our own national leaders to set effective and measurable goals and to change the way we live in order to meet those goals?
For the sake of the wellness of the image of God on earth — especially the most vulnerable — are we, the church, willing to repent of our failed stewardship?
This is how the church prepares for Paris.
Let it be so.
Lisa Sharon Harper is Chief Church Engagement Officer for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith.