Climate change

Feeding our Imagination

CRITICS HAVE BEMOANED the lack of fiction centered on climate change, which seems to mirror our public sluggishness about this scientific reality. But two recent novels, Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior (Harper) and Lauren Groff's Arcadia (Voice), artfully integrate climate change into their plotlines, weaving scientific truth about global warming into the lives of fictional characters. Just as compelling, both works of fiction feature spiritual community at the center of critical decisions about the future of the land and its inhabitants.

Flight Behavior is a lyrical story set in rural Tennessee with the fiercely intelligent Dellarobia Turnbow as the main character. She encounters a vast sea of monarch butterflies that seem to have taken a wrong turn on their migratory path, a result of a miracle—or a warming planet. Journalists, ecologists, and locals speculate about the misplaced monarchs. In an impassioned but measured plea for the land, the local pastor invokes a biblical mandate for creation care.

In Arcadia, climate change doesn't enter the narrative until the conclusion of the story, which is the tale of an intentional community started in the 1960s. The central character, Bit Stone, returns to a failed commune in upstate New York, where he grew up, to care for his ailing mother. Set in 2018, the dystopian conclusion is marked by climate change and global pandemics, but the values of the original spiritual community set up a struggle between the desire for freedom and the creation of shared life.

Reading both books, I could imagine myself inhabiting these worlds, in ways more personal than when I read a news report about global warming. Fiction allows us to live into a reality relevant to our time and to visualize our own reactions to the events on the page.

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The Gathering Storm

Climate scientists have warned that climate change will bring about—and already is bringing about—more frequent and fiercer storms. But climate change leads to far more than just destructive weather patterns, with consequences in almost all aspects of our lives. Here are just a few of the many possible effects of our rising global temperature.

Natural disasters will increase.
Climate change increases the risk of natural disasters that disproportionately affect low-income people who lack the resources to prepare, recover, or relocate.

Food will be scarcer and more expensive.
Food prices increase as farmers face new levels of unpredictability in weather patterns. Drought and floods may cause widespread soil infertility and increased plant diseases.

We'll experience more drought—and floods.
Changes in weather patterns lead to both increased drought and flooding, because warmer air can hold more water. Many dry places will become drier, while others will be inundated with rain.

We'll get sicker.
Warmer temperatures broaden the geographic range of insects that carry deadly diseases such as malaria, affecting more people. Warm air holds pollution closer to the ground, increasing respiratory illness. Diseases such as AIDS, which are linked to migration, poverty, and malnutrition, may also increase.

Human trafficking will increase.
With increased migration and job loss from agricultural instability, populations—and especially women—become increasingly vulnerable. As traditional sources of income evaporate, the incentive to exploit others becomes higher.

Some will have to flee their homes.
As land becomes uninhabitable due to agricultural and water instability, flooding, disease, or the effects of natural disasters, more people will be forced to leave their homes to seek opportunity elsewhere.

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'The impacts are quite severe on the ground'

FOR MANY IN the global South, climate change is not an abstract theory. Victor Mughogho, executive director of the Eagles Relief and Development Programme in the southeast African country of Malawi, has experienced firsthand the toll of global warming and extreme weather. He works with local churches to develop practical and faithful solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change. Sojourners assistant editor Elaina Ramsey interviewed Mughogho early last year when he visited Washington, D.C.

Elaina Ramsey: How has climate change affected the people of Malawi?

Victor Mughogho: The impacts are quite severe on the ground. Rural people in Malawi constitute about 85 percent of the population. These people are subsistence farmers. For them, rainfall is everything. Without the rain, there's no agriculture, no livelihood.

The weather patterns have changed and are so unpredictable now. In the past 20 years, official records from the government show that we've had five severe droughts. Because of the cycles of drought, there is less and less water in the ground. The water table is sinking. Trees and grass are stunting and rivers are drying up.

If you asked a person "What will happen in the next 10 or 20 years?" they'd say that what's bad now, in retrospect, is going to look like a good time. It looks like worse times are coming ahead.

How is your program responding to these extreme weather changes?

There's a story in the Bible where Jesus Christ asks his disciples and the people who are following him, "What do you have to feed those who are hungry?" There was a little boy with five loaves and two fish. Jesus did not just create a miracle out of nowhere. It started with what the people had. Thus, we are helping our communities and local churches to focus on what resources are currently available.

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No Time for Arm-Chair Activists

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Features of Woodhaven

A look at Linda and Scot DeGraf's handmade, eco-friendly home in West Virginia.

Thermal mass: More than 30 tons of plaster and other mass on the inside of the house collects and stores heat from sunlight.

Forest-certified lumber: Along with local posts and beams, we used wood certified as sustainably harvested.

Recycled vinyl shingles: Located on the one "traditional" roof that holds our solar panels, these shingles are made from 80 percent post-consumer recycled material and will last more than 50 years.

Straw-bale walls: These fire-resistant, agricultural waste products (not hay) provide 18 inches of cheap insulation, keeping the house warm in winter and cool in summer.

Reclaimed doors, windows, and kitchen cabinetry: Most of the doors and windows are reclaimed from predemolition sites.

Lime plaster: This ancient material (think of the longevity of lighthouses) provides waterproofing and is carbon neutral. (Contrast this with concrete, which is the sixth largest contributor to carbon emissions worldwide.)

Earth roofs: Plants absorb sunlight, convert heat to sugar and water, and keep the roof cool in the summer. Earth roofs provide water runoff protection and hold snow well, keeping us warmer in winter.

Cordwood construction: Local, renewable building materials—such as log-ends—were used to build some of the walls.

Solar hot water: A thermal system uses solar energy to heat water.

Local clay and stone: We repurposed local stone and unwanted clay gathered from a nearby construction site.

Passive solar design: Sun comes in through ample windows on the south side, naturally warming the house during winter.

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Built to Last

"SINCE I KNOW you guys are urban/city folks like me, I was pleasantly surprised to find that you didn't build some ugly house in the woods." Reading through thank-you letters from seventh graders who had come from Washington, D.C., to work with us, we smiled at this line written by a student we had known since kindergarten.

Having lived in the Washington, D.C. area for more than 30 years, it's true we were "urban folks," but our hearts were drawn to the woods. This crazy venture of ours began more than six years ago, when the Rolling Ridge Study Retreat Community, located south of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., was poised to build Woodhaven, a new staff home, in keeping with their deep respect for the earth and their mission of nurturing people and community. As Rolling Ridge members, we began building this home as a way to teach and learn about a different kind of architecture and to explore whether it is possible to create an energy-efficient, attractive home that will use fewer resources, last longer, and be gentler on the earth.

This project required discerning the time for humility and the time for hubris: the humility to know when it's crucial to call on experience and skill; the hubris to jump in and try things we've never done before. We could not have built this house without the brilliant work of our architect, Sigi, and building contractor, John, as well as skilled carpenters, electricians, and plumbers. Nor could we have done it without the enthusiastic work of numerous volunteers.

Ever eager to learn by rolling up their sleeves (or in the case of stamping cob, their pant legs), people have come during the past few years to help stack straw bales into strong walls, apply lime plaster on the outside and clay mix on the inside, and plant living roofs. They have filled the house not only with finished walls, but also with a spirit of joy.

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For God So Loved the World

NEW YORK CITY has been bombed at least twice in the past decade. First by al Qaeda and second by Hurricane Sandy.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States launched two ground wars and a worldwide "war on terror." Within two months, Congress federalized the Transportation Security Administration to secure airports. More than 263 government organizations were either created or reorganized. Some 1,931 private companies were put to work on counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence. Rightly or wrongly, America moved heaven and earth to stop terrorism in its tracks. It was seen as both an ongoing threat and a moral affront that had to be dealt with.

What about Climate Change?
In February, a New York State Senate task force on Superstorm Sandy compared the hurricane that affected 24 states to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "[On 9/11] there were more than 3,000 souls lost, but in terms of the geographic destruction, it was isolated to Lower Manhattan," said Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island). "[After Sandy] we have miles and miles and miles of destruction. Hundreds of thousands of homes affected, 60 ... New Yorkers killed, 250,000 to 260,000 businesses affected."

Hurricane Sandy killed 253 people in seven countries. It was the second largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded—and the most expensive. It smashed into the East Coast with barely three days' warning. Like hurricanes Katrina and Rita before it, Sandy was a disaster of biblical proportions.

After 9/11, Americans knew in our gut that something was seriously wrong. Our moral intuition had been sucker punched.

Climate change—and its deadly implications—has been harder to grasp. There's a lot of complicated science involved. Instead of a single incident, we're inundated with seemingly disconnected events. And, despite the evidence, we often fail to see it as a "crime."

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Future's So Bright

EARLIER THIS YEAR, 14 solar panels were installed on my roof. Each day since—in fact, multiple times a day—I've eagerly checked our online meters, as the sun replaces coal and nuclear plants as the provider of my home's electrical needs.

I've waited a long time for this. I attended my first energy conference in the late 1970s, when I joined several other students from the hunger action group at our Jesuit college, Seattle U., for the 20-hour van ride to Denver—even then, the connection between poverty and energy issues was clear.

That conference was one of several conducted by the U.S. Catholic bishops to gather input for what became a major and still-relevant document published in 1981 under the unassuming name "Reflections on the Energy Crisis." The statement noted that "solar power can help open the way to permanent energy security, pointing beyond the end of fossil fuels."

So last summer I was thrilled to sign a contract with a company called SolarCity, which installed the solar panels on my rooftop under a lease arrangement—they own the panels, and I buy solar power from them whenever the sun shines. And there's sure a lot of sunshine to tap: Every hour of daylight on earth, the sun releases the amount of energy consumed by the entire population of the planet in one year.

ENERGY industry deregulation over the past two decades made possible the emergence of new clean-energy companies like SolarCity. But it has come with quite a cost to consumers. For example, a report released in December by the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power found that Texans have paid an extra $10.4 billion for electricity under deregulation.

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The Battle is Joined

In February, more than 30,000 demonstrated in Washington, D.C., against the Keystone XL pipeline. Photo by Rick Reinhard.

ALL I EVER wanted to see was a movement of people to stop climate change, and now I've seen it. And it looks so beautiful. It's hometown heroes like our friends in D.C. who've been fighting coal plants, and far-flung heroes like those who've been bravely blocking the Keystone XL pipeline with their bodies in Texas. It's people who understand that the fight against fracking and coal ports and taking the tops off mountains is ultimately the fight for a living planet; it's people who have lived through Sandy and survived the drought, some of whom I got to go to jail with recently.

It's the students at 252 colleges who are now fighting the fossil fuel industry head on to force divestment of their school's stock—the biggest student movement in decades. It's all of you—you are the antibodies kicking in, as the planet tries to fight its fever.

We've waited a very long time to get started, I fear. We've already watched the Arctic melt; our colleagues in 191 countries tell us daily of some new drought or flood.

Because we've waited this long, the easiest answers are no longer enough; we're going to have to make tough decisions. Our theme has to be: When you're in a hole, stop digging. Above all stop the Keystone XL pipeline. The president can do it with a single stroke of his pen, and if he does he will become the first world leader to veto a big project because it's bad for the climate. That would be a legacy—and a signal to the rest of the world that we're serious about this fight. It's his test.

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From the Archives: May 1990

IN THE summer of 1969, then-Sen. Gaylord Nelson was on a conservation speaking tour of the West when he visited the beaches of Santa Barbara, at that time despoiled by one of the worst oil spills in U.S. history. The devastation affected him deeply. Later, while reading an article about the teach-ins organized by anti-Vietnam War activists, Nelson asked himself, Why not have a day for a nationwide teach-in on the environment? Thus was born Earth Day 1970.

The original Earth Day was marked by a massive public outpouring of concern for the environment. Earth Day helped spawn new laws such as the Clean Air and Water Acts and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, but it did little to staunch the more serious wounds of our dying planet. ... Much of the activity during the 20th-anniversary celebration of Earth Day this April 22 will focus on individual acts. ... But there is a danger in an overemphasis on personal acts, when the most grievous assaults on the natural world come from corporations and nations whose self-interested policies of acquisitiveness and greed have brought us to the edge of ecological cataclysm. ...

The chair of Union Carbide, one of the planet's most notorious despoilers, understood the stakes when he said, "An aroused public can put us out of business, just like it put the nuclear industry out of business." Polluters be warned: Such work is becoming everybody's business. 

Jim Rice was an assistant editor of Sojourners when this article appeared.

Image: Planet symbol on Earth Day, justaa / Shutterstock.com

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