Can We Restore Our Climate? Science and Faith Say Yes

Most of us do not have the heart to think about the problem of climate change, it is just so overwhelming. We see the weather changing all around us, it is frightening, and yet there seems to be little hope that we can do anything to reverse course. Many experts say that even if we dramatically accelerate the global transition from fossil fuels to clean energy like wind and solar (which is well underway) we will not make it in time to save life as we know it. Right now there are 405 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the temperature of the planet has already risen 1 degree Celsius, and even if we hold to the Paris Agreement we are likely headed towards 450 parts per million and 2 or 3 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century. That is basically a death sentence for our children and grandchildren, damning them to drought, food shortages, devastating sea level rise and super-storms, refugee crises, and military conflicts; these are scary conditions. We are throwing what Bob Dylan called “the worst fear that could ever be hurled—the fear to bring children into the world.” Faced with the seeming inevitability of climate chaos, many of us back away from thinking about climate change and looking at the fearful future we are in the process of handing down to our children.

But what if it is possible to restore our climate? What if we can take control of the situation and go from our current level of 405 parts per million of carbon dioxide all the way down to a level that is livable and sustainable, 300 parts per million? It is true that transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy alone would not be able to accomplish this, but if we set our minds to the goal of handing down a thriving planet to future generations, scientists are starting to say that we could achieve this. I recently took part in a meeting of multireligious leaders convened by Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center; he put us in the room with Peter Fiekowsky, who is a scientist, founder of the Healthy Climate Alliance, and a visionary of what he calls “Climate Restoration.” Fiekowsky says that with the technology currently available we can actually remove a trillion tons of carbon from the atmosphere and restore a healthy climate for our children and grandchildren, by 2050. We can construct factories with giant fans that will suck the excess carbon out of the air, using it to make limestone for roads and buildings, or injecting it underground into basalt fields, where it reacts with the basalt and forms limestone. There are other technologies that might be employed, such as constructing fields of ocean plants to absorb billions of tons of carbon, while at the same time producing fish to feed the world. To do all this it might take about 1 percent a year of global GDP over about three decades, ideally from 2020-2050. By 2050 the total parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere would be 300 ppm, and we would be passing down a thriving planet to our children and grandchildren, a planet that would be able to sustain human society as well as countless species and ecosystems that are critically endangered by climate change.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow waters the roots of a 300 year old Beech tree, symbolizing our interconnection with all life and our comm
Rabbi Arthur Waskow waters the roots of a 300 year old Beech tree, symbolizing our interconnection with all life and our commitment to seek justice on Earth. This was part of the closing ritual of our multireligious leaders gathering regarding climate justice and restoration at Pendle Hill Retreat Center, June 22-23, 2017.

As a person of faith, this vision of climate restoration sounds like an opportunity to fulfill the biblical ideal of humanity as stewards of creation. When God gives human beings “dominion” over the Earth (Genesis 1:26), we are entrusted with a sacred responsibility to use the power of our hands and our minds to maintain the balance of creation and to ensure the abundance of life on Earth. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere is a perfect example of something that must be held in balance for the flourishing of life on this planet; at first without knowing what we were doing, and now with a growing awareness of the destructiveness of our actions, human beings have thrown our climate out of balance and endangered life as we know it. Now it is our moral responsibility to repair this grave mistake. Climate restoration is part of our sacred duty to preserve life. God is the creator of all life, and we are that part of life that is responsible for preserving the creation.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26, NRSV)

Among social and environmental justice seekers, myself included, there is a certain aversion to the traditional concept of “dominion,” which seems to assume that humans are separate from nature rather than parts of nature. In fact, the anthropocentric idea that human beings are the most important parts of creation is at the heart of the ecological crisis we now face; it has given us a spirit of hubris, entitlement, greed, and callousness. The vision of climate restoration may at first glance appear problematically anthropocentric in its interventionist mindset and attitude that humans can and should alter the world to meet our needs. Yet climate restoration is not a self-serving proposal; it is a mission to correct the sins of our own generation so that they are not visited on our children and grandchildren; it is a mission to preserve the biodiversity and flourishing of life on Earth, to save countless species and ecosystems from the destruction of a rapidly changing climate. We need not see ourselves as superior to nature—we can recognize the inherent value and goodness of all life—and yet we as human beings must still contend with the fact that we have unique power and hence unique responsibility to care for this planet. We have been given a God-like ability to shape our world for good or for ill.

When a child or young adult has cancer, do we spare any expense in the treatment? No, of course not. We work aggressively without cutting costs so long as the possibility of saving life exists. Even if we cannot hope to cure the cancer with current methods, we still use them to the fullest if only to buy a person another five or ten years, in hope that a cure may be available at that time. At this present time, our climate is in critical condition—life as we know it is hanging in the balance—and we need to do our utmost to restore our climate to a healthy condition. Globally, we spend about 10 percent of GDP annually on healthcare. Is 1 percent of global GDP a year too much to ask in order to heal our climate? Climate restoration is our moral duty, and it is what our hearts tell us to do. For the sake of our children and grandchildren, we regularly put aside funds for education, for weddings, and to help them with major purchases like cars and homes. Over the next few decades we are going to need to put aside about 1 percent of global GDP to purchase a livable planet for our children and grandchildren.

I have been a climate activist for over fourteen years, ever since Bill McKibben called me to action when I was a student at Middlebury College. McKibben was leading a group of students asking for our campus thermostats to be turned down from 70 to 68 degrees. There were rallies, protests, flyers everywhere, social media all aflutter; there was some resistance but at the end of the day the change was made. Many of the same students McKibben worked with on that modest campaign went on to form 350.org, what has become the most effective and widespread network of climate activists. As their name signals, they have been calling for a reduction in the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 405 to 350. For over a decade I have been working alongside 350.org and other environmentalists, doing what I can as a minister and theologian to wake people up to the problem of climate change and our need to transition from fossil fuels to a clean energy economy. As an American Baptist minister I recently worked with colleagues to form an ABC Creation Justice Network (if you are Baptist please go to our website and sign up!). In Massachusetts, where I live, I am part of an interfaith coalition for climate action and have been arrested twice in civil disobedience for the cause of climate justice. All these years, I have worked with very little hope that our efforts could prevent catastrophic climate change.

When McKibben and other climate activists speak today, they tell people the grim truth that our best efforts to mitigate climate change can do no more than prevent the worst. Nevertheless, we press on, calling for divestment from fossil fuels and an end to new fossil fuel infrastructure, challenging people to change their lifestyles and become politically active in the global movement for climate justice. Despite the harsh and relative unattractiveness of the possibilities we have been imagining, millions have become active in the struggle for climate justice. Even though we have not had much hope of restoring our planet to health, we have nevertheless been motivated by faith; we have a sense of moral outrage at the injustice of climate change, which affects the most vulnerable people worldwide—women, people of color, the poor, and less industrialized nations that have contributed least to climate change; we have been shocked by the ruthless profit-seeking of multinational corporations which has led them to lie, deceive, and even murder environmental activists such as Berta Caceres; whether we have hope or not we are called by the Spirit to seek justice and the preservation of life. So we have continued to hope against hope. But it appears that we have been thinking too small, asking for 350 parts per million when what we really need is 300 parts per million; we have been constrained to imagine futures of mere survival on a degraded planet.

Prior to last week, I had not considered the idea of climate restoration, I had never even heard the phrase. In the climate justice movement, we have been talking about mitigating climate change and adapting to climate change, and I have to admit that these discussions are laced with a fearful recognition that we are talking about something far short of preserving life on Earth. But can we also start to talk about climate restoration? Can we inject a more potent hope into the conversation?

When Nazi Germany was on the rise, what would it have sounded like to talk about mitigating Nazism or adapting to Nazism? Of course, our nation debated this before entering the war; there were even Nazi sympathizers in our halls of power. Before we chose to fully enter the conflict, we sent weapons and supplies and made other half-way efforts to try to contain this rapidly expanding threat. We covered up what we knew of the Holocaust and other disturbing evidence that would cause moral outrage and force us to enter the conflict. Eventually the threat of Nazism rose to such a level that we finally committed to join in an alliance to defeat the Nazis. We retooled our whole economy and sent countless soldiers to die in battle. But we won. Our situation today is much the same. We have been in a mode of mitigation and adaptation, with our nation making only ineffectual efforts to prevent climate change, and of course our political will is confused and stymied by a stubborn denial of the facts of the situation. But as these facts become clearer, as the temperature rises year by year and the threat of climate change becomes increasingly undeniable, the decision that faces us is whether we will commit, not to some half way measure, not only to mitigation and adaptation, but to climate restoration.

Can we imagine the nations of the world coming together in 2020 and making an alliance to invest 1 percent of global GDP over thirty years to restore the climate for our children and grandchildren? And at the same time as we form this new global alliance, could we not at the same time solve problems like water scarcity and hunger worldwide? Could we also enter a new paradigm of global cooperation and figure out, for the first time in human history, how to resolve international conflicts peacefully? Could we finally figure out how to demilitarize our planet and forever halt the production of nuclear weapons? These are the kinds of dreams that are worthy of humanity, made in the image of God. These are the kinds of dreams that are ready to be preached and envisioned, researched and developed, and then implemented throughout this country and the world. Will you be part of the movement of scientists, religious leaders, artists, entrepreneurs, activists, political leaders, and ordinary people, young and old, that will come together to make these dreams real?

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