Sea Level Rise: The Siege of Miami

Elizabeth Kolbert, for the New Yorker, is one of our best writers on climate change. Her story this week, "The Siege of Miami," hits the high points: Dr. Harold Wanless, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Miami, Dr. Philip Stoddard, Mayor of South Miami, the King tides pushing higher and higher each year, and climate change deniers like U.S. Senator Marco Rubio who would be president or a highly paid commentator for Fox News.

Rubio deserves to be singled out because, for years, he refused to even meet with Florida climate scientists. Reading Kolbert in the New Yorker reminded me of a trip to Greenland in the summer of 2013. (Here is a link to those posts in one place on the daily blog I co-host: Eye On Miami.)

My Greenland visit only lasted a few days, but it was life-changing. Epochal changes are happening in a majestic place in near silence except for the sound of glaciers calving miles away, echoing like distant cannon blasts then, minutes later, pushing small tsunamis through the mirror still surface of fjords.

Since 2013, public perception of climate issues in the U.S. has fundamentally changed. In the United States, we are in that moment where the tides are shifting, and there is no particular current to give direction to the flow of thought. Climate change denialists are fading into the crowd like Saddam's soldiers putting on civilian clothes to melt away.

In the past year, President Obama decided that climate change would be a legacy issue. Through executive action, Obama drew lines on environmental issues like carbon emission. True, the president's initiatives were instantly opposed by the fossil fuel industry and their hacks in Congress; GOP Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and former House speaker John Boehner (there is no indication that Paul Ryan, the current speaker, will be any different).

Many have observed, like former NASA scientist James Hansen, that the decades lost since climate change became an apparent, imminent threat, will cost civilization dearly. But these are big thoughts. People struggling in rush hour traffic to get to work or home to families, or to keep newspaper readers subscribing to newspapers, or eyeballs glued to TV sets, don't necessarily wake up thinking about civilization.

Over the weekend, I reflected how history will view our generation; the post-war baby boomers. We judged our parents' -- the one that defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II -- as the "greatest generation." In that context my son in his 30s remarked how his late grandfather had grown up traveling by horse and cart in Hungary and before he died had experienced the information revolution.

I believe the claim will be made in the future that ours -- measured, not by 75 or 80 or 90 but by the 400 years since the birth of the Industrial Revolution -- was the generation that risked humanity for the convenience of mobility, for the aspirations of self-improvement through consumption. Our generation will be known as the one that did not ask ourselves rigorously enough, what freedom really meant.

The pressure of this question exists below the surface. It is certainly not addressed by any of our politics. Pope Francis, through his recent encyclical "Laudato Si", has come closest.

"LAUDATO SI', mi' Signore" - "Praise be to you, my Lord." In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. "Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs."

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she "groans in travail" (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

About "sin", I'm not so sure. What I am certain about is fear. At their core, Americans are very afraid of the changes -- not just on the climate -- but those that have fundamentally altered their economic prospects. Our politics -- especially Republican politics -- have congealed around the business of fear and corrupt campaign finance practices. The best way to face massive uncertainties on the climate is with an open heart and empathy for our neighbors who are less well-off and less secure than we are, even here in Miami.