Saving Planet Earth

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

I’d like you to see this.

I am on the rocky edge of Mistymoon in the cold gray of dawn. Mistymoon is a lake in the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area of Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains. It is cradled into a bowl of mountain rock and boulder field, the shoulders of Bomber Mountain and the steep flanks of Florence Pass. The countenance of Cloud Peak looms above, though heavy mists now crown the 13,000-foot summit. The round, clearwater lake — 10,250 feet above sea level — is a quarter mile across. A beautiful liquid jewel in the land above the timberline.

My wife and I rose from our tent at first light. Pulled on our boots. Made coffee. Then carried our mugs and filter and water bottles to the lake’s edge. We now sit and pump water and watch the land wake up. The sun has not yet scaled the dark shelf to the east, but the landscape brightens, and others began to stir.

Sprinkled here and there across the lake from us are maybe a half dozen tents — distant wedges of pumpkin-orange, rich blue and saffron yellow. We watch the tiny stick-figures, bundled in down vests and knit caps, going through their morning paces in the cold of a mountain morning. There is no urgency here — just the slim shapes of hunched bodies, pocketed hands, stomping feet, hands cupped near faces sipping.

Our being here together — amply spaced in communal isolation — brings a sense of solidarity because of the travels we share. A few mosey down to the lake to cast their lines into the water. Tranquility reigns.

What I wish you could see is what happens next. You would know better what I want to explain later.

The sun emerges from the mountain, and the landscape turns from cold gray to a radiant rose. The world is transformed, lit up. The iron clouds become streaks of color and light — peach, flamingo and pink. Sunlight splashes off rock, cliff and log; bright colors bloom. My wife and I exchange smiles and raise a mug in salute.

When I gaze around the universe before me, I see everyone else has paused. Even though the figures are too tiny to reveal facial features or suggest gender, age or ethnicity, I can see my wife and I aren’t alone in our wonderment. You can see the bodies become more erect, the faces uplift, the people slowly turn, some pointing — everyone taking it all in. Acolytes at the holy moment.

It’s in our blood, I think, to respond with reverence and awe when confronted with the beauty, order and divine mysteries of creation.

In fact, in another corner of these same mountains is a place where stones were laid in a cyclic pattern, marking the flight of the Earth beneath the stars, long before white people came from Europe. The Medicine Wheel is still sacred to those whose ancestors lived off these lands thousands of years ago. They have gone there for centuries — still go there — in reverence to the spirit of the earth.

I wish I could show you. I wish I were there now. Instead, I am sorting through this file I’ve recently gathered on climate change. The task is to write about this most imposing of topics, this giant threat to the planet and the human race. I’ve written about our place on earth before, but the forecasts remain grim and the mounting evidence is more than anecdotal. There’s more to be said.

The impetus this time is a conference in early April at Notre Dame, “Climate Change and the Common Good,” organized by faculty members from physics, biology and theology, and sponsored by the John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values, the Center for Social Concerns, and other University offices and departments. Nationally recognized voices (along with grad students and faculty from nearby colleges and universities) will gather here to talk about what’s going on and what can be done about it. The faculty are also hoping to nudge the University into more of a leadership position in response to environmental concerns and to bring Catholic social teaching into the conversation.

The timing is dead on. The National Climatic Data Center recently announced that 2012 was the hottest year in the United States since records were first kept in 1895, eclipsing the old U.S. record (1998) by a full degree Fahrenheit. More than 34,000 daily high temperatures were recorded by weather stations across the country. A March heat wave became a severe summer drought that ravaged two-thirds of the continent — with 60 percent of the nation still afflicted by drought conditions as 2012 came to an end.

Large-scale fires burned throughout the West, and devastating tornadoes ripped through the Midwest and South. Hurricane Sandy — the collision of warmer, wetter sea air moving inland and a frigid burst of Canadian cold air from Arctic ice melts — assaulted the East Coast, killing more than 125, leaving 8 million homes without power, hundreds of thousands of people evacuated, countless numbers homeless and portions of New York City dark and under water — with economic losses reaching $50 billion.

Surveying the calamity, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called on politicians to start taking climate change more seriously, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “Anyone who says there’s no change in weather patterns is denying reality. The storms we’ve experienced in the last year or so are much more severe than before.”

Few would argue that such impetuous weather events — from droughts to coastal storms to flooding — have become more numerous and more severe in recent times, imposing enormous monetary burdens and harsh tolls on human life. Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, offers this apt baseball analogy to explain the impact of climate change on the weather reports: “We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”

The German reinsurance giant Munich Re, whose business it is to measure the financial impact of natural disasters, noted this past October that from 1980 through 2011, the number of “weather-related loss events” had “nearly quintupled” in North America, with weather disasters causing $1.06 trillion in losses. While other continents had also experienced increased weather activity, “nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America,” the Munich Re report stated, adding that human-caused climate change “is believed to contribute to this trend.” Global warming, said Munich Re, “particularly affects formation of heat waves, droughts, intense precipitation events, and in the long run most probably also tropical cyclone activity.”

Momatiuk Eastcott, corbis

Weather is not the only indication that life on planet Earth is radically changing. There are other signs, and more clippings and quotes in my thickening file. The Arctic sea ice is shrinking much faster than scientists ever predicted. Decades ago ice covered about 6 million square miles of Arctic seawater in the winter, and about 3 million square miles after summer thaws. Last summer the sea ice was at a record low of about 1 million square miles, with the rate of melting accelerating annually. Scientists now foresee an ice-free Arctic in the next few summers and an ice-free Arctic year-round by 2040.

It’s not just polar bears that will suffer, or the Arctic people whose lives depend on the natural environment. Ice — brilliantly white — reflects heat and solar energy back into space, helping to cool the Earth. With less ice cover, considerably more heat energy will be absorbed into the dark waters, further heating the planet. One byproduct would be the additional thawing of the permafrost. The ancient plant and animal matter trapped in the permafrost would be converted rapidly into carbon dioxide and methane when melted and exposed to sunlight, further escalating the greenhouse effect, widely accepted in the scientific community as the cause of global warming. The second side-effect is further tampering with weather patterns. The heating and cooling of seawater affects the jet stream, the river of air flowing around the planet that controls the formation and movement of storm systems.

“Climate change is also imperiling the very foundation of human existence: our ability to feed ourselves,” writes Mark Hertsgaard in Newsweek. The author of Hot: Living through the Next Fifty Years on Earth explains: “Three grains — wheat, corn and rice — account for most of the food humans consume. All three are already suffering from climate change.”

In 2010 extraordinary flooding soaked Brazil, France, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and South Africa, where the rains caused that country’s smallest wheat harvest in 18 years. That same year Pakistan was deluged with 16 feet of rain in a five-day period, resulting in floods that killed 1,600 people, left 20 million homeless and destroyed 1.6 million acres of cropland.

Meanwhile Russia, the world’s third-largest exporter of wheat, lost 40 percent of its harvest that same July to temperatures 14 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. That heat wave led to nearly 56,000 deaths and billions in damages from forest fires, according to the Earth Policy Institute. By 2050, reports the International Food Policy Research Institute, wheat production worldwide could be a quarter less than it is today.

An alternately deluged and parched world means trouble for an expanding human population already struggling to feed itself. Less rainfall and declining snowmelt in the American West have made water scarcity a concern, and the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer threatens agriculture in the Great Plains. Africa is already experiencing tribal clashes as arable lands dwindle, and the Amazon Basin suffered extreme droughts in 2005 and 2010, destroying millions of trees. Forest fires and heedless deforestation have further reduced those once-lush expanses that long stood as an antidote to the carbon dioxide clogging the atmosphere.

The World Bank, evaluating the impact of climate change on Arab countries, points out that 2010 was globally the warmest since records began in the late 1800s, with 19 countries setting new national highs — five of which were Arab countries. “The consequences of the global phenomenon of climate change are especially acute in the Arab world,” says the World Bank’s new report on climate change in Arab countries. “While the region has been adapting to changes in rainfall and temperature for thousands of years, the speed with which the climate is now changing has, in many cases, outstripped traditional coping mechanisms.

“The already water-scarce region may not have sufficient supplies to irrigate crops, support industry or provide drinking water.”

In February 2013 the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned that American farmers could eventually lose millions of dollars as they battle weed growth, destructive pests and smaller yields as climate change advances in the decades ahead. Warmer weather can stunt the growth of grain and soybeans while providing an optimum atmosphere for weeds, and warm, humid weather is likely to increase the prevalence of insects and animal diseases. A less bountiful bread basket will mean significantly higher prices and a hungrier population.

The oceans, too, are being affected. The future of coral reefs and other marine ecosystems in warmer, more acidic seas leads the discussion into even more troubling waters.

Some years ago, the first predictions I read on global warming paid most attention to those rising oceans and the reshaping of coastlines. Turning up the heat a degree or two seemed inconsequential to me. I didn’t pay it much mind; I didn’t know then what was in store for us. Now I understand better the scope of the problem — from rising sea levels to heat waves, droughts and other extreme weather events, to food and water shortages, significantly violated ecosystems and a dramatically altered planet where the quality of human life is seriously at risk. “Lack of action on climate change threatens to make the world our children inherit a completely different world than we are living in today,” says Jim Yong Kim, World Bank Group president. The most pessimistic envision “a science fiction world” hostile to human habitation — not the most conducive setting for world peace.

Following the discourse in recent years, I have listened to the alarmists and deniers, the environmentalists and the corporate lobbyists, the politicians and the scientific community. Green activists would have you think we’re doomed; other special interest groups are spending millions to convince us everything is okay, that climate change is a deception.

Scientists, however, are not as a group driven by political agenda, nor are they prone to hysteria.

And internationally the scientific literature on the climate and the fate of the Earth is widely held and convincingly disturbing. While it is true that the planet goes through natural cooling and warming cycles, the pace of change and other symptoms clearly indicate the change is anthropogenic: We’re doing this to ourselves, to the planet. And we’ve been at it since the Industrial Revolution when we began burning lots of relatively cheap and abundant fossil fuels to drive the world’s most powerful economies — and pouring carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

While coal and the automobile are most often blamed, agriculture is also a major contributor to global warming — accounting for perhaps as much as a third of emissions globally, with vast amounts of fossil fuels used to run farm equipment. And most fertilizers contain nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 298 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a century. Recent research has shown that methane, which flows from landfills, livestock, and oil and gas facilities, is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and a close second in affecting the atmosphere.

Those greenhouse gases form a blanket around the Earth, trapping energy in the atmosphere — a natural phenomenon and necessary to support life on Earth, within limits. Those limits have been greatly exceeded. Unabated production of carbon dioxide, most observers now contend, will lead to even more acute damage to the planet — damage progressing at an accelerating pace and approaching a tipping point at which disastrous repercussions would become inevitable and irreversible, launching dynamic changes beyond human control.

So scientists around the world have been busily running data through computer models, measuring various outputs of carbon dioxide and calibrating the accompanying potential increases in global temperature. This is where the data and analysis, the calculations and forecasts get tricky, fuzzy and ripe for interpretation. And these interpretive scenarios are the primary ground for any disagreement within the scientific community — not the reality of anthropogenic climate change.

Much of the world’s scientific community holds any further increase beyond 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) as dangerous to global health, although many believe that too lenient a target — and others say impossible to achieve. For example, estimates indicate a complete melting of the permafrost (highly likely as the Arctic sea ice disappears) would alone increase warming by 4 degrees Celsius. To have a two-thirds chance to maintain that 2-degree line, developed countries like the United States would have to stop any carbon dioxide emissions growth this year and reduce their emissions by about 11 percent per year toward near-total decarbonization by 2050.

Despite the scientific projections and international summits calling for such stricter measures, global emissions of carbon dioxide were at a record high in 2011 and increased another 3 percent in 2012. “The new data provide further evidence that the door to a 2-degree trajectory is about to close,” says Fatih Birol, the International Energy Agency’s chief economist. “When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about 6 degrees.” And that’s a world I would not want my children or grandchildren to live in.

In fact, Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research, a major international climate center in the United Kingdom, has said that avoiding massive deaths among humans in a world 4 degrees warmer is “extremely unlikely.”

Emissions did drop slightly last year in the United States (responsible for 27 percent of the carbon dioxide poured into the Earth’s atmosphere since 1750), for a variety of reasons — warmer weather, economic weakness, the transfer of manufacturing to other countries, the boom in natural gas supplanting coal at many power stations and even conscious efforts to limit emissions. But those gains were more than matched by coal-related emissions expanding rapidly in China, India and other developing countries.

Goals to limit warming through reduced emissions are on the verge of becoming unattainable, according to the Global Carbon Project, a group of scientists monitoring emissions, as the world shows little appetite to accomplish the steps necessary to avoid a fate that the secretary-general of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon has ascribed to a “global suicide pact.”

It’s hard to fathom all this. It’s hard to process.

It’s a story we don’t want to hear, and a story hard to tell without sounding like Chicken Little or a curbside prophet claiming the end is near. Maybe the calculations are wrong. Maybe it’s all an anomaly, a temporary phase, and not the result of inexorable trends. Maybe something will come along and save us. Maybe we’ll find solutions that don’t require the stringent sacrifices that seem so obvious now.

Then, too, maybe the time for procrastination is over. Maybe we need to heed the signs. Maybe we need to take giant steps, knowing now that the baby steps are not carrying us fast enough, far enough along. And maybe we need to realize that this is a global challenge — not a political issue, not a Republican/Democrat, oil company/tree-hugger problem. Maybe there is no single remedy, but answers drawn from sacrifice and changing lifestyles, from solar, wind and hydroelectric as well as fossil fuel and natural gas, and from some sense that all this is important if we care about the world our children and grandchildren inherit from us.

“On climate change, the political discourse here is massively out of step with the rest of the world, but also with the citizens of this country,” says Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, speaking of the United States. “Polls show very clearly that two-thirds of Americans think this is a real problem and needs to be addressed.” The former special envoy for climate change at the World Bank and a British citizen adds, “The real question in this country is why politicians don’t see it as in their interest to discuss it.”

Writing in The New York Times, John M. Broder offers some reasons: “The two most effective ways of reducing global warming pollution — taxing it or regulating it — are politically toxic in a year when economic problems are paramount.” There are also “fears that limiting carbon emissions means limiting economic growth,” that “the struggling economy has made it difficult for emerging clean energy companies to get the capital they need to reach commercial scale and compete with producers of traditional energy sources,” and that “government programs to provide that seed money are highly controversial.”

Broder also notes, “Any serious effort to address climate change will require a transformation of the nation’s system for producing and consuming energy and will, at least in the medium term, mean higher prices for fuel and electricity. Powerful incumbent industries — coal, oil, utilities — are threatened by such changes and have mounted a well-financed long-term campaign to sow doubt about climate change.”

Of course, no one — whether in a period of inflation or recession — wants to pay more to drive a car, heat a home or buy groceries. And few of us think that recycling all that paper, flipping off the lights or lowering the thermostat will really do much to reduce our “carbon footprint” — much less reverse the daunting scenarios facing the human race. Almost all of us are culprits to a certain degree, contributors to the fix we’re in. We’ve got quite the comfortable way of life; I’m not optimistic we can change our ways in time to help those who come after us.

Still, our treatment of the earth is a moral issue. It’s a matter of right and wrong. And it cannot be ignored by Catholics who subscribe to Church teachings. The Catholic Church says we must take care of the environment and each other, and that call should supersede the convenient justifications for continuing down the path that’s gotten us here. Even those who doubt the warnings of climate change should understand the impact their life choices have on the environment and those with whom we share it.

Robin Darling Young, a Notre Dame associate professor of theology and one of the organizers of the University’s conference on climate change, pinpoints two dilemmas. One is that “America’s economic growth has been built upon cheap and plentiful energy sources,” and we must now confront “the conflict between growth and sustainability.” As Pope John Paul II said in his 1990 pastoral speech on ecological responsibility, we need to rethink the notions of “dominion” and “stewardship.”

The second dilemma, she says, is ethical. “What obligations does the current generation have toward future generations who will endure the increased threats from climate change? And are richer nations obliged to help poorer nations now experiencing drought and natural-resource wars from climate change?”

That’s one lens through which the Church views climate change — “The Option for the Poor and Vulnerable,” one of the seven key themes of Catholic social teaching, as outlined by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The second lens, also a key theme of Catholic social teaching, is “Care for God’s Creation.” Way back in 2001, the USCCB issued a statement, “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good,” that said: “At its core, global climate change is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures. It is about the future of God’s creation and the one human family. It is about protecting both ‘the human environment’ and the natural environment. It is about our human stewardship of God’s creation and our responsibility to those who come after us.”

My file on the environment has plenty of similar statements from the USCCB on the topic: “Affluent nations such as our own have to acknowledge the impact of voracious consumerism instead of simply calling for population and emissions controls from people in poorer nations.”

And: “Our religious tradition has always urged restraint and moderation in the use of material goods, so we must not allow our desire to possess more material things to overtake our concern for the basic needs of people and the environment.”

And: “The effects of climate change — increasingly limited access to water, reduced crop yields, more widespread disease, increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters, and conflict over declining resources — are making the lives of the poorest people even more precarious.”

In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI stated, “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions? Can we disregard the growing phenomenon of ‘environmental refugees,’ people who are forced by the degradation of their natural habitat to forsake it. . . . Can we remain impassive in the face of actual and potential conflicts involving access to natural resources? All these are issues with a profound impact on the exercise of human rights.”

Can we remain indifferent? Probably, but at our own peril.

Other documents from that file focus less on social justice and more directly on the planet itself, on the call to care for the Earth simply because of its kinship with the divine — from Pope Benedict XVI (“The environment is God’s gift to everyone.”) to the UCSSB (“If we harm the atmosphere, we dishonor our Creator and the gift of creation.”).

Which brings me back to that morning at Mistymoon — to a time and a place where a scattering of nations shared the planet and its resources, respecting the humanity and rights of others, happy in the basics of a life made simple, at peace with the fundamental blessings of the earth. And when the sun appeared, bringing light and warmth to the surroundings, it felt like a prayer upon the land — one that we all heard, without any of us speaking.

I wish we were there now.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine and the author of Back to Earth: A Backpacker’s Journey into Self and Soul.