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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Incinerate the Earth
distributed 11/11/11 - ©2011

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Thomas Pakurar, of Midlothian, VA. His generous and regular support helps make this publication possible.

The reality that humans can devastate Earth's biosphere is a new thing. It started to creep into our consciousness with the violent birth of nuclear weapons in 1945. It has acquired a very different form with current levels of ecological destruction.

66 years ago, the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima unleashed previously unimaginable power. The number and scale of weapons escalated rapidly through decades of a nuclear arms race, until the members of the nuclear club had the capacity to destroy the world several times over.

In 1964, in the midst of cold war conflicts, the US and Russia were frantically building up their stockpiles. In that context, Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler preached a sermon, The Care of the Earth, that included these chilling words: "The substance is this: annihilating power is in nervous and passionate hands. The stuff is really there to incinerate the earth -- and the certainty that it will not be used is not there."

When I re-read Sittler's sermon recently, I was struck by the way in which the nuclear and ecological threats differ. We pray that the weapons will not be used, but the agents of environmental destruction are in daily use. One form of incineration would burst forth through a failure of international relations; the other process of cooking the planet is "business as usual."

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The headlines this week say that many of the world's nations are trying to figure out how to keep Iran from building a nuclear bomb. There is a strong consensus that Iran's leadership is not mature enough or stable enough to possess this capability. In Sittler's words, "the certainty that it will not be used is not there."

It is rather amazing that, since WWII, no nuclear weapons have been used in an act of war. The odd dynamics of "mutually assured destruction", combined with some level of morality and diplomacy, have constrained those nervous and passionate hands. Through several generations, we have seen far too many situations that have been perilously close to nuclear escalation, but that horrible line has never been crossed. Going nuclear would result from a catastrophic failure of brinksmanship, from some sort of accident, or from a rogue and irrational actor. So far, the nations that hold such power have always realized that there can be no "winners". We have avoided the nuclear holocaust that could incinerate the world because all of the nations that could initiate such a calamity have never pushed the button.

During the half century that we have avoided nuclear war, the world has inched ever deeper into ecological catastrophe. Detailed measurements of atmospheric CO2 began in the late 1950s, when the level was about 315 parts per million. Every year, there is a seasonal rise and fall in that number, and every year, the average creeps higher.

A week ago, the Mauna Loa Observatory announced a reading of 388.92 ppm as the October average. That's a 23% increase of carbon dioxide in just over 50 years.

A "staggering report released by the U.S. Department of Energy" last week says that the 2010 levels of CO2 jumped 6% over the previous year. When all greenhouse gasses are factored in -- adding the effects of methane and several other gasses -- there has been a 29% increase just since 1990.

Another report in the last few days, this one from the International Energy Agency (IEA), carries those trends into the future. The Guardian summarized:

The world is likely to build so many fossil-fuelled power stations, energy-guzzling factories and inefficient buildings in the next five years that it will become impossible to hold global warming to safe levels, and the last chance of combating dangerous climate change will be "lost for ever".

A nuclear war that could escalate to the point of incinerating the planet would only happen through a failure of judgment and protocols. But the catastrophic heating of the planet through the greenhouse effect is the normal operation of our fossil-fuel addicted society. The economic growth that is the goal of most nations requires this ever increasing pollution of our global atmosphere. Commenting on last year's huge jump in CO2 levels, a leading researcher said, "From an emissions standpoint, the global financial crisis seems to be over."

We all know that there can be no winners in a nuclear war, but the trends that produce a comparable level of destruction through climate change are considered good economic news. We have to turn around Sittler's anxious words: "The stuff is really there to incinerate the earth -- and the certainty that we will stop using them is not there."

We have avoided nuclear war by never taking the most dangerous actions. We have realized that such an extreme level of war does not work. To minimize global heading, though, we must stop doing what we are doing now. We must change our definitions of self-interest and "winning" -- and we must do so right now.

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The world's ecological crisis calls for a comprehensive transformation of our global society. The gradual incineration of the planet cannot be considered "business as usual." That transformation will need to happen -- very quickly -- in many different ways: political, economic, moral, religious and cultural. International agreements will be an essential piece of that change.

At the end of this month, member states of the United Nations will meet in Durban, South Africa, for a climate change conference. Unlike the highly anticipated conference in Copenhagen two years ago, this gathering has received little publicity. The recent reports from climate scientists and the IEA may increase pressure on the delegates to take substantial action. Indeed, the Denver Post was moved by those reports to editorialize, "The alarming increase in emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide illustrates very clearly why the world cannot put off coming to agreement on a plan to transition to a cleaner energy future."

In the short term, I urge you to take three basic steps to push the UN process.

  1. In your congregation and your community, name the Durban conference as a matter of the highest moral and practical concern. Lift it up in prayer concerns, classes and meetings. Make people aware that the meeting is happening, and drive the conversation about why strong agreements are essential.
  2. Sign on to the ecumenical "Do It In Durban" campaign. Let the Obama administration know that people of faith are demanding climate justice, and watching to see what sort of leadership the United States provides.
  3. Sign the "Statement of Our Nation's Moral Obligation to Address Climate Change" from the National Climate Ethics Campaign, a detailed statement from a very diverse group of constituencies.

Yesterday's remarkable announcement by President Obama about the Keystone Pipeline shows that climate and environmental concerns are gathering political clout. Public petitions, protests and civil disobedience are making a difference. Please join with me as we maintain that moral pressure through the Durban conference, and beyond.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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