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

Undeniable, at last
distributed 9/21/12 - ©2012

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jane & Paul Schaefer of Elkton, Maryland. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

Back when I was a youngster in grade school, I was fascinated by the courageous explorers of early American history who set out in wooden ships to chart the Northwest Passage. John Cabot, Sir Frances Drake and Henry Hudson are some of the big names associated with the search for an ocean route across the top of North America.

Finally, in 1906, Roald Amundsen -- using a more durable kind of ship, and, I presume, a very dedicated crew -- made it through the Passage in a trip that took three years. More than 400 years after Cabot, Amundsen's crew proved that it was possible to traverse the northern coast of Canada, but the three years they spent in the ice did not make for a commercially viable shortcut between Europe and Asia.

Back when I was in school, we all knew that the Arctic Ocean was a frozen barrier, a hostile place where only the brave and foolish would venture. (The native people of the Arctic, who know how to prosper on the edge of the ice, weren't talked about much in 1960 Nebraska.) The polar ice cap was a geographic given, a perpetual presence at the top of the world.

That common knowledge of year-round Arctic ice, backed by solid experience from the 1400s through most of the 20th Century, is no longer true. The sea ice of the Arctic is melting. We've known that for several years, of course. A report issued this week, though, made headlines with the dramatic scope of recent changes.

The area covered by ice has been measured from satellites since 1979. This year's minimum is 18% below 2007 (the previous record low) and 49% below the 1979 to 2000 average. In 2012, there's only about half as much area covered by ice as in the first two decades of measurement -- and today's ice is also thinner and softer than usual.

The six lowest seasonal minimum ice extents in the satellite record have all occurred in the last six years (2007 to 2012). A reconstruction of ice extent through the last 1,450 years shows that the current ice levels are a catastrophic and unprecedented drop. (The graph also shows that Cabot and Hudson were trying to find their way through the Northwest Passage during the years of the greatest ice coverage -- bad luck for them!)

There are some predictions that the entire Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in the summer of 2016 -- just four years from now. Other models don't see the end of ice for 30 or 40 years. But all the models project that the polar ice cap will melt completely. And all the models say that the rapid melting of polar ice is because of human climate impacts.

50 years ago, we knew that the North Pole would always be a vast expanse of ice. 30 years from now -- or maybe in just four years -- there won't be any ice there at all.

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The news about disappearing Arctic ice is frightening. But in this week's reporting, I see positive signs that we've passed an essential tipping point -- a conceptual one.

In the reports that I have seen, there is no dispute about the reality of human-caused climate change. The measurements and the modeling are presented as solid and reliable science. I have not come across any researchers making the claim that this is a normal variation in the extent of ice. (I'm sure there are a few out there, but they're not getting into the mainstream media.) None of the news reports are hedging with phrases like "many scientists believe ..."

For years, I've heard climate change activists mutter that, some day, an undeniable catastrophe would come along that is so clearly a reflection of global warming that the skeptics would have to shut up, and politicians would have to take action. Maybe there would be a hurricane (Katrina?) or a heat wave (France, Russia?) or a drought (ongoing in Africa) that would make it all clear. So far, none of these dramatic crises had done it.

But this year, the insufferable heat and drought across much of the US, with spectacular and devastating wildfires, have set the stage for new understanding. The news about the incredible loss of sea ice is one more piece of the puzzle, an emerging mosaic that is becoming more clear. The report about ice loss is a piece that is hard to deny or dismiss.

Perhaps, we have finally reached the point were the reality of climate change is as much a matter of common knowledge, of undisputed truth, as was the permanence of Arctic ice when I was a kid. Yes, I know that climate change was used as a laugh line at the Republican convention last month -- but Romney's put-down of climate action generated astonishment from the political commentators.

Even the ultra-right-wing Cornwall Alliance seems to have conceded human impacts on the global climate. They're now disputing whether those impacts will "cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate" (my emphasis).

The summer of 2012 may have brought us to the point where -- finally! -- we can stop bickering about whether humans are warping Earth's climate. There's some debate about how fast the changes will come. There is certainly debate about whether the changes are good or bad -- some are happy to see the ice melt, because that makes it easier to drill for oil in the Arctic! But the reality of human climate impacts is now taken for granted.

I lift up that change as good news for churches. Now we can settle down and do the ministry and witnessing that we are called to do, and that we are trained to do. Pastors and educators don't have to pretend to be climate scientists, and we don't have to convince our congregations that changes are happening.

Now we can do theological ethics, addressing the facts of a rapidly changing world. We can deal with religious questions -- who is my neighbor, why should I care, what are the standards for global justice, what can we do? The prophets among us can speak out with greater credibility, and the pastors can help their communities deal with fear and grief.

For over 20 years, many in our churches have taken shelter in the claim that climate science is uncertain or controversial. Too many clergy have been silent. The rapid melting of Arctic ice takes away that excuse. Now we know, beyond reasonable question, that our energy-dependant, fossil-fuel-burning culture is devastating God's creation.

The ice is melting, and I lament the cascade of changes that will flow from the Arctic thaw. But I find hope because now the church -- even the timid among church leaders -- can and must speak out. Now we can assert moral leadership about issues that are clearly ethical. Now that our society has seen the proof of dramatic change, we can be, we must be, leaders in demanding political, economic and cultural change.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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