I was born in the year of the Hiroshima bomb. Thank God since that time we have not witnessed another such nuclear detonation eviscerating another unsuspecting city. After all these years I am now a grandfather — my grandson Ever was born three-quarters of a century after Hiroshima.
I am madly in love with Ever, and yet the metaphor of Hiroshima lingers like a specter at the feast. The bomb has not gone away, it has just morphed into another kind of devastation called climate change.
The year I was born, the atmospheric concentration of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) was 310 parts per million (ppm), only 11 percent above its natural background level prior to the Industrial Revolution. By the time Ever was born the CO2 level had increased to nearly 420 ppm, a rise of 50 percent above pre-industrial levels. This escalation, caused by the unabated burning of the three fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas), is the single most important driver of climate change.
The oceans absorb 93 percent of all the heat generated by global warming. The rate at which heat is accumulating there is equivalent to the heat released by five Hiroshima bombs every second, or 150 million bombs per year.
Is there any wonder why the seas are screaming back with rage, as manifested by ever more violent hurricanes and storm surges pounding our shores? Or by the increasing frequency of epochal downpours and floods across our continental heartland as more copious evaporation off sweltering seas moves thicker rainclouds landward?
The atmosphere absorbs only about 2 percent of the heat from global warming, yet that is enough to have caused a precipitous rise in global temperatures. Just consider that over the 120-year record of temperature measurements, 19 of the 20 hottest years have occurred since the year 2002, and the seven hottest years in history have all occurred in the last seven years.
My grandson Ever and his generation suffer the burdens of our past sins. I hear their cry and the cry of the planet. It is time, and long overdue, to end our nuclear war against the oceans. It is time to rescue our polar bears and save our butterflies, to reforest the Amazon and make a Franciscan peace with the timber wolf. Global warming is frightening our children, roiling our seas, and robbing the land of its dignity. Indeed, the time for redemption is upon us.
The command from Scripture to care for our children and all species is clear: “Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable” (Proverbs 31:8).
Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudate Si’, provides good reason to do so: “Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God” (no. 84).
The most debilitating hoax about our climate crisis is that we are somehow helpless in our capacity to respond to it. The truth is that solutions to the crisis are legion. Some of them are already in hand, chomping at the bit to be called forth and actualized. Others will require further innovation and technological breakthroughs.
It will be a hard slog, but I would not bet against human ingenuity and its creative capacity to solve the seemingly impossible, especially when the cause is so noble. Just think about the development and successful deployment of the COVID vaccine. In a similar way, we can rally around the cause of healing our planet.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle we face is not climate change, but a lack of faith. Can we so love the world in the same unbounded way that God does? Can we open our hearts and minds to new ways of thinking and, knowing that, give clear vision to a once again lush, blue-green planet? Can we be true stewards this time, understanding that there is no separation between serving our needs and the needs of all God’s creation?
Wrestling with such questions is why I am so proud to be involved in the work of the new archdiocesan initiative, EcoPhilly, with its goal of establishing a sustainability team or initiative in every parish in the archdiocese. Some colleagues and I have formed a Climate Change Working Group at Old St. Joseph’s Parish.
Will you reach out to EcoPhilly to find out what you can do in your own community on behalf of our children, our grandchildren, and all life on our planet?
Bill Stigliani is professor emeritus of environmental science and sustainability, and a parishioner at Old St. Joseph’s Parish in Philadelphia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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