The next few columns will cover the outcomes of the Vatican’s second dialogue on “The Energy Transition and Care of Our Common Home.” In this essay, we will first pause for a pulse check.
“Nearly 70% of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, want the United States to take ‘aggressive’ action to combat climate change — but only a third would support an extra tax of $100 a year to help.” This lead from a Reuters’ story questions how seriously we really comprehend the climate crisis.
This Reuters/Ipsos poll of 3,000 people offers support for renewables and notes that green energy can contribute to net job growth. Yet the majority of respondents are unwilling to pay a fraction of a new iPhone or annual internet connection fees, or to carpool, use public transportation or switch to an electric car.
These responses reveal a chilling absence of urgency.
At 415 parts per million, carbon dioxide levels are the highest they have been in the past 800,000 years. July 2019 is on the record, probably not for long, as the hottest month for the planet.
What took 217 years (1751 to 1967) to place 400 billion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now takes only just over a decade (2007 to 2018). Carbon and other greenhouse gases act as a blanket that keeps heat trapped in our atmosphere.
According to NASA, “The average global temperature on Earth has increased by about 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1880. … A one-degree global change is significant because it takes a vast amount of heat to warm all the oceans, atmosphere and land by that much.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s October 2018 report indicated that to maintain global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) would require emissions to be cut by nearly half from 2010 levels by 2030, and totally by 2050. The sensitivity of our earth to this warming is akin to our bodies running at 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit higher as the new normal.
Moneywise, what we are unwilling to invest for prevention and mitigation will bite us in the costs of damage, replacement, recovery and adaptation. In 2018 alone, disaster events cost the U.S. an estimated $91 billion.
For the first half of this year, the U.S. has already experienced six climate disasters — each exceeding a billion dollar loss. These estimates do not incorporate other warming consequences on health, spread of diseases, food safety, food supply, land degradation, loss of natural habitats, etc.
The British publication The Guardian has revised its official language from “climate change” to “climate crisis.” We may be wise to do the same with our own calibration.
To acknowledge a crisis when we are in one is the surest trigger for attention and, if we so choose, action. It can be a moment of moral commitment expressed through our ingenuity and discipline, and of spiritual connection with the author of all creation.
About Earth, Hildegard of Bingen wrote, “Yet it forms not only the basic raw material for humankind, but also the substance of the incarnation of God’s Son.”
Woo is distinguished president’s fellow for global development at Purdue University and served as the CEO and president of Catholic Relief Services from 2012 to 2016.