Charleston 'ground zero' for climate change
Future generations may look back on 2012 as the year the majority of our country took climate destabilization seriously, largely due to record heat waves, droughts and Hurricane Sandy.
Recent polls suggest this is the case, and in his 2013 State of the Union, President Barack Obama explicitly addressed climate change: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
Shortly after, 35,000 Americans gathered on the Mall in D.C. to urge Obama to deny the Keystone Pipeline.
“For 25 years, our government has basically ignored the climate crisis. ... We shouldn't have to be here — science should have decided our course long ago. But it takes a movement to stand up to all that (oil) money,” said Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and a key organizer of the Mall event.
I want to take this insight further to argue that religions also have ignored the climate crisis for 25 years. Mirroring American society at large, we see a slow but inexorable shift toward recognizing climate change as being a deeply ethical and religious matter, one that causes us to dig deeply and re-create our respective covenants with whomever we deem to be the creator's.
Climate change brings an added urgency to the Holy City. We are at its “ground zero” with the emissions of the industrial economy set to trigger a predicted 3-foot rise in sea level this century. If climate models are correct, the standing water on East Bay Street during high tides is only the beginning, and the ports where cargo ships anchor will need to be raised quite a few feet.
We also are at “ground zero” for feeling the impact of ocean acidification, which can trigger the collapse of aquatic food chains and decimate our maritime economy.
Such scenarios call out for sober leadership from politicians and, especially, community leaders.
Religion historically has provided a seedbed from where our society could graft moral concerns onto progressive community change. Climate change may provide yet another occasion for the emergence of ecumenical, interfaith work.
Nationally, such leadership already is emerging. Exemplars include Interfaith Power and Light, the Creation Care movement within evangelical subcircles and Hazon within Judaism.
However, religions in Charleston have been slow to join forces with these national groups although more liberal local religious institutions do have “green” concerns.
The dangers of being at ground zero cut across traditional political, economic, racial and cultural lines. The rising Atlantic cares not if you believe in climate change, or if you believe that this is a fallen world of sin and heaven is all that matters.
Indeed, we are seeing climate-related impacts come true with greater force with each passing year. There is a quip that the proverbial biblical flood, when Noah was tasked with gathering a mating pair of each species, was the original Endangered Species Act.
Unfortunately, such gathering may need repeating in the coming years.
After studying enough religion, naivete is left at the wayside. Humans have and continue to do terrible things in the name of religion (including deny human-caused climate change. See, for example, a letter to the editors in The Post and Courier on Feb. 19, which says climate change is in “the hands of God's jury,” yet denies humans are causing it.).
At the same time, in religions we witness what is best in humans. Here we find profound insights that feed into what I call our “cultural commons,” and we gain ethical guidance to face environmentally challenging times.
What wisdom can help us prepare for life at ground zero?
From Judaism, we have the call for tikkun olam, or the duty to heal the world. From Islam, we have the example of zakat, or giving 10 percent of income to charitable causes, which may include donating to groups working on halting climate change or groups that are helping the poor and vulnerable throughout the world who are already dealing with climate-related catastrophes.
In Buddhist philosophy, we have the ideal of nonattachment, which could offset the consumerism that runs our society and drives climate change.
Hinduism has the concept of seva, or loving worship of the divine. If the divine is hurting and suffering, then through loving service we can care for and worship the divine.
If our planet is hurting, then through loving service we can provide what Alastair McIntosh calls “planetary hospice” to nurture it back to health.
Secular humanists also offer insights, including their ability to differentiate between religiously motivated culture wars, including wars on science and environmental policies, and rational thinking devoid of demagoguery and fear.
Catholics speak eloquently about social justice, and climate change is indeed a justice issue, both for the Global South and for future generations.
Pagans and naturalistic pantheists offer wisdom about worshipping the embodied divine as a seat of mystery and wonder.
Lastly, climate change is also a pro-life issue, which should unite all people.
The question is: Can Charlestonians move beyond petty, short-sighted politics and disinformation campaigns funded by the Koch Brothers and Big Oil to recognize that we must tap into the cultural commons to come up with some form of Earth-centered ethics that recognizes the reality of life at ground zero?
Or, will we remain wedded to business as usual, in politics and religions, as well as our economics where we worship the consumer market?
At one point, Christianity rightfully pointed out that as individuals we are members of a larger community beholden to one another for good or ill. Such pointed language might be appropriate again. We cannot legislate nor consume our way back to stable ice caps.
Maybe it is time for an 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not emit greenhouse gases.” Or to frame it positively: “Thou shalt celebrate and protect the creation.”
Todd LeVasseur lives on Folly Beach and has a doctorate in religion with an emphasis on religion and nature, religion and science, and environmental ethics.