As a recently retired person in Central Pennsylvania, here are some of the questions that keep me up nights: Will the retirement accounts, personal savings, Social Security, and Medicare benefits I am now counting on to support me for the rest of my life, through sickness and health, really be there when I need them? What about people in the Valley who lack retirement accounts, personal savings, and home equity? How can we all age together, equitably and productively? And how will a warming climate impact our futures?
Like most people, I imagine, I’ve planned to retire into a world that works pretty much the way the current world does. What will happen when earlier frosts, delayed rains, and hotter summers cause more crop failures? What will happen when California’s Central Valley, which supplies so much of our food, runs out of water for irrigation — a catastrophe that appears likely to happen in my lifetime? What happens when food is less available and more expensive? In the Valley, we are blessed with farmers and farmers’ markets, bountiful waters, and beautiful communities. What will happen to us locally when the global food system starts to really experience the impact of changing climates? I’ve heard the Russian government looks forward to growing wheat in Siberia: can we really expect Siberia to become the breadbasket of a peaceful world? I’ve heard it said that strife in the Middle East can be traced to crop failures. How will that strife ripple through the rest of the world, driven by resentment and need? And as the oceans rise and the world’s poorest people are displaced — including people in our own country — how will we all summon the will and grace to take care of our neighbors?
The Evangelical Christian atmospheric scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, a lead author of several U.S. National Assessments on Climate Change, tells a story of why she changed the course of her research and teaching career from astronomy to atmospheric science and the problem of global warming. As a physics student needing a course outside her major to fulfill a graduation requirement at the University of Toronto back in the 1990s, she enrolled in the university’s first course on climate change. There she learned about the clear evidence of human-caused global warming, and she learned who it would harm.
In her book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, she writes, “Climate change disproportionately affects the poor, the hungry, and the sick, the very ones the Bible instructs us to care for and love. If you belong to any major world religion — or even if you don’t — this probably speaks to you, too. Climate change amplifies hunger and poverty, increasing risks of resource scarcity that can, in turn, exacerbate political instability and even create or worsen refugee crises. The most vulnerable to climate change are the same people who already suffer from malnutrition, food scarcity, water shortages, and disease. That’s true here in North America as well as on the other side of the world.”
Realizing how a changing climate will impact “the least of these” galvanized Hayhoe to put science to work as an expression of her faith.
I feel that humanity is at a crossroads. On the one hand, we can continue to embrace “business as usual,” reaping short term benefits and apparent security at the expense of future generations, as our politicians concern themselves about a future no more distant than the next election and stir up distrust and hatred among us to garner votes.
On the other hand, we can reread the Sermon on the Mount, or even the first chapter of Genesis, and think about what a world would look like that truly honored and protected the inherent goodness and worth of all creation, including all human beings.
As Katharine Hayhoe observes, addressing global warming is truly about “saving us.” Once we imagine the policies and attitudes that would save all of us, we can bring about and embody those policies. There is good work here for all of us, of all ages. Let’s learn to do it.
Sabrina Kirby is a retired teacher of writing who lives in East Buffalo Township.