“Climate Change Sermon” 10/6/2013

Climate Change Sermon, Oct. 6, 2013 — by Rev. Tom VandeStadt; senior pastor, Congregational Church of Austin, UCC, co-chair, Interfaith Environmental Network of Austin (IEN). Republished by the IEN 10/28/13. Learn the latest about the IEN here



On October 17, 2009, the president of the Republic of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, along with his government’s eleven cabinet members, squeezed into scuba diving gear and descended to the ocean floor to conduct an underwater meeting.  For half-an-hour, the President and his cabinet communicated with one another by hand signals and messages written on white board.  Their main business for the day was to pass an official government resolution calling on the nations of the world to curb their carbon emissions, now known to be the cause of climate change and sea-level rise.  

The Maldives is a string of coral islands located in the Indian Ocean.  Eighty percent of its land sits less than one meter above the ocean’s surface, and the majority of its 386,000 people live within one hundred meters of the coastline.  That means a rise in the level of the ocean, even by less than one meter, threatens the very existence of this nation.  The underwater cabinet meeting was specifically planned to draw the world’s attention to this country’s likely demise as a result of climate change.

Anticipating that water will one day cover their island, what are the citizens of the Maldives to do?  There’s really only one thing they can do.  Leave.  Abandon their homes, their communities, their country, their livelihood, their way of life.  But where on earth will they go?  Literally, where on earth?  Who on earth will welcome these displaced climate change refugees? 

Maldives isn’t alone in their unhappy predicament.  A number of island nations expect to disappear beneath the waves, forcing hundreds of thousands of displaced island people to find somewhere else on earth to live.  These island people contributed next-to-nothing to climate change, yet they’ll be the ones who suffer some of climate change’s worst consequences. 

How will the nations who contributed far more to climate change respond to the plight of these people?  Will our nation, a large contributor to climate change, welcome them as they look for somewhere else on earth to live?  Will our nation provide them with assistance as they seek to re-establish their lives somewhere else on earth?  I think I know the answer.    

Rev. Tom Vandestadt

Without minimizing the plight of the Maldives and other small island nations, the stakes get much higher, and far more alarming, when we look at the possible effects of climate change on other nations.  Take Bangladesh.  Bangladesh has a population of 150 million people, and half of these people live in low-elevation areas.  A sea-level rise of one meter will submerge as much 17.5% of its territory.  Sea-level rise is expected to displace millions of Bangladeshis, to cause major disruptions in food production, spur major outbreaks of disease, and increase the already desperate level of poverty.  Some speculate that the cumulative disruptive effects of climate change could cause the Bangladeshi political system to collapse.

Again, where on earth will 20 million displaced Bangladeshis go?  Will Hindu India, struggling with its own climate-change disruptions, welcome millions of impoverished Muslim Bangladeshis?  I think I know the answer.

Egypt is another country with serious worries.  In addition to its already staggering dysfunction and conflict, sea-level rise will likely effect seven million Egyptians.  Even a half-meter of sea-level rise will submerge two-thirds of Alexandria’s population and put the heart of its industrial sector under water.  Where on earth will these seven million Egyptians go?  Will Egypt resolve its current political, economic, and religious conflicts in time to come up with a systematic plan to adapt to the effects of climate change?  I think I know the answer.   

Of all the effects of climate change, I find the projected number of displaced people to be particularly alarming.  It’s likely that sea-level rise will displace hundreds of thousands of people from small island nations, and millions from Bangladesh, Egypt, and every other nation on earth with sizeable populations hugging low coasts.  Then there’s Africa, which will likely suffer a different fate—increased drought, food scarcity, and the disappearance of drinking water that will displace millions more.

There are currently just over 42 million displaced people in the world.  The International Organization for Migration estimates that by itself, climate change could create an additional 25 million to 1 billion displaced people by 2050.  200 million is the number most often cited. 

The year 2050.  That’s only 37 years from now. 

And keep in mind that this won’t be one nation displacing their people in orderly fashion, and then another nation displacing their people in orderly fashion.  This won’t be the deli counter at Central Market where you pick a number and wait your turn.  This’ll be massive displacement happening all over the world simultaneously in desperate and disorderly fashion.  Where on earth will all these desperate people go?  I have no idea.  I don’t think I have an answer.

Mark Twain once quipped, “the art of prophecy is very difficult, especially about the future.”  Twain’s witticism aptly describes the difficulties associated with predicting the future effects of climate change.  For example, consider the projected estimates I just cited for the number of displaced people by the year 2050.  Pay attention to the range within this projected estimate:  climate change could create an additional 25 million to 1 billion displaced people.  That’s a huge range—25 million to 1 billion.    

What this huge range illustrates is the tension between certainty and uncertainty that characterizes the whole issue of climate change.  People who study this issue are certain that climate change will displace people around the world; it’s already happening.  However, what’s uncertain is how many people climate change will displace.  In the best case scenario, only 25 million people.  In the worst case scenario, 1 billion people.  A likely scenario, 200 million people.   But no one’s certain.

This tension between certainty and uncertainty characterizes the whole issue of climate change.  And it’s important to get a handle on where the certainty lies, and where the uncertainly lies.  It’s important because some people draw attention to the uncertainty to make statements like, “the science is still out on climate change.  Scientists are still not certain humans are causing climate change.  There’s still too much uncertainty on this issue.”  But that’s a gross misrepresentation of the issue because it blurs the difference between those issues upon which scientists are now certain, and those issues upon which they’re still uncertain.

In a nutshell, scientists are certain that climate change is occurring, and that human activity is the chief contributor to climate change, particularly the burning of fossil fuels.  Where the uncertainty lies is in the actual effects climate change will have on our planet, the speed at which different effects will play out, the degree to which they’ll play out, how different effects will interact with one another, to what extent humans will curtail their use of fossil fuels, and how humans will respond to the effects of climate change.  

The most recent report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report illustrates this tension between certainty and uncertainty.  Released just last week, the summary report begins with this statement: “Warming of the climate is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.  The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases has increased.”  The report goes on the say that close to all of the planet’s warming is due to human activity.

So we’re now certain that our planet is getting warmer and that human activity is causing it to warm.   However, we’re uncertain as to just how warm our planet will get, and the degree of harm the warming will cause.  That depends on a number of variables, including whether we curtail our use of fossil fuels, and if so, how quickly.  It depends on how sensitive earth’s climate proves to be to a doubling of our CO2 emissions, which we’re expected to achieve in the not too distant future. 

download the IPCC report here

The IPCC report estimates that the earth will warm from a best case scenario of 1.5C to a worst case scenario of 4.5C.  The report notes that the best case scenario is as unlikely as the worst case scenario.  The most likely scenario, one stated with high confidence, is that the earth will exceed a 2C rise by 2100, most likely rising to 3C.  By the way, international consensus holds that an increase of 2C will cause significant harm to humanity and the earth.  More than 2C could cause catastrophic harm.   

What about sea level rise?  Again, we’re certain the seas are rising, but uncertain as to how much they’ll continue to rise.  It depends on a number of factors, particularly the extent and speed of ice sheet melt on Greenland and Antarctica.  The IPCC’s projected range of sea level rise is 26cm to 98cm by 2100, and from 1 to 3 meters by 2300.  But again, these numbers illustrate the uncertainty surrounding climate change.  In 2012, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report predicted a 2 meter rise by 2100 as its worst case scenario, and some think that number is too low.  Again, it’s uncertain.

So, to reiterate, when it comes to climate change, we’re certain that it’s happening, that humans are causing it to happen, and that life’s likely to get more difficult on this planet, especially for everyone’s children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.  Just how difficult is where the uncertainty lies. 

How do we respond to this news?  How do we live in this tension between certainty and uncertainty?  How do we face a difficult future?  For many, this issue is so overwhelming, they don’t want to face it.  But as disciples of Jesus Christ, we’re called to face that which is difficult, that which is in need of healing, that which needs to be saved.  So we must ask ourselves what our Christian discipleship calls forth from us in this age of climate change.  It’s a hard question with no easy answer.  With no single answer.  We certainly can’t answer it with one sermon.  I think multiple answers will reveal themselves to us over time as we follow our Christian discipleship path, as we practice our faith, as we face that which is difficult and seek to bring about healing. 

Today’s lesson provides us with some guidance in how to follow our discipleship path in a difficult time, a time of tension between certainty and uncertainty.  As I noted before reading today’s lesson, chapter twelve of Luke’s Gospel may at first read like a hodgepodge of mismatched sayings, but if you read it carefully several themes emerge.

One theme has to do with time.  Specifically, the monumental significance of the present moment.   A radical change is imminent.  So stay awake!  Be on guard!  A thief is outside your house in the middle of the night.  Be alert!  Pay attention!  Don’t get distracted!

A second theme addresses what people should do in this moment of heightened vigilance.  Don’t be a hypocrite.  Don’t proclaim a faith that your actions betray.  Be on guard against the desire to acquire, hoard, store up, and accumulate.  Don’t be attached to things.  Instead, let go of them.  Divest yourself of the usual concerns, preoccupations, activities, and attachments of normal, daily life.  Opt out of the normal patterns and routines of life as lived by those who aren’t paying attention, who aren’t prepared for the world to radically change.  Live differently.  Live as one following the way of Jesus Christ.

A third theme addresses the cost of discipleship.  For there surely is a cost for re-orienting yourself away from the business-as-usual concerns of daily life.  There’s a cost for opting out of what everyone else considers normal.  

This is powerful stuff.  Luke is saying, snap out of it people and wake up.  A big change is coming.  Live your life in anticipation of this big change.  Live a life, right now, that reflects the future reality, not the old way of life most people are still living.   

The situation the readers of Luke’s gospel faced was the immanent return of Christ, the sudden end of the sinful age, the advent of the reign of God.  It didn’t come to pass.  But that doesn’t mean the basic faith stance Luke outlines is no longer relevant.  Indeed, nothing could be more relevant.  The need to be alert to what’s happening right now.  The sense of urgency.  The need to let go of our attachment to certain ways of life.  The need to opt out of business-as-usual.  And the acknowledgment that following Christ is difficult, especially in tense and uncertain times.    

With the help of our church’s new Green Team, we’re going to be taking a more intentional look at how climate change is a faith issue.  How our faith in Christ, our daily practice of Christian discipleship, is calling us to respond right now to the certainties and uncertainties of climate change.   And most importantly, how we can support one another as we face this difficult reality in which we all now live.  I pray that together we can intentionally focus on how we can more fully embody Christ’s spirit in our lives so as to bring about outcomes that minimize the harm that we do, and that maximize the amount of healing that we bring about. 

And it’s on that note that I’d like to end—a quick word on outcomes.  I’m going to share a bit more bad news, but then end with some good news.  Some hopeful and encouraging news.  A ray of light. 

A recent study conducted by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory found that the United States is only 39% energy efficient.  More than 61% of the energy that flows through our economy is ultimately wasted.  Most of the energy is wasted in electricity generation, because most of our power plants are inefficient, and in transportation. 

That’s the bad news.  Here’s the good news. 

Carbon emissions from the United States have actually fallen by 4% since 2011.  So in this country at least, we’re moving in the right direction.  We’re reducing our carbon footprint.  Many assumed that greater use of natural gas was responsible for the decline in our carbon emissions.  However, an in-depth study conducted by a group called CO2 Scorecard determined that the greater use of natural gas could account for only about one quarter of the drop in emissions.  The biggest cause of the drop was increased energy efficiency by homes, companies, and motorists. 

So, the bad news is that we’re energy inefficient as a nation.  But the good news is that we’re becoming more energy efficient and reducing our carbon footprint as a result.  And since we’re still only 39% efficient, we have a long way to go, and can potentially reduce our carbon footprint by much more. 

That’s a ray of light.  Hopeful news.  Something we ourselves can act on right here in this church, in our own homes, and where we work.   In fact, that will be the first order of business for our Green Team—conducting energy audits to determine our building’s energy efficiency, and then working with our Trustees to increase our energy efficiency.  And to then encourage everyone to do this in their homes as well.

This is but one way our faith, our Christian discipleship, is calling us to act within this tension between certainty and uncertainty.  But there are more, and together we’ll discover what they are.  And together, we’ll act.  I’m certain of that. 

– Rev. Tom VandeStadt





Join us Tues Nov. 5th for a SYMPOSIUM and Q&A with Austin Energy — more info here

Topics explored: 

  • Austin Energy’s new electricity rates for houses of worship
  •  AE's rebate process for energy efficiency improvements to houses of worship
  •  Free energy audits for houses of worship
  •  What it takes to get solar panels installed on your facility … and more. 





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