As this year shuffles off to Memoryland this weekend, I want to share some thoughts about how human life as many of us know it may be working toward such a radical change that, if it happens, life as we know it now may be forever gone.
To do that, I'll draw on an important new (published this past July) book by Jeff Goodell called The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet.
It's an account of climate change written by a careful observer who draws on both scientific findings and on his own experience of spending time in places that already are being adversely affected by the scary warming of our planet.
And given the recently concluded United Nations annual conference on the climate -- a conference that was both reassuring and disappointing all at once -- Goodell's book can be a useful guide to what is happening to our planet and what we're doing to make it both worse and better. At the moment, worse is winning. By a lot.
One reason for people of faith -- or at least people with spiritual sensitivities -- to spend time on this subject is that faith communities of many types have been sending out warnings for many years about the dangers of climate change and connecting those warnings to beliefs about human responsibility to care for God's beautiful creation.
So first I want to give you a few links to statements on the environment from different religions or religious groups: The Presbyterian Church (USA); the Episcopal Church; the Southern Baptist Church; the United Methodist Church; U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Reform Judaism; Islam; Hinduism; Buddhism.
So for more than half the roughly 8 billion people on the planet, there is at least some responsibility to respond to the environmental crisis using teachings from religious or spiritual leaders. You might think that would be enough to make a difference in electing public officials who recognize climate change as an existential threat and in living individually in ways that don't make things worse.
If that's what you think, you'll be disappointed by the reality.
Back to the book: Goodell's primary focus is, the book's cover tells you, heat. And although I'm familiar with the term global warming and try to keep up with what science is telling us about this subject, the author opened my eyes to several matters to which I've given almost no attention.
For instance, he quotes the prestigious medical journal The Lancet as saying that "489,000 people worldwide died from extreme heat in 2019." That's far more, Goodell writes, "than all other natural disasters combined, including hurricanes and wildfires. It's also more than the number of deaths from guns or illegal drugs. And those are only the deaths that are directly attributable to heat." One of the other heat-related causes has to do with inhaling smoke from wildfires, and Goodell says that "globally, between 260,000 and 600,000 people die each year from" that cause.
Goodell spends a good deal of time writing about oceanic changes that are making -- or soon will make -- the Earth hotter and more dangerous. For instance, one of the profound changes in the oceans has to do with the fish population and its locations.
"Largely because of overfishing," he writes, "90 percent of the large fish that were here in the 1950s are gone. One metric ton of plastic enters the ocean every four seconds. . .But the biggest problem is that the ocean is heating up fast. Since the 1960s, the rate at which the top mile or so of the ocean is heating up has doubled. In 2022, the ocean hit its warmest temperature on record for the fourth year in a row."
Heat leads people to want and buy air-conditioning units -- something rare when I was a boy in my small hometown in northern Illinois. Goodell writes that the more a/c units people buy and use, "the more electricity is required to power it. And as long as some portion of that electricity is generated by fossil fuels, that means more greenhouse gas pollution -- which further heats up the climate. It's a vicious cycle."
And that, he notes, is "how the climate crisis works: the rich pollute, the rest suffer."
What Goodell calls the "Goldilocks Zone" of climate stability in which many of us have lived most of our lives will be decimated by heat, and it "will not be accidental heat. . .It will be deliberate heat. Premeditated heat."
If there is any good news, he writes, it's that "clean energy is now cheaper than fossil fuel energy in most parts of the world." Which gives us a chance to recover, but "right now, our dependence on fossil fuels is all about inertia, political will and big oil and gas companies wanting to milk their investments as long as they can."
So even if it's not quite too late to pull ourselves literally out of the fire, we don't have much time. And surely the last thing people of faith want to do is to be bad stewards of creation and to create a living hell on Earth. Right?
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SO FAR POPE PIUS XII'S HOLOCAUST REPUTATION REMAINS UNSALVAGED
This past fall, in this blog post, I suggested that the world finally may get a clearer picture soon of what Pope Pius XII did, if anything, to save Jews in the Holocaust. Newly discovered correspondence from a wider opening of the Vatican's archives seemed promising.
But this Tablet Magazine piece by Frederic Brandfon, formerly an archaeologist but now a lawyer and historian, suggests that a clear, indisputable answer may be too much for which to hope. Pius, as you no doubt know, has been criticized for what Brandfon calls "failing to provide leadership and moral clarity" in response to the Holocaust.
So far, he writes, the newly available material from the Vatican archives provides no ringing defense of Pius, just more questions, including questions about how, all these decades later, it might be possible to fairly interpret the pope's actions and words at the time.
Brandfon writes that "Pius XII’s pronouncements. . .invariably expressed sympathy for those suffering. But while he deplored the crime, he failed to identify either the perpetrators of the crime or its victims." The question was whether that was a way of protecting the sources of the accurate information about genocide the pope was receiving or whether that was simply moral cowardice.
But even in the best possible light, it appears that Pius was not bold enough to condemn the murders of millions of Jews that he knew was happening. As Brandfon writes, "There can be little doubt then, that the pope was aware of the genocide taking place in Europe as early as 1942, both in general terms and also in many of its specifics. Nonetheless, he remained silent. He was woefully ambiguous in the (1942) Christmas message, and two months earlier, in an exchange of memos with Myron Taylor, the American special envoy to the Vatican, he refused to verify the reports he had already heard."
Brandfon's conclusion, which may not be the conclusion to which others come, is quite dismissive of Pius: "The pope’s vague statements and his silence appear to be part of a chosen policy rather than the outcome of personal timidity."
Eventually, more evidence may emerge from the archives that will either cast Pius in a darker light or make him look bolder in his response to the Holocaust than he looks now. What we can say, however, is that many world leaders, including at times President Franklin D. Roosevelt, failed to be the necessary voices for the millions of Jews and others whom Hitler's Nazis were murdering. So Pius XII, if he's finally judged to have held his fire while millions died, will not be the only one who failed the moral test of his age. (A major moral test of our own age is the question of how to respond to climate change, as I wrote about above. The current pope has been a moral leader on that question.)
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