Thursday, December 17, 2009



December 11 we vigiled around the Burnsville Square with our sign, “350= Climate Justice!” Three of us from Celo Friends Meeting were joined by a retired couple from Atlanta, sojourning at the Episcopal church in town. We were barely noticed, except when we stood under the “Go Cougars” sign. The same night, the Mountain Heritage high school football team was playing in Chapel Hill for the state 2A championship. It was very cold, and all got frosty fingers and toes. We walked around the square several times, turning our sign towards passing motorists. A woman walked across the crosswalk and gave us a quick, warm smile. There were no jeers, but also no inquiries or thumbs up. The only one among us born in the county was the gentleman from St Thomas, and he was impressed simply by the fact that such a vigil was possible in the town where he grew up. We vigiled until dark, the sky turning from deep blue to charcoal.

This was Friday night. On Sunday, Jim, one of the vigilers, brought a bell which we passed around at the close of Meeting, each person ringing it twenty times, until the number 350 was reached. (350 ppm CO2 is the upper limit climate scientists agree the earth can absorb and maintain anything like the world we grew up in. The present concentration of CO2 is 390.) Answering the call of and the World Council of Churches, bells tolled 350 times around the world, calling the negotiaters and climate ministers to climate justice via the treaty being negotiated in Copenhagen. A Baptist minister, shepherd of the church on the square, had first answered that they'd ring the bells 350 times Sunday afternoon, but he failed to respond to my calls for confirmation during the preceding week. Most people in Yancey county don't accept climate change, and so this proclamation was probably too risky for him.

For whom do these bells toll? First, they toll for the nations most at risk, the island nations, nations like Bangladesh with low coastlines, the African nations being pushed more and more irrevocably into drought. These are the countries providing leadership at the conference, courageously standing up to the industrial powers who have used strong-arm tactics against them in each of the negotiating sessions prior to COP-15. Meanwhile, the US and China carry on a diplomatic duel, pointing fingers at each other over responsibility for the mess. The EU has continued to provide leadership of its own, both promising the most cuts in CO2 emissions and the most money to help poorer nations pay the costs of shifting to lower carbon energy economies. Russia and Japan have also promised fairly deep cuts by 2020. But these levels remain insufficient, and as the climate summit heads into its final days, the rich and poor nations, and the US and China, remain deadlocked. Heads of state have started arriving and giving speeches ahead of the final scramble for a treaty framework. Gordon Brown, the British PM, arrived early, trying to help the poor nations and NGO's, (the latter being progressively excluded from the final sessions) broker a deal with the rich countires who have caused most of the pollution.

For whom do these bells toll? The poorer nations are clearly most at risk from climate change. But the bells toll not only for them, but for all nations, for rising seas and changing weather patterns will affect all, if not now, soon. Climate change has begun, and is picking up speed. Only a few years ago, scientists worried that the Arctic would be ice-free by 2070. Now a credible study by the US Navy points to five-seven years. And they have tolled already in New Orleans, where the poor either died, hang on with scant help or have become some of the earliest climate refugees.

Negotiating a treaty that will lay out a pathway towards climate justice will be difficult, close to impossible. The divides at COP-15 are many and deep, especially those between the developed and developing worlds, and the US and China. The key problem is the clash between politics and the laws of nature. Climate science reveals a narrowing window for action and a steepening curve for the costs of stabilizing and eventually cutting back carbon emissions. These costs, politically and economically, are enormous, verging on the astronomical as the window for action closes. Since we are dealing with tipping points for a whole interlocking series of positive feedback loops, what the Brits call “add-on effects,” it's not something we can fix after we are dead certain these effects have been unleashed. Some have already, yet denial allows many to enjoy “normal”life for a short while. We are a remarkably resilient species, and the mind is especiallly pliable, entertaining multiple fantasies of escape and salvation, either by technology or divine intervention. But as we sleepwalk like lemmings towards the rising seas, the Four Horsemen have already entered the field, swords and scythes upraised.

Concurrent with COP-15, the Parliament of World Religions has convened in Melbourne. I attended the last one in Barcelona in 2004, trying to get the religions of the world to accept anthropogenic climate instability as the chief moral issue of our times. Gary Gardner, the religion editor for Worldwatch, and I announced a meeting for those who agreed. One Spanish priest showed. Another meeting, held in Gaudi's storied la Pedrera, replete with wonderful speakers and multilingual translators, was attended by less than 50. A friend who was with me at Barcelona is attending, and says that religious leaders are very focused this time on the primacy of climate as a moral issue. A Christian pastor, he assured me this fall that “God will not let us fail..” Yesterday he wrote that things were looking pretty bleak for a new climate treaty, adding that he was holding out for a miracle.

All of us are praying for that miracle at Copenhagen, including some atheists trying new behavior. The miracle would be a fair, scientifically honest, binding treaty that builds on Kyoto and includes the US, China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia as signatories, as well as the 37 nations bound by emissions reductions in the Kyoto Accord. The bells are tolling, not just for rich and poor, but for the amphibians, the birds, and the mammals, including our species: all higher life on this remarkably blessed planet.

Father forgive them, for they know not what they do...

Friends, what have we done? Can it still be undone?

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