Saturday, August 15, 2015


Climate Endgame: a Shift in Consciousness?

The Quaker renewal I prayed for in the last entry may feel far away in some of it previous centers of influence.  In the first generation, as many as 20% of the English and Welsh were Quaker; it was a contagion sweeping Britannia.  Now there are barely 20,000 left in Britain.  On the East coast of the US, especially Pennsylvania, New York, and North Carolina, where Friends once flourished, meetings are languishing.  The older generation is dying off, and they are not being replaced.  Quaker organizations, especially the American Friends Service Committee, which was a vital force for peace and postwar recovery in the mid twentieth century, are suffering because these generous donors are passing from the stage. Friends United Meeting, a mainstream, pastored style of Quakerism with planned sabbath services, is undergoing a serious split over a staunch anti-gay stand by its ruling oligarchy. 

But here in Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting, we continue to experience growth (which is true of New England Yearly Meeting as well).  And my home meeting in Celo is particularly blessed with an influx of young people in their 20's and 30's, mostly woofers attracted to organic farming, communitarian living, and the Celo Community land trust.  It had long seemed to me that liberal Quakerism was a natural place for the spiritual but not religious to explore.  For these young people, jaded by disappointment with organized religion and politics, a creedless, non-hierarchical faith community has indeed proved attractive.  And we have good potlucks every First Day after worship. 

At Meeting yesterday, a longtime attender spoke about the changes he sensed, both in the Meeting and the world.  For almost our entire history of over 60 years, we have opened our meeting for worship to campers from Camp Celo, a Quaker-based camp just down the road.  They file in quietly, sit mostly on the floor, and request hymns as long as the clerk allows. Then they share silent worship with us for 5 or 10 minutes before quietly filing out and returning to camp. Yesterday, my friend observed that the children were unusually quiet, almost somber this year, an observation that strikes true for me. They know something big and very scary is up.  It was Nagasaki Day, and a Japanese woman had just tearfully prayed for the abolition of nuclear weapons.  In response to this gathering awareness, he saw signs of an awakening, both to the cause of world peace, but even more critically, to the imminent danger of climate catastrophe.

There are indeed signs of a shift.  In the fall, the US and China made serious pledges to reduce greenhouse emissions as a first step towards a Paris accord this December. Other nations followed with their own commitments.  At the G7 conference in June, the assembled industrial powers pledged to phase out carbon emissions this century, with an initial commitment to the “upper end” of 40-70% below 2010 levels by 2050 (climate scientists are calling for 80-90% by mid-century).  Shortly thereafter, Pope Francis issued his eloquent environmental encyclical, setting off a reaction among conservative politicians in the US jockeying for the nomination of the Party of Denial.  But it is having its effect among the “independents” who have yet to be convinced of the present dangers of climate change, though most of them accept it at some level. Shifting the message from scientific fact  to one of morality is producing ripple effects far beyond the world's billion-plus Catholics.  Lastly, President Obama has completed his Clean Power Plan for US power generation, and it is more ambitious than promised in its earlier stages.  Freed of the need for re-election, he is proving to be a much stronger environmental president than during his first term, despite the fact that he has approved drilling in the Arctic and has continued to postpone a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline. At the joint announcement with Premier Xi of the US-China emissions reduction pledge last fall, he echoed Washington Governor Jay Inslee: "We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, and the last generation that can do something about it." Thusfar, his rhetoric has exceeded his actions.  But the two are getting closer. 

Of course the President can't do this alone.  Blocked by Congress, he is exploiting the powers of the executive. But when it comes to an international climate treaty to be signed, the senate must agree by a 2/3 majority, which seems an impossible political mountain to climb.  Yet I find Paul Gilding's positive spin on this impasse plausible in his provocative and optimistic book, The Great Disruption Gilding prefers not to worry about it, since the time is nigh when there will be sufficient disruption to the lives of rich country denizens that an intelligent response to the obvious will be ripe and natural. When the time comes, the wall of denial may fall as fast as the Berlin Wall.  May it be soon.

So does the shift in awareness mean there is a place for a climate treaty at the UN COP 21 in Paris?  I have previously posted about the current path towards a Paris Accord, calling it a patchwork quilt approach.  Yes, I think there will be a treaty, but its chief importance is to establish a hopeful tone, a sense of progress that will encourage more significant measures. The joint communique by the US and China last fall has helped create that tone. Other countries have followed their lead, some with promising commitments (Mexico, Brazil, European Union), others with weak, disappointing ones (Russia, Canada, and most recently, Australia). 

As I have argued here before, the key is for the US and China, the two largest emitters, to forge a joint treaty that is tough enough to be meaningful.   And China has ramped up its pledge by promising a further reduction in carbon intensity.   The diplomacy involved in their pushing for a bilateral agreement that is far more effective than the likely range of outcomes in Paris is much more straightforward than the delicate dance required of the global community in Paris, one that is still split into the haves and have-nots, with the two sides continuing to trade recriminations. Thoroughly woven into this diplomatic task is the issue of historical responsibility for the CO2 plaguing the Earth, which pits the US against China.  Though China is now the biggest emitter, it is the US that carries the brunt of historic emissions.  This will remain, Paris treaty or not, the key knot to cut for the US and China to jointly solve the impasse. But the payoff could be huge if they succeed. In a recent interview with Grist, James Hansen says that a strong, bilateral carbon tax between these two powers would change everything.  So let's keep the political pressure up, and the prayers going, for a Paris Accord in December.  But don't be too disappointed with the toughness of the results, for it will be a gesture of solidarity for the fight, another powerful symbol of a process that continues to knit beneath the surface of geopolitics.

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