Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Passing 400

By Rachel Haxtema, Guest Blogger

Many of us heard the news in the past few weeks that the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is now over 400 ppm, an unprecedented level that will mean rising temperatures and other climate disruption.

Before we started burning fossil fuels in the 18th century, our atmosphere had a concentration of about 275 ppm. The concentration climbed steeply, hitting 350 ppm just before the year 2000. Scientists have suggested that 350 ppm is the most carbon dioxide that our atmosphere could handle before causing serious climate change. As Bill McKibben, founder of said, We’ve known for a long time that we’d pass the 400ppm mark; the trouble is, we’re passing it without any real national or international effort to slow down the production of CO2. So it’s an entirely grim landmark... Before we can get back to 350 we actually have to stop increasing carbon concentrations. That’s a political task; it’s why we’re trying to build a movement strong enough to stand up to the fossil fuel industry.”

I was able to hear Bill McKibben speak recently in Seattle at Queen Anne United Methodist Church – he's been a hero of mine over the last several years as he has fought tirelessly against climate change. Each time I hear him speak about the movement and story, I'm reminded of the global impact of climate change. The most heart-wrenching image he showed was of children in a flooded street in Haiti holding signs that read, “Your actions affect me.” Children in low-lying nations around the world are going to be affected most by the burning of fossil fuels, driving of cars, and excessive waste in wealthy nations – they will bear the brunt of rising temperatures, flooding, pollution of water sources and reduced food security. We know that Haiti is already a struggling nation and climate will only deepen the poverty and cause additional sickness and suffering. This is truly devastating.

We must see ourselves part of the interconnected web of all life and see how our actions are affecting others. Unfortunately, it is just too easy to ignore the climate warnings and the news of increasing concentrations of CO2. 

Photograph by Jonathan Kingston, National Geographic
Another speaker in the Food, Faith and Climate series at Queen Anne UMC, Dr. John Wallace, an atmospheric scientist and person of faith, spoke about the science of climate change. He reminded us about how many scientists agree about human caused climate change and described how ice core samples have been used to confirm the concentrations in the atmosphere for the past several thousand years. He also talked about the extreme difficulty of the moral dilemmas we face: limits to individual freedom, national autonomy, obligations to the poor and future generations. The biggest climate changes are far off and current impacts are subtle but the stakes are so high. Dr. Wallace believes that because these changes seem distant and don't seem to impact us, it will be important to look at all aspects of earth care; food and water issues may be more tangible and inspire more participation.

Barbara Kingsolver's recent book, Flight Behavior, a novel about a community affected by a mysterious event, realistically imagines how climate might affect us. Kingsolver is a great writer who tells a present day parable that links the science of climate change with real people - from farmers in Appalachia to tour guides in Mexico and everyone in between. Kingsolver is an amazing writer and imaginatively captures the potential for our communities to see real changes and disruptions and understand the ways that their community is part of a global phenomenon.

The only good news is that the movement is growing and more and more people are recognizing the connections between our burning of fossil fuels and intensified storms, ocean acidification and decreasing crop yields. From Earth Ministry fighting coal exports in Washington to ranchers and indigenous activists fighting tar sands and the Keystone XL, people are taking action in one of the wealthiest and most polluting nations.

And there is so much more work to do: political, social, educational, building movements, writing and creating art that broadens our understanding and inspires action. We need everyone’s gifts, stories, skills and work! I'm personally excited that scientists, writers and so many others are finding new ways to share about climate and its effects. What authors, scientists, climate news or stories have you heard recently that helped you further understand the reality of 400 ppm? 

Rachel Haxtema has recently returned home to the beautiful green Pacific Northwest from Oakland, California where she worked for The Sierra Club and California Interfaith Power & Light and studied at the Graduate Theological Union and San Francisco Theological Seminary.

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