The Emergency of Global Warming

The Emergency of Global Warming

Introduction

The planet is warming. The ice is melting. The seas are rising. Humanity should have begun work on this in the mid-1990s. The effects will be felt by us all, but the burden will fall most heavily on those who are the most helpless. What is to be done?

Reading

From The Water Will Come, by Jeff Goodell.

After the hurricane hit Miami in 2037, a foot of sand covered the famous bow-tie floor in the lobby of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. A dead manatee floated in the pool where Elvis had once swum. Most of the damage came not from the hurricane’s 175 mile-an-hour winds, but from the twenty-foot storm surge that overwhelmed the low-lying city.

In South Beach, historic Art Deco buildings were swept off their foundations. Mansions on Star Island were flooded up to their cut-glass doorknobs. A 17-mile stretch of Highway A1A that ran along the famous beaches up to Fort Lauderdale disappeared into the Atlantic. The storm knocked out the wastewater treatment plant on Virginia Key, forcing the city to dumb hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage into Biscayne Bay. Tampons and condoms littered the beaches, and the stench of human excrement stoked fears of cholera.

More than 300 people died, many of them swept away by the surging waters that submerged much of Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale. 13 people were killed in traffic accidents as they scrambled to escape the city after the news spread – falsely, it turned out – that one of the nuclear reactors at Turkey Point, an aging power plant 24 miles south of Miami, had been heavily damaged by the surge and had sent a radioactive cloud floating over the city.

The President, of course, said that Miami would be back, that Americans did not give up, that the city would be rebuilt better and stronger than it had been before. But it was clear to those not fooling themselves that this storm heralded the beginning of the end of Miami as a booming 21st Century city.

Before the storm hit, damage from rising seas had already pushed city and county budgets to the brink. State and federal money was scarce too, in part because Miami was seen as self-indulgent city that had ignored decades of warnings about building too close to the water.

The beaches were mostly gone too. The Feds decided they couldn’t afford to spend $100 million every few years to pump in fresh sand and with replenishments, the ever-higher tides carried the beaches away. By the late 2020s, the only beaches that remained were privately maintained oases of sand in front of expensive hotels. The hurricane took care of those, leaving the hotels and condo towers perched on limestone crags. Tourists disappeared. After the hurricane, the city became a mecca for slumlords, spiritual leaders, and lawyers.

Still, the waters kept rising, nearly a foot each decade. Each big storm devoured more of the coastline, pushing the water deeper and deeper into the city. The skyscrapers that had gone up during the boom years were gradually abandoned and used as staging grounds for drug runners and exotic-animal traffickers. Crocodiles nested in the ruins of the Frost Museum of Science. (Historians sourly noted that the namesake of the museum, billionaire Phillip Frost, had been a climate change denier.)

Still, the waters kept rising. By the end of the 21st Century Miami became something else entirely: a popular diving spot where people could swim among sharks and barnacled SUVs, and explore the wreckage of a great American city.

Excerpted from The Water Will Come, by Jeff Goodell

Sermon

Our Unitarian Universalist Principle #7 refers to “the interconnected web of all existence.” We have generally been happy about interconnection, but it has the downside, that with everything being connected to everything, if something bad is happening in our existence, it unconsciously empowers it, because everything is interconnected.

15 years ago, wife Deborah and I lived in Miami Beach for a couple years, working a contract we had with the U.S. Department of Education to augment the education of children in the agricultural migrant camps. The augmentation was for age-appropriate STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math). During that time we got to know south Florida pretty well. Back then, when we got a torrential rain, the only problem was that the storm drains were slow to transport the water out to sea. In the 20-teens it got worse, and the water rose now ankle deep or higher, before slowly departing.

Our Reading today is an imagining of what will happen there if something isn’t done, and soon. Such as: our cities become like the Lost City of Atlantis. The Reading speaks only of Miami, but I’m sure you were thinking about all the other coastal cities who are threatened the same as Miami. The New York City seawall is only a few feet above the storm surges. Like Miami, New Orleans doesn’t drain well. New Orleans is worse; the streets are regularly flooded when it rains, as it is right now. Yesterday’s headline: “More rain, widespread flood advisory.”

The calculus is simple. The globe is warming in an old historic pattern, but is accelerating due to human activity. The warmth is causing our ice-packs and glaciers to melt. The extra meltwater causes the seas to rise and forces us all further inland, and to higher ground.

Given the global warming going on everywhere, we can imagine the warming continuing and continuing, eventually encroaching on many densely populated parts of the world. 40% of the world’s population lives on or near the costs. That’s more than 3 billion souls.

As the seas rise, the populace will be forced off the coasts and inland. Already, encroaching seawater is spoiling places like the Mekong Delta, and the area is losing its rich farmland and the livelihoods of the farmers.

Vancouver BC, Seattle, and the San Francisco Bay Area are all built up the edge of the former, familiar shoreline, and the invasive water is coming. Think of all the port cities in the world.

Climate writer Bill McKibben states that rising seas are shrinking the good land available for our 8 billion people. We should begin planning for that now. No one in climate science is saying “these changes are going slower than we thought,” because it’s going even faster than they predicted.

I read a 3-part article in the New Yorker in the mid-late 1990s, and it frightened me. The author was Elizabeth Kolbert, who is still writing about it. She was the one who introduced me and many of us to the danger of thawing of the permafrost, namely, how that thawing releases methane, which adds to the heat-trapping atmosphere above us.

One of her works is titled The Sixth Extinction. I brushed up on the five previous extinctions. They are:

  1. The Ordivician-Silurian, 440 million years ago
  2. The Devonian, 365 million years ago
  3. The Permian-Triassic, 250 million years ago
    • 95% of all species went extinct; this was the most catastrophic extinction.
  4. The Triassic-Jurassic, 210 million years ago
  5. The Cretaceous, 65 million years ago
    • This one wiped out only 50% of all plants and animals, including all the non-flying dinosaurs, which we now know evolved into birds. (The names and durations of these eras will be on the test)
  6. The next one will be in the Anthropocene Era, the one we are living in now (but we hope not)

These extinctions are all pretty grim. Ms. Kolbert’s book and others point out that the extinctions now are happening at a rate from 100 times to 1,000 times faster than ever before because we humans are pushing it. We are forging our fate, our own demise, by these human activities:

  • deforestation
  • pollution that ultimately leads to global warming
  • disruption of the environment
  • and ecological imbalance.

I am rereading Kolbert, and also some newer writers like Jeff Goodell’s The Water Will Come, and the Pilkey family’s Retreat from a Rising Sea. I am frightened again, because much of the solution depends on the peoples of the world working together, and we humans tend to be short-sighted and selfish. That regrettable part of human nature accounts for the very little which the world’s governments have done to prepare for the consequences now coming into focus.

If our species had a lick of sense, we would have begun to take action against global warming in the 1990s at the latest. We know why that action was so weak, naturally, there was – and still is – too much money to be made from industry, especially fossil fuels.

President Biden’s infrastructure legislation includes quite a lot of money for converting to renewable sources of electricity and other non-fossil fuel sources: wind, tides, solar, biomass, geothermal, and the cleanest and most powerful, nuclear. We won’t get a Green New Deal for a while, but this legislation does much for what the Green New Deal points to.

It’s also a chance to draw the world closer together, and a chance to add in some permanent help for the poor. The poor, who need the most help, almost always get the least. The poor includes those in poverty, the undernourished, the homeless, and refugees of every description in every part of the world. Why is it that some have hundreds of billions of dollars, while the poor suffer and die everywhere?

It seems to me (and a lot of other people) that the super-rich are super under-taxed. Breaking down the idea that it’s okay to be super greed will bring benefits to all, even those in the top tiers. We have enough money to take care of everyone on Earth, including protections for everyone from global warming.

Things we can do:

  • Support science and the scientific method
  • Convert to electric cars as soon as possible
  • Phase out fossil fuels from our lives as much as possible
  • Help stabilize and reduce population growth
  • Adopt green practices as they exist now and as they emerge
  • Encourage equity for all, and share all the world

We can do it, but that will require government action to disincentivize greed.

Do not fret about our Mother Earth. She will endure, no matter what. A new ice age is coming, possibly in as little as 1,500 years – which is next week in geologic time. What brings ice ages is a special tilt of the Earth’s rotation, which brings cold to the northern hemisphere, when the conditions are right; something that happens irregularly.

Mass extinctions happen regularly too. What we need to worry about is human life in the relatively short term. Let us therefore be wise, and find ways to preserve our beautiful planet for ourselves, and all life as we know it.

Otherwise, when consciousness arises again in our replacement species a million years from now, they will look at our artifacts and shake their heads in sorrow and pity, understanding that we were too unwise to avoid fatally fouling our own nest.

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