The following post is a sermon by Reverend Fred Small of First Parish in Cambridge, Massachussetts, USA reflecting on global warming, Bill McKibben’s recent article in Rolling Stone, and the movement that needs to rise to the occassion. Thank you, Fred, for your ongoing inspiration and your loving ministry.

Heat and Light: Reflections on Global Warming

A sermon by Rev. Fred Small
First Parish in Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist
August 19, 2012

Now is the summer of our discontent.

We caught a little break this morning . . . but it’s been hot, hasn’t it?

July was the hottest ever recorded in the United States, and so were the first seven months of the year combined, and so were the last twelve months combined.

The American Midwest and West are broiling under a heat wave that leaves crops dying in the fields and ranchers selling off livestock they can’t feed.  Nearly two-thirds of the United States is in drought, which will raise food prices between three and four percent next year.  Wildfires rage in Texas, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Nebraska, Idaho, Oregon, Washington.

In the rest of the world, it’s much the same—or worse. 

In China’s drought-stricken Hubei Province, half a million people don’t have enough water to drink.  Recently in Saudi Arabia rain fell when the temperature was 109 degrees, the hottest precipitation in the history of the planet.  Thermal bleaching of coral reefs is accelerating, and most are expected to be seriously degraded within decades.  Arctic sea ice is at the lowest level ever recorded.  The Greenland ice sheet is melting at a record pace.

People are finally—finally—connecting the dots between what we see around us and what scientists have been warning us about for decades.  69 percent of Americans polled now agree that “global warming is affecting the weather in the United States.”

The chasm between what science demands and what politics permits is mind-numbing. 

Common sense tells us we’ve got to do something.  Political realism tells us we can’t do anything.

In North Carolina, Republican legislators have introduced a bill forbidding coastal counties from planning for the sea-level rise predicted by scientists. 

Well, I didn’t vote for the North Carolina legislature.  I voted for Barack Obama.

On the night he won his party’s nomination for president, Barack Obama told us that “generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment . . . when the rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal.”  But since the failure of the cap-and-trade bill in the Senate and the fiasco of the Copenhagen conference in 2009, President Obama has been nearly silent on global warming.

Unlike the first President Bush, who flew to Rio de Janeiro for the 1992 environmental summit, or Vice-President Al Gore, who helped hammer out the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, President Obama didn’t bother to attend last month’s international climate conference in Rio.

Eight days ago in his weekly radio address, the president took note of the record heat, promised drought relief for farmers, and never mentioned global warming.

Now I realize that the president, like any politician, is hamstrung by a corrupt political system.  He can no more stand up to Peabody Energy in an election year than he can to the National Rifle Association. 

But somebody’s going to have to.

Last month, journalist and activist Bill McKibben wrote a compelling piece for Rolling Stone titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”  (It would have been the cover story had the publishers not figured they could sell more magazines with Justin Bieber in a tank top than with a graphic of a burning planet—or for that matter with McKibben in a tank top,) 

McKibben thinks this is his most important writing since he first sounded the alarm on global warming in 1989 with his landmark book, The End of Nature.  I agree.

McKibben brilliantly reframes the climate debate with just three numbers.

The first number is 2: two degrees Celsius

2 degrees Celsius, or about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, is the global temperature increase that virtually every nation in the world, including the United States and China, agrees is the maximum the earth can tolerate. 

Actually, many scientists believe a two-degree increase would be disastrous.  But the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, which did absolutely nothing to control greenhouse gases, at least put all its signatories on record endorsing “deep cuts in global emissions . . . so as to hold the increase in global temperature below two degrees Celsius.”  167 countries accounting for more than 87 percent of the world’s carbon emissions signed the Accord, making the two-degree target, in McKibben’s words, “as conventional as conventional wisdom gets.”

Which brings us to McKibben’s second number: 565—as in 565 gigatons.  That’s the amount of carbon dioxide we can pump into the atmosphere by mid-century and still have a real chance of keeping temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius.  Unfortunately, if carbon emissions continue to expand at their current rate of 3 percent each year, we’ll shatter that 565-gigaton ceiling within sixteen years.  Unless we act quickly, we’ll rocket past 2 degrees Celsius into an apocalyptic future.

McKibben’s third and final number he calls the scariest of all. 

It’s 2,795—the number of gigatons of carbon in the proven coal, oil, and gas reserves of the world’s fossil-fuel companies and oil-producing nations—fossil fuel that is present, accounted for, and ready to extract.  The problem, of course, is that the number 2,795 is a lot higher than 565—five times higher.  In other words, the fossil-fuel industry is already planning to burn five times the amount of fuel the planet can tolerate without catastrophe.  To avoid that fate, we have to keep 80 percent of these reserves in the ground, unexploited.

The fossil fuel industry isn’t going to write off 20 trillion dollars in proven reserves out of the goodness of their hearts.  Their mission is to maximize profits.  To them, the earth is just collateral damage.  It’s up to us to stop the fossil fuel industry before it commits ecocide.

Voluntary simplicity and green consumerism can’t begin to get the job done in the short time we have, McKibben says.  Neither can politely lobbying Congress and the president—not with the system rigged in favor of Big Oil, Big Coal, the Koch Brothers, and the US Chamber of Commerce.

“A rapid, transformative change,” McKibben argues, “would require building a movement, and movements require enemies. As John F. Kennedy put it, ‘The civil rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor. He’s helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln.’ And enemies are what climate change has lacked.”

McKibben doesn’t have to look far for an enemy: the fossil-fuel industry, which he dubs “Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”  He calls Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson the most “reckless man on the planet” for dismissing global warming as an “engineering problem” with “engineering solutions.”  “It’s not an engineering problem . . .” retorts McKibben, “it’s a greed problem.”

The only force powerful enough to stop the fossil fuel industry from trashing the planet, McKibben concludes, is “moral outrage.”  For inspiration, he looks to the anti-apartheid divestment movement that swept college campuses in the 1980s and spread to city and state governments, many shedding their investments in companies doing business in South Africa.  This financial pressure hastened the fall of the apartheid regime. McKibben calls for a comparable campaign for divestment from the fossil fuel industry.

McKibben acknowledges that it may be too late.  He admits his three numbers may “define an essentially impossible future.”  But he’s not willing to give up without a fight.

Neither am I.

For me, the touchstone of social change movements is the American Civil Rights Movement.  Fifty years later, its moral and physical courage, spiritual discipline, and astonishing achievements still inspire.

As it happened, when Bill McKibben’s article appeared in Rolling Stone, I was reading John Lewis’s new book,Across That Bridge. 

The bridge is the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where on Bloody Sunday in 1965 Lewis and hundreds of other civil rights demonstrators were beaten by state troopers.  Arrested more than forty times for his activism, Lewis never lost faith in nonviolence and in the power of love.

He’s an American hero.

Lewis insists that means cannot be separated from ends, and that spirit is as vital as strategy.

“If we believe in the divine essence of all human life,” he writes, “then we must allow that the same essential spirit rests at the core of all our collective action, including the work of government, as well as the action of protest.”

This man who faced down the bile and violence of the most hate-filled racists believes that, beneath our differences, we are all one. 

In the Civil Rights Movement, Lewis, recalls, “We asserted our right to human dignity based on a solid faith in our divine heritage that linked us to every other human being and all the rest of creation, known and unknown, even to the heart and mind of God and the highest celestial realms of the universe.”

Lewis quotes Mahatma Gandhi, who is in turn paraphrasing the Bhagavad Gita, the jewel of the Hindu scriptures: “It’s the action, not the fruit of the action that’s important.  You have to do the right thing.  It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit.  But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing.  You may never know what results come from your action.  But if you do nothing,” Gandhi said, “there will be no result.” 

In our case, if we do nothing, we know exactly what the result will be: an ever hotter planet, with ever more destructive heat waves, droughts, fires, flooding, and wave upon wave of desperate environmental refugees.  If our current stresses of globalization and recession are accompanied by religious extremism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, political vitriol, hate crimes, gun violence, and resource wars, I shudder to imagine how humanity will respond to large-scale economic, agricultural, and governmental collapse.

Strategically, the movement for climate justice faces challenges even more daunting than the Civil Rights Movement.  The goal of that movement was simple: equal treatment under law.  The enemy was clear: bigotry enshrined in law.

What do we want?  Freedom!  When do we want it?  Now!

With climate justice, the issues are far more complicated.  They aren’t a matter of simple fairness and human dignity.  They implicate questions of science, technology, and economics far beyond the expertise of the average person.  Until recently, the victims of global warming seemed remote to most of us in place and time—South Sea islanders and Inuit hunters, maybe, or future generations who might be saved by technologies yet undiscovered.  Even when the problem is faced squarely, solutions are uncertain.  Cap and trade?  Carbon tax?  Fee and dividend?  Solar?  Wind?  Geothermal?  Hydro?  Nuclear?  Carbon sequestration?  Conservation?

What do we want?  Uh . . . something that will stop global warming or at least make it not as bad as it’s already going to be.  When do we want it?  Uh . . . as soon as practicable?

I share Bill McKibben’s doubt that we can shift the way corporations do business, governments govern, and people act in time to prevent dire consequences for the planet and ourselves.

All the more reason to ground our activism in moral and spiritual integrity. 

We’ve waited too long to stop global warming.  Now we must work to prevent its worst ravages and to minister to its victims.

Equally important—maybe more important—we must work with love for love: to build a love-centered, earth-centered, justice-centered world to take the place of the one that is crumbling around us.  This work is political, but it is also spiritual. 

When global warming hits full force, we’re going to need every bit of love we can find.  There will be enough of our neighbors at each others’ throats without our joining them.

It’s true that Bull Connor’s ugly racism was a public relations godsend to the Civil Rights Movement, just as any violent reaction to nonviolence ironically serves the cause of nonviolence.  But the Civil Rights Movement never demonized Connor, because it would have demeaned itself.  By his own unconscionable conduct, he demonized himself.

The Civil Rights Movement diligently schooled its activists in loving their enemies even as they opposed them, even as they were beaten by them, even as they were murdered by them.  This moral core, this spiritual grounding, was the secret weapon that overcame the guns and nightsticks and fire hoses deployed by the forces of racism.

Like Bull Connor, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson is the inevitable product of a corrupt system.  To use traditional religious language, he is a child of God.  Whatever my personal feelings, I’m not going to demonize him.  But the corporation he heads, the industry he leads, and the short-sighted selfishness of his business plan are fair—and necessary—game.

“[E]very change in the world starts within,” John Lewis reminds us.  “It begins with one individual who envisions his or her micro-universe the way it can be, and settles for nothing less. . . . Will you be that person?”

Right now the price of gasoline in Massachusetts is about $3.75.  A rational energy policy that took into account the damage of producing and burning that gasoline would make it at least twice as expensive (as it is in Germany).  Rather than wait for a carbon tax, I’m going to start living as if we have one already.  For every dollar I spend at the pump, I’m going to donate the same amount to McKibben’s organization,, to help take our planet back.  (I’m calling this an Earth Restoration Fee, but I’m accepting nominations for a catchier name.) 

Not everyone drives a car.  Not everyone can afford this plan.  But some of us do, and some of us can.

McKibben is right.  We need a mass movement—a civil rights movement for the earth, for environmental justice, for future generations—and we need one fast.

I like McKibben’s call for divestment from the fossil fuel industry.  And if and when he calls for demonstrations or even civil disobedience at Exxon-Mobil gas stations, I’ll be there with a song on my lips and love in my heart—even for Rex Tillerson.

For the sake of our beautiful, beleaguered earth, for the sake of our children, for the sake of our souls—brothers, sisters, compañeros: I hope you’ll be there, too.

Amen and Blessed Be.


The words of John Lewis:

I will never forget our march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, before we met the sea of blue Alabama state troopers on the other side.  We walked two by two, totally in faith, not knowing what our end would be. . . . To me, it felt like a holy march, so silent, so reverent, so filled with unity and purpose.  Though in the pictures we look so alone . . . [o]ur spirits joined with others through the ages who had determined to stand for justice, and they were also there. . . .

Every generation leaves behind a legacy.  What that legacy will be is determined by the people of that generation.  What legacy do you want to leave behind?”

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