"Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned."
Even growing up as an agnostic, secular Jew, I always thought that these words had a powerful ring to them, so straightforward: "I messed up and now I am admitting to it, no beating around the bush."
There is something admirable in just making a clean breast of it and, even more significantly, it opens the door to the possibility of "sinning no more", which is, I suppose, one of the major points of Confession. As a climate activist, I got to thinking, "Why not go to Confession for our climate sins?"
What do I mean by "climate sins"? Well, picture this: 400 years from now, a high school teacher, let's call him Marco Rubio, takes his students on a field trip to study the Pilgrims. Where is the first stop on the tour? Plymouth Rock, of course, likely the most renowned "landing place" in American history up until Neil Armstrong's "giant step."
So Marco loads his students onto a boat and they cruise into Plymouth Harbor. He reaches the part of the lecture where the Pilgrims make their heroic landfall: "Students, right HERE, on Plymouth Rock is where, in some senses, American history truly began!"
The students look around, baffled. The boat is still a hundred feet from the shoreline. Finally one student asks, "But, Mr. Rubio, where is the rock?" In response, Marco simply points... straight down.
"Ha!," some of you may counter, "This is alarmist piffle. You and your Chicken-Little prognostications of extreme ice-melt!"
Nope. Not alarmist. Not even "pessimistic" speculation. Not, in fact, speculation at all. You see, it's a done deal. It's in the bag. It's guaranteed. Sure, it's going to take a few hundred years or so to play out, but, this week, scientists, after painstakingly examining the ice-melt dynamics of a section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, have determined that it has now gone into irreversible melt. See information here. It can't be stopped, even if we were to discontinue fossil fuel emissions today. No way. No how.
The "short of the long of it" is that, due to its particular ocean-floor topography, and the warming ocean waters eating away at its "anchor point", a massive amount of glacial ice -- enough for about 15 feet of sea level rise -- is going to flow into the ocean like wine flowing out of a suddenly uncorked bottle.
Plymouth Harbor is about seven feet above sea level. You do the math.
So, "Forgive us, for we have sinned."
- We have undertaken, and continue to undertake, actions that we know full well to be destabilizing the planet, especially for future generations.
- We have grown so accustomed to the comforts and conveniences of fossil fuels that we have refused to even consider weaning ourselves off "the bottle".
- Strangest of all: A small, but quite vocal segment of our population -- some for reasons of profit, some due to ideologically driven ignorance -- has concocted the fable that the world's climate scientists have misunderstood or actually misrepresented the basic facts of this unfolding calamity. Ahem, paging Marco Rubio the First, buttressed by his undergraduate degree in Political Science (well, it does have the word "science" in it!) "I do not believe human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it."
So, analogies are always tricky. After all, individually confessing one's transgressions is very different from collectively owning-up to a species-wide pattern of behavior. Maybe the biggest difference between the two is this: When you or I confess, we are generally referring to something we have already done, i.e., it happened, it's over and now we are admitting to it (and, hopefully, resolving not to repeat the behavior).
But, especially when it comes to climate change, the situation could not be more different. Most of the consequences of our climate sins will occur years or decades or even centuries into the future. We're simply not very good at grasping "future" -- we need to see it and feel it and, unfortunately, suffer from it first-hand, before we are ready to really take on a challenging, inconvenient situation. And getting ourselves off fossil fuels would be nothing if not challenging and inconvenient.
This is why the irreversible melt of these Antarctic glaciers is a milestone -- it illustrates perfectly how "tipping points" operate. The warming waters have been eating away at the anchor point of the glaciers for some time now. But, since that anchor point is buried under more that 3,000 feet of ice, it wasn't until recent satellite technology came into being that scientists could determine the extent of the damage.
Eric Rignot, the study's lead scientist: "The system is in a chain reaction that is unstoppable." A tipping point has been crossed. Perhaps it was crossed several weeks before the study, perhaps several years. But it has been crossed, and now it is guaranteed that Plymouth Rock (and substantial parts of Manhattan and Miami) will be underwater.
Until now, we have merely been building up to the "era of tipping points"; there are many more to come. For example, there is twice as much carbon frozen within the Siberian permafrost as is now present in our entire atmosphere. Now picture a defrosting freezer with the ice cubes approaching melt-phase. With a bit more warming, the permafrost is due to thaw to an extent that a substantial amount of that carbon will release into the atmosphere which will lead to more warming and then MORE thaw and carbon release and so on. And so on.
Then there is the Amazon Rainforest die-off tipping point, the East Antarctic Ice Sheet tipping point (MUCH bigger than the West Antarctic with 175 feet worth of sea level rise), the Arctic Sea Ice tipping point (probably already crossed) and the "not-able-to-grow-crops-in-the-U.S.-breadbasket" tipping point. And so on.
Practically speaking, a drowned Plymouth Rock is no big deal. Breaking the systems that provide human civilization with drinking water and food and stable coastal regions for our world's biggest cities is obviously a different story.
Forgive us for we have sinned. Forgive us for we are sinning. Ah well, by this point it should not come as a surprise. After all, it's a story that's been playing itself out since the times of Noah. Hmm...perhaps the whole "evolution thing" really is a myth after all! *
(* As climate change is a developing existential threat to human civilization, I will include this footnote at the end of my articles from now on. For those interested in taking immediate, concrete action to avert climate catastrophe, go to the website of the Citizen's Climate Lobby. CCL lobbies to implement the only viable free market solution -- a tax on carbon.)