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How Long Do We Have?

The answer to the question highly depends upon feeding the masses. "There are no seasons anymore. Agriculture is a gamble." A woman farmer in Uganda is speaking to Mary Robinson (former Irish president, eloquent spokesperson for climate justice) in 2009. Peter Sawtell quotes her in a post at Ecojustice Notes on the summer solstice, which is predictable, as the seasons, and agriculture, are not anymore.

Genesis seems to say otherwise. "As long as Earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease" (Gen 8:22). James Imhof, Republican Senator from Oklahoma, frequently quotes this verse to prove that climate change is a liberal hoax; God has promised not to allow it.

As a Christian theologian, Sawtell wrote Imhof an open letter pointing out that what the Genesis writer was pointing to was the dependable journey of the Earth around the sun on its axis. But we humans can still sin, and since our technological prowess, multiplied by our numbers, has allowed us to be giants in the Earth, we have taken sin to new levels. We are, as Brian Swimme says, a "planetary power,"capable of ecological sin, with our initially "innocent" use of fossil fuels now turned monstrous.

The bottom line for all life to flourish on the Earth is respiration, food and water, and a temperature range in which the organism can function. Agricultural output for a species now numbering well over 7 billion is one important subset of this process. So the unpredictability for farmers in the ongoing collapse of seasons is a key to the question of survival. Farmers are adaptable, but there is only so much they can do in response to the accelerating disruption of growing conditions. To paraphrase the hymn, they have the whole world in their hands.

For the Beauty of the Earth....

But what of the other aspects of climate disruption? Losing the seasons is a loss of stability, and of the aesthetic delight we have been blessed with for much of our history (the exceptions being ice ages rather than rapid warming, which we have never before encountered species-wide). Every time I hear birdsong I say a prayer of thanksgiving. It is no longer something to take for granted. The same is true for cool breezes, refreshing water for recreational bathing, and the wildlife I see in my yard. And as I wrote here a couple of years back, it is true of looking up and seeing blue sky, since rapid warming will soon probably result in deployment of sulfur aerosols at the poles to dampen incoming solar radiation, causing the skies to turn gray. For as long as we seed the polar stratosphere, it will be the atmospheric equivalent of a continuing eruption of large volcanoes, and there will be serious side effects, chiefly the loss of the monsoon winds upon which South Asian farmers depend. No blue sky, no monsoon, even as the Himalayan glaciers, mothers of the major South Asian rivers, are on course to completely dry up before mid-century.

So, Peter Wadhams' testimony aside, we will last awhile, but only through the continued application of human ingenuity, which got us into deep trouble in the first place. In the end, only restraint of our appetite for comfort and the easy path, driven by corporate greed and nationalism, will save us and the rest of the biosphere from ourselves. We have missed the window for climate mitigation, and now must achieve the miracle of transformation of global civilization to one of cooperation, even as nativism and reactionary denial of our crisis have become the rule. Adaptation, which is so often framed as a technological feat by individual nations and city-states, is ultimately a social problem. And that social problem is the key evolutionary issue for our species in the face of its greatest challenge ever. Sadly, the odds favoring abrupt climate change dwarf those for rapid evolutionary change.

The human experiment hangs in the balance. As you go forward with your life, restrain your consumption of fossils, pray for resilience, and recognize the possibility, however slim, of human and divine miracles. Above all, have compassion for everyone you encounter.

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