Climate Change | September 1, 2015

Creating a climate for a new life

Photo courtesy Duke Energy

To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant,
and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones,
and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace,
and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence,
and a time to speak… (Ecclesiastes 3:1-7)

As the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us so poetically, the world is continually in flux. Seasons run their course and end, only to be followed by new seasons. Of course we know this, yet how often do we vainly cling to the season that’s waning, unable to bear the thought of giving it up—of surrendering to the unknown future? How often do we lack faith that each new season will bring its unique blessings and gifts from God, if only we are open to recognizing and accepting them? How often do we so dread the prospects of dying or weeping, mourning or losing, casting away or rending, that we forget all about the potentials for being born anew, for healing, for building up, for laughing, for dancing?

Whether we are prepared to accept it or not, humanity’s season of fossil-fuel use must begin drawing to a close. What a glorious season it has been in so many ways: Fossil fuels have given us the ability to grow foods in abundance with less backbreaking labor, to cook and store those foods with ease and convenience, to heat and cool our homes and workplaces with the touch of a thermostat, to travel far and wide in safety and comfort, to enjoy a dizzying array of consumer goods from all over the world, and more.

If we are honest, however, we must acknowledge that the fossil-fuel season has had its dark sides, as well: deaths of coal miners and oil-rig workers, black lung disease, mercury pollution and soot, acid precipitation, mountaintop removal, poisoned water supplies, despoiled wilderness, wars for fossil- fuel access and, most notably, climate-changing emissions of carbon dioxide and methane. And the costs and benefits have not been equally shared; the collateral fossil-fuel damage has, by and large, hit poorest communities and nations the hardest, even though they have often benefitted the least from fossil fuels’ use.

Fossil fuels are so integral to our daily lives that it can be profoundly unsettling to try to imagine surviving without them, much less thriving. Envision, however, the following:

In rural Pennsylvania, a father sees his daughter off to school. As the bus pulls away, there is no stench of diesel fumes.The bus is powered by methane produced (along with the carrots in the girl’s lunch) at the local farm in a biogas digester that runs on manure and crop waste. Local farms are thriving with the additional income from biogas and the strong demand for local food. Outside of Elgin, Ill., a family moves into a recently renovated suburb where homes are energy-efficient, well insulated, and affordable to heat and cool. Residents of all ages can walk or bike safely to the grocery store, the library, the schools, and the park. Wind farms are visible in the distance, and the parents are grateful that asthma rates have declined since they were children. Manufacturing jobs are booming in the region, as wind turbines are heavy and difficult to transport long distances and are therefore produced locally. Installation, maintenance, and operation are also providing long-term, well-paying jobs, creating a vibrant and prosperous economy.

In Southern California, an older couple sits on their small front porch and marvels at the changes they’ve witnessed over their lifetimes.They grew up in a city of ozone and air pollution warnings, the cacophony of the internal combustion engine, and telephones attached to wires. Now, as they look out, they see solar panels on most roof tops, community gardens, and remarkably clear air. Local, small-scale electricity generation is supplemented by larger, community-scale generation. During the daytime, excess electricity is stored in batteries or used to split water into oxygen and hydrogen ( for use in fuel cells). Shared laughter of a parent and child is louder than the electric car that passes by the porch. Technology jobs are abundant in this region, as are manufacturing and installation jobs in the solar industry.

As you ponder these visions, do you find them inspiring and energizing? Do you scoff and dismiss them as unrealistic and improbable? Do you yearn to believe that they could come true, yet doubt that they actually could? Do you long to dance, yet feel mired in mourning?

While evaluating these visions, it’s worth bearing in mind that humans have accomplished so very many things that seemed both unrealistic and improbable at the outset: outlawing slavery, developing antibiotics, inventing airplanes, landing on the moon.

In 1938, when Dan West first conceived of shipping livestock across the Atlantic to help fight hunger in Spain, who would have imagined that this audacious scheme would eventually bring aid to more than 22 million families worldwide over 70 years later? And yet Heifer Project/Heifer International has done just that.

A transition away from fossil fuels certainly seems less inconceivable when we consider the dramatic changes that most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. In fact, a transition to renewable energy is far easier to imagine now than it was just a decade ago. Scientists and engineers are tackling the technological challenges (such as energy storage), while entrepreneurs are finding innovative ways of funding renewable projects—and many are making a profit in the process. Solar cells and wind turbines have plummeted in price; once installed, they harness energy sources—the sun and the wind—that are free for the taking. Many long-range planners, civilian and military, are seeing the wisdom of reducing their reliance on fuels that can fluctuate rapidly in price.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, the number of nations with targets for switching to renewable energy has quadrupled since 2005, from 43 to 164. Some of these targets are quite ambitious and are well on their way to being attained. China is rapidly accelerating its investments in solar, wind, and hydropower and is expected to generate 20 percent of its electricity renewably by 2020.

On a sunny day in May of 2014, Germany generated a record 74 percent of its electricity renewably, with its modern electricity system dealing easily with the variable electrical inputs from different sources. Perhaps more surprisingly, Costa Rica currently generates at least 90 percent of its electricity renewably; earlier this year, its national electric utility supplied its citizens with 100 percent fossil fuel-free electricity for a world-record 75 straight days. Denmark, meanwhile, is on pace to achieve total independence from fossil fuels in 35 years, meeting all of its electricity, transportation, heating, and cooling needs with renewables by 2050.

Sadly, the United States has been considerably less ambitious in embracing the challenges of switching to renewable energy. Why is this so? Surely, it’s not because we lack technical skill, ingenuity, or innovative spirit. We have no shortage of talented scientists and engineers, or dearth of first-rate research institutions. What we do lack, we believe, is simply the political will to make phasing out fossil fuels a national priority—and is it any wonder? The Center for Responsive Politics—a nonpartisan, independent, nonprofit research organization that tracks money in US politics and its effects on elections and public policy—reports the following startling statistics: In the 2013-2014 election cycle, 395 incumbent or newly elected members of the 435-seat US House of Representatives received campaign contributions from sources tied to the fossil-fuel industry, as did 92 incumbent or newly elected members of the 100-seat US Senate! Funds flowed to both sides of the aisle in both chambers, to the tune of more than $31 million in all. (In contrast, candidates received less than $1.6 million from the renewable energy sector.) In exchange, the fossil-fuel industry has benefited from favorable Congressional treatment, including extremely generous subsidies. Many are surprised to learn that US fossil-fuel subsidies (i.e. direct government spending and tax credits) far exceed those for renewables. According to the nonpartisan Environmental Law Institute, between 2002 and 2008, US fossil-fuel subsidies were more than double those for renewables. If corn-based ethanol is removed from the renewable side of the equation (because growing corn requires so much fossil fuel), the figure jumps to five times more subsidies for fossil fuels.

We believe that the time has come to lift our voices about the need to cast away fossil fuels and begin the transition to renewable energy in earnest. As Christians called to care for our neighbors and all of creation, now is our time to speak – to hold our elected representatives accountable and share our bold visions widely. Now is our time to usher in a season of new life. Now is our time to dance!

Sharon Yohn is assistant professor of chemistry at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. Laura (Ranck) White is a small business owner and serves as the financial manager of the Huntingdon Farmers’ Market. She is especially involved in expanding access to the market for low-income community members. See all Climate Change articles in this series.