Climate and Energy
"I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy.
What a source of power!
I hope we don't have to wait 'til oil and coal run out before we tackle that."
- Thomas Edison
 

Response Magazine, October 2002 - Living Simply

On Lightbulbs, Polar Bears and Earth’s Future

"The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof;
the world and all that dwell in it." (Psalm 24:1)

What a strange and complicated world we live in. I want to live simply, celebrating the fullness of God’s creation and acting kindly towards my neighbours and my fellow humanity, but I am confounded by the simple presence of a light switch. Huh? How can a tiny piece of dumb plastic disturb my spiritual peace?

It seems so innocent: switch it on, and the light comes on. But when we follow the power to see what happens behind the scenes, we enter a rather murky and troublesome world where nothing is innocent.

In some states, the power cables lead to a big hydro dam that has been built across a river, stopping the salmon from migrating upstream. As damage goes, it may seem minor – unless you have traditionally fished the rivers where those salmon can no longer spawn.

In some states it leads to a nuclear power plant, where the energy of the atom is dissembled to provide us with power, leaving behind a legacy of frightening radioactive nuclear waste that nobody knows what to do with. In June 2002, people who live near the nuclear power plant in Westchester County, New York, and near nuclear plants in California were provided with potassium iodide pills to provide them with temporary protection in case of an accident or terrorist attack.

In most states, the cable leads to a large coal, oil or gas-fired power plant, where electricity is produced by burning ancient fossil fuels. It seems straightforward, but nothing is quite so simple. As the coal or gas burns, the escaping carbon forms carbon dioxide (CO2) and enters the atmosphere. This might seem innocent enough, but similar power plants are burning coal, oil and gas all over the world. Together, they are releasing an enormous quantity of CO2, increasing the presence of CO2 in the atmosphere. CO2 is a greenhouse gas - it traps heat, keeping the Earth from being as cold as Mars, where the night-time temperature to fall to –189˚ F. Too much CO2, and a planet can become like Venus, where the temperature is +860˚ F.

For as long as humans have existed, and especially since the end of the last ice age, Earth has been a "Goldilocks" planet, where the level of CO2 has been "just right" for humans and nature, blessed by God with the perfect formula. When I was raised as an Anglican in England, we sang "All things bright and beautiful", and were comforted by the knowledge that all was well in God’s creation:

The cold wind in the winter,

The pleasant summer sun,

The ripe fruits in the garden:

God made them every one.

Whenever I have experienced deep peace in the past, it has been underpinned by the feeling that all was well in God’s creation. All is not well, however – and I have not known that kind of deep peace for a long time. As a result of our fossil fuel emissions, we have increased the level of CO2 in our atmosphere by 40% since the start of the industrial age. It has now reached a level that has been unknown for 400,000 years; probably for 20 million years.

As a result, the temperature of our atmosphere is rising. In the Arctic, in Greenland, in the Antarctic, and in glaciers all over the planet, the ice is melting. The oceans are warming, and spring is coming earlier. Around the world, the regular pattern of the weather is being upset, with abnormal droughts, heat-waves, forest fires, and torrential downpours. Songbirds and insects are appearing where they have never been seen before; forest bugs and beetles that are normally killed by cold weather are undergoing population explosions. The disturbance to the weather is being caused by the increased CO2 in the atmosphere, and it’s known as climate change, or global warming. There is only a handful of climate scientists who still doubt that it is happening; the rest agree that it is happening, and they say it is being caused by human activities. The implications for humanity and for nature if we do not get our emissions under control are so scary, it boggles the mind. It also creates a distinct nervousness in my stomach. The polar bears that live in the Arctic will become extinct as the summer ice melts – and that’s just the beginning of it.

What can we do as individuals, and as a family?

Quite a lot. Back in the Old Testament days, God made a covenant with Noah that He would never again visit the Earth with a flood. Today, we are abusing God’s creation so heavily that as the Greenland and West Antarctic ice-sheets begin to melt, another flood is imminent; not in our lifetime, but quite possibly in our children’s lifetime. Our task must be to repair the damage, and render back to God our part of the Covenant by respecting His creation as we go about our daily life.

Which brings us back to that light switch. There is a lot that we can do as ordinary people to reduce our burden on the Earth. We can make our homes much more energy efficient (see box). We can realize that whenever we drive a car, we release 20 lbs of CO2 for every gallon of gas that’s burnt. We can learn to cycle, walk and take the bus more often. The next time we replace our car, we can buy an ultra-efficient vehicle, turning away from those gas-guzzling SUVs. We can sign on buy energy from the sun, the wind and other renewable, earth-friendly means, instead of fossil fuels. We can become more responsible recyclers, because goods made from recycled materials require much less energy in the making. We can grow more of our own food, and support local organic farmers, reducing the need to ship trucks full of food all over the continent. We can become better informed about the ways in which we are harming God’s creation. We can share what we are doing with our friends and congregations. We did it with smoking. We did it with racism. Now we need to do it with stewardship for Creation.

What can we do as a Congregation?

The answer, again, is quite a lot. We can check our church buildings for energy and water efficiency, and undertake an energy upgrade, as several Anglican churches are doing on Vancouver Island, in western Canada. We can buy green energy for our churches, as Episcopalian churches are doing in California. We can encourage each other to cycle and carpool to worship, instead of arriving in a rush of single vehicles, as Episcopalians are doing in Minnesota. Our youth groups can raise funds by selling compact fluorescent lightbulbs, instead of Girl Guide cookies, as the Youth CFL Project is doing. We can join the Interfaith Global Climate Change Campaign, as several Methodist congregations have done across the US.

What can we do as a World?

At the global level, we must make a wholesale shift to solar energy , wind and other forms of renewable energy, and embrace more sustainable methods of transport. We need to join the global Kyoto Treaty on climate change, and ignore the whining that comes from the oil companies. There is an ample supply of renewable energy, contrary to what some oil companies might tell you. The problem is not technical – it’s political. We have somehow to overcome the corruption and greed that has infected politics, which has put the White House and most of Washington into the pockets of the oil companies. We have to elect more honest politicians, who speak from their hearts, not their wallets. When families, churches, citizens organizations, cities, businesses and governments start working together, we will be able to phase out fossil fuels, and create for ourselves an economy and a way of life which mirrors our love for Creation. If we know inwardly that it is possible, and that it must be done, we can do it.

Guy Dauncey is author of "Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change" (New Society Publishers, 2001), which won a Nautilus Award at the New York Book Expo. He lives in Victoria, Canada. www.earthfuture.com

A Typical American Home

A typical American home spends $1,441 on energy annually, and produces 26,028 lbs of CO2. (It varies with the size of your home, where you live, and how your power utility obtains its electricity.) Here are some practical measures that you can take to reduce your power consumption. Together, they will reduce your CO2 emissions and household power bills by as much as 50%:

Free stuff:

  • Turn the temperature of your water heater down to 120˚ F
  • Raise your air conditioning thermostat by 3˚ F
  • Lower your heating thermostat by 2˚ F in winter
  • Wash your clothes in cold water
  • Use a clothes line to dry your clothes in the summer
  • Turn off computers, lights and equipment when you’re not using them
  • Unplug the second fridge you might keep in the garage

Wet stuff:

  • Add an insulating jacket to your hot water heater
  • Purchase water-saving faucets and shower-heads
  • Purchase a solar hot water heater

Heating and Lighting:

  • Replace six bulbs that are on the most often with compact fluorescent bulbs
  • Add more attic and basement insulation
  • Weatherize your windows and doors
  • Upgrade to a high efficiency furnace
  • Seal and insulate your ducts
  • Insulate your cold and hot water pipes
  • Replace your household appliances with the most efficient models

For more details: