Monday, November 28, 2011

Climate Changed

A couple weeks back I had the pleasure of attending PennFuture's annual Southeastern PA climate conference at the The Franklin Institute in Philly as part of my fieldwork with Lutheran Advocacy Ministries of PA.  It was a tough but informative experience for me... as a person of faith I'm glad to have learned more about how climate change is already affecting God's creation, but some of what I learned was difficult to bear.  PennFuture is an organization dedicated to "creating a just future where nature, communities and the economy thrive" through advocacy, organizing, legal services and public policy analysis.  The theme for this year's conference was "Climate, Changed: Extreme Weather and the Need to Take Action."  After some opening remarks, Katherine Gayewski began the evening by discussing Philadelphia's local efforts to both curb climate change and prepare for it's inevitable consequences.  As Director of Sustainability for Philadelphia, Katherine's work centers around implementation of Mayor Nutter's ambitious Greenworks initiative to make Philly "the number one green city in America by 2015."  It seems like a far fetched idea, but of the program's fifteen specific goals, some were already 60% to 70% met after only a year.  Katherine stated that climate change is already well underway, and our focus must shift from prevention to adaptation and minimization.  For instance, through the Greenworks program, Philadelphia is working to adapt for increased storm water runoff but is also moving reduce the city's emission of green house gases by 20%.

Dr. Howard Kunreuther, professor and director of the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at UPenn's Wharton School of Business, discussed long-term strategies to mitigate the financial risks associated with climate change.  "Business folks" are unfortunately somewhat unpopular in green circles yet Dr. Kunreuther presented a very enlightening perspective on climate change that can hopefully change that mindset.  There's over $10 trillion of risk from the coast of Northern Maine to Texas, most of which is largely uninsured against an increase of extreme weather events like floods and hurricanes.  Unfortunately, only 20% of people who buy flood insurance keep it after eight years, largely due to human psychology.  Dr. Kunreuther made a number of public policy proposals that could better fit flood insurance to the short time frames people think in.

The highlight of the event though was Dr. Heidi Cullen's presentation on the science and public perception of climate change.  Unfortunately, things haven't gone too well in recent years.  While media coverage of climate changed increased greatly after the release of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth in 2008 and 2009, coverage has greatly dropped off since the beginning of our recent recession.  After recent campaigns to falsely challenge the validity of science and the last Congress's failure to pass cap and trade legislation, the climate change community has largely been scrambling to find a next move.  Since most advocacy organizations put all their effort into passing national cap and trade legislation, it's been only recently that the focus has shifty to more local efforts like Philly's Greenworks program.  The Earth's average temperature has already risen well over one degree and in that same period the Northeast US has experienced a 67% increase in extreme weather events.  Unfortunately, the climate has already changed and our focus must shift from prevention to adaptation and minimization.

Wow, that was a whole lot of doom and gloom huh?  What's a faith leader to make of all this, and what role does the faith community have when dealing with climate change anyway?  The church  course should be serving as a moral conscience for the world and to do this faith leaders first need to help their parishioners reconnect with God's creation... only then will folks become more invested in the issue.  Knowing the magic and beauty that is in God's gift of creation, people will respond.  Then, begin thinking about how your own faith community can begin not only minimizing it's carbon footprint but also modelling good adaptation practices for parishioners... does your church have proper flood insurance and storm-water management systems for instance.  Being a prophetic witness by leading parishioners in advocating for local and federal public policies that curb climate change is also important.  God's creation is certainly groaning, but boy, there's a whole lot that we as people of faith can do to help.

God's peace,

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