The World We Are Leaving To Our Children

Any of you who have received an email from me might have noticed the Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote in my signature line: “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.” I was reminded of this quote when I was up late last night talking with some colleagues after viewing clips from a film, Chasing IceThe film is both a beautiful portrayal of glacial ice around the world as well as a sobering reminder of what we are losing. Time lapse photographs of one Alaska glacier, for example showed it receding 2.5 miles in less than four years. Another set of images showed a portion of an ice shelf ‘calving’, that is falling into the sea, that was the size of Manhatten Island. 

I see changes in the climate in my own back yard. I garden. In recent years I’ve noticed that we can plant 10 to 15 days sooner and first frosts typically come 10 or so days later. We talked to our local nursery folks and they told us that the growth and hardiness zones have changed, which is reflected in their growing and purchasing of plants. In 1990, it turns out, we were in growth zone 5, now we are in 6. It appears the zones have generally shifted at least 150 miles north.

What these changes tell me, whether it is in the rapid recession of glaciers around the world, or in the longer growing season and hotter summers in my back yard is that something has changed in our climate. This week, our government released a National Climate Assessment that outlines the changes that are occurring by regions across the US. The Midwest just has to put up with greater temperature extremes, more rain and flooding, more severe storms, and shallower Great Lakes. The Southwest is facing long term drought. The Southeast and Northeast face sea level rise, more severe and frequent hurricanes.

Of course we are simply talking about the US here. Many of the world’s great cities, including large cities in the developing world are coastal cities that face flooding from sea water rise. Many are concerned about the global instabilities that will result from the displacement of people from these cities while others are fleeing drought-stricken areas.

Some try to explain away these changes but what is the more controversial issue is the implication that human beings are responsible for much of this change. What is most troubling to me is that many of my fellow believers are among the most resistant when it would seem to me that we should be among the first to care for the creation, given that we are so into the idea of creation! Even if we are not sure that all the predictions are accurate, the changes that have already occurred and the dictates of prudent wisdom suggest that we should act. What troubles me is that most of us are not listening to scientists, including those like Katherine Hayhoe, an evangelical climate scientist and wife of an evangelical pastor. We are getting our views from secular conservative sources. The scientists who are Christians that I know who are studying this are not political people–they have become advocates because of the data, and because of their love of the world God made, not because they are anti-business or part of some big liberal/communist conspiracy.

During this conversation last night one of my colleagues spoke of a friend who said she couldn’t embrace this concern because of concern for the number of abortions taking place. I’ll be candid–I’m also pro-life, but for me, being pro-life involves being deeply concerned not only about saving the lives of the unborn, but also caring about what kind of world they are born into. Similarly, if we are concerned about the poor, we should care deeply about climate change, because the poor, who probably have contributed least to the problem, will suffer the most from the results, especially the children born in poverty.

This is what troubles me most. God-willing, I hope to be a grand-parent someday. It troubles me that how I’ve lived may make the lives of children and grand-children around the world much harder. In moral societies, parents sacrifice for the sake of their children. I am coming to see that it will indeed take great sacrifice on my part and billions of others in the more prosperous parts of the world, if we are to leave a livable world to my children and grand-children. The great temptation is to think, “we won’t see the worst of it in our lives, so why bother?” Somehow, I just can’t see myself saying this to my son, or to the young children in my church. But what will be the message of my life?

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