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Climate Change

April 4, 2011

The road to San Juan de Limay is an unpaved left-turn off the Pan-American Highway in the mountainous north of Nicaragua.  There is nothing to mark your route except a series of squatting, rotund; earth-mother statues placed every few kilometers.  Las gordas signal that you are entering a region renowned for its stone-work artistry.  For an hour your road winds upward, leaving behind the dryer and hotter lowlands.  At its highest point you find a few coffee farms, and a gorgeous vista opening out across the mountaintops, before you descend back down into the lovely town of Limay itself.

In February of this year, I traveled here to give a presentation about climate change to a group of about 40 pastors and lay leaders in our Nicaraguan partner church, la Misión Cristiana.  I talked a lot about the science of climate change in my stumbling Spanish, presenting the details about carbon dioxide, the greenhouse effect and the scientific predictions of what will come to pass in a warmer world.

In addition to talking, I also tried to listen.  Most of the church folk in the region are also farmers and they universally reported that over the past few generations various environmental changes have made their work more difficult.*  Nowadays there are more pests affecting their crops and they have to invest more in pesticides just to stay even.  What’s more, the quantity and timing of the rains has changed, throwing off all their calculations.  Indeed, this past year in Nicaragua, unusual rainfall patterns led to a bad bean harvest which in turn caused the price of beans to skyrocket.  At any rate, there were no “climate skeptics” in this group.

I thought also of those coffee farms perched at the highest points of the nearby mountains.  Coffee, which requires a cool climate to thrive, is another important crop that is clearly threatened by rising temperatures.  I could almost envision those coffee plants trying to climb to higher elevations as the planet warms.  But the mountain only goes so high.

For all the political controversy, the basic climate change story is grounded in well-understood physical processes.  Molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, trap the energy that comes from the Sun and help create the conditions for life to exist on this planet.  If we somehow removed all the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere the average temperature on the Earth’s surface would drop below freezing -- too cold for life as we know it to have formed.  We should look upon humble CO2 as a blessing: it keeps us warm and plays a crucial role in our life cycle.  But it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

For thousands of years the concentration of carbon dioxide was more or less constant, a period of time that saw the development of agriculture and the rapid growth of many human civilizations.  With the dawn of the industrial revolution humans cracked open a giant carbon storehouse found beneath the earth.  We began digging up the remains of ancient plants and animals -- otherwise known as coal and petroleum -- and burning them to generate energy.  As a result, the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has risen every year and we are on pace to double the natural level before the end of this century.  Simply put, the more carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere, the warmer our planet gets.

As the temperature changes, so does everything else.  Rising temperatures lead to rising sea levels which threaten coastal cities and small island nations.  More evaporation of water leads to changes in rainfall patterns and more extreme weather events.  In turn, changes in temperature and rainfall affect crop yields, possibly causing massive food shortages for certain regions of the world.  Climate change also threatens the health of ecosystems that are home to a multitude of plants and animals, and which provide a life-support system for all of us.  All together it can be a pretty scary picture.

And the hardest part is this: the impacts of climate change will be borne by the world’s poor, even though they had no hand in emitting the carbon dioxide that is warming up the planet.  People who live in the river delta region of Bangladesh may see their homes submerged by rising seas.  Farmers in the Sahel region of Africa, who live precariously on the edge of the Sahara desert, may find more frequent famines and forced migration in their future.  Citizens of wealthy nations will experience changes too, maybe even tragic and expensive ones, but we stand a few steps back from the brink in a way that the world’s poor do not.

Here in Nicaragua, rice and red beans are the bedrock food and we have eaten some variant on this theme almost daily since we arrived here.  (My favorite local dish, known as gallopinto, finds them mixed together and lightly fried).  Now last year’s doubling and tripling of the price of beans didn’t faze us much, but for the many Nicaraguans who spend a larger portion of their income on food it was a big shock.  We can’t predict future crop yields with 100% certainty, but we do know that climate change will cause disruption.  And for families already suffering malnutrition, shocks like these can be devastating.

For me, climate change is a justice issue.  As North Americans, we command a disproportionate share of the world’s resources and emit more than four times the world average in greenhouse gases.  Quite literally, our lifestyle is harming our sisters and brothers across the globe.  I think often of Matthew 25:40 where Jesus teaches: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Now I know that people are probably sick of dire warnings about the environment.  In some ways the problem is so big that we can’t look at it clearly.  It requires collective action not just at the personal level, or the church level, or even at the national level, but at the level of the human species.  It requires a really big dream.

Isaiah 58:10-12 talks about the blessings that come to us and to the world when we do God's justice: “if you offer food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.  The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.  Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

And human beings, when we finally get ourselves organized, can do some miraculous things.  I truly believe that we can do this.  We can transfer our economies away from dirty energy.  We can help poorer nations develop so that all kids have the opportunity to achieve their dreams.  We can put ourselves on a sustainable path.  First we start at the personal level, and then move outward in widening circles.

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(*) We can’t say for certain that these specific, local changes are the direct result of climate change, after all a lot of other things have also changed in Nicaragua in the past few decades (war, migration, deforestation, population growth, etc.)  When speaking of small local regions and short periods of time, the uncertainty in climate predictions is much larger than when looking at global trends.  Still it is fair to say that changes like those described by the group participants are consistent with future predictions of climate change.

Laura Jean Torgerson and Timothy Donaghy serve with the Christian Mission Church in Nicaragua. Laura Jean serves as consultant to the Education and Theology Department of the National Board of the Christian Mission Church of Nicaragua and assists in the development of new congregations that reflect the liberating theology of the church. Timothy works in the social justice program of the Christian Mission Church and has been assigned to teach physics at the Martin Luther King University in Managua.

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