Reverend Ed Brown is a preacher. And a good preacher knows how to tell a story.
The former missionary to Pakistan is now in the business of caring for God’s creation, and mobilizing the Christian church to join him. And to help us understand the world we now live in, he asks us to imagine ourselves as the crew of a passenger liner at sea, many days from the nearest shore. We all have important jobs to do. Some of us prepare delicious food for the restaurants on board. Some of us manage entertainment for our passengers. Some run children’s programs for families on the trip. Some keep the toilets working. Still others provide medical care to the sick on board.
We are all busy with our callings, and each of them is vital to the success of our voyage, and even the safety of the thousands of passengers under our care.
But on this particular morning, the captain calls us all into a meeting on the ship’s bridge. His expression today is grave.
“I have received some sobering news from the chief engineer today,” he begins. “None of us should panic, but I need you to listen carefully to every word he tells us.”
The engineer steps forward, and lays out the story: During the night, there was an accident in the engine room, and the ship is taking on water. The pumps are running at capacity, but we are not keeping up. The ship is already riding lower in the water. More can be done, but we need everyone’s help for the survival of the ship. He lays out the plan in detail. It calls for our best efforts. If we all play a role, we can make it safely back to port.
“You still have your own jobs to do,” concludes the captain. “Children still need to be cared for. Meals still need to be prepared. Sick passengers still need medical care. But now, you must do your work with this in mind: It will all be for nothing unless we pull together on the engineer’s plan. The voyage, our passengers, and even our own lives hang in the balance. We can spare no effort.”
Rev. Brown’s story is, of course, the story of manmade climate change and Christian mission. Some of us are called to care for the aged. Some are called to relieve hunger. Others provide clean water; or teach children; or reconcile those in conflict. Others, perhaps, are more like the passengers – until now, mainly focused on our own vacation, leisure and appetites.
But whatever we’re doing now, runaway climate change threatens to sink all of our efforts. The hungry, the thirsty, the children, those fleeing conflicts – none will be spared if we don’t rise to the challenge.
But like the ship’s crew, we have a plan. In fact, the whole world has come together and agreed on a response to climate pollution. It’s called the 2015 Paris Agreement, and the 195 nations of the world have all agreed to it. It’s designed to assure that global temperatures don’t rise more than 2 degrees Celsius from those that sustained our parent’s world. Despite an ambitious start, we’re told that it’s not quite good enough to get us there. We’ll have to come back with even more creativity and resolve if we want to keep our planet below that perilous heat threshold.
But let’s go back to the ocean liner. Let’s imagine that the crew had some doubts about the captain’s plan. The entertainment director never had much trust in captains anyway. And he certainly had no time for boring engineers with their oily coveralls and dire warnings.
“The leak is a hoax,” he begins whispering to his shipmates. “We’re being led by stupid, stupid people. I could make this voyage really great, but we need to make some changes at the top.”
And next morning, we wake up to find the entertainer in command on the bridge, and the captain confined to his quarters below deck. The ship is just beginning to list slightly to starboard, but the casino and nightclub are packed. Everyone’s having fun. We’re no longer headed back to port. The children under our care run and play, unaware that the engine room is now almost flooded out.
And that’s the story that began to unfold last week, when voters in the world’s richest and largest economy chose a climate change denier as captain of their ship for the next four years. He has promised to withdraw from the Paris Agreement; to forbid the EPA from regulating CO2 as a pollutant; to abandon the Clean Power Plan; to construct new pipelines to increase the flood of Canadian tar sands crude – the world’s dirtiest oil – through the American heartland to export terminals on the Gulf; to increase fracking for natural gas; to reverse the long-term decline of coal extraction and burning.
And in case there’s any doubt about how serious he is, he’s appointed one of the most notorious climate change “hoaxers” to lead his transition team at the EPA. The rest of the world has begun to ask if it’s possible for worldwide climate action plans to survive under such an assault. Some are talking about slapping carbon tariffs on anything imported from the US. Others are calling us a “rogue nation,” like North Korea.
Me, I’m watching the children play on the ship’s pool deck. Look! There are my little granddaughters! And my daughter-in-law rocking her new baby! They’re so beautiful. They’re so beautiful. My eyes moisten.
Suddenly, I grab for a rail to catch my balance. The ship is now listing harder to starboard. The little ones don’t notice yet. Ice cream is being served. With sprinkles.