First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany, New York

ďHot Enough For You?Ē

Rev. Samuel A. TrumboreJanuary 8, 2005


 

Spoken Meditation

Spirit of Life
What a glorious delight to bring you into awareness.
While the weather outside is cold and threatening,
While animals rest secure in their burrows,
While tree buds wait patiently for the ice and snow to pass,
We gather within these sheltering walls
to affirm the Spirit of Life that constantly moves within us.

Let us offer thanks and praise
For the privilege of enjoying this moment of self-consciousness;
The delight of hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling and touching;
The awareness of the relationships we enjoy and the ways they benefit us.

As we pause in our service now,
Reflect on the many gifts of the Spirit of Life
That have brought us to this day.

The love of parents, and grandparents, siblings, children, and grandchildren,
The support of members of this congregation, friends, colleagues and co-workers,
The many people in our lives who have brought us to this morning,
The good fortune we have enjoyed, the kindness of strangers,
There is limitless gratitude to be enjoyed.

And there are moments when it seems as if that gratitude ebbs.
A serious illness, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or a business reversal,
The loss of a relationship, persecution by others, self-inflicted suffering,
Calamities as big as a tsunami, or as small as a stubbed toe,
Can cause us to lose awareness of the ocean of love around us.

This is a time to remember the big picture.
The incredible abundance of life
on a very unusual planet hurtling in the vastness of space
The nearest planet with any life might be thousands of light years away.

As fellow travelers on this tiny, dynamic blue-green world,
let us turn toward each other with appreciation and respect.
Let us not lose sight of what a gift it is to be awake and aware.
Let us be renewed by choosing to live rather than abandoning this gift.
Let us recognize the unlimited potential we each have
To bring more love, light and life to the world.

Spirit of Life
Voice still and small moving in all,
May we be healed, find wholeness and unity,
And be filled with the energy and grace
To serve one another in love.


 

Sermon

(Note to the reader: This is the exact text I preached but I have since revised some of my thinking on the topic that you will find at the end of the sermon.Dr. Susan Trumbore, mentioned in the sermon, also has some correction at the end as well.)

A visitor to our congregation came up to me last Sunday, looking concerned, asking if I was talking about hell fire and damnation this Sunday given the title of my sermon.ďNo, not exactly,Ē I responded, ďBut Unitarian Universalists have our own version of that threat to put fear of annihilation into our hearts.ĒListen to the rationale used to influence the delegates of the last Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly to vote for Global Warming as our Study Action Issue for this year:

Greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide generated by burning fossil fuels, are trapping heat in [the] earthís atmosphere and raising temperatures. The evidence is everywhere Ė retreating glaciers, thinning polar ice, and warming oceans and lakes. Scientists have estimated that global warming could increase worldwide average temperatures as much as eleven degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100. Predicted effects include extreme weather, spreading disease, widespread species extinction, and large areas of the planet becoming uninhabitable because of rising sea levels or drought. Changes in plant and animal life are well underway, including alterations in the range and distribution of plants; dying coral reefs; shifting migration patterns of birds; declining numbers of some species such as Arctic ringed seals; and a potentially devastating impact on countless others, from polar bears to manatees and from salmon to krill (the base of the Antarctic food chain). Increasing acidity of the oceans from carbon dioxide absorption could eventually threaten the survival of shelled marine animals and calcium-containing plankton. Wildfires, which are difficult or impossible to control in earthís northern forests, will become more likely as the environment become drier. ... The risk global warming poses to virtually all life is a greater potential danger than any other we face today or perhaps ever have.

Sounds pretty scary doesnít it?If we donít do something about this issue, we could basically wreck the planet if this rationale describes what is likely to happen.That is the crucial question: what IS likely to happen as the amount of carbon dioxide goes up in the atmosphere and what can we do about it?

Global warming has been an issue that Iíve paid close attention to because my sister is a professor of geochemistry teaching at UC Irvine.She researches how soils act as a buffer absorbing carbon dioxide.We have had many conversations about the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the effects it may or may not have on our ecosystem.We know without doubt that the amount is increasing but what we donít know with any certainty is what the effects will be. To help you understand why, let me give you a little background.

If youíve gotten into a car that has been sitting in the bright sun on a cold day and noticed it is warmer inside than outside, youíve experienced the basic result of the greenhouse effect.The sun continuously warms our planet but all that heat doesnít stay here.Some of the heat is reflected back into space.

Many factors both impede that reflection as well as enhance it.One of those factors is the so called greenhouse gases which absorb that heat and prevent it from being reflected back into space.Primary among them is carbon dioxide, composing about 84% of the greenhouse gases.There are others.Methane, nitrous oxide , florocarbons, and sulfur hexafloride are small but potent influences, sometimes having up to tens of thousands of times the effect of carbon dioxide.Over 85% of these chemicals are introduced into the atmosphere by human activity.

What is important to realize is that carbon dioxide doesnít stay in the air.Plants and plant life on sea and on land take it out.Huge amounts of carbon dioxide is sequestered in trees, plants and soils and dissolved into the sea or consumed by sea life.So as we put carbon dioxide into the air, it gets taken out to feed the process of life Ö up to a point.When the amount we put into the air by burning fossil fuels and biomass exceeds the amount the trees and oceans can take out, then it builds up in the atmosphere and increases the greenhouse effect.

Calculating just what that effect might be would seem to be straightforward Ė justcalculate the increase of infra-red absorption by the additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, expecting a linear relation.Unfortunately, things are a little more complicated than that.An increase in temperature caused by more carbon dioxide may also increase the average cloud cover on the earth.Clouds work as infra-red reflectors making them decrease the effect of the added carbon dioxide.Particulate matter in the air has a similar effect.A major volcanic eruption puts a lot of reflective dust in the air that inhibits the sunís ability to warm the earth thus decreasing the temperature.Human activity also puts these reflective particles in the air.So you see, multiple factors influence whether the planet gets warmer or cooler.

Another complicating factor is asking the question, ďWhat would happen without human activity?ĒThe average global temperature goes up and down all the time.When we have an ice age, it can get really, really cold.At other times, there has been little ice on the surface of the planet.Even in the last thousand years there have been times when the average temperature dipped significantly or rose significantly.Unfortunately, it is next to impossible to know what amount of the average temperature of 2004 was contributed by human activity and what was contributed by natural variability.

Just because it is hard doesnít mean people donít try to figure it out.Today we have one of the most powerful tools humanity has ever had to try to analyze data and understand it: computers!The technique programmers use to find answers to these questions is called modeling.Scientists design a computer model that takes into account as many factors as possible hypothesizing about the relationships of all the variables, plugs in mountains of data and looks to see if they can predict the outcome.If we double the amount of carbon dioxide in the next 100 years, what will be the average increase in temperature?

It is important to recognize that the number will be an average.Some places will get hotter but some places will actually get colder.Contrary to popular belief, there are some places in the world right now, Greenland for example, where glaciers are getting bigger not smaller.There are places like the Baltic where sea level is dropping.There is evidence that Antarctica is getting colder rather than warmer, even with the massive icebergs weíve heard about being calved down there.

Now Iím rather conversant in computer programming and have a basic understanding of what it would take to model all the influences that would be able to have any chance of accurately predicting what small changes in greenhouse gases would have.The changes we are talking about are indeed small, hundreds of parts per million.Significant to be sure, but also very small in comparison with some of the other influences which determine the average temperature.Basically, not only donít we have the computing power to solve the problem accurately, we donít even understand the relationships well enough to write a good program.We donít know how many volcanos will erupt in the next 100 years.We donít know the amount of light the sun will produce in the next 100 years as solar radiation isnít a constant.This doesnít mean we canít build models and factor in these influences.It only means you donít want to bet the farm on the guesses the software produces.

Just because we donít know doesnít mean people arenít going to guess and make those guesses sound like facts.Because we know that the amount of carbon dioxide is already higher, any anomaly spotted can be blamed on it.Notice bleaching of corals?Global warming could be the culprit.More hurricanes Ė must be global warming.New tree species in the Adirondacks Ė more evidence.

Over the next 50 years, we may get some good answers to these questions.We just donít have enough data over a long enough period of time to really be sure that we can hang all the problems the UUA resolution suggests on global warming.The climate change so far is just not that dramatic.

Not knowing exactly what will happen as the result of increasing greenhouse gases, the world community has decided that something must be done.The Kyoto agreement is a first baby step toward reducing global warming by asking developed nations to roll back their carbon emissions to the 1990 levels.With Russia signing the accord, there are enough countries onboard to trigger the implementation of these rollbacks to be completed by 2012.Unfortunately, this Herculean effort will have a negligible effect on the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and, perhaps worse, delay the development of less technically advanced nations through the selling of carbon credits to developed nations.The baseline reality is: we do not want to give up the lifestyle that large carbon emissions has created for us.Alternative energy sources cannot make up the difference without also generating lots of carbon dioxide.

The real crisis in this crisis is the way public policy gets made.Scientists make discoveries and present them with many caveats admitting the limitations of their findings.Non-governmental organizations and the media sensationalize and distort what is being discovered to create fear in the public mind and demand something be done.The politicians then react to these pressures, pass laws and fund more research.This fear generating engine turns out to feed money to both scientists for more research, NGOs for donations, and media for our attention.It is a positive feedback loop that creates more and more fear and demands more and more government money and intervention.The original observations that fueled global warming concerns are blown completely out of proportion, disconnected from what we actually know, and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And all we, the citizens, get out of all this is more fear.

An extreme example of this fear cycle came from the recent earthquake and tsunami.Two days after the tragedy, the executive director of Greenpeace UK (search) told the British newspaper The Independent, "No one can ignore the relentless increase in extreme weather events and so-called natural disasters, which in reality are no more natural than a plastic Christmas tree."

While skillfully crafted PR, This statement is completely false and without merit.It is an example of feeding the fear machine.People who donít know any better could think all those deaths were caused by global warming. It is extremely ironic that this very example was part of Michael Crichtonís recent novel, State of Fear, that talks about the lack of evidence for global warming.

My concern is that the Unitarian Universalist Association may become one more NGO helping feed the fear machine.To understand the potential effects of the increase of greenhouse gases, you need a Phd in meteorology, geochemistry, computer modeling, and mathematics, at least.My research so far has shown me there are too many unanswered questions about what the long term effects of increasing green house gases will be.It is possible that increasing the global temperature might actually be beneficial by moderating weather patterns, increasing the growing season, stimulating plant growth and producing more rain for a thirsty world.As a religious body, we are in no position to make a useful contribution to the global warming debate.

The irrational fear in the back of peopleís minds and explicit in the UUA statement is that the increase in greenhouse gases will trigger irreversible cataclysmic events.It is the scientific version of Armageddon.There just isnít enough good evidence for this.

Rather than worrying about global warming, I think we should pay attention to the things we can influence.There are far more pressing ecological concerns we should be focusing on like loss of wetlands, deforestation, pollution, and acid rain that are very well understood and have solutions.

To help us find more answers we need a whole lot more science and a whole lot less rhetoric.Humans have evolved to the point that we can have significant effects on our entire planet.The best way for humanity to become good stewards of this planet is through action directed by reason rather than fear.

Benediction

Okay, so I run hot and cold on this climatic topic,

Will it all end in fire or ice Ö or will it end at all?

The only thing Iím sure of is change,

And our need to learn to move with its rhythms.

Whether the end is near or far off,

The Spirit of Life will never die.

It will always await the right conditions,

To begin again in love.

Factual revisions:

While there may be a few glaciers in Greenland that are getting bigger, the predominant arctic trend is toward melting ice.

One Greenpeace spokesperson may have said this inaccurate statement but overall the Greenpeace websites on global warming are generally accurate.


 

Samís Outlook (February 2005 Windows)

Global Warming Redux

I doubt Iíve had as much reaction to a sermon as my January sermon on Global Warming. Some of the strong negative reactions caused me to review my sources and analysis. I also sent a copy of my sermon to my sister Dr. Susan Trumbore, a professor of geochemistry at UC Irvine. We talked about it for an hour late that Sunday night both opening my eyes and clarifying my vision.

She pointed out to me that while some of what I said was factually true, my words missed the big picture of the degree humanityís interaction with the environment. She explained that even though more clouds might reduce global warming, a decrease in reflective ice in glaciers and the arctic would increase global warming. Bill Batt pointed me toward web sites on the ďprecautionary principle,Ē an ethic of how to approach problems that are both dangerous and uncertain. Tom Mercer cautioned me to look at the work of Dr. Wally Broecker (my sisterís Phd advisor) of Columbia University. Dr. Broecker is concerned that melting ice in the artic will flood the Atlantic with fresh water changing the properties of the Gulf Stream possibly shutting it down and causing an abrupt change in climate which would freeze Northern Europe. Ed Hancock emailed me an article warning that the thawing of the frozen tundra in the arctic could ďburpĒ an enormous amount of methane into the air as frozen organic matter begins decaying. Methane is ten times as absorptive as carbon dioxide.

All this input made it clear to me I was out of my scientific depth on this issue. My sister told me one of the sources that had influenced me was a scientist that she knew personally and was shunned by the scientific community. As all this input came toward me, I marveled at the challenge for the average person to sort all this out. We as citizens are becoming more and more dependent on experts to tell us what to do. Yet this concentrates power in an elite, specialist class we must then trust ­ a class that may not have it all figured out themselves. Some of the discoveries mentioned above are quite recent, thus they couldnít have been factored into previous analysis. Weíve only been able to conclusively detect Global Warmingís effect on our climate in the last 25 years!

What Iím most concerned about and wish to revise is the tone of my sermon. My sister pointed out to me that Global Warming is a major stress on earthís ecosystems but it is not the only one. The dispersion of invasive species from viruses to animal and plant life, changes in land use, water run off, and heat islands around cities, are examples of other stresses that, when added together, are having a dramatic effect on the quality of our ecosystems. I saw this first hand in Florida living next to an undeveloped parcel of land overgrown with the invasive exotic Brazilian Pepper. This shrub grows so thickly that it kills anything growing below it.

We can have disagreements about one or another influence, but when we look at them together, we see that humanity is having a very negative influence on our environment. My sister put it bluntly: it takes 50 years to grow a forest and a day to burn it down. Ecosystems always adapt to change, but there is a time lag. We havenít figured out how to help ecosystems adapt quickly in a way that doesnít decrease their diversity. What we at the top of the food chain must realize and respond to is our dependence on our environment and our need to protect it wisely from harm.

What I continue to be grateful for is the collective wisdom within our congregation. If I get derailed, your response helps me get back on track. There is much more to be said about Global Warming. It is real and there is uncertainty about how it will affect us. We as a community can learn from each other and become better informed. If abrupt and destructive climate change is likely and we can do something about it, we are morally obligated to act and a UUA resolution on the subject is appropriate.

Letís learn more Ö together.


 

Dr. Susan Trumbore responds:

A couple of comments on your column: I think getting information isn't the problem, you don't need a PhD to learn this stuff. The problem is finding reliable and unbiased information. I know which websites are scientifically accurate, but Joe Public (and you) could be easily misled into thinking a fringe opinion has more credibility than it actually does. Add to that the fact that the web allows people with time (not often the scientists doing the research) to pull all the tricks needed to game the web search engines, and you can get a lot of biased information disseminated. This is clearly a serious problem, if searching led you to Dick Lindzen's web sites over and above those of more unbiased scientists (for every one complaining about the IPCC process, there are roughly 1000 scientists involved who didn't complain - but who didn't put their support for the document on a web page that misled you).

Second - it takes centuries to grow a forest (or in the case of the Amazon, maybe 500). That is the problem - in one human lifetime we can alter things and if we don't like the results, we can reconstruct them. There is a lot of this 'engineering' approach to climate change problems ('let's fix global warming by putting big reflectors in space', if we destroy a wetland here, we have to pay to rebuild or restore one in another place). What I think is that the environment and its linkages to climate are so poorly understood that we can't reasonably expect our 'fixes' to work as we intend them (look at the failure of Biosphere 2).

Third, the warming in the last century is real - not even the most severe critics says it isn't. CO2 levels in the atmosphere now are higher than they have been in 450,000 years (methane and nitrous oxide levels too). CO2 in the past has varied in concert with climate change, and changing the amount of infrared absorbing gases in the atmosphere undeniably changes the overall energy budget of the earth. While it is true that the climate system is too complex for us to predict the consequences of 500 versus 900 ppm CO2 in the next century - that is not an excuse to say there is no problem. We don't understand the causes of cancer because the human body is a system as complex as the climate system, with its own sets of poorly understood feedbacks. However, we still treat cancer with blunt instruments (surgery, chemo) without an exact knowledge of the risks and consequences or even how they work (except in the most obvious sense). This isn't the best analogy to climate, except that we must choose the level of risk we want to live with.

What makes me most concerned about the climate problem, is that (along with other environmental stresses) - this is a problem we, the developed world, are foisting on the globe. Do we have the right to put larger risks on populations in the developing world (who will likely suffer a lot more if a crop fails or sea level rises).

Copyright © 2005 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore.All rights reserved.