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A climate scientist makes a clear case for climate change during a Presbyterians for Earth Care webinar

Dr. Colin Evans explains climate and weather by asking viewers to imagine walking their dog across the park using a leash that’s growing longer

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by NASA via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Around 180 people registered for last week’s Presbyterians for Earth Care webinar “The Climate Crisis: Where are we in 2023?” Dr. Colin Evans, a post-doctoral research associate at the Northeast Regional Climate Change Center at Cornell University, spoke and answered questions afterward. Watch the webinar, hosted the Rev. Bruce Gillette, Moderator of PEC, by going here.

Gillette opened the webinar by offering a prayer adapted by the Rev. Mark Koenig from a prayer developed by the Presbyterian Church of Ireland:

Living God, Creating Spirit, as creatures living within your beloved Creation, we sing your praises.

You are the Source of all that is: You call being out of nothing, you shape order out of chaos, you establish an intricately interwoven web of life. We stand in awe of your Creation.

And yet, we acknowledge that we also tear asunder the delicate weave you have made. We confess that too often we do as we please.

We extract and exploit the resources you intend for all to share. We exhaust ecosystems and push your creatures and plants to extinction. Our impact changes the climate which in turn impacts all life.

Great Creator, open our eyes to see how we despoil your Creation. Open our ears to hear the challenging truth about our living. Open our hearts to repent and turn from our actions that harm your Creation. Open us to your Holy Spirit’s leading so that we may return to our senses, respect all aspects of Creation, and live gently and responsibly as you intend.

We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Life on ‘this blue marble’

Other nearby planets aren’t equipped for life the way Earth is, Evans noted. Venus, which has 92 times the atmosphere that Earth does, is 870 degrees both day and night because of “runaway greenhouse gasses.” Mercury has no atmosphere at all and temperatures from 300 degrees below zero to 800 degrees above zero, as measured in Fahrenheit. “Miraculously, we live on this Blue Marble,” Evans said.

Weather is not climate, but weather is dependent on climate. Evans likened that to using a 10-foot leash to walk your dog from point A to point B in your local park. The dog does circles and stops and sniffs, “but ultimately you are leading the dog,” Evans said. “Weather follows along with what the climate is doing, but there’s a large variation in what weather can do. As climate warms, the dog’s leash is getting longer, and so we will see more variations and more extremes.”

If emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is a problem, so is emitting methane, which is 25 times stronger, and nitrous oxide, which is 10 times stronger than methane.

There are also natural drivers of climate change, Evans said. One’s called eccentricity, the shape of the Earth’s orbit, which is elliptical. That works in 100,000-year cycles. Another is the tilt of the Earth, which operates in 41,000-year cycles. In addition, there’s axial procession by which the Earth wobbles like a spinning top that’s slowing, which follows a 26,000-year cycle. All three impact climate, as does the “great ocean conveyor belt,” but that process takes a millennium. Plate tectonics is another contributing factor, but that takes millions of years. “They are all way too slow to account for what we are seeing now,” including the recent news that July has been declared the hottest month in recorded history.

While we’ve seen devastating flooding in Vermont, record temperatures in cities around the world and the ice mass in Greenland steadily decreasing, what concerns Evans the most is the dwindling volume of ice in the Antarctic Sea. “It’s so abnormally low that scientists who specialize in studying it don’t know how to account for it,” Evans said.

Ocean water near the Florida Keys has recently topped 100 degrees. “I can’t overstate how much energy it takes to warm up the ocean,” Evans said. That warming can have devastating impacts on marine life, Evans said.

There are hopeful signs, too. Deforestation in the Amazon River basin has dropped 34% under Brazil’s new president. Nearly 500 American communities now officially support emission reductions and climate mitigation. Egypt is set to build the largest wind farm in Africa, and for the first time last year, European Union wind and solar projects generated more electricity than gas-fired plants. In this country and elsewhere, the demand for electric cars is booming. U.S. sales are expected to leap 35% this year after a record-breaking 2022. Gross Domestic Product in the U.S. is growing even as the nation is working to cut its emissions, which some climate change skeptics had said was impossible.

Dr. Colin Evans

Now many who are concerned about climate change are also fighting for climate justice, Evans said, “connecting the climate crisis to the social, racial and environmental issues that are all entangled.” He and others note that “climate change disproportionately affects those with the least amount of responsibility for the climate crisis … As an affluent country, we can take responsibility for the amount of carbon dioxide we have put into the atmosphere, and we need to hold our leaders accountable for the promises they have made.”

Evans responded to questions following the presentation. He told one attendee that “many climate scientists are of the opinion we won’t reach any [cleaner air] targets without some sort of air capture technology,” which unfortunately now produces more emissions than it’s able to extract, Evans said. Still, it’s “game-changing level technology that a lot of people are working on.”

Another asked: What are the mental health effects of climate change, especially among young people?

“It’s a really important topic,” Evans said. “Generation Z is increasingly concerned about climate change, and we see phenomenal young leaders emerging who are talking about this. … They are looking at temperature records being broken almost daily, and it can cause a lot of anxiety. It’s something we as humanity are going to have to grapple with.”

Presbyterians for Earth Care is a national eco-justice network that cares for God’s Creation by connecting, equipping and inspiring Presbyterians. PEC is responding with a church-wide conference, “The Climate Crisis & Empowering Hope,” which will be held at Massanetta Springs Camp + Conference Center   in Virginia Sept. 20-23 and at satellite gatherings in Arkansas, Minnesota, and California. Conference leaders are the Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and the Rev. Dr. Patricia K. Tull, an Old Testament scholar. The conference will feature 25 workshops and includes both in-person and online options. Learn more and register here.

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