A Presbyterian scientist makes the case for climate justice

Dr. Jeffrey A. Reimer leads a workshop during last week’s Presbyterians for Earth Care conference

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Thomas Richter via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Among the many workshops offered during last week’s Presbyterians for Earth Care conference was Dr. Jeffrey A. Reimer’s thought-provoking “Carbon is changing our planet: consequences and actions.”

The author of 260 publications, Reimer is the Emeritus Warren and Katharine Schlinger Distinguished Professor in Chemical Engineering and the Emeritus C. Judson King Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. He delivered his talk from the church where he’s a ruling elder — First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley.

Reimer wove matters of faith throughout a presentation that also featured plenty of science and mathematics. For example: to illustrate how much carbon dioxide is now in the atmosphere — 420 parts per million — Reimer said that’s “21 people at a Beyoncé concert” of 60,000 people. “It is a lot. It’s very consequential, and there are things we can do to deal with that,” he said.

Not all the carbon dioxide we emit finds the atmosphere. About 23% is taken up by the oceans and 31% by terrestrial vegetation. “Natural solutions” to the CO2 problem include “tinkering with oceans or lands,” Reimer said. “The worry for us is half of the CO2 winds up in the atmosphere.”

Global warming has increased global economic inequality, and that growing inequality is being measured, Reimer noted. In Norway, global warming has increase farm activity and worker productivity. In India, it’s had the opposite effect. People are also more likely to die by suicide when temperatures are hot. At current patterns of warming, by 2050 we will see up to 40,000 more deaths by suicide than there would have been without increased global warming.

By that same year, tens of millions of people will have been displaced by rising oceans in cities including Shanghai, China; Mumbai, India; and Alexandria, Egypt. “Libya breaks all our hearts,” Reimer said. “For poor people living downstream from the dam, the results are devastating.”

Among the worries that keeps Reimer up at night is the old biblical concept of bringing about justice.

“We dig coal and we pump oil and we burn it to make our lives easier. It gives us mobility and the goods and services that make our lives feel good. Every person here has profited from that,” he said. “The problem is the profits are not shared equally with those who experience the burdens. Ask people in South America or Africa: to what extent have people flourished because of what’s happening with the environment? They will say they have not flourished.”

Dr. Jeffrey A. Reimer

“If you read the gospels and believe in Jesus Christ, and you look at the powers and principalities, you have a disconnect. What will we do?” Reimer asked.

We can start with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. “As an organization, the UN is much more representative of all voices than, for example, the U.S. House of Representatives,” he said. “The UN has voices I wouldn’t normally hear.”

Present-day technologies include low-hanging fruit, such as wind and solar energy, which “can be done relatively inexpensively,” he said. But windfarms kill birds and solar energy can take up “a lot of land.” He encouraged the people of faith in the audience and online to be careful with the appliances they purchase and to advocate against policies that result in “burning and tearing up forests.” They can also advocate for — and use — public transportation.

Decades ago, Reimer — like many of his contemporaries — found himself watching the cartoon adventures of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. Coyote “envisioned all kinds of technological schemes to catch Road Runner,” Reimer said. Invariably, the moment would come when Coyote would realize his mistake while suspended in mid-air, “anticipating exactly what’s coming next,” as Reimer put it.

“In spite of being inspired by the people I work with, there is a sense that we are untethered from what was previously our reality, and that’s really upsetting and disturbing,” he said. “We will become further untethered from what we knew that made our lives previously so productive.”

“There is a place you can go to get tethered,” Reimer said. “It’s your Christian faith, the place to get tethered to in the long run.”

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