Epiphany: Bitter Cold while the House is on Fire
David R. Weiss – January 29, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #9 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
First, a minor mea culpa: I’m distracted these days by intense bargaining as steward for the Hamline University Adjunct Faculty Union. My intent is to begin shaping these weekly posts into a larger inter-connected arc, but the pace and passion of our bargaining is making that difficult these days. If you’re curious about what I mean, check out my first and second blog posts on that. Otherwise, let’s talk Epiphany and climate change.
The Feast of Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the Magi to see the baby Jesus. It marks the end (the Twelfth Day) of Christmas and ushers in the beginning of the season of Epiphany, which runs until the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Because the visit of the Magi is usually seen as representing the revelation (i.e., the “epiphany,” the “showing”) of the Christ child to the nations, during the rest of the season in the church year we consider other ways Jesus is revealed from baptism to transfiguration.
But right now I’m thinking and writing about climate change and how it’s being “revealed” in this season as well. Right after Christmas I wrote about “shouting ‘Fire’ in church.” Then just last week 16 year-old climate activist, Greta Thunberg, in a powerful speech delivered to some of the world’s wealthiest at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, declared, “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.” I couldn’t agree more.
And yet, as the memes on my Facebook page and the headlines in multiple news stories announce, it will be colder in many places here in the Midwest these next few days than in Antarctica. Not surprisingly, President Trump weighed in on this via Twitter: “In the beautiful Midwest, windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded. In coming days, expected to get even colder. People can’t last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Waming [sic]? Please come back fast, we need you!”
Well, what gives? On one level this is simply a matter of confusing weather (immediate, short-term atmospheric conditions) with climate (weather considered as a pattern over a long period of time). A short spell of intense cold weather does not cancel global warming any more than one cloudburst undoes a months long drought. Weather will always show much more variability than climate. And certainly, our perceptions register weather far more easily than climate, but to confuse the two as our president likes to do, becomes increasingly inexcusable as the stakes of climate change escalate. The man tweets the way Nero fiddled while Rome burned. (Irony: while the tale of Nero fiddling as his capital city went up in flames is almost certainly fictional, the image aptly describes exactly what our president is—in fact—doing.)
But there’s more than mere misunderstanding at work here. This bitter cold spell is quite likely related to global warming. It provides all the more evidence that, as Greta puts it, “our house is on fire.” The polar vortex is the more or less disc-shaped swirl of cold air that typically sits atop the arctic. The polar vortex always demonstrates variability in both its strength and position; the stronger it is, the more it remains centered above the pole. When it weakens, it allows the cold air gathered at the top of the planet to roll southward in a much colder than usual blast of winter air. And the accelerating loss of arctic sea ice—and the general warming of arctic land and water—weakens the polar vortex. The result is that cold arctic air is held much less “secure” at the pole … and is much more likely to be drawn down into the Midwest—exactly as we’re experiencing this week.
So, while we shiver under dangerously cold temperatures this week (although just for several days) the planet overall continues to warm—dangerously and unabated. Indeed much of the rest of the world is rather wilting as we alternately boast-bemoan our January temperature plunge. Some parts of the arctic have warmed so much overall that there are places on Baffin Island in northern Canada where the ground is now exposed—free of ice—for the first time in at least 40,000 years (over 100,000 years by some estimates). And since the arctic is warming at a rate two to three times the rest of the planet, it’s quite possible that as we lurch toward a much hotter future, we’ll also be visited more frequently by the frigid air of a polar vortex knocked off balance on a warming planet.
As a recent piece in the Atlantic reported, “2018 was hotter than any year in the 19th century. It was hotter than any year in the 20th century. It was hotter than any year in the first decade of this century. In fact, with only three exceptions, it was the hottest year on Earth since 1850. Those three exceptions: 2018 was slightly cooler than 2015, 2016, and 2017. The past four years, in other words, have been the four hottest years ever reliably measured.” Let that sink in. Of the past 168 years, the four hottest have just happened. Right in a row. And—because our current polar vortex spill across the Midwest is little more than a blip on a big planet across an entire year—odds are good (read: bad) that 2019 will make it five in a row. How’s that for an epiphany?
We like to see an epiphany as the revelation of something good, as a cause for hope. But sometimes epiphany signals a truth that must be grasped—even when it shatters the world you prefer. Greta Thunberg, prophet of a climate epiphany and kindred spirit to my restless soul, concluded her comments at the World Economic Forum like this: “Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”
For those committed to denial—whether because of economic interests, the lure of first world comforts (read: developing world theft), or the sheer enormity of cataclysm aimed our way—fear and panic are going to hit at some point. But the Transition Movement is about reckoning with the reality of climate change without waiting for politicians or the wealthy to reach the point of fear and panic. It’s about choosing a different path, as individuals and (more importantly) as local communities right now. Not because that different path will “save” us. No. Rather, because that different path may allow us to build a bridge forward into a future altogether different than any of us dreamed of.
I’m convinced there is joy to be had both in making this transition and in the life that awaits us beyond it. But it’s epiphany right now. And both the bitter cold and the burning house are trying to show us something. I suggest we stop and see.
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!