Epiphany: Ice Out on the Himalayas

Epiphany: Ice Out on the Himalayas
David R. Weiss – February 6, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #10 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

As I noted last week, Epiphany, the feast that marks the arrival of the Magi, is about “Aha!” moments of insight. For the Magi, their epiphany was evident both in the faith that led them to follow the star and in finding the Christ child; their tale symbolic of the universal reach of God. The season of Epiphany lifts up other “Aha!” moments for Jesus leading up to his transfiguration, a classic mountaintop epiphany. This week’s news offered another mountaintop epiphany, which is my focus today.

Sometimes referred to as Earth’s “third pole” because more ice is found here than anywhere else on the planet except for the Arctic and Antarctic, the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) mountain region spans eight countries. Moving roughly west to east these glacier-capped peaks are found in Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. The fresh water in these mountains—rainfall, but especially the water stored in ice and snowpack—feeds ten major rivers, including the Indus and the Ganges. And this region is headed for “ice out.”[1]

According to a report just released (February 4, 2019) by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), even under a best case scenario (one researcher refers to it as the “miracle” scenario) in which we actually stop global warming at the “ideal” 1.50C, more than a third of the region’s ice and snow will be gone by 2100. Fully half of it will be lost if we only manage the more realistic (but still increasingly difficult) target of 20C in warming. And if we go on pumping carbon into the system at present rates, over two-thirds of the HKH region’s ice will be gone in less than a century.

Writing from Minnesota’s mid-winter deep freeze, with streets and sidewalks coated with ice—ice now covered with several inches of fresh snow (and more on the way), maybe ice-out isn’t such a bad idea. But it is. The glaciers in these mountains store water and release it seasonally. Besides being essential to the immediate ecosystem—home to 240 million people and a range of wildlife—the water that flows down from these mountains is critical for the agriculture, energy, sanitation, and water needs of close to two billion people.

The ICIMOD report hardly represents an extreme view. It was five years in the making, with more than 200 scientists representing 22 countries contributing research, and another 125 peer reviewers cross-checking it. It offers very much a “middle-of-the-road” consensus epiphany. And it is alarming—and unforgiving: climate change is driving temperature rise faster at higher elevation—and the impacts in the report are already “loaded” into the system.

If this is a facet of the climate crisis you haven’t heard of yet, that’s partly economic. 80 million of the region’s inhabitants live on less than $750 per year. Nearly all of the impacted areas would be considered parts of “developing” regions, thus rarely worth screen time or print space in our news cycle. Especially because right now it’s merely a dawning disaster. But wait until the dawn hits.

As the glaciers melt—which is a matter of when, not if—the melt will first dramatically increase river flows and threaten mountain lakes to overflow their banks in never-before-seen floods. But eventually—and that’s not a geological “eventually” spread over eons, that’s a generational “eventually” that will play out within single lifetimes—the decreased water levels will leave lakes and springs and streams starved for water. And along the way the only thing truly predictable about the lurch between flooding and barren rivers will be the ensuing chaos. Drinking water, hydro-electric power, agricultural production, human sanitation, and all the natural flora and fauna in the region will be upended. Of course, the people living in this area are among those least driving climate change, yet also among those most vulnerable to its effects. It’s an unfortunate and unjust double-membership that will be common in the coming decades.

Ultimately, when ice-out hits—whether one-third, one-half, or more—the ripple effects will reach well beyond the HKH region producing inevitable waves of migration and rounds of conflict. By then the waning of the world’s “third pole” will be rippling toward all of us.

How does this hard icy-cold, then rushing-wet, then parched-dry epiphany shape us? I suggest its primary meaning for us as individuals—as persons with limited political-corporate power—and as communities of faith is as a summons to grief. The most significant aspect of the consequences related by this study is their inevitability. We don’t know just how bad it will get, but the adjectives will range from terrible to devastating, from catastrophic to unimaginable. There is no near-miss happy ending available.

I do believe “hope” has a role to play in our response to climate change, but it is hope in a stark form that we are rarely comfortable with. Hope in the form that Václav Havel describes as “the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.” It is hope in the form that remembers that the Jesus who says to us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) is the same Jesus who ends up crucified and is pointedly clear that following him involves a cross of our own. That form of hope.

Whatever we do to lessen the impact of climate change at this point—and there is much, both personally and politically that must be done—it should be done “hope-free,” so to speak.[2] Not because we imagine ourselves heroes at the last minute (after decades of denial), but because we are determined to move toward tomorrow, whatever it brings, with more integrity than we had yesterday.

And this is the least popular and most important word of wisdom I carry: we need to tap into grief to find that form of hope. The Transition Movement is paradoxical in extreme—like Luther’s theology of the cross, which asserts that the clearest vision is that which peers through suffering not around it. In a world determined to look ever on the bright side of things (even when it’s the false side) or, at worst, to distract itself from that which we’d rather not see—in that world, the capacity to see suffering, to grieve loss (and not simply our own, but that of others—and of Earth itself), to give voice to lament—these capacities will be existentially essential. We will not survive without grief.

It need not have the last word, but like a sustained note, it will need to color all the other notes we sing for a long, long time. And so long as we avoid the soul-deep lament that the world asks of us, we are not yet singing the song that must be sung. And that’s today’s epiphany.

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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!

[1] All the background data in this essay comes from these three news reports:
www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/04/a-third-of-himalayan-ice-cap-doomed-finds-shocking-report
www.commondreams.org/news/2019/02/04/climate-crisis-you-havent-heard-even-if-carbon-emissions-fall-third-himalayan-ice
www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/02/himalaya-mountain-climate-change-report
This YouTube video offers a very brief overview as well: https://youtu.be/8bPFAEdRp8o

[2] The phrase is Dahr Jamail’s (who also references the Václav Havel quote) in an excerpt from his book, The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Destruction. https://truthout.org/articles/in-facing-mass-extinction-we-dont-need-hope-we-need-to-grieve

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