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Climate change and the shape of our children's lives
On February 15, two days after taking our newborn daughter home from the hospital, a historic snowstorm descended on Central Texas. While hundreds of thousands of homes across the state went dark, our little Bea breathed like she was running a 100-meter dash. Something was clearly wrong. Not knowing what to do, my wife texted a video to a pediatrician friend. Despite the weather, the friend said, “Go to the ER. Now.”
Our neighbor, a transplanted Northerner like myself, had a shovel, and he dug out our car as we frantically packed overnight bags and bundled up the baby. The tires spun on the icy street as we pulled away from the house.
Since Texas cities like Waco rarely have the salt trucks and other equipment necessary to deal with winter weather, the main thoroughfares were nearly impassible. Luckily for us, they were also empty. A red light at the top of a rise in the road forced me to stop, and when the light turned green, the tires had no grip on the pavement. For what seemed like an eternity—probably only a minute or so—I tried and failed to get over the crest of the tiny hill. Finally, I let the car slide back and sideways with enough speed to get into a gas station and, carefully negotiating the lot, made it back to the road. The trip to the ER would take three times longer than normal.
When we checked in at the hospital at around 8:30 P.M., the nurse told us that the power was out and the computer systems were down, which made pulling up charts and other typical processes impossible. The hospital was running on generators. Dozens of homeless families sheltered from the cold in the lobby—which, in the time of coronavirus, posed a threat to our vulnerable child. At almost 3 A.M. our turn finally came, and in the next 12 hours it became impossible to keep track of the stressed-out doctors and nurses from the ER and the pediatric unit who came and went. Finally, after several days in the hospital, our pediatrician sat us down and told us that our daughter had a ventricular septal defect (VSD), a hole in her heart.
Thankfully, a relatively common heart surgery can fix VSDs. After undergoing this procedure later this summer, Bea will, thank God, probably be able to lead a normal life. She will, I have every reason to believe, be fine.
But many other Texans were not fine that night. Four million people lost power, many for days on end, and, when uninsulated pipes began to burst in homes and businesses around the state, many had to go without potable water as well. At least 111 people died, deaths that can and should be attributed in part to deficiencies in the Texas power grid and policy decisions made by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). But in the last analysis ERCOT cannot control the weather. While they rightfully bore the brunt of the public’s anger and the media’s editorializing, the ultimate cause of the disaster in Texas got little press: climate change.
My daughter experienced her first climate-related disaster less than a week after birth. When that fact comes to mind, usually early in the morning or while getting ready for bed, another inevitably follows it: what my little Bea will experience in the future will be worse, possibly much worse.
Sometimes when I rock her to sleep at night, I try to imagine the world then—the world in 2100 when she is 79. Is there still enough water in the American Southwest for civilization to function, or will Bea move nearer to my family in Michigan? Can she rely on public infrastructure, or have storms, temperature swings, fires, and floods made it impossible to maintain? Miami and Amsterdam are presumably underwater ruins—what other cities have ceased to exist? Will she have the same opportunity as her ancestors to enjoy and create literature and art or have these become luxuries for a tiny elite? Is she safe from violence as scarcity and insecurity becomes facts of daily life?
Germans have a word for posterity that Americans disquieted by the prospect of a planet rendered unlivable for our children would do well to appropriate. The word is Nachwelt, literally “afterworld.” In the afterworld, I have passed on to my reward. But my daughter is still alive. She has to live with the world we have given her.
In the afterworld insurance will be prohibitively expensive because disasters happen too frequently for insurers to make any money. In the afterworld migrants from around the globe have flooded our borders hoping for help from the United States—and been turned away. Or, given the number of guns and endemic violence possible in this country in such times, perhaps Americans will be the climate refugees. It may come to pass in the afterworld that the gains our species has made in human rights, science, culture, and living standards will slowly erode, giving way to a darker time no one can yet conceive.
We can, however, catch a glimpse of that afterworld now because, in some small measure, it is already here. This summer a new climate-related disaster has hit the news cycle almost daily. Fires in the American West are the worst they have been since the advent of the U.S. Forest Service. The Great Salt Lake is drying up. Portland hit 115°F. The village of Lytton, British Columbia hit 121°F, the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada; it was wiped out the next day by a wildfire. Hundreds died or were injured in Germany and Belgium after flooding of biblical proportions.
This, of course, is only the beginning. Global temperatures are only 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels. The best-case scenario—if the entire global economy manages to achieve nearly net-zero emissions by 2050—has temperatures topping out at around 1.5°C. But that is only a very rough estimate with which many scientists would disagree. In the far more likely scenario that major countries cannot or will not take drastic action to reign in emissions, increases of between 2.5°C (4.5°F) to 8°C (14.4°F) become likely. And any number in that range would drastically alter life on earth for everyone. That everyone includes my daughter and billions of other peoples’ children.
Yet most Americans appear unmotivated to do what needs to be done to stave off the destruction of our planet. Some may assume they will be long dead by the time anything really terrible happens to the earth. If they are people of faith, perhaps they think God will whisk them away to heaven when they die. Either way, what ultimately happens to the earth and humanity apparently seems less-than-pressing to them.
I am a Christian theologian, and I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Christians do not believe that when they die they will float away to some ethereal heaven—that is, to an afterlife. We believe, as the ancient creed says, “in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” That resurrection will happen in the only place we humans have ever known, here on earth. And though the Scriptures say that God will one day make a new heavens and a new earth, nothing in Christian teaching says that God will keep humans from destroying the planet now. From a Christian perspective, we are destroying our eternal home.
Regardless of whether we believe it, this world is our home, the only one we will ever have. Unless we act quickly, a very different afterworld, one irrevocably altered by climate change, will be our children’s inheritance.