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Paul Vallely: Climate disaster may not just be in long term  

10 August 2018

The recent extreme weather across Europe should alert us to our fragility, says Paul Vallely

Lefteris Partsalis/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

The beach at Kineta, near Athens, Greece, after wildfires

The beach at Kineta, near Athens, Greece, after wildfires

AT LAST, the weather has broken and a refreshing coolness is blowing over the land, which has been baked and seared by a remorseless sun. It gave us an idea of what it must be like to live in the unrelenting “good weather” of somewhere like the south of France. But it also gave us a more profound insight, one that we must take care not to forget as the weather returns to something like normal.

It has not just been extremely hot here. In Spain and Portugal, it has been 40°C and higher. In Germany, crops have withered. In Japan, at least 80 people have died from excessive heat. California has had the biggest wildfires in its history — and even chilly Sweden has had 80 of them. In Greece, the fires actually drove people into the sea.

Clergymen have responded by talking, somewhat apologetically, about the old tradition of praying for rain (News, 27 July). Canon Giles Fraser was insightful on this in Thought for the Day last week. Praying for rain, he said, is easily portrayed as a superstitious attempt to manipulate the world through magical incantation — a notion on which science has proved religion to be laughably pointless. But, as Canon Fraser says, prayer here is not some alternative to science. Rather, it is a way of comprehending our own vulnerability in a world that we thought we could control. Prayer is expressive, not instrumental.

What the recent extreme weather brought home to us is that climate change may not be a future possibility so much as a present reality. Of course, it is impossible to attribute individual weather events to climate change. Science points to correlation, not causation; but prayer should inculcate in us an awareness of the fragility of the planet, and remind us that we are stewards, not owners, of creation.

An alarming report published this week by an international team of climate researchers suggested that “Hothouse Earth” might be nearer than we had imagined. It looks at ten natural feedback processes — including the permafrost, bacterial respiration in the oceans, dieback in the Amazon rainforest, loss of Arctic summer sea, and reduction of polariser sheets in Antarctica — and suggests that each has a tipping-point at which it will cease to absorb carbon dioxide, and instead release it.

Once this begins, it will be impossible to stop, like a row of tumbling dominoes. What is unclear is when this tipping-point will be reached, but they fear that it may be as soon as when global warming reaches a two-degree increase — and we are already one degree over pre-industrial levels.

Not to take precautionary action seems extraordinarily reckless. Science may suggest that to the mind, but perhaps only the intensive internal introspection produced by prayer can bring it home to the heart. And prayer is a relationship in which at least half the job is ours. There is an old joke about a man who keeps praying to God that he may win the lottery. Eventually, a voice booms from on high: “Benny, be reasonable. Meet me halfway. Buy a ticket.”

On combating climate change, we haven’t bought a ticket yet.


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