In August of 2016, Bill McKibben wrote a piece for the New Republic entitled “A War at War” explaining the ways in which climate change is a war that is attacking our human society at every level. The climate war is “a world war aimed at us all,” he said. “And if we lose, we will be as decimated and helpless as the losers in every conflict – except that this time, there will be no winners, and no end to the planet-wide occupation that follows.”
He said that the only hope was to mobilize ourselves like we did for WWII.
As I read the article, I remember thinking that Hurricane Sandy should have been our “Pearl Harbor moment.” I had hoped that the 2012 superstorm which attacked the densely populated East Coast, destroying so much of the New Jersey shoreline and putting New York in the path of devastation, would be the wake-up call we needed. I thought this would the one event that would shake the scales of denial from our collective eyes and spur us to mobilize ourselves to fight climate change.
It was not to be.
We continued with fossil fuel business-as-usual. In fact, a year after McKibben’s article, we have a climate-change-denying president who has delivered on his promise to undo countless environmental regulations and pull our country out of the Paris Climate Accords. And he has installed a rogue’s gallery of environmental criminals within his cabinet to dismantle every possible protection against ecological felonies.
I thought the moment was still coming.
I insisted to my good friend and fellow climate activist Peterson Toscano that, like the attack on Pearl Harbor that created the political will for the U.S. to enter World War II, the moment with the war on climate was still coming. The question we were debating was how blunt we should be in warning people so that action could be taken now rather than later to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
In his Citizen’s Climate Radio podcast, Peterson did an excellent episode called “Apocalypse now? Fear and climate communication,” in which he discussed reactions to the July 2017 New York magazine article, “The Uninhabitable World” by David Wallace-Wells. In no uncertain – and frightening – terms, Wallace-Wells laid out the worst-case scenarios we will face from climate change. In response, environmentalists debated the use of fear tactics for climate communication. Some argued that such doomsday messages can undermine our efforts and cause people to resist or even deny the danger at hand. If we scare people too much, it will backfire, the argument went.
That argument seems quaint now.
In light of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and the sheer onslaught of raging fires, floods, and catastrophic weather events across this planet in just the past two months, the debate about the messaging regarding climate communication seems a moot point.
Because here’s what I’m starting to realize. We’re long past the possibility of mobilizing ourselves to combat climate change. Even the Great War metaphor is wrong. The problem with the WWII comparison is that the metaphor positions us as “the good guys” who swept in and took care of those evil Nazis and the Empire of Japan.
But we’re not the good guys this time.
We’ve been the arrogant rogue nation for decades now, insisting that we can have our way with the planet, and that others must bear the brunt of the cost. The United States has been at the forefront of launching the eco-holocaust. Imperial America has muscled its way across the earth, digging, drilling, fracking, pipelining, and toxifying the water, land, and air along the way.
And I fully admit that I have benefited from this ecological hostility. I have enjoyed my fossil-fueled lifestyle, and have not done enough to call my country to account.
So when I think about the “climate bombs” of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma – the largest, most devastating superstorms ever experienced in the United States, both dropping within weeks of each other – I cannot help but think of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
The planet is sending us a direct message: surrender.
We are not going to win this war on the climate. It has already won. There is no fighting back. We must humble ourselves and agree to the terms of surrender.
Nature is giving us a Potsdam Declaration that demands the complete disarmament of our fossil-fuel industry and the unconditional surrender of our imperialistic economy. And as with the ultimatum of that historic declaration over 70 years ago, we are being promised “prompt and utter destruction” if we do not surrender. [And what might be the terms of that surrender? Read: Planet Earth’s Postdam Declaration on Climate Change.]
We are in a humiliating position, to be sure.
And I expect to receive a barrage of negative push-back for having the audacity to suggest something so “unpatriotic.” But let me be clear – I love this country. It has been my home all my life. Nevertheless, I love this planet more.
Those who want to save their life . . .
And as a Christian, the words of Jesus keep echoing in my mind: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (Luke 9:24-25).
In other words, to save this country, we must surrender to a higher calling of humility, obedience to the dictates of God’s Creation, and radical focus on rebuilding a just and equitable society and economic infrastructure focusing on “the least of these” – those who have suffered under our oppressive reign.
We would do well to model ourselves on the wisdom of the Japanese at the end of WWII.
They did surrender. They accepted the terms of peace. It took a generation, but that nation healed and rebuilt itself without the imperialistic and militaristic structures it had deemed so necessary for its identity and pride. Certainly, Japan is not perfect, but it survived.
I, for one, am willing to surrender. I want our leaders to come to the table and accept Nature’s terms. I want us to survive. I want peace with this planet.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (Kentucky) and author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).
“A World at War,” by Bill McKibben, New Republic, August 15, 2016, https://newrepublic.com/article/135684/declare-war-climate-change-mobilize-wwii
Information about Superstorm Sandy: “Superstorm Sandy Anniversary: Remembering Hurricane Sandy Two Years Later,” by Eric Zerkel, weather.com, Oct. 29, 2014. https://weather.com/storms/hurricane/news/superstorm-sandy-anniversary-20141029#/!
“Citizens’ Climate Radio Ep. 14: Apocalypse now? Fear and climate” by Peterson Toscano, July 24, 2017, communication https://citizensclimatelobby.org/citizens-climate-radio-ep-14-apocalypse-now-fear-climate-communication/
“The Uninhabitable Earth,” by David Wallace-Wells, New York magazine, July 9, 2017, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html