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All I want for Christmas is a shared sense of urgency

As the Water Rises

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At the beginning of the year, I sat around the table with a handful of clergy and our new representative, Joe Cunningham. The congressman had invited us to a listening session. As he began his work in Washington, he explained, he wanted to listen to what worried people most. He asked if we could each share our top concern. Then, he simply listened.

We went around the room, one by one. It was a small but diverse group. Several faith traditions were represented, and we were fairly balanced in terms of race and gender. Colleagues shared what worried them most, a list of familiar Lowcountry problems: gentrification, housing costs, transportation challenges, and educational inequality. When it was my turn to speak, I knew what I had to say.

I shared with Cunningham that I was a parent and what I worried about most was what my son worried about most: the climate crisis. We read about it every day, I explained. We understand the scientific consensus, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, and the increasingly short timeline with which we have to work. More importantly, we see the changes in the Lowcountry with warmer water, stronger storms, and sunny day flooding. Yet, there is little sense of urgency. I worry about it every day, I said. So does my son. And there is nothing partisan about it. When the water rises, it doesn't stop to ask if we voted for a Democrat, a Republican, or if we voted at all. It just rises.

I appreciated my congressman's active listening. He nodded and agreed, then offered that he shared my concern both as a parent and a citizen. He also understood that making the climate crisis into yet another partisan battlefield was a recipe for inaction. We wondered aloud about how to build the necessary coalition to address a threat as great as the climate crisis. In other words, how to build a coalition of everybody.

I was encouraged by the conversation until my next colleague spoke. He used his time not to share what concerned him, but to underscore that the climate crisis did not. I listened quizzically, knowing that one day his historic church would go underwater about the same time as mine.

I thought of that conversation this week as I called my representative again, along with both my senators, to urge more robust U.S. engagement in the Conference of the Parties climate summit happening in Madrid. I called the White House, too, and asked that we recommit to the 2015 Paris climate agreement. I could hear the futility in the operator's voice. "Yeah, yeah," she said, "I'll take it down," (No exaggeration, that's what the White House operator actually said). I can't imagine a less urgent response.

Yet, the latest report of the United Nations Environment Program, released just last week, sounds as if it was written in all-caps. Global greenhouse gas emissions, it warns, have continued to increase at a rate of 1.5 percent a year over the past decade. What is needed, however, is an annual decrease of at least 7.6 percent. The report details just how quickly we are moving in the wrong direction. We've been reading reports like this year after year. Not only are their summaries getting worse, they also now include qualifying statements about how, given the complexity of collapse and our still-limited understanding, more is likely at risk than we realize. In other words, we have no clear idea how bad it is going to get.

So, I end the year the same way I began, with a deepening sense of worry. Not about the climate crisis alone, but about our general quiet in the face of it. About the ways we turn past the IPCC reports to the television page or simply drive through the saltwater to dinner or a movie.

All I want for Christmas this year is a shared sense of urgency. Because, did I mention the water just rises?

Jeremy Rutledge is senior minister at Circular Church.

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