[Editor’s Note: It’s summer and we’re gonna talk baseball, but not until we recognize the anguish of those who feel like they are always striking out. Lowell continues his series in “lowering the heat” on those emotionally exhausted by too little progress in creation care and environmental missions. Content in this article was first released in Lowell’s video series on Hope: “Episode 35: Targets and the Future Perfect Tense.”]
by Lowell Bliss
[Kim Cobb] had been taking these sorts of research trips for two decades, and over recent years she had witnessed about 85 percent of the island’s reef system perish due to rising ocean temperatures. “I was diving with tears in my eyes,” she recalls.
David Corn has written an excellent article this month in Mother Jones entitled, “It’s the End of the World as They Know It: The distinct burden of being a climate scientist.” When’s the last time you’ve read a piece about the emotional life of scientists? That’s the point: never! But what must it be like to be Kim Cobb, a professor at the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech, making one more trip to Christmas Island, a place you love, faithfully recording all that has been lost, fully cognizant of the projections for ocean acidification and coral bleaching?
We may be more familiar with Katherine Wilkinson’s emotional plight. Her job is to communicate the findings of scientists and to motivate the public to take action. Wilkinson “makes a distinction between denialism and bystanderism, which takes the form of people saying ‘they care about it’ but not engaging in meaningful action: ‘That’s when I want to shake people and say, ‘You know how little time we have?’ She has noticed that almost everyone in her line of work seems ‘to have one dark emotion that is dominant. For some, it’s anger or rage. For me, it’s deep grief—having eyes wide open to what is playing out in our world, and we have a lukewarm response to it. There is no way for me not to have a broken heart most days.’” I posted the Mother Jones article on my Facebook page and fairly quickly heard back from an old friend, a man who has been involved in creation care advocacy for over three decades. Dean Ohlman wrote, “As one who has been a long-time Christian creation care advocate (for 30 years), my emotions match the emotions of the scientists quoted here. Grief, anger, resignation, and wild hope flood over me willy-nilly--hope being in the minority at the moment.”
In the article, one climate scientist finally posed a question right back to Corn, the reporter: “‘What are we to do with that grief?’ Professionally coping with grief is part of the job training for doctors, caregivers, and those working in humanitarian or crisis situations. But for scientists? ‘It’s a subject rarely broached,’ she says.’"
What are we to do with that grief? Or with that anger, resignation, wild hope, rage, or broken heart—as others have described it above? We are in the middle of a series (which began here) on how to raise the heat on the as-of-yet-unmobilized public while simultaneously lowering it on ourselves, lest we burn out. In the last post, I spoke of three immediate measures for ourselves. Today we’ll begin to consider some larger paradigm shifts for the sake of emotional health and endurance. The creation care movement cannot afford to lose you, not at this critical moment.
Let’s first admit the pain inherent in our climate targets. I am of the opinion that the world has lost the opportunity of limiting warming to a 1.5 degree Celsius target. In other words, I have no hope for this target. I believe that my opinion can be scientifically argued. I believe that my hopelessness, with a little help from Walter Brueggemann and Jacques Ellul, can be theologically argued. Nonetheless, it’s where I’m at, and it’s what I feel. And I am sad about it. I have visited the Maldives. Its average elevation is one meter above sea-level. When now-deposed President Mohammed Nasheed went to the COP 15 Climate Summit in Copenhagen, he pleaded with the other parties: anything above a 1.5°C warming will result in a sea-level rise which will cause the extinction of my country, he said.
My grief also has me thinking about future climate targets. The Paris Climate Agreement, birthed seven years after Copenhagen, saw fit to mention the 1.5°C target. It was too insensitive, too despairing not to. But the Agreement holds the 1.5°C target out as an ambition. The true target is to prevent a 2°C warming above pre-industrial levels. Unfortunately, the total of all the nations’ Nationally Determined Contributions (what are called NDCs for short) does not add up to preventing a 2.5°C degree warming let alone a 2.0 degree one. And then the further bad news: that no major industrialized nation: not France, not Germany, not Canada—no country is on track to meet their targets.
So where do we go emotionally from here, when we face the prospect of coming up to a desired target only to see it recede past us beyond hope of ever reaching it again? Compelled by the love of God, the first thing we do is we make the brave statement: each 0.5 degree increase in warming is worth fighting against, because the amount of suffering of our fellow human beings, the amount of devastation of ecosystems is increased exponentially. For example, the scientists at Climate Central unveiled their “Surging Seas” project at COP 21. I caught their presentation. They know the topography of the planet coastlines and the cities that we have built along them. They also know the extent of sea level rise through the thermal expansion of the oceans—water molecules expand when heated—and from the added water from glacial and icepack melt—that is, ice that once was on land, but has now slid into the oceans. So, for example, they can map out which city blocks in San Francisco or Kolkata or Tianjin would be underwater. They also know that if average global temperatures reach a certain level, that “locks in” a certain level of sea-level rise, though there is no way of knowing when exactly that sea level rise will be experienced. To illustrate, the lead scientists had a big block of ice brought into our meeting room, the lecture hall of the National Oceanographic Society of France. “We all know,” he told us, “that this block of ice now in the room will eventually melt. We simply cannot say whether it will be completely melted in one hour or two or two-and-half.” Fair enough. “But mind you,” he said, “nonetheless the melting and sea-level rise is locked in, the moment the temperature threshold is crossed.”
If, under our current business-as-usual scenario, average global temperatures reach 4°C warming, Climate Central projects that 600 million people will be displaced and millions more affected even beforehand due to increased storm surges and flooding. If, however, we can keep warming to the 2°C target, that number of people displaced is cut by half, and if we could keep it down to 1.5, that number is halved again. Each 0.5 degree target, even if we must grieve the loss of the lower ones, is worth fighting for. We may be entering a period of great despair as it becomes, first obvious that the 1.5°C target is beyond our reach, and then when it begins to seem unlikely that the 2.0°C target is reachable. People may be in danger of . . . giving up.
Here's where an illustration from Major League Baseball may prove helpful. Orel Hershiser was a pitcher for seventeen years in the Major Leagues, most notably for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Three-time All Star, Cy Young Award winner, World Series Champ, MVP. In 1988, Hershiser set a major league record by pitching 58 consecutive innings without allowing a single run. He was phenomenal. In 1990, Pulitzer-prize winning commentator George Will wrote a book entitled Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball. He devotes a chapter to interviews with Hershiser and entitled it “The Pitcher, Orel Hershiser, In the Future Perfect Tense.”
What makes a good pitcher great? Well, catcher Rick Dempsey has a theory about what makes a good pitcher bad? Dempsey says, “There are pitchers who, when you score a run off them, you can see you’ve ruined their perfect day and they lose their competitive edge. Then the dam breaks and they give up six, seven runs.”
Will asks Hershiser if when he goes to mound in the first inning if he plans to pitch a complete game—all nine innings, all 27 outs. No, Hershiser replies. He goes into a game planning to pitch a “perfect game,” which is a complete game where no opposing batter ever makes it to first base, either as the result of a hit, a walk, or being struck with the ball. It’s a perfect game for a pitcher. In the 140 years of professional baseball, in over 210,000 games, there have been only 23 perfect games ever pitched. The last one was in 2012 by Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners. Orel Hershiser is not among those 23 pitchers who ever pitched a perfect game, but nonetheless that’s the mentality he always brought to his first pitch of a game.
So, then what happens, Mr. Hershiser, if you do find an opposing batter on first base, if as Rick Dempsey explains, a batter gets past you and you have your “perfect day” ruined? Do you lose your competitive edge? Does the dam break and then you give up six, seven runs?
Hershiser explains, “If they get a hit, then I am throwing a one-hitter.” If they get a walk, it’s my last walk. I deal with perfection to the point that it is logical to conceive it. History is history, the future is perfect.”
Consider all the targets that Hershiser can imagine: He starts with a vision for a perfect game. If a batter walks, he lost the perfect game target, but can still hope for a no-hitter. If someone gets a hit, then he can hope that the runner never advances. Hershiser hopes for what’s called a “shut-out,” where the opposing team never scores a run. If a batter scores, well then, he can hope to keep it to a one run game, or then two runs. We can end our imagining of the future perfect tense there because Hershiser finished his 1988 Champion season with an Earned Run Average of 2.26, giving up less than three runs per game on average.
This is what George Will labels the “Future Perfect Tense.” “We deal with perfection to the point that it is logical to conceive it. History is history, the future is perfect.”
The stakes are so much higher with climate change and environmental missions. If Hershiser ended up losing a game, he could always say, “That’s history; there’s always my next outing.” If the Dodgers blow the season, he could always say, as the old Brooklyn Dodgers did before him, “Wait till next year.” When it comes to climate change targets, we all need to doubly equip ourselves with the future perfect tense. Our current targets of 1.5 and 2.0 are worth fighting for, and will have been worth fighting for, if we must grieve and let them go. But so will 2.5 and 3.0 if, heaven forbid, it should come to that. Hope gives us courage to never give up. I have a modified a definition of Walter Brueggemann’s for hope: “Hope is a bold conviction about an alternative possibility for the future in and through a good, free, and sovereign God.” That “alternative possibility” is the future perfect tense, and we live into it one pitch at a time, one batter at a time, one inning at a time.