Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #192. First published in the St. Cloud Times  online and in print, July 2, 2023

Not so long ago the word in Washington, especially among conservatives, was, “Don’t say climate!” At the June meeting of the St. Cloud chapter of Citizens' Climate Lobby we heard things have changed. A local attendee at the recent national CCL meeting in Washington, DC, during which a thousand members of the organization engaged in nearly 500 meetings with their home state’s legislators, reported that “Let’s talk about climate!” is being heard everywhere in the halls of Congress.

Doing something about climate goes way beyond talking about it, but talking about it is certainly a precondition for doing anything about it, so – on the national stage there’s a glimmer of hope.

On the Minnesota scene the glimmer has become a gleam. Advances in the recent legislative session were numerous and substantial. A partial list:

  • 100 percent Clean Energy Standard, requiring electricity in Minnesota to be carbon-free by 2040.
  • Matching grants for federal funds for clean energy projects.
  • Electric vehicle rebates, dealer grants, and other electric vehicle incentives.
  • New sustainable construction materials analysis to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from concrete, steel, and asphalt in state building projects.
  • Solar for schools, and electric school buses.
  • Heat pump rebates and weatherization updates for low-income communities.
  • Energy transition grants to support communities that have long relied on retiring energy plants.

There is of course backlash. The Clean Energy Standard, which I consider to be – finally – an acknowledgment that we really are obligated to think about the welfare of future generations, is given a very different name by the right: “Blackout Bill.” “American Experiment has warned that the legislation, which requires that 100 percent of the electricity sold in Minnesota come from carbon-free resources by 2040, will force electricity prices to skyrocket and cause rolling blackouts.”

This kind of predictable fearmongering reminds me of the Principle of the Dangerous Precedent, formulated more than a century ago by the great Cambridge classical scholar, F. M. Cornford: “Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.”

There are 17 years between now and 2040. The astonishing pace of renewable energy innovation makes achievement of the 100 percent goal by that year sufficiently plausible to warrant doing this thing “for the first time.”

I’m reminded also of a memorial shield placed four years ago in Iceland: “Ok [the glacier’s colloquial name] is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.” The Iceland shield is prophetic in the most fundamental sense. It reminds us that our history and our present state will be judged by generations yet to come. “Only you know if …”

Warnings abound. There are the stark reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the most recent stating unequivocally that much more besides what has already been agreed to is required to avoid catastrophe. But given the way nations are actually responding, the IPCC is a voice crying in the wilderness. Soon after hearing the Citizens' Climate Lobby report, I read a Washington Post article, “Hidden beneath the surface,” that makes the most stunning argument I’ve ever seen for the undeniable reality of recent human disruption of the world’s climate

The Post tells about Crawford Lake, near Toronto. Its bed has a unique characteristic – each summer a mineral’s crystals fall to the lakebed, forming a thin white cap over everything that has accumulated during the previous year – like tree rings. “For centuries beyond memory, Crawford Lake has quietly absorbed signs of change from the surface world.”

Here’s the blockbuster, revealed by core samples taken from the lake’s bed: “In just seven decades [that is, since the 1950s], the scientists say, humans have brought about greater changes than they did in more than seven millennia. Never in Earth’s history has the world changed this much, this fast.” Crawford Lake annihilates any fantasy that what is happening now is just a normal fluctuation.

“Earthrise,” the photo of our planet taken from lunar orbit in 1968, has been called "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” It shows Earth’s beauty equaled by its fragility. I propose that a new poster be displayed in every school, city hall, place of worship, waiting room – indeed, anywhere you can think of: Alongside each other, “Earthrise,” taken from nearly 200,000 miles away, and a photo of a core sample from the bed of Crawford Lake, 2’3” long, revealing years from today back to the Middle Ages. Where we are, where we’ve been – for redirecting where we’re going.