Are we getting warm yet?

Article by Peter Koeppel, member of Trinity Memorial Church in Binghamton and the diocesan Stewardship Resources team.

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Give us all a reverence for the earth as your own creation,
that we may use its resources rightly in the service of others
and to your honor and glory.⁠—Book of Common Prayer p. 388

Let’s play a game: do you know when and where the first official weather data were recorded? 

A recent article in the Washington Post recounts the history of official land weather data: known land weather data go as far back as a station in the German city of Berlin, in 1701. North America is not far behind: the oldest known land weather data are from 1743, in Boston. That same year, the then Russian Capital of St. Petersburg also had its first recorded land weather report. But, with the majority of the Earth’s surface being water, land observations aren’t quite enough to give us a good idea of what the weather is like. Here we turn to Benjamin Franklin, who faithfully recorded the weather in the North Atlantic (as part of his study of the Gulf Stream) on his final return from Europe in 1785. And, of course, he was joined by countless ship captains, who kept faithful records of both location and weather in their log books. 

There is, in other words, a rich body of weather observations from both land and sea which developed over the past roughly 300 years. Many volunteers are currently sorting through these logs, to analyze and digitize them, making them available for analysis. From 1850 on, there are enough such weather observations available for analysis to allow the calculation of our home planet’s average annual temperature for every year since. Today, there are over 20,000 land-based stations which collect weather data.

There are some trends which are emerging very clearly from the body of data which is available for analysis:

In North America, specifically central and western Canada, and most of Alaska; all of the Arctic; much of northern Siberia; northern and central Europe; and parts of the Middle-East have already warmed up by more than 2 degrees Celsius—consistently and persistently. 

Two degrees: we hardly feel that, right? Quick reminder: we’re talking two degrees Celsius, which is 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit; I think we’d feel that. All living beings in and around the Arctic are certainly feeling it. In some locations average temperatures have increased by four degrees celsius or more—7.2 degrees Fahrenheit or more. That’s almost what makes some of our neighbors and friends spend winters in the Carolinas or Florida instead of New York State. Still, for now, the USA’s lower 48 states have seen relatively less warming by comparison. 

That uneven experience and exposure to global heating has a pernicious side-effect: if we don’t experience it first-hand, if the effects already noticeable are in locations so far removed from our own, how do we appreciate what’s happening? What is your reaction to the fires in Australia? Can you begin to imagine what it’s like on the ground, there? I see the pictures, and I fear for the people, the hundreds of millions of animals burnt alive, and then I look out the window, where there is snow on the ground, and I can’t even begin to internalize the terror of what’s happening in Australia. If empathy just doesn’t fully help us here, let’s try a different approach, then. Are the people in Australia any less our neighbors, to be loved like we love ourselves, just because they live halfway around the Earth’s globe? Is our contribution to global heating’s effects experienced by them any less significant because we live half-way around the globe from them? Or, if that still doesn’t work to rouse our sympathy, let’s look closer to home: could we connect our individual actions and contributions to global heating’s possible impact on our children and grandchildren? 

It’s a huge challenge for us to overcome individually— we, as human beings, are good at compartmentalizing (“it’s not so bad right here”) and finding excuses for inaction (”it’s just too big a problem for whatever contribution addressing it I could make”). The truth is that, as stewards of God’s creation, we are all called to make our own contributions, as small as they may be compared to the magnitude of a global phenomenon. A few people here and a few people there, and pretty soon we have enough people to, together, make a noticeable difference. 

Did you win the game and guess correctly from where many of those weather observations came, and how old they are? Okay, in case you haven’t noticed: game over! It’s time to take up our responsibility to steward God’s creation onto a path which makes living in it bearable, if not enjoyable, for our children and grandchildren. We used to observe: “A few Dollars, here, a few Dollars there, and pretty soon we’re talking about real amounts of money.” I propose that our new rallying cry be: “A  few calories here, a few calories there, and pretty soon we’re talking about real climate change!” Those of us who are parents often hope that our children will have better lives than we do; is it really too much to include in that hope keeping God’s creation livable?

You made us the rulers of creation. But we turned against you, and betrayed
your trust; and we turned against one another.⁠—Book of Common Prayer p. 370

Americans have a proud tradition of tackling tough problems and working through them. With God’s power working in us, we can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. We can figure out how to preserve a world worth living in. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and tackle global heating—the person who feels the impact of your actions first may live half-way around the globe, and you may never meet each other, but they will know whether we took the challenge to love them seriously. And if you work for a better earth for your children and grandchildren, you’ll help every living being on this earth—the fish in the oceans, the birds in the air, and every plant, animal, and fellow humans living on its surface. Go for it!


Acknowledgements: I am indebted to the Washington Post, specifically to their article “2°C: Beyond the limit | How we know global warming is real” for much of the meteorological information cited above.

Photo of polar bear by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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