By George P. Nassos
Earlier this month, I participated in the International Orthodox Theological Association 2023 Conference held in Volos, Greece. It consisted of about 400 participants from 45 different countries. Almost all of the presentations were theological based but there were very few based on the environment, one of which was mine. Below is a summary of the presentation I gave at this conference.
Have you ever wondered what the earth was like before humans inhabited it and started to change it? The earth consisted of trees, flowers, fruits, vegetables, birds, animals, soil, water and fish. The trees produce thousands of blossoms in order to bear fruits. The blossoms would eventually fall to the ground and enrich the soil. The birds would eat the fruit and the seeds fall to the ground to produce more trees. Animals eat the plants and other smaller animals, and when they die they become food for another animal or deteriorate and fertilize the soil. Basically, God designed nature to sustain itself without producing any waste. Then humans came on the earth.
The environment continued to be in excellent condition until the past century or two. The natural resources continued to provide the necessary requirements for everyone. The availability of fresh water for everyone continued in quality and quantity. And the human population was of reasonable size having no detrimental effects on the environment. However, despite all these positive attributes of the environment, there appeared to be a decline in the condition of the atmosphere, particularly since 1950 when this decline started to accelerate.
In 1988, James Hansen, then Director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, gave a testimony before Congress about the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. For the past two centuries, the concentration was relatively constant at about 280 parts per million (ppm), but his studies showed that since the industrial revolution the concentration has been increasing. Hansen presented a warning that if the concentration exceeds 350 ppm, the world is going to be in trouble. His presentation caused some action to be taken.
In 1992, the United Nations formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and over 200 nations met in Rio de Janeiro, Argentina to plan how to mitigate this problem. Five years later, in 1997 the IPCC met in Kyoto, Japan and developed the Kyoto Protocol, a set of objectives for these nations to reduce carbon emissions 60-80% below 1990 levels by the year 2050. But they also decided that we couldn’t wait until then to see how we are doing, so a simpler goal was set to reduce emissions by only 5% within 15 years. This should not be a problem but what was the result? In 2012, carbon emissions did not decrease by 5% but rather increased by 58%.
Despite the Kyoto Protocol and a subsequent IPPC meeting, Paris Agreement (Paris Accord), in 2015, most of the countries are not doing enough to meet the goal of a maximum increase in temperature of 1.5°C. Today, the two greatest emitters of CO2 are China and U.S.A. with 27% and 11%, respectively, of total global emissions. It is critical that these two countries, along with other large emitters, have implemented plans to reduce emissions.
Since 2005, Germanwatch e.V. in Bonn, Germany, has been tracking the climate protection performance of 60 countries and the EU which are responsible for 92% of all carbon emissions. This Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) assesses these countries in four categories: greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, renewable energy, energy use, and climate policy. In its ranking, Denmark, Sweden, and Chile are ranked four through six. According to the CCPI, no country is worthy of being ranked one, two or three. The two largest carbon emitters are ranked relatively low. China is ranked number 51 with a 38.8% performance while the U.S.A. is ranked number 52 with a 38.5% performance.
While China and the U.S. are making some efforts to reduce carbon emissions, more important is the growth of their respective economies which increase carbon emissions. Since it appears that we cannot depend on our government to meet the Paris Accord, we will have to depend on the corporate world, NGOs, our churches, and we the people to take some necessary steps to reduce these emissions. These increases in emissions have been responsible for droughts, massive forest fires, and an increase in hurricanes and major storms. The rising temperature has increased the melting of glaciers and ice sheets which are causing rising ocean levels. Cities like Miami Beach are already preparing for the rising water levels that have already contaminated some of its fresh water reservoirs.
The most recent report by the IPCC indicates that we must end the use of fossil fuels to prevent what the report calls an “unlivable world”. Most of the countries are not fulfilling their pledges, but even if they did, we would not limit global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. Everyone needs to take action to avoid a future “unlivable world”. The Orthodox Church can set an example for everyone by taking appropriate action. Every parish should form a Care for Creation ministry to establish action items for the parish and its members. This can include the use of renewable energy, reduce water consumption, minimize food waste, increase recycling, and provide environmental seminars. It is important for the hierarchs to take the lead and ask parish priests to follow through with the implementations.
In 2020 the world experienced the outbreak of Covid-19 which led to many detrimental impacts on everyone. However, there was a positive result caused by Covid-19. Each of the four major environmental issues improved. Carbon emissions were reduced due to less travel and the shutdown of large buildings. The consumption of our natural resources was reduced due to more efficient purchasing and less waste. Water consumption decreased primarily due to less industrial usage. And population growth slowed because many young married couples are reconsidering whether to have children in this declining environment and dating of young singles decreased. This improvement of the environment may be a signal sent by God telling us we can still have a good life without destroying the earth He created for us. We must follow through and continue to improve the earth.