Humans are a remarkably ambitious species. We came to the edge of lands we could safely chart and built ships that would carry us to the unknown. When travel by water and land no longer suited us, we took to the skies. After journeying among the clouds could not sate our spirit, we turned our hearts to the stars.
But whatever it is about us that makes it so easy for us to dream, to build, to act, makes it hard for us to comprehend the consequences of those acts. We edit and shift our perception to put things in the best light.
It was not simply a desire to discover that took us to the sea and the air. It was also greed, an unsatiable thirst to own and conquer. That thirst, the conquest of the continents we found, the comforts we built for ourselves there, left their mark on the people and on nature itself. Just as the oppressed are finding their voice, the effects of climate change have grown louder over the last few decades. But 2023 felt like a shout.
The impact was everywhere. The eastern part of the country experienced unprecedented flooding. In Hawaii and the Northwest, fires did untold damage. In the Midwest, smoke hung over towns and cities. In the Southwest, places like Phoenix and Texas endured unprecedented stretches of heat. In Florida, the water temperature rose so high that it was unsafe to swim. Storms became increasingly dangerous. How great was the temptation to keep chattering, to debate messaging, to wonder what degree of alarm was most appropriate to sound. But it’s like that line from the Chance The Rapper, “This is my part, nobody else speak.” In 2023, nature called upon us all to be quiet and listen.
We are a wealthy nation, and the wealthiest among us have a disproportionate negative impact on the environment; the poorest pay the steepest price. Yet eventually all bills come due. So when the heat drove us from the ocean and the smoke forced us inside our homes, when we had to check in on relatives all over the country to see if they were affected by the latest catastrophe, what did we learn?
The apostle Paul, of the Christian tradition, once wrote to a fledging, mostly lower-class gathering of the faithful in Rome. He told them, “creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” He believed that in some mystical way the brokenness of humanity and the wounds of creation were intertwined, and that the healing of humanity would spread out and transform the Earth.
Paul knew nothing of human-based climate change. His vision for the healing of what ailed us was ultimately divine. Yet his belief got at something that scientists also know the be true: Humans and the world we inhabit are interconnected. We have consistently put our needs above those of our neighbors and the planet we inhabit, and the fire, water, wind and snow now cry out in rebuke.
I began to write and speak about anti-Black racism because I never want my children to get pulled over simply for being in the wrong part of town. I have written in favor of gun reform because I don’t want them barricaded in a classroom waiting for help to arrive. It’s my attempt to control that which I fear most. But I know there is a randomness to these horrors. Climate change is no different. Nature doesn’t make summer unbearable just to ruin vacation plans. Floodwaters do not meander around homes whose occupants recycle while venting their fury on those who toss paper and plastics into the regular bin. Nature simply reveals the wounds that we inflict upon it. Creation bears witness.
Our oldest son regards a kayak on a river as a place of refuge and reflection. During our visits to the South, our eldest daughter sits on her Nana’s screened porch as it rains, and the rhythm of the drops soothes her as she flips from page to page. The youngest two kids are the first to join their mother on a hike, leaping over puddles and scrambling up hills unafraid. For them, nature is still a place to wonder, learn and grow, but I see the relationship growing more complex.
When I asked my oldest about climate change, I was surprised to hear him and his friends mention things like the Paris Agreement, the three-degree horizon and the baneful influence of an amoral consumer capitalism. When I was a kid, my only thought about climate was when the Alabama sun would relent enough to let me play outside. Children today are learning to track not just the shifts throughout a day, but fundamental changes in what the seasons even are. My son and his friends told me, without a hint of malice, that they want to experience adulthood in an environment that is reasonably stable, without the looming threat of dangerous weather. The young now know more than they should, another element of childhood washed away in the floods.
I’m not a climate alarmist. I do not believe that the world will end because of human-based climate activity. But that raises as many concerns as it assuages. As my mom used to say, “if the good Lord should tarry,” another generation will come of age on the planet that we leave them. What shape will it be in?
This question goes far beyond whether they will be able to spend quite as many hours at the beach. It goes to their fundamental experience of life, in all its fragility. The year 2023 was nature’s testimony that something is profoundly broken. The year 2024 — and beyond — will show whether we loved anyone beyond ourselves enough to listen. Our children will bear the weight of our response.
Esau McCaulley (@esaumccaulley) is a contributing Opinion writer, the author of the forthcoming book “How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South” and an associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College.
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