The 'Biggest Unknown' of Climate Change: In Prayer With Denmark's Queen

Archbishop of Canterbury offers comfort at Copenhagen climate conference.

December 14, 2009, 11:45 AM

COPENHAGEN, Dec. 14, 2009 -- "Don't be afraid!" said the archbishop of Canterbury to the packed cathedral.

The congregation stretching out below his pulpit was led by Denmark's stately queen, Margrethe II, and a dozen clergy who included not only Lutherans but Catholic and Eastern Orthodox priests, South Africa's Desmond Tutu and two Buddhist nuns.

But it was the children at the head of the processional signaling the start of this Ecumenical Celebration for Creation -- held midway through the two-week climate summit in Copenhagen -- who had set the tone.

As the organ boomed and voices soared with "All creatures of our God and King/Lift up your voice and with us sing ..." up the aisle, two by two, the children led the adults.

In their hands they held the reasons for fear -- strange offerings for any church service.

First, held out in the cupped hands of the first three pairs of children, were pieces of dead bleached coral from the Pacific, "a symbol of rising sea temperatures, polluted, suffering and dying ocean worlds," as the program informed the congregants.

Then came three pairs of African children carrying cobs of dried-up African maize -- "symbol of drought and desertification, of failed crops, human hunger and suffering."

Then came children, each carrying stones uncovered by retreating glaciers in Greenland, "symbol of melting polar worlds, of rising sea and river levels, and loss of life-giving mountain water resources."

Recent estimates from scientists and international agencies say sea level could rise 4 feet within the next 90 years, that the oceans are 30 percent more acidic than at the start of the industrial age, and that some 300,000 people are already dying every year -- all because of human-induced global warming.

These are frightening statistics for a diverse global population, facing the idea that it has a collective ability to alter basic life-support systems of the earth itself.

So, for the theme of his sermon, the archbishop had chosen fear.

It recalled other appeals to psychological self-awareness in the face of enormous daunting tasks:

'The Biggest Unknown' Is 'What the Humans Will Do'

"Love casts out fear," preached the archbishop. "We must learn to trust one another in this world of limited resources" in order to do "what we must do to save creation itself."

The question of collective courage is at the heart of many issues debated by negotiators from 192 countries assembled for the climate summit here.

Their purpose is to agree on how humanity will, with coordinated economies and actions, do nothing less than, in effect, rewire the planet's energy system, rendering it within only a few decades almost completely free of carbon emissions.

The necessary changes to local economies and governance are frightening if for no other reason than just the magnitude of the change and the speed with which experts say humanity must achieve it all.

Climate scientists trying to project how quickly the planet may heat up say that "the biggest unknown" they have to plug in to their computer models is not data about carbon or ocean currents or sunlight but rather about "what the humans will do."

Specifically, how quickly they will agree (at summits such as this) to cooperate in slashing greenhouse emissions, and in what amounts.

So in addressing natural and universal human fears, the archbishop was talking of and to a critical element in that "biggest unknown" -- the psychological element that affects resolve and the will to act.

As the service ended and the people, holding lighted candles, spilled out into the darkening afternoon, a bell high in the cathedral tower began to ring steadily, one deep strike after another that would stop only when it had rung 350 times.

Calls for Optimism at Copenhagen Climate Conference

Other churches as far away as the western Pacific were reported to be doing the same in a coordinated effort this Sunday to raise awareness of this number.

Several climate scientists, agreeing with the calculations of American climatologist James Hansen of NASA, said that humanity must somehow get the concentration of greenhouse gas CO2 back down to 350 parts per million in the atmosphere if humanity is to avoid an acceleration of global warming that would challenge the stability of basic agriculture and water supplies worldwide.

The atmosphere's concentration of CO2 stands currently at about at 389 parts per million, scientists report.

Many countries have agreed that 450 parts per million is the upper limit to aim for.

Wandering just a few blocks from the Cathedral service, some who had just heard the archbishop joined the bustling crowds exploring an exposition set up in the main square with booths and displays offering ideas about how to fight global warming.

In the middle of the square stood a large Christmas tree strung with lights and surrounded by a dozen stationary bikes.

Each bike was hooked up to generate emission-free electricity for the tree lights.

Three young boys laughed as they tried their best on the bikes -- with only moderate success -- to get the tree lights to do more than flicker intermittently.

Then they got off, and a bearded man in his fifties climbed on and showed them how to do it.

Earnest and smiling, he got the pedals turning, steady and strong, and the tree shone bright against the dark winter sky.

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