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'All hands on deck': Climate crisis coming sooner than targets project

Richard Miller II, PhD, of the Department of Theology, stands in the shadow of the Acropolis during a recent global symposium on climate change.At a major international symposium on climate change in Greece this summer, Creighton University theology professor Richard Miller, PhD, climbed aboard a bus for a 30-minute ride and found himself seated next to a high-ranking official from the Vatican, a man with the ear of Pope Francis.

“It was someone I had been hoping that I could talk to and there he was,” said Miller, who was invited to a symposium called by Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church. “And so I took the opportunity. I updated him on the latest scientific papers on sea-level rise and the existential threat to the poorest and most vulnerable people of the world.”

Miller explained that we face an unprecedented global emergency and that all institutions must be willing to respond in unprecedented ways to protect the planet.

“It is unjust to not communicate to people the risks they are being subjected to,” Miller said. “If you’re putting someone at risk, you have a duty to inform them of the risk and they have to assent to those risks. It becomes a matter of procedural justice.”

Finally, Miller shared with the official an idea that he had proposed to Veerabhadran “Ram” Ramanathan, PhD — who spoke at Creighton in February and is the climate scientist who represents the Vatican at international climate negotiations — regarding communicating the science, the economics and the theology related to climate change.

The Vatican official agreed on the merit of the proposal and Miller and Ramanathan are collaborating on this project.

Meanwhile, Miller, “as a matter of conscience,” continues to try “to leverage whatever power I have to create conditions for the societal shift to rapidly move off of fossil fuels and avoid the mass death of human populations and the mass extinction of species.”

In July, Miller spoke at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego in a lecture titled, “Mobilizing the Pillars of Society to Address the Planetary Emergency.”

“The theorist of political power, Gene Sharp, maintains that all leaders and power structures depend on the obedience of the public to maintain their power,” Miller said. “Analogous to the way concrete pillars hold up a building, pillars of society allow a system of power to remain in place. These pillars of society include universities, religious communities, respected institutions of civil society, businesses, media, etc. After deliberation, there was agreement among the group to adopt my basic proposal, led by universities and religious communities, and use San Diego as a test case for cities around the country.”

In September, Miller was invited to the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, convened by California Gov. Jerry Brown.

“The summit took on the tenor of an abbreviated United Nations summit,” Miller said, with climate scientists and advocates from around the world.”

Given the dire prognostications of a UN climate study released on Oct. 8, the urgency has been renewed, Miller said, and targets have been more immediately brought to the fore, even as the U.S. distances itself from climate action.

Miller cited the work of Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, PhD, a German theoretical physicist and founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Schellnhuber gave a presentation at the conference in Greece showing that even holding to the 2-degree Celsius rise in global temperature considered the guard rail in the Paris Climate Agreement, there is still the chance that this warming could trigger processes by which global temperatures eventually rise by 4 to 5 degrees Celsius, with sea-level rise up to 200 feet higher than levels today.

“That’s unimaginable,” Miller said. “At that level, Schellnhuber argued in another venue, the carrying capacity of the Earth could be reduced to 1 billion people. This is why we need all hands on deck to move as rapidly as possible to a target of 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

Miller said while the Paris Agreement on climate has targeted 2050 as a crucial date to achieve net zero emissions globally, it is important to realize that under prior international agreements developed countries need to have deeper emission cuts much sooner.

The developed world being most responsible for the problem, its wealth and technological capacity can immediately reduce emissions. Additionally, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report assumes carbon dioxide could be pulled out of the atmosphere later in the century, a technique depending upon unproven technologies that could cost anywhere from $85 to $535 trillion over the next 80 years. The world GDP today stands around $74 trillion.

“The assumption conceals the carbon reduction challenge and allows people of influence to diminish their responsibility for rapidly reducing emissions now,” Miller said. “When we drop that assumption we only have two more years to emit carbon dioxide at our current level. So when states, cities, even universities latch onto the 2050 date they do not seem to be aware that the real date is 2020.

“Most people appreciate that climate change is happening, but they have not yet internalized the gravity of our situation. That’s what needs to happen. The first step is what Pope Francis recommended in his Encyclical Laudato si’: ‘Our goal is … to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.’”

Towards that end, Miller said there’s overwhelming public support in the U.S. for moving to renewable energy.

“Coming off carbon and moving to renewables, it’s doable,” he said. “Because we have squandered the past 25 years, it’s going to take a World War II-type of mobilization to avoid leaving the students we serve and our children a hellish situation of resource driven conflict that will continue to escalate for centuries until the earth reaches a new state, a hothouse earth inhospitable to human life.”

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