It is Monday, January 6, 2014. Today, we mark the church celebration of Epiphany, the onset of a global warming-induced “polar vortex”, and the reopening of doors at the United States Congress.
Somehow, all of this fits together. But, first, let me break it all down.
Christmas may seem like forever ago, but a partridge in the pear tree has done the math, and “the twelve days of Christmas” only ended just yesterday. Today is the day of Epiphany.
For those of you whose neighbors have yet to take down their obnoxiously bright and colored Christmas decorations, Epiphany is the day you can finally knock on their door with righteous indignation and demand they take down that towering inflatable snowman which floods the street with 8-bit carols and somehow changes color every 37 seconds.
For Catholics and many Protestants, Epiphany marks the day Jesus was visited by the magi (aka, the three wise men). The name comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, which we would translate into “manifestation”. Accordingly, Epiphany is a celebration that God the Son was seen to be manifested in the physical form of Jesus.
The story of the magi is recounted in Matthew 2:1-12. Spurred on by a rising star, the magi made a long trek from the far east, travelling potentially thousands of miles by foot/camel. When they arrived to Jerusalem, they asked where the “child who had been born king of the Jews” was. They eventually found Jesus in Bethlehem and presented him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. If these gifts strike you as particularly impractical, that’s because they were. The point of bestowing such luxuries was to underscore the royal status of this young child, born to a peasant girl and her carpenter husband.
Matthew 2:16-18 adds a narrative layer. King Herod, who had been appointed by Caesar as “king of the Jews” and rather fancied the title, did not like the idea of some child out there who also was being called “king of the Jews”. In order to secure his position, Herod sent the atrocious order to kill every child in Bethlehem aged two years or younger.
Kill. Every. Child.
Let the sadness of that sit with you for a moment. One man’s egotism caused the death of innocent children, save for the one boy he had targeted in the first place. If only he had been open-minded about the whole thing, Herod might have seen that this one boy apparently posed no immediate threat to his worldly throne. But instead, Herod failed to see light, and the consequences were simply unjustifiable.
It is brutally cold today. From where I am in Chicago, it’s a high of -5°F (sans wind chill). This is balmy compared to what many other Midwesterners are experiencing, what the National Weather Service is calling “life-threatening” cold.
As the communications assistant for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, I can attest that cold snaps like this are tough climates for talking about global warming.
I can almost hear that perennial sneer: “where’s that global warming now?”
I want to defensively retort, “it’s complicated, you ignoramus.” But just as much as name-calling is not effective for keeping the conversation alive, dismissing something as “complicated” is not a valid argument.
So, in the spirit of making my case, here’s what we know about this particular cold snap: it is part of a “polar vortex”, the icy version of a hurricane. Usually these things like to stay put where they belong — the North Pole.
Why has this polar vortex come to visit us like an unpleasant Santa Claus? In theory, similar to how global warming will strengthen a hurricane, it also weakens the polar vortex. This year, we can attribute above-seasonal temperatures in the far north (think Canada and Greenland) to weakening this particular polar vortex. The particular problem with a polar vortex that has been compromised in such a way is that it splits and spins off in every which direction, as this NASA image (red = polar vortex) of a similar 2009 split helpfully illustrates.
Like I said, its complicated and the scientists still have to crunch their final numbers, but global warming will likely shoulder a significant portion of the blame for today’s bitterly cold weather.
2nd Session of the 113th Congress
If magi and a polar vortex weren’t enough, today marks the convening of the 2nd Session of the 113th Congress in Washington, DC.
The 113th Congress has a mildly ambitious agenda, with the debt ceiling, minimum wage and immigration being the top issues. Many voters are skeptical that the 113th Congress will even get this much done, following a historically unproductive 1st session and worse approval ratings than cockroaches.
I am not an insider, but I pay attention. My best estimation is that the 113th Congress will do little to nothing on the issue of climate change in 2014.
But, politically speaking, 2014 is far from an insignificant year for climate advocacy. It is, after all, the year of midterm elections, and many of our elected officials are up for job review, while some dark horse candidates are eyeing the title of “Mr. Representative” or “Mrs. Senator.” There just might be a key candidate or two who stakes a claim on the issues surrounding climate change.
These key candidates could come from either party. Building a political coalition is an iterating game of capture the flag, and the Democrats of late have let their guard down on the issue of climate change. It may still be firmly in their possession, but it appears to be free for the taking.
If the 2014 elections produces a handful of legislators who have promised to deliver on climate change, then the 1st session of the 114th Congress in 2015 may see the passage of a significant bill that deals comprehensively with climate change.
This would be doubly significant, for whatever leadership we exert at home we can exert on the international stage as well. Taking place in December 2015 will be the highly anticipated international climate negotiations in Paris, where representatives from all nations will try and patch together some sort of global agreement to a global problem. If the United States has cleaned up our act at home, then (past sins notwithstanding) we can influence the negotiations through a position of moral leadership. Talk about leverage!
Of course, I am not saying this will happen, just that it could.
Epiphany, 2014 edition
As the story of the magi make clear, power and wisdom do not always get along. But when power and wisdom do meet, as I suppose it was always intended they do, the result is a beautiful duet.
The infantcide at the hands of King Herod is an example of power rejecting wisdom. The message of the “wise men” was so unbearable for King Herod that he would go so far as to massacre children in the vain pursuit of proving it false. Power, without wisdom, becomes reckless.
But it could easily go the other way as well. Imagine, for a hypothetical second, that the magi make their thousand-mile trek, only to discover that there was no king to be found. As disappointment set in, the return journey would have been full of finger-pointing and bickering (“Balthasar, I knew you couldn’t be trusted with the star map!”). And so wisdom, without power, becomes jaded.
Yet, what truly happened is that wisdom found power, and power accepted the gifts of wisdom. This is what we celebrate during Epiphany, that nearly magical scene where the magi discover Jesus, who is all at once divine king and child.
The fact that today’s cold snap is somehow related to global warming might strike some as counterintuitive, perhaps as counterintuitive as a child having the power of a king. But, just like magi watching the skies for a sign, hundreds of thousands of scientists worldwide are making measurements and crunching numbers. The conclusion they have reached may at first be discomforting, especially for those of us who benefit from a fossil-fueled status quo.
However, on a day like Epiphany, where we celebrate God manifested into the world, does it make any sense to fear? Why should we fear doing what is right, when righteousness has taken on flesh and has promised to walk beside us? Will the Representatives and Senators currently in power, and the voters who put them into positions of power, be ready to accept the gifts of wisdom? (Here’s a fantastic TED talk from one Republican legislator who did; unfortunately, his constituents did not.)
I hope that I do not come off as someone using the name of God to endorse a particular political policy! In today’s political spectrum, I could see the solution ranging from a “small government” carbon price scheme to a “big government” cap-and-trade. When I speak of “wisdom” I speak not of the nuts and bolts of solving the problem, but of the courage to first, see that there is a problem, and second, strive to do something positive about it.
Global warming is a new and startling reality. Our response should not be to grasp vainly onto the vapor of a status quo, but to embrace the new challenges that come with global warming. These new challenges include (but are not limited to) transitioning into a clean energy economy, reducing the carbon footprint of individuals and communities, and adapting to the effects of global warming that are already here.
We have the power to do this. If we want it, the wisdom is there too.
This is Epiphany, 2014 edition.
Bonus for friends in warmer places: photos of all that darn snow
Granted, snowfall and temperature are not entirely correlated. But you get the gist of it.
Disclaimer: nothing in this post necessarily reflects any official position of any organizations I work for or otherwise am associated with. If you find something disagreeable in what I said, let me know and I’ll take the heat. (Like, literally. It’s cold outside.)