February 22, 2006

Five Degrees of Warmth

1506 page22 cap?ve been following with interest media coverage of Alaska?s struggle with global warming. The stories provide a striking metaphor for how even subtle elevations in warmth can yield dramatic results. Bad news for the environment, but good news if you?ve felt a subtle cooling of the heart.

In one Alaskan village waves have washed away the school playground and claimed 300 feet of coastline, forcing many inhabitants to rebuild on higher ground. And Shishmaref is not alone. According to a 2003 study by the Government Accountability Office, 86 percent of Alaska?s villages are threatened with flooding and erosion, presumably caused by the melting of glaciers and sea ice. Scientists have studied glacial erosion by a variety of methods, in one study comparing periodic photographs taken at the same glacial sites over the past 100 years. These photographic records show that only 1 to 2 percent of those glaciers have grown, while the rest are visibly shrinking, one by 20 miles in just 95 years.

Experts suspect that all this glacial melting is the result of as little as a five-degree increase in average temperatures over the past 75 to 100 years. How serious is this gradual trend? Ohio State University glaciologist Lonnie Thompson predicts that if glaciers continue to melt at the current rate, in 30 years? time there will be no more glaciers in Glacier National Park.

1506 page22The ecological impact of those few degrees is evident beyond the disappearance of glacial ice. Ice fishers have to go farther out on ever-thinning ice to keep their families fed. Roads and pipelines are sinking in the thawing permafrost. An Alaskan beetle infestation is decimating forests, as its life cycle halved from two years to one, overtaxing the forest?s resources, resulting in camouflage-quilted acres of brown blocks upon the once-green mantle of the Alaskan landscape.

All this from a temperature change of just five degrees! Who would have thought that all this upheaval could result from such a small variance in temperature? In this particular geographic region, those few degrees have yielded dire results, while worldwide the unfolding climatic trauma of tsunamis and hurricanes is getting more than a nod of interest from those studying the long-term implications of global warming.

I have to ask myself, ?Could such a slight shift yield positive results as well?? In physical as well as social ecology? If church families, for example, were to experience a slight temperature shift, say just five degrees more warmth, in the next 30 years, what changes might we expect? While we don?t want an erosion of values, or the dilution of principle, many of us could stand to be a bit less frosty. How many glaciers of resentment, prejudice, and hurt might be melted if we were just a bit warmer to one another?

Our global or personal concerns can sometimes seem so overwhelming that we take no steps at all toward growth or improvement, our hopelessness immobilizing us. But don?t you think there would be eternal consequences if we were just a smidgen more forgiving? Slightly more kind? Just a bit more like Jesus? Not in order to save ourselves, but because He has saved us, the response of a grateful heart. Love, as Scripture admonishes, in action.

Even the scientific community has weighed in on this one: little shifts can create huge changes. Imagine the impact, on this tired old world, of millions of individual lives with hearts more warm, values held more highly, spirits more surely ablaze. Even just five degrees of warmth could change the world. And that would be good news indeed.
Valerie Phillips is an associate director of the women?s residence hall at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, where she has ministered to collegiate women for 25 years.