You Think This Is Hot?

When I was a kid I went to Sky Valley Pioneer Camp which emphasized roughing it. We’d start the morning with skinny-dipping in a cold mountain lake. And there were hikes. At the end of the session they would total up all the miles you had hiked and give you a certificate, and it was a great honor to get a high-mileage certificate. But what I remember most acutely from those long hikes in the hot North Carolina sun is that just when you were about at your thirstiest, when you had sweated out all the liquid you started with, some cruel counselor would yell from the rear of the line, “let’s move over to the right, boys, here comes the pink-lemonade truck.” Well of course there was no real pink-lemonade truck, but once the idea was planted in our minds, pink lemonade was all we hikers could think of for the next half hour.

How hot is it? I have just entered on my twelfth year in Chatham, and it seems to me that the heat waves are more numerous and longer now than they were when I first arrived. I sit in the sanctuary on concert evenings wondering how many people will brave the heat to hear good music. After the Gospel service a couple of weeks ago coincided with an intense heat wave, the Worship Services Committee voted to formulate a policy governing cancelling of the worship services for heat like we now consider doing for other types of weather problem.

In other years in my life, I might not want to connect any dots. Heat is what you get in the summertime, whether in my native South Carolina, or summer camp in North Carolina, or by the seashore in Massachusetts. But because I am probably a short-timer on Cape Cod – what do they call people who come from somewhere else, stay here awhile and then leave – washaways? – I wonder what the future will hold for this place I have come to love and what any of us should be doing about it.

I take my stand on science, and firmly believe with 98% of climate scientists that climate change is real and is caused in significant part by human activity in generating greenhouse gasses. The science that tells me this is the same science which makes it possible to carry in my pocket a computer thousands of times more powerful than the one which guided Apollo 11 to the moon fifty years ago.

If today’s heat wave is not a random occurrence but part of a bigger picture, what is that picture? A lot of people want to know this. I just learned about a conference called OneCape which was held at the Wequassett this past week. I didn’t attend, and nothing from that conference’s findings have been posted on line as yet. However, there is plenty of information that is posted.

The official Mass Government site has some compelling information from the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental policy. About heat waves in Massachusetts, it says

“extreme heat days are on the rise - we now experience about 5 to 20 days of temperature over 90°F each year. These higher ambient temperatures have resulted in a 1.3°C increase in annual average sea surface temperature between 1970 and 2002.”

In addition,

“Temperatures are predicted to increase by 2.1° to 2.9°C by mid-century, and by 2.9° to 5.3°C by the end of the century, with greater increases in winter compared to summer. The frequency with which heat waves (three or more consecutive 90°F days) occur are expected to increase.

Heat waves are predicted to be of particular concern and could have broad implications for:

public health


government capacities

native plants

agricultural crop.

Now it doesn’t say anything in this report about the effect of heat waves upon liberal religious congregations at the elbow of Cape Cod struggling to stay afloat and be relevant in the world. But that’s what I want to talk about in the time I have remaining. I want to raise the question of lowering the temperature. I want to suggest that we take a serious look at air conditioning this building.

Now I have less than a half-year until my retirement. I am the lamest of lame ducks. There are lots of priorities for how we spend out money and we’re going into a time of ministerial transition when you don’t know what your future financial picture looks like.

The Music Committee met yesterday and was very keen on moving forward with improvements in the audio-visual system. We talked about projectors and microphones and speakers out on the portico and recording devices that could live-stream video of the service and put the audio into podcasts. Those are all worthy expenditures to consider, and having some of them installed may help in the search for my successor.

And the thing about air conditioning is that pretty soon we’ll get to fall, and then we’ll forget about those scorching days of summer. In old-timey country music there is a fiddle tune called Arkansas traveler; it has a series of jokes associated with it. You play the tune one time through and then you stop and tell one of the jokes. The jokes always involve a traveler and a farmer. The funniest one is where the traveler sees the farmer sitting in his house in a downpour and the rain is getting right in through the roof. The traveler says, farmer, why don’t you fix your roof? The farmer says, “I can’t, it’s raining.” The traveler says, “well, why don’t you wait until it stops raining and then go fix your roof.” “Well, there’s no point to that: it doesn’t leak when it doesn’t rain.”

If we do nothing, it will quit being hot in a few weeks. Maybe my experience in Charleston would be instructive here.

Charleston’s summers are hotter, more humid and more buggy than those of Chatham, and it has a much bigger influx of tourists in the summer. I was in leadership in the congregation in the mid-1980s, when we took a serious look at air conditioning the sanctuary. There was a big structural problem. The building had been first erected during the American Revolution. In the year before the Civil War, it was updated by building new walls inside the old ones and remodeling the interior. So it had a double wall, both were brick with a veneer of plaster on the outside and inside surfaces. A structural engineer told us there was starting to be some separation between the two walls, which were not tied together very well. That engineer thought that the high humidity of the area helped keep the walls from coming apart, and if we dried out the inner wall with air conditioning, it might lead to more separation or even collapse.

I left Charleston in 1995 to go to Divinity School. On one of my last trips back, in about 2016, I happened to visit the church the day of their annual meeting. I also got my car blocked in so I could not get on to other activities after the service, but had to wait for the annual meeting to be over. It turned out that the matter they were considering was air conditioning the sanctuary, the same issue I had dealt with thirty years before. But technology had improved in those thirty years, the cost of the operation had shrunk to a fraction of its former self, and the wall-separation problem had been dealt with. The measure passed handily, and today my home church is comfortable to sit in year-round, just like every other church in that town which still survives.

You can find out pretty quickly how much it would cost to air condition this building. You can’t however, weigh that against the cost of not air conditioning. We have no way of knowing how many people don’t attend a magic show, a concert, a worship service or meeting in the Meeting House in the dog days because they are unwilling to suffer through the heat. It would have to be something you do on blind faith.

But air conditioning the Meeting House is not what I really wanted to talk about this morning. What I want to talk about is how to think about what action is appropriate in the face of climate change.

The thought-provoking article by David Roberts in the online magazine Grist back in 2014 is titled “Preventing Climate Change and Adapting To It Are Not Morally Equivalent.”

The article begins by quoting a former White House science advisor named John Holdren to the effect that our response to climate change in the future will be some combination of mitigation, adaptation or suffering. The only question is what the mix will be.

What does that mean? There are two active approaches to dealing with climate change: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is something you can do now which will diminish the amount of climate change. You can get off the grid with a home solar array. You can sell your car and take public transportation. You can buy carbon quotas. All of these have an impact on how much global temperatures will rise.

Adaptation is something you can do now or in the future to adapt to the effects of climate change. You can build a seawall in front of your ocean-front home. Or you can put the home on stilts. You can reinforce your shutters and other outer coverings to help it withstand the next hurricane. And to make it more comfortable to live as heat wave become more frequent and last longer, you can air condition the space you live in.

The first point of the article is that to do nothing is a choice. It may seem like we are not choosing when we do nothing, but if we continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere and that carbon has the effects that science has shown us, to do nothing is to make a choice for suffering.

The second and major point of the article is that the two active responses to climate change, mitigation and adaptation, do not stand on the same footing.

The reason is that carbon is global and adaptation is local. When we put a ton of carbon into the atmosphere, the effect of that action will be felt throughout the world, but not right away. Climate change is caused by the cumulative effect of all the carbon in the air. So the ton of carbon we put in the air today will not have its maximum effect for thirty years. But when it does, it will be felt universally.

“By emitting ton of carbon we are, in a tiny, incremental way, harming all of humanity, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.”

And conversely, if we don’t emit that ton of carbon today, if we mitigate the effect of our fossil-fuel lifestyle here in the first world, we will benefit in a tiny way all of humanity especially the poorest and most vulnerable. We here in the affluent nations will only feel a tiny portion, one seven-billionth of the benefit, because the benefit is spread equally across all humanity. Mitigation is fundamentally altruistic, benefitting other much more than the people who sacrifice to do it.

In fact, this description understates the altruism, because the effects of emitting or not emitting a ton of carbon are not fully felt for thirty years. So in refraining from putting that ton of carbon into the air today, you are benefitting a person in a poorer country who may not even be born yet.

What about the other strategy, adaptation? David Roberts writes:

“Adaptation is nearly the opposite. It is action taken to protect oneself, one’s own city, tribe, or nation, from the effects of unchecked climate change. An adaptation dollar does not benefit all of humanity like a mitigation dollar does. It benefits only those proximate [that is, nearby] to the spender. A New Yorker who spends a dollar on mitigation is disproportionately preventing suffering among future Bangladeshis. A New Yorker who spends a dollar on a sea wall is preventing suffering only among present and future New Yorkers. The benefits of adaptation, as an iterative process that will continue as long as the climate keeps changing, are both spatially and temporally local.”

Spending on adaptation, in other words, reinforces existing inequalities of wealth and power. The benefits of adaptation accrue to those who can pay for them.

That’s the larger moral picture. Mitigation is clearly a morally superior motive for addressing climate change. To the extent that we can wean ourselves from fossil fuels, we will do more good for the whole world today and for future generations than making it more comfortable to sit in our building for worship, entertainment or activism.

Yes, but. But. An argument can be made that the future of the earth will be benefitted from the survival of groups like this congregation and from the use of a building like this as a community meeting space. A lot of our activism now and in the future may be done online, if the Internet survives, but there will still be a role for in-person meetings in getting things done, and here in Chatham, this has been for the last two decades the Meeting House.

As a physical venue, as a gathering place, it has some disadvantages. It has very little parking of its own. It is a bit of a hike from the heart of the commercial district.

But it is also attractive visually, it is in a prominent, visible location, its dimensions, size and physical layout are well-suited to presentation of music, lectures and discussions.

Among its minuses, you’d have to put that several weeks a year, it is just a very hot and uncomfortable place to gather in. And that period of several weeks coincides with the biggest inflow of summer visitors, so that when programming here could be attracting a maximum number of those visitors, it is not.

Several years ago the UUA at the national level boiled the secret to growing a church down to three letters – RFV. That stands for Repel Fewer Visitors. If we had a sanctuary which was a refuge from the heat of the town, if people thought of this building as like a movie theater, a way to get out of the sun for a cool hour or two, we might start to see interest increase.

Granted, this way of thinking goes against the grain of many of us here. We are Yankees, we are made for suffering. We are cut out of tough stuff. Though Unitarianism and Universalism both arose as rejections of Calvinism, there is something of the Calvinist personality underneath our liberalism, a personality which says suffering is virtuous and is the way to heaven.

And if course it may be that if we actually look into the cost fo air conditioning the sanctuary, it will be so clearly out of the question financially that this whole discussion is moot. But as an expenditure item, air conditioning is a bit different from paying a minister’s salary or retiring the mortgage. People can envision the physical benefits of air conditioning easily and a fund-raising effort towards that end would give people a chance to open their hearts and their wallets to a cause with immediate benefits to them as well as future generations.

But what about mitigation? What about solar panels on the roof or at ground level? It’s not to say we can’t mitigate, but this particular adaptation is more directly tied to the future of this institution. And that is typ0ical fo the choices we are facing in climate change from now on.

I am going to chill out now; I fear I may have overheated this issue. I have raised the question of lowering the temperature. I am only the minister, and only for a few months longer. My job on this hot August morning is to give you some things to think about in the future direction of this fine congregation. You will have to take it from here.


Reading for You Think This is Hot?

From “Preventing Climate Change and Adapting To It are Not Morally Equivalent.” by David Roberts, Grist, Sept. 16, 2014

Climate hawks are familiar with the framing of climate policy credited to White House science advisor John Holdren, to wit: We will respond to climate change with some mix of mitigation, adaptation, and suffering; all that remains to be determined is the mix.

It’s a powerful bit of language. It makes clear that not acting is itself a choice — a choice in favor of suffering.

But in another way, Holdren’s formulation obscures an important difference between mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions to prevent climate effects) and adaptation (changing infrastructure and institutions to cope with climate effects). It makes them sound fungible, as though a unit of either can be traded in for an equivalent unit of suffering. That’s misleading. They are very different, not only on a practical level but morally.

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​Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham
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Chatham, MA 02633

(508) 945-2075

Open Minds — Loving Hearts — Helping Hands

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PO Box 18​​
Chatham, MA 02633

(508) 945-2075 

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