Growing up on a family-size dairy and poultry farm in the ‘40s and ‘50s, I became aware of environmental concerns when my father helped establish the county-wide soil conservation district to promote what we would now call sustainable farming. At the country church nearby, spiritual attention was paid to caring for the earth and the good things placed upon it. It was clear that as humans we are stewards of the resources at our disposal.
Much later, I became a senior faculty member in the Department of Biology at Indiana University, trained to evaluate scientific findings and draw the best conclusions possible from the available data. Early in my graduate work, I had learned to measure carbon dioxide levels in experimental systems by determining the amount of infrared (heat) radiation absorbed by those systems.
Through the years I lectured about photosynthesis to various classes, and I found that I had to keep changing the numbers regarding carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere as the level went from about 300 ppm to over 390 ppm today. Objects remain at a constant temperature when the energy going in exactly balances the energy leaving. That is elementary physics.
The sun’s energy continues to strike earth in an essentially unchanged amount. That is the energy coming in. Because of the elevated carbon dioxide levels, more of the infrared radiation from the earth’s ground surface is now trapped by the atmosphere and therefore less energy leaves. Simple physics can predict the result. The earth would be expected to warm up.
Though there is much day-to-day and regional variation, there is ample evidence that the earth’s temperature is rising and that much of the rise is the result of the carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere. Climate modelers (and their work is not just simple physics) find that increased temperatures on earth should lead to more extreme weather conditions — and of course that is exactly what the world is experiencing.
So what should concerned citizens — especially those who belong to a faith tradition that places creation care, care of our environment in a high position — be doing? Just having these facts available is not enough to change behavior, of either individuals or many governments. For those of us in the Midwest, this summer’s drought and excessive heat have brought us a close-to-home impact that has gotten our attention. But what should we be doing? Group action is essential, but major group action will occur only if many people step up to help lead.
Faith communities in Indiana have banded together to form Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light (HIPL) and affiliate groups are forming all over the state of Indiana. We can reduce our carbon footprint rather dramatically by paying serious attention to minimizing the heating and cooling needed for our homes. HIPL has made this easier by designing a Task of the Month strategy whereby each month there is a different manageable task to accomplish (e.g. sealing cracks around windows, insulating water heaters and turning their temperatures down, installing programmable thermostats, etc.) Personal transportation is a big energy user, so parking the car as much as possible by biking, using public transportation, moving to locations close to employment or enjoyment and so forth pay real dividends.
Personal commitment will not do the whole work. We must encourage our legislators at all levels to recognize the importance of limiting carbon dioxide emissions for the wellbeing of humanity on earth and elect those who are willing to put this item very near the top of their agendas.
Dr. Al Ruesink is a Co-Convener of Earth Care, the Bloomington affiliate of Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light. As well as being a Professor emeritus from Indiana University Bloomington’s Department of Biology, he is a long-time member and lay leader in First United Church in Bloomington.