A Hostile Environment

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 12
June 25, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: The issue of climate change and the impact of severe weather have become a political hot button and a topic that can quickly boil over into fierce arguments, fueling our feelings of impotence and apathy. But we don't have to be trapped in "us-versus-them" binaries. Jesus offers an alternative throughout the gospel: Love each other.

When you are at a dinner party, or just at the water cooler at work, what could possibly be a more neutral and banal conversation piece than the weather? Many of us avoid conversations about religion or politics in polite company, leaving us with weather to dominate our conversations. We check the weather every morning before we get dressed, factoring in the chance of precipitation before deciding on what we will wear. We watch the weather ahead of an outdoor gathering like a family reunion. Weather forecasts help us make the day-to-day decisions of our lives. Forecasts also help us prepare for weather emergencies; the right weather forecast can be a lifesaver, quite literally.

A recent episode of RadioLab, a podcast from NPR, explains the history of weather forecasting, beginning with Irving P. Krick, the man credited with providing President Eisenhower with the forecast that made D-Day a success.1 Krick, however, was not popular among other meteorologists, particularly since they collaborated on the forecast, and Krick's prediction was actually incorrect. The prediction that was ultimately offered to President Eisenhower was not the one Krick favored. He was spurned by colleagues for taking undue credit.

Nonetheless, Krick gained notoriety for his weather predictions and was soon asked by Hollywood movie makers to provide weather predictions to set filming dates. Krick realized there was money to be made on weather predictions, so he left his job at CalTech and started his own consulting business providing weather forecasts to customers with a vested interest in what the weather would be. Krick primarily interpreted data from The National Weather Service, but he dreamed of a day when weather would be privatized and private companies would provide forecasts using their own data.

The podcast describes how Krick's biggest prediction was likely not about the weather, but the business end of forecasting. There are private companies today contracted to provide weather predictions for all kinds of companies, and even to city governments. While The National Weather Service focuses on predicting big storms that have national implications, private companies are testing new technology that can provide more granular types of data. In one example, a big-box store was purchasing weather reports in order to market one type of beef over another because they had learned that consumers prefer steaks on cloudy days and hamburgers on sunny days.

On the one hand, this is American ingenuity and our capitalist economic engine at work. People will always find a way to make a profit on their expertise. On the other hand, as climate change brings stronger and more unpredictable storms, it seems inherently unfair that some locations may have better weather data while others must rely on whatever data they can afford to receive. This could mean that poorer neighborhoods will not have the same forewarning of storms as their wealthier counterparts. How did something as natural as the weather become so monetized and unjust?

Courage in conviction

The Jesus portrayed in Matthew's gospel warns the disciples that they will experience persecution and rejection, but he encourages them to continue to be bold and to speak up and proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God to everyone who will hear. This kind of message was not likely to be popular with some.

Jesus preached a provocative message that caused people to question whether the institution of religion was the only way to experience God. His message was simple: God loves everyone, regardless of their political or religious status or the power or authority they have in social circles. Jesus showed that God moves in the lives of even the poorest people and that God loves even the most unlovable characters. This message was dangerous, and ultimately led to Jesus' execution.

God can persist even through death, Jesus tells his disciples. Detractors may be able to hurt you, but they cannot take your spirit. Besides, God values everyone, and we can rest assured that God values each of us as much as God values our enemies. We need not ever question our value before God, who is the final arbiter of all things.

Modeling a better world

In the mid-1980s, Karen Clark of Karen Clark & Co. developed a catastrophe modeling system that she presented to insurers as a way to predict what kind of damage was possible with major storm systems. Clark informed insurers that they were underselling their property insurance products on the eastern coast of the United States. She presented data that showed that a catastrophic storm would cause many billions of dollars of damage and that insurers would likely be bankrupted.

At the time, insurers were not terribly interested in her data or her predictions. Immediately after Hurricane Andrew ravaged Florida in 1992, Clark's company analyzed data about the strength of the storm, where it made landfall, and the number and type of properties that were likely impacted. She estimated that the hurricane had caused about $13 billion in damages. Insurers were certain that she was selling a doomsday scenario as previous storms had caused at most $3 or $4 billion in damages. As weeks unfolded and the reality of the devastation set in, however, insurers were forced to reckon with nearly $15 billion in damages. Many insurance companies were forced into bankruptcy, just as Clark had predicted almost 10 years earlier.

One might assume that having been proven right, Clark would be vindicated, and her services would be welcome in other markets. In some ways, this is true. Clark and her company are sought for their catastrophe models that can guide decision making. In other ways, they are actively ignored. She tells RadioLab reporters that her catastrophe models are not wanted in California, for instance, where her data shows that wildfire makes insurance propositions very risky. Apparently some would rather continue to build structures, live and work in places deemed highly valuable for their oceanic views or proximity to big business even if the odds are good that climate change and harsher weather outcomes will destroy homes, businesses and even claim human lives.

Changing the climate

You may be wondering what weather forecasts have to do with the good news of Jesus Christ and the coming of the kingdom of God. We are living in a time of climate change. On an individual level, many of us can offer anecdotes about how winter was colder when we were children or summers were milder. But scientists predict that we can expect much greater impacts: droughts where water was once plentiful, massive flooding in populated areas, ocean level rise as polar caps melt. Already, we've seen the impact in the form of incredible droughts in the west, which give rise to larger and more destructive forest fires, and bigger, more powerful hurricanes in the east.

We have all seen the images of families surveying the destruction caused by severe weather - children with tears in their eyes as they realize a beloved pet is gone, mothers and fathers just learning that they are now homeless. We know that the poorest among us fare the worst: those without insurance or savings to repair their property; people with nowhere else to go after ancestral homes are wiped away; or families with health concerns exacerbated by diminishing air quality.

Still, we struggle as a society with what to do about climate change, or whether it is even real. Not everyone agrees on how to interpret the evidence before us. Not everyone agrees on what counts as evidence, or what we should do about it, if anything. The problem, no matter how you feel about the topic, seems bigger than we can get our arms around. We feel powerless. How can one town or city, or even one whole state, do enough to make an impact when we can't agree what the problem really is. Stories like Clark's show how economic forces drive our decisions when there is a lack of any consensus, leaving a void of other problem-solving strategies.

Love your neighbor

The issue of climate change and its impact have become a political hot button and a topic for fierce arguments, fueling our feelings of impotence and apathy. But we don't have to be trapped in "us-versus-them" binaries. Jesus offers an alternative: Love each other. We do not have to agree on scientific theories or espouse one data set over another. We simply have to love and care about each other enough to want to protect the lives of our neighbors. We do not have to agree on politics or religion to simply want everyone to have ample warning before a storm, no matter what neighborhood they live in. Love and care for each other can and does transcend all kinds of other convictions. We can be passionate about our beliefs and love and care for our neighbors.

There are some things that we are powerless to change. Jesus acknowledged this with his disciples. Some people will simply not change their minds and they may even become violent. They may throw around accusations, name-call or seek defamation. Sometimes they may attack your livelihood or threaten you. Even so, no one can take away your value as a child of God.

If we focus on the concentrated message about Christian life, it reveals actions relevant to our age. This means finding ways to love even the most unlovable characters, sharing the wealth of resources at our disposal, and protecting the dignity of all. In a world that seeks to divide us and set us against each other, we are called to be united in love.


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