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Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009 07:26 pm

Caring for Creation

Sr. Sharon Zayac joins others in the faith community to spread the word about climate change


Last October, Sr. Sharon Zayac, the director of Jubilee Farm and a local environmental advocate, was chosen to represent the Dominican Sisters of Springfield at The Climate Project’s first-ever faith community training session in Nashville.

TCP, a nonprofit organization founded by former Vice President Al Gore to increase awareness of the climate crisis, has trained more than 2,500 volunteers to script and stage slide-show presentations, much like the one featured in his Academy Award-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth.

Zayac and 140 other pastors and leaders of Christian congregations were assigned the charge of choosing from among Gore’s 400-plus slides and crafting presentations to encourage their church communities to address global warming. Gore, who personally trained the group, Zayac says, emphasized that linking faith with caring for the earth would inspire people to act.

“He knows, as a person of faith himself, that when people in congregations and churches are moved to do something, things get done,” she says. “What he asked each of us to do was to take this material and put it in the context of our faith.”

Zayac has given her presentation in various Springfield locales and last week introduced it to Sustainable Springfield, Inc., in the Dove Conference Center at the Prairie Heart Institute. Her hour-long slide show presented facts concerning climate change, debunked the issue’s common misconceptions and discussed the role of faith communities in bringing about change.

She started with science: what causes climate change? Zayac explained to the audience that the Greenhouse Effect has kept the earth’s temperatures within a livable range for millions of years by trapping some of the sun’s heat. But as humans release additional amounts of such greenhouse gases as carbon dioxide and methane into the air, she said, the atmosphere thickens and traps too much heat.

Scientists have drilled core samples of ice layers and retrieved the air content, particularly the concentration of carbon dioxide, from trapped air bubbles. They’ve been able to look back as far as 800,000 years in Antarctica, Zayac said.

“In 800,000 years, CO2 levels have never been above 300 parts per million,” she explained. “This is where CO2 is today — 387 parts per million.”

Zayac pointed to melting sea and land ice as one example of the thickening atmosphere’s effect on world temperatures. In 2008, scientists charted the lowest volume of sea ice ever on record. Since 2003, they’ve seen two trillion tons of land ice break off into the ocean.

“There’s a chance now, a 75 percent chance, that the entire north polar ice cap will be totally melted by summer in five years,” Zayac told the audience. “The North Pole itself has acted as a mirror to reflect off a good portion of the sun’s rays back into space.

“It’s been acting as an air conditioner for the whole planet. If it disappears, it will become the biggest heat sink, trapping the sun’s heat and warming the planet even more.”

If Greenland or the west Antarctic melts, she added, scientists predict that sea levels worldwide will rise nearly 20 feet.

“The map of the world will have to be redrawn,” Zayac said. “We will see the greatest migration problem in history. Over half of the world’s human population lives along coastal areas, many of them right along shorelines.”

Zayac discussed three main misconceptions of the climate crisis. The first, she said, is that scientists disagree over whether it’s a real issue. But over a 10-year period, 928 peer-reviewed articles proved scientific evidence for global warming.

The second misconception is that economic needs outweigh environmental needs. Some corporations hold that they can’t go green if they want to increase profits, continue their research or maintain jobs. But, Zayac said, this attitude is changing as state governments cancel permits for coal-fired power plants and investment and insurance companies consider environmental responsibility in clients’ portfolios.

The third misconception, Zayac said, is that it’s already too late to fix global warming. Even though 2007 data show that carbon dioxide levels increased by 3 percent worldwide over the past year, the turn toward solar and wind energy and the production of electric cars is also increasing.

Because Jews, Christians and Muslims all support the belief that a sustainable world is necessary, Zayac said, their communities are responding. They’re writing pastoral letters and study guides to urge their congregations to move toward energy sustainability and carbon-neutral lives. They’re boycotting companies that significantly contribute to global warming. They’re even developing policies for aggressive climate change legislation and short-term emission reductions.

“It’s not very hard to find evidence of faith communities’ growing involvement in the work of protecting God’s creation and doing what we can to mitigate global climate change,” Zayac said. “Mitigation is the best that we can hope for. It’s too late to stop it, but we do have the power to soften its effects.”

A number of Springfield congregations are leading the local initiative, Zayac added, including the Dominican Sisters, St. Joseph Church, First Presbyterian Church, Unity Church and the Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

Wes King, an organizer with the Illinois Environmental Council, joined Zayac at the Sustainable Springfield, Inc., meeting and asked audience members to join the advocacy organization at its lobby day at the State Capitol on March 18.

“If we’re going to stop global warming,” King said, “it’s going to require policy changes. We have to pressure lawmakers.”

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