West Point Grey United Church
Jan 21, 2024

Forecast for Nineveh

Jonah 3:1-5,10 & Mark 1:14-20

When I’m not at Church, I work for a large engineering consulting firm with offices around the globe. As a consultant, we get brought in by both public and private clients to solve problems they don’t have in-house staff for. We have structural engineers who design buildings, biologists who assess fish habitat, chemical engineers redesigning cruise ship sewer systems, and so on. I am a water resources engineer. My job is usually to predict floods then help design infrastructure to withstand them. So I get to say things like, “if you don’t want to replace this bridge every 100 years, it had better be this high,” and other statements like that.

As engineers, we design things knowing that nothing is truly indestructible. There will always be an earthquake strong enough to knock down the biggest skyscraper or flood big enough to erase the most vital highway. So we build things with replacement in mind. Do we want to spend the money to make this culvert really, really big, so it will fail only once every 500 years? Or are we ok making it smaller and cheaper but replacing it every 10 years or so? 

Municipal land-use plans in BC are written based on a hypothetical flood that happens, on average, once every 200 years. The 2021 atmospheric river was that big in some parts of BC – like where it took out Highway 8 and flooded the city of Merritt. These land use plans basically say “you can’t build a house on a property that will flood once every two hundred years.” Now, that might seem like long odds, but consider: you wouldn’t be spinning a 200-segment Wheel of Fortune once; you’re spinning it every year, and every spin you have a chance of hitting  “bankrupt”. If you’re in that house for fifty years, you have just above a one-in-five chance hitting Bankrupt at some point.

While your house is probably not in a 1:200-year floodplain (I hope), you’re still rolling dice every year. It might be a “my house will be underwater once every 300 years” or “my house will collapse in an earthquake every 500 years”, but you’re still betting the odds built into the building code. 

Today’s old testament reading is from Jonah. Jonah was sent to Ninevah, modern day Mosul in Iraq, to tell them that God would be destroying their city due to their evil ways and violence. Now, that’s a very different Wheel of Fortune. The Ninevites weren’t dealing with a one-in-, say, 500 chance of their city being swept away in a flood, every segment of their wheel said Bankrupt. It’s no wonder they changed their lives so suddenly as they grasped at straws for salvation. 

We’re not Ninivites, and we’re not living in 400ish BC. We don’t have God-sent prophets smelling of Ambergris telling us that we need to change our ways. But… Something about that story still rings true today. While we haven’t been given a 40-day deadline, our chances of bankruptcy are nonetheless increasing steadily year by year. In our case, though, it isn’t the wrath of God, but a wide range of disasters of our own creation.

Climate change refers to a long term shift in weather patterns from what they once were. In the modern day, it specifically refers to the year-on-year warming the earth is currently experiencing. How much warmer depends on where you are; the Yukon is warming at about twice the rate as the rest of the world.

A warmer climate has a range of impacts. Warmer oceans make bigger storms. Warmer weather means more habitat for disease-carrying insects. Warmer winters mean melting glaciers, resulting in higher sea levels. And when the glaciers are gone, so too is a vital source of drinking water. 

I deal with climate change in my work all the time; we use outputs from a range of rigorous, well-documented climate models to estimate how much bigger floods might be in the future compared with historical data.

While shifts in climate have happened in the past – take the ice ages, for instance – how fast the climate is changing now is unprecedented. And we know the primary culprit: the increased quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, trapping the heat like a sheet of glass. 

Much like the Ninevites, we’ve been given ample warning. Our problem is that, unlike in Ninevah, where the king promptly ordered his people to change their ways, we have seen a concerted effort by the fossil fuel industry telling us that climate change doesn’t exist, the science isn’t sound, it’s not caused by carbon emissions, or that the economic impacts of action would just be too high. 

Internal documents from Exxon Mobil, the oil company, show that they knew about and had modelled human-caused climate change with surprising accuracy as early as 1977. The same company spent $20 million just between 2005 and 2013 spreading blatant lies denying that climate change exists. It’s as if another prophet, working for a sword manufacturer, saw that their business would be injured by a decrease in violence and started lobbying the king of Ninevah to do nothing. 

This year’s UN Climate Change Conference, COP28, intended to coordinate the world’s response to climate change, was moderated by an oil company executive. 2,400 fossil fuel representatives and lobbyists were in attendance; it’s no wonder the meeting was accused of being an oil conference instead of a climate conference.

Despite the astounding international scientific support for the causes of and potential solutions for human-caused climate change, politicians continue running on platforms of climate denial. Two major political parties in BC plan to scrap our current emissions-reduction targets and end subsidies for electric vehicles if elected. It truly boggles the mind.

In our reading today, the people changed their ways, and God decided not to destroy Ninevah after all. The same could be true for us. We can take action, particularly on a political level, to reduce emissions and reduce the impacts that climate change has on our world. That, or we’ll just have to keep experiencing worsening floods and droughts, tropical diseases spreading further north, and catastrophic wildfires. As for me, I’ll just keep building bigger bridges.