September 17 2019

Missing Things: The AAR in the Time of Climate Emergency

by Mary L. Keller, University of Wyoming

Ocean, broken ice, and a sunset off the coast of Greenland

In a June 2016 op-ed for RSN, I wrote that as of 2019, when my duties as co-chair of the Feminist Theory and Religious Reflection Unit were over, I would no longer be attending the AAR in light of the unsustainable carbon budget of the travel and venues. Colleagues in the AAR and SBL wrote that my absence would be a loss to the community. Many wrote with suggestions for collective action, like implementing Mitchell Thomashow’s The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus at their respective schools.1 Catalyzed, we coordinated swift, and immediate strike actions at our colleges and universities. “You are not alone,” they wrote to me, and it was true.

I am happy to report that as a side effect of the coordinated conservation and carbon emission reduction efforts, faculty in religious studies and theology departments across the United States have restored these departments to their central role at their universities. The sea change in the US academy sparked international efforts between humanities departments that brought their research institutions to collective action. I was thrilled when Greta Thunberg, the Swedish student who began the school strike for climate movement in 2018, noted that with the spearhead actions undertaken by the audience of Religious Studies News, she was now considering returning to school on Fridays. “My microphone is working?” she asked with her wry smile.

Inspired by the moral leadership of religious studies and theology departments, hundreds of thousands of adults in the United States shouldered the responsibility, according to their abilities, of enacting swift and effective, scalable policies that are on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 30% by the year 2020 (10% reductions per annum), on track with the recommendations of Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.


Just kidding. While there are hundreds of people at the AAR/SBL who are seriously engaged in research and education regarding the existential threat and unfair impacts of abrupt climate crisis, I would wager that, like the 2.7% increase in global GHG in 2018, a carbon footprint account for the 2019 meeting will indicate an overall increase as well. We are people of our time, and collective action adequate to the crisis has not catalyzed.

A few things that have happened since my last epistle:

  • The jet stream has further disarticulated, bringing snow to Taiwan and temperatures hitting 80 degrees F in Siberia as “sister vortices” travel towards the equator, opening paths for equatorial temperatures to hit arctic and sub-arctic regions.
  • The oceans have further warmed, producing larger algal tides that debilitate marine life and intensifying the power of hurricanes and typhoons.
  • Hurricane Maria and Michael devastated Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
  • The snow cyclone bomb of spring 2019 produced flooding along the entire length of the Mississippi River, disrupting the spring 2019 planting.
  • Record hottest daytime and nighttime temperatures were recorded on several continents.
  • Mozambique has suffered mass destruction from the two largest cyclones ever to hit the region.
  • The President of the United States has declared the intention to pull the country from the Paris Accord.
  • In response to the National Climate Assessment issued in November 2018, the US administration suppressed information by removing climate science and reports of deregulation of protections from government web pages, and the President willfully elevated misinformation.
  • New research published in Science by Hebrew University of Jerusalem Professor David Rosenfeld and his colleague Yannian Zhu from the Meteorological Institute of Shaanxi Province in China report that global dimming, the reduction of the sun’s energy in the atmosphere caused by aerosol particles, was twice as strong as previously calculated. They warn that the global dimming effects of GHG have also been greater, and climate models need to be redesigned with the new dimming information. The more swiftly we reduce the concentration of GHG, the more swiftly we will experience global warming. We no longer have a win-win situation by reducing GHG. We have two bad options: Maintain our accelerating cooking by spewing more emissions in order to maintain the dimming effect of emission or cook ourselves faster with increased warming through clearer skies.

Let’s say we continue with reducing GHG emissions despite the moral paradox raised by global dimming. In pragmatic and tactical terms, as calculated by Anderson, the top 10% of the world’s emitters contribute to 50% of the global GHG production (a category of emitters in which most AAR/SBL members belong).2 The largest single factor in rapid reduction of GHG will be accomplished by the self-governance of the top 10% of carbon emitters, who need to reduce their carbon budgets to that of the average European. Anderson has also identified the 100-most responsible fossil fuel corporations as the target group for reductions at scale in a globalized economy.

The bottom 50% of emitters produce only 10% of emissions, and so for now, we don’t need to be anxious about whether or not developing nations are going to go green. With a pragmatic focus on those who produce the most emissions, what do members of the AAR/SBL consider? Let me suggest a tactical step for being public intellectuals and a transformation of the Annual Meeting.

We know that it’s going to get very religious as climate volatility accelerates. Our voices as an academic field can provide context and community to counteract the ways in which humans will give divine and demonic faces to the forces of uncertainty unleashed by abrupt climate crises. We can bolster those people in religious congregations and science communities who don’t know how to talk to each other. We can identify and resist the retreat from uncertainty already underway in religious fundamentalisms. We understand the power of story, and even understand the forces of media in telling those stories. We are lecturers with the skills to tell stories. We can initiate credible public conversations. Activist Christian and climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe urges us to talk. Behavioral science researchers have identified the five most common science denial techniques and provide models for how to effectively rebut denials by explaining what strategies the deniers are using.

Though uncertainty causes anxiety, persons and communities who look into the parameters of uncertainty grow in their feeling of empowerment, as evidenced by interdisciplinary work on scenario building.3 Those forces of uncertainty are intensified by the online imagery of horrors that lead swiftly to apocalyptic imaginings: the belly-up beached dolphins poisoned by toxic algae blooms and the rapidly spreading fungi that are melting skins of amphibians whose extinctions Elizabeth Kolbert describes in The Sixth Great Extinction (Henry Holt, 2014). In our cyborg experiences, we ride waves of anxiety and fear with the people of ecological crisis as they repeat “Oh my God” as they drive out of Paradise, California. Seriously—if we wrote a short story with those details people would tell us it was too fabricated. We hear that the damages are of Biblical proportion as ranchers survey the carcasses of their drowned cattle and pigs along the Mississippi. We hear of worlds ended as people return to neighborhoods where they can no longer recognize where their house was. Some of us have the skills for promoting community preparedness that will resist the worst of future religious violence scenarios.

How might the Annual Meeting be reimagined so that we design for collective action? Firstly, let us note that the horizon of futurity is accelerating towards us. The Fall 2018 IPCC report shook the national consciousness from its dogmatic slumber with its urgent recommendation: reduce emissions 45% by the year 2030, with zero emissions by 2050. The shock of this new timeline is buffeted daily by reports of  unprecedented events like the accelerated melting of Greenland’s ice in June 2019 coupled terribly with three feet of hail falling in Guadalajara. What does it mean to live with foreshortening futurity and accelerating extreme weather crises? This is the kind of question for which we are uniquely prepared as an academic body to consider in public forums.

Will we see transformations at  AAR 2019 or 2020 that demonstrate what a 10% emission reduction per annum looks like? Here’s my modest proposal: For 2020, anyone who hails from the bottom 50% of emitter nations gets to attend the AAR, supported by the larger membership. Next in line are those members whose careers have met landmarks including looking for a job, having a panel devoted to your book or work, being untenured, being adjunct, going to your first AAR, going to your last AAR, or participating in a hiring committee. Everyone else stays home, and the AAR plans for 2,000 instead of 8,000 people. An online AAR, the “nearly carbon-zero virtual AAR” would be available using live-streaming and pre-recorded papers, allowing online audiences to attend real time presentations. Those panels that choose to do so can upload their sessions on an AAR virtual community commons for retrieval after delivery.

Maya Lin’s multi-media, multi-platform and multi-location project “What is Missing?” is one of my closest companions these days, with her stunning memorials to the sights and sounds that are disappearing. I look at the AAR through her question, and wonder how it will face the accelerating uncertainties of our collective future. Ecologist and Professor Emeritus Guy McPherson says “In the face of extinction, only love remains.” I guess that makes this my love letter to the Annual Meeting. I’ll be missing you.


1 Mitchell Thomashow, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016).

2 See Kevin Anderson, “Response to the IPCC 1.5 degree C Special Report,” Manchester Policy Blogs, http://blog.policy.manchester.ac.uk/posts/2018/10/response-to-the-ipcc-1-5c-special-report/, originally posted October 8, 2018. Accessed April 28, 2019.

3 See, for example, Daniel Murphy et al., "Engaging Communities and Climate Change Futures with Multi-Scale, Iterative Scenario Building in the Western United States," Human Organization 75, no.1 (2016): 33–46. Available at https://www.fs.usda.gov/treesearch/pubs/50483.


Mary L. Keller is associate lecturer in philosophy and religious studies at the University of Wyoming; adjunct for African American and diaspora studies. Her ccurrent research draws from Indigenous theorizations of matter’s spirited energy to consider climate change as a feral spirit.

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