IT never feels like summer starts until the first time I go to the beach. To stand nearly naked and heavy from winter on the water’s edge, wade awkwardly into the shallows, dive under the first cold wave, taste first salt, surface and dive again to reach the calmer waters beyond, floating there until water and skin become the same temperature — this is the best way I know to belong again, body and soul, to some larger part of the planet, not just the city, not just the job. But it’s already August, and I still haven’t gone swimming.
I teach, so I spent May reading student papers. When the school year ended and I caught up on the news, California was burning, Alaska melting and the Northeast soaking. The 2014 National Climate Assessment report explained that what we’ve been thinking of as the future is happening now. Then scientists announced that the West Antarctic ice sheet had begun to split apart, so the rising of ocean waters was pretty much irreversible.
The National Climate Assessment also argued that cutting emissions would still mitigate costs substantially, but Gallup reported that 25 percent of Americans were sure all this had nothing to do with greenhouse gases. Among evangelical Christians, it was 58 percent.
Outside, the bus stops of New York City were wrapped in signs that depicted rising floods and said “Know Your Zone.” I learned that my zone is Five. Beyond this, I was unsure what to do.
At some point in June, a friend and I stood aimlessly on a Brooklyn street corner. “Dude,” I said, “New York is a beach town. We live in a beach town.” He looked around at the heavy brick buildings, the plane trees and lindens, and chuckled. I did not say, “The ocean is coming.” I knew better than to get apocalyptic.
Opinion pieces about global-warming deniers did not, though: Faith was trumping reason in America, they said. Belief in God would bring on the deluge. This didn’t help me know how to feel, living next to the rising ocean.
“Belong, body and soul.” When I want to describe what swimming in the ocean feels like, this phrase comes to me. It is from the Heidelberg Catechism. As a child, when I felt scared, I’d repeat the first question — What is your only comfort in life and in death? — and answer to myself, “That I am not my own, but belong — body and soul, in life and in death — to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
My belief in this was the bridge between my otherwise insignificant life and the universe: I was not my own, but belonged to something bigger. But it also meant I was scared a lot. Atheists, evolutionary biologists, abortionists and climate scientists wanted to tear down that bridge — or so I’d heard — by denying that the history of the planet was God’s story, not ours.
It was hard to understand who would want to do this — only arrogant people, people who presumed they could comprehend the world with merely human minds, who wanted to put their concerns at the center of the world, no matter the cost.
It sounds a lot like what everyone around me thinks now about global-warming deniers, fossil-fuel executives and the politicians who protect them. Others’ skepticism can feel like the end of the world: They must be evil, they have all the power and what can we possibly do about it?
I know to be suspicious of apocalyptic thinking, my own and everyone else’s. Numb denial of global warming will not do, but neither will helpless fear. I worry that among believers and deniers alike, blame is a way of avoiding a deeper problem, the problem of scale: How do we bridge the distance between our own seemingly insignificant lives and actions and the scale of climate change, so global and so slow?
IN Indiana, where I’m from, ocean beaches are a faraway thing, so as a child I learned to swim in a Y.M.C.A. pool. Later in life, it is easy to forget just how hard it is to figure out that you can trust the water. You must be calm and attentive exactly when you are most scared. This is why, when adults teach you to swim, they trick you. They say, “Swim to me, I’m right here” and then back up, so you learn with your body what is possible, despite what your mind is telling you. You have to trust things outside of yourself more than you trust your instincts: your parents, the floor, chairs, bicycles, water. God, and science.
That ought to help us empathize with global warming deniers, and not just among the faithful. Most evangelicals — 76 percent — don’t even believe in natural selection, but then neither do 42 percent of all Americans. It is a long journey from finding science arrogant to being humbled by it, and it’s only harder to make when you’re being blamed for the end of the world.
The summer after I lost my faith, when I first began dreaming of New York, I got into the habit of driving to Lake Michigan alone, to swim. I couldn’t yet fathom evolution and natural selection, which seemed to require more faith than the religion I’d left behind, so even though I could no longer believe in God, I had no good theory about how the world came to be.
In serious limbo, I went repeatedly to the edge of land and walked into the water. Floating until my skin was pruned, I felt my insignificance in the world next to the scale of the great lake and its long beaches, but at the same time, my actual physical connection to every molecule of it. Without knowing it, I was feeling out a new bridge between my life and the universe.
I had begun to suspect that the story I’d left behind, the religious one, was the more human-centered one, and in its own way, arrogant, assuming as it did that the ways of the universe are like human ways: houses have to have builders, paintings have to have painters, the world must have a maker.
It took many more years to start believing in evolution. I had to make a study of it, look at the finches myself, learn with my mind what I had felt in the water. Even when I knew the facts, it took a leap of faith to glimpse — only ever in moments — the interconnectedness of all life on an unfathomable scale.
It is hard to understand that the ways of the universe are not human ways. But it is hard, too, to face this ocean, so changed by us, without hiding in either fear or denial. To stay awake, active, useful, is a matter of feeling as much as knowing. You have to trust that your individual life is linked to something bigger: that you belong, body and soul, to a larger story for which you are responsible. In this, those of us who believe the science might take a lesson from the faithful. And the rhetoric that would pit faith against reason ignores the millions — all of us, perhaps — who live on both.
It is summer, whether or not I go to the beach. But soon I’ll take a train to stand on the edge of the Atlantic, walk into the ocean I fear, and trust it to hold me up. I hope it will be a small kind of prayer for the future, less mystical than pragmatic, to feel in my body what is so hard to fathom: This vast and humbling contingency that’s made the waters rise is also what makes my life matter, because other creatures — human and otherwise — will live in my wake. What threatens us is also our only comfort: It matters what we do. To swim in the ocean now is to swim into the future and know that we have made it.