“We are in trouble,” said the Secretary General of the United Nations. “We are in deep trouble with climate change.” Harley Camden felt as though his river town of Occoquan was going to be the canary in the coal mine.

In my upcoming novel Windows of the Heavens, Harley read these words in The Washington Post as he ate a burrito his townhouse kitchen. According to the story, global emissions of carbon dioxide were reaching record levels, with increases in China, India and the United States.

“It is hard to overstate the urgency of our situation,” said the Secretary General at the opening of the 24th annual UN climate conference.

“Even as we witness devastating climate impacts causing havoc across the world,” he continued, “we are still not doing enough, nor moving fast enough, to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate disruption.”

Harley felt discouraged by this story, and after dinner he went for a walk through his town, one that had recently been hit by a devastating flood. He passed a brew pub that was still being repaired, and an empty lot that had contained a candle shop—until the flood destroyed it.

Then he passed the town museum, a small stone building that had once been part of the Occoquan mill, and walked downhill to the pedestrian bridge over the river.

When Harley got halfway across the bridge, he stopped. He could hear the river rushing beneath him, a sound that was both soothing and threatening. Yes, running water was a beautiful thing, part of the music of the natural world. It sang of refreshment and cleansing and new life—that’s why Christians used water in the sacrament of baptism.

But the river also sent a message of danger and destruction and death, a theme that was equally present in Scripture.

The authors of the Bible had a healthy respect for water, expressed in the Book of Psalms when the writer cries out, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.” Nothing refreshing and soothing about that.

Harley looked over the railing at the rushing black water below, and thought of how destructive the recent flood had been. A residence had been destroyed, businesses had been crippled, and untold items had been ruined in flooded basements throughout the town.

And now, with global temperatures rising and polar ice caps melting, the rising seas were going to encroach on coastal areas around the world—including the Town of Occoquan.

Was the September flood just the first of many? he wondered. Would the destruction continue? Are the mighty waters going to wipe us out?

Harley knew that miners used to carry canaries with them when they went underground, realizing that if methane gas or carbon monoxide reached a dangerous level, the canary would die before any human would get sick.

Occoquan was the canary in the coal mine for the larger region, an early indicator of climate change danger.

Perhaps this town will be the first to go, thought Harley, when the fountains burst forth and the windows of the heavens open.

What steps do you think Americans can and should take, to arrest and reverse global warming? How can our communities avoid being canaries in the coal mine? Join the discussion through a comment below.