Climate change is an issue of unusual complexity that requires attention, discipline and international cooperation. Unfortunately, these are exactly the virtues that are in short supply among the world’s leaders at this moment in history. In a country suffering from political paralysis, where our leaders cannot see beyond the next election cycle, climate change demands bold, far-reaching initiatives. In an international community riven by parochial disputes, climate change forces us to look beyond our borders in the interests of protecting the earth for all its inhabitants.
Under these circumstances, deciding how to respond in a fruitful way to the latest reports from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a daunting prospect. Yet to ignore it would be disastrous. The report, which was released in two final installments this spring, seeks to refocus international attention on climate change at a time when a sense of urgency seems to be flagging. The Rio+20 conference on sustainable development in 2012 was a disappointment. Legislation to limit carbon emissions is stalled in the United States. The I.P.C.C. report intends to awaken world leaders from a dangerous slumber. It states bluntly that the window for addressing the forces driving climate change is closing quickly.
The report calls attention to the global ramifications of inaction. Not only will sea levels rise and glaciers continue to melt, but climate change threatens to disrupt agricultural production and even destabilize governments. In some quarters, the unrest in Syria has been blamed on a devastating drought that provoked anger among the country’s farmers. In a recent interview, retired Army Brig. Gen. Chris King warned that for the military, climate change “is like getting embroiled in a war that lasts 100 years…there is no exit strategy.” Addressing climate change is also a matter of social and economic justice. The polluting practices of the world’s richest nations have their most pronounced effect on the earth’s poorest inhabitants.
The church has long been concerned about climate change and its effects on the world’s inhabitants. In the first week of May, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences are sponsoring a conference titled, “Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility.” The meeting will look at the intersection of environmental policy and human flourishing. “Our idea is not to catalogue environmental problems,” the conference organizers write. “We propose instead to view Humanity’s interchanges with Nature through a triplet of fundamental, but inter-related Human needs—Food, Health, and Energy—and…invite experts from the natural and the social sciences to speak of the various pathways that both serve those needs and reveal constraints on Nature’s ability to meet them.” This language may seem too theoretical to those who prefer to focus on rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels. But the church knows how to take the long view, and its focus on the human factor may help to broaden discussion of environmental policy beyond think tanks and nongovernmental organizations to religious communities. If world leaders are to undertake the ambitious steps laid out in the I.P.C.C. report, they will need the encouragement and support of people of faith.
Policymakers must now decide what action to take. In the United States, public policy solutions are undermined by public figures who question the legitimacy of climate change science. Yet as the U.S. Catholic bishops wrote in “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good,” “What we already know requires a response; it cannot be easily dismissed.” That pastoral letter was written in 2001. We cannot wait another 10 to 15 years to act upon its wisdom. The common good is a much-invoked concept in the Catholic moral tradition, but it is especially relevant to the discussion of climate change. The condition of our environment affects everyone living on the planet. Catholic schools and churches should continue to teach and preach on this issue, and if they have not done so already, conduct “green audits” and examine how they can improve their own environmental profile.
According to reports, Pope Francis plans to address the state of the environment in his next encyclical. Perhaps his unique ability to challenge people in a disarming way will mobilize more people to act. The pope has spoken eloquently of the “globalization of indifference,” and here is an issue, surely, where indifference is our besetting sin. “The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people,” the pope said at Lampedusa. How much more difficult it is to imagine the cries of people who will suffer 50 or 100 years from now. To address the challenge of climate change will require an extraordinary feat of empathy, to think not only of ourselves but of all God’s children, in this generation and in generations to come.