In a culture that is dripping in irony, it is rare that cynicism is an appropriate moral stance. But, the communiqué on global climate change coming from the G-8 summit of industrialized powers requires precisely such cynicism.
The leaders of the industrialized powers declared that they intend to cut global carbon emissions in half by 2050. George W. Bush has less than one year left in office. The Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, goes in and out of power the way I go to the supermarket. British PM Gordon Brown is so unpopular he might envy Bush’s poll numbers. This collection of weak leaders demonstrated the wisdom of democracy at the summit: with leadership like this, people are right to want a change.
“No one ever stopped drinking with one last cocktail.” This bit of AA wisdom applies to all forms of procrastination. The G-8 leaders pledged the future, but the future is not theirs to pledge. They struck a moral pose, but exposed themselves as poseurs. They would have been more credible had they committed to a 1 percent reduction next year, rather than committing to a goal 42 years distant with no announced measures to even move in the direction of that goal.
One of the problems with democracy is that it is not enough to convince the governing classes of the necessity of achieving change, especially change that will require some sacrifice by voters. The voters themselves must be convinced of the need for change, and then their votes will be incentive enough to move the governing class to action. Here is where the Church comes in.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let him have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth…” (Gn. 1:26) There is an obvious moral, religious dimension to the issue of climate change. Not only do Christians believe that we humans were given creation as a trust, although this must be a spur to action. For centuries, this verse from Genesis has been used to justify human dominion over the earth, and that dominion has too often resulted in exploitation. But, the first past of the verse points to a different reality: we, too, are creatures. Our dominion over the earth is contingent upon our dependence upon the Creator. Humankind must conform its actions to the will of that Creator or risk returning to what preceded Creation: the abyss.
The centrality of the first Creation account in Genesis to our self-understanding makes this a power rhetorical tool in the pulpit. Politicians, too, can invoke this self-understanding to generate the necessary political will to attain meaningful change. No one wants to cut back, to restrict our freedom of movement, to sell the second car or avoid buying that vacation home. Voters in low-lying coastal regions, from Boston to Miami to Long Beach, have an especially critical interest in addressing climate change, an interest that corresponds to the moral dictates discovered in Genesis. Let us exploit that interest, and not the environment. Let our preachers remind their flocks: Our lives and our actions, even our second cars, are not entirely our own. The goods of the earth come with obligations to the Creator.
Michael Sean Winter