Why is climate change a moral issue?
[Editors’ note: This story was originally published on March 29, 2017. Click here for the latest stories on climate change.]
President Donald J. Trump has just signed measures rolling back significant parts of President Obama’s moves to protect the environment. Among other things, President Trump wants to withdraw and rewrite the Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of Mr. Obama’s policies to fight global warming. These may seem like political questions, but they are also moral ones. Pope Francis made that clear in his encyclical “Laudato Si’” in 2015. There he called for a conversion in the way we think about what the pope calls “our common home.”
Let’s consider three reasons why caring for the environment is a moral issue and why policies that fail to protect our planet are not only against Catholic teaching but are also immoral.
1. Creation is a gift from God.
All creation is a holy and precious gift from God, to be reverenced by all men and women. The call to care for our planet extends as far back as the Book of Genesis, when humankind was called to “till and keep” the earth. But we have done too much tilling and not enough keeping.
The theme of loving creation runs through both the Old and the New Testaments. In Jesus Christ, God not only became human but also lived in the natural world. Jesus himself appreciated the natural world, as you can see in the Gospel passages where he praises creation and speaks about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Basically, the world is not only holy—it is also not ours, much as we would like it to be. It is God’s.
2. The poor are disproportionately affected by climate change.
The disproportionate effect of environmental change on the poor and on the developing world is well documented. This is not simply because the rich often make economic decisions that don’t take the poor into account but because the poor have fewer financial resources to help them adapt to climate change. They cannot move, protect their houses or switch jobs as easily as the rich can.
You cannot care for creation if your heart lacks compassion for your fellow human beings.
The Gospels, Catholic social teaching and the statements of recent popes all critique the exclusion of anyone from the benefits of the earth’s goods. And in decisions regarding the environment and the use of the earth’s common resources, we are called to appreciate of needs and dignity of the poor. Remember, Jesus said that we would be judged on how we treat the poor. That includes how our decisions on climate change affect them.
3. Greed is not good.
In “Laudato Si’” Pope Francis reserves his strongest criticism for the wealthy who ignore the problem of climate change and especially its disproportionate effect on the poor. Why do so many wealthy people turn their backs on the poor? Not only because some view themselves as more “worthy,” but because frequently decision-makers are far removed from the poor, with no real contact with their brothers and sisters.
Selfishness also leads to the evisceration of the notion of the common good. This affects not simply those in the developing world but also those living on the margins in more developed countries—in the inner cities, for example. But in the Christian worldview, there is no room for selfishness or indifference. You cannot care for creation if your heart lacks compassion for your fellow human beings.
So the next time you speak to your legislator or vote about climate change, think not only about you but about the other person. Think not only about your own city but about the cities, towns and villages in the developing world. Think not only about the wealthy but the poor. In other words, think not only about your wallet but your soul.