Climate Ethics

With the publication of the report of the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it should now be clear to everyone that climate change is one of the most serious ethical issues facing humanity in the 21st century. Even President George W. Bush, after almost a decade of denial, has used the dreaded words “climate change.” The facts speak for themselves.

The Costs of Climate Change

China’s glaciers are diminishing each year. If they disappear, where will the 250 million people who depend on their meltwaters get water during the dry season? The water supplies for the cities of Lima in Peru and Santiago in Chile also depend on meltwaters from glaciers in the Andes.


Australia is now in the grip of a severe drought that is most probably due to global warming. Will there be enough water to support the population of Perth or Sydney? A rise of one meter in sea level would make it impossible for over 30 million Bangladeshis to live in the delta area of their country. A significant rise in sea level will inundate many cities around the world, including those on the east coast of the United States, and create a torrent of environmental refugees.

It is obvious from reading a summary of the I.P.C.C. document that the 2,500 scientists who compiled the report have done humanity a great service. They have made it clear beyond reasonable doubt that there is a direct relationship between burning fossil fuels and climate change. In the past few months the economist Sir Nicholas Stern has added his voice to the debate. He argues that global warming constitutes the greatest failure of market economics. From an economic perspective alone, it is crucial that we take remedial action immediately.

Stern argues that if we address global warming, the cost will be only 1 percent of the global gross domestic product. If we take no action for another 10 or 15 years, however, the cost could be 5 percent to 20 percent of global G.D.P.

The Ethical Values at Stake

At the U.N. climate change conference in Nairobi in November 2006, almost all discussion of climate change cited scientific, political and economic data. Rarely were core ethical values invoked, values that should govern any human activity, particularly a destructive one like emitting greenhouse gases. Unless these ethical issues are addressed, individual nations will continue to seek their short-term economic gain no matter how it affects the global common good.

A fundamental ethical principle calls for identifying those who bear responsibility for the damages caused by climate change. A nation cannot use the excuse of minimizing the cost to its own economy as an ethically acceptable reason for failing to take action on greenhouse gas emissions that affect the entire planet. Yet this was the reason that President George W. Bush gave for withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol that his predecessor had signed.

If I were to persist in pouring a substance into another person’s house that makes it impossible for people to live there, I am sure that reasonable people would quickly conclude that what I was doing was morally wrong. My excuse that this action was necessary for my economic growth would not be morally acceptable. I would be required to desist immediately and compensate my neighbour for the damage I had done. Rich countries, which are mainly responsible for releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the past 200 years, should be obliged to pay compensation for climate change damages that are unavoidable. In a spirit of global solidarity, these nations are also morally bound to make resources and new technologies available to poor communities so that these countries can adapt and enjoy a decent standard of living without adopting the polluting Western model of development.

Who Pays?

When it comes to allocating the cost of global emissions among nations, “the polluter pays” principle is consistent with the demands of distributive justice. This means that there is an ethical imperative on every nation to try to promote sustainable development policies. Faced with the disruption that climate change will bring, every nation, especially industrialized countries, must assume responsibility for cutting carbon emissions. On the other hand, poor countries need to increase their carbon output so that their citizens have access to the basic necessities of life.

President Bush and others have used the excuse of scientific uncertainty with regard to climate change to avoid cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Once again, this excuse contradicts basic ethical norms. When there is a possibility that an activity, in this case burning fossil fuels, will cause great harm, then the precautionary principle dictates that governments take measures to avoid harming other nations.

While the level of denial in relation to climate change is diminishing, some still believe that new technologies will solve all our problems. The fact is that there is now no adequate technology to capture and safely store carbon. The only way to proceed at this point is to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The I.P.C.C. estimates that we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent to 80 percent by the year 2030 to stabilize greenhouse gases.

Religious Concern for Creation

On the theological level, as Christians we are called to care for God’s creation. Climate change is upsetting the natural cycles upon which creation—animal, plant and human—depends. Sometimes we forget that we humans depend on the natural world for almost everything.

Religious faith calls us to care for others, especially those who are most vulnerable. We know that climate change will have a severe impact on the poor, the very people who did least to cause the problem in the first place. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document Global Climate Change, A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good (2001) accurately analyzed the future impact of climate change. Unfortunately, the bishops did not directly challenge the morally questionable course of action on greenhouse gas emissions being pursued by the Bush administration.

In the Magnificat, Mary tells us that God’s mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear him (Luke 1:50). Each generation is called to hand on to the next generation a world as fruitful and as beautiful as the one it inherited from parents and grandparents. Unfortunately, the complete impact of climate change will take decades and maybe centuries to unfold. Future generations will not thank our generation for making the world a less hospitable place for each succeeding generation to live in.


A Stronger Catholic Response

Unfortunately, the Catholic Church—in its diocesan structures, religious communities, development agencies and Vatican offices—has not taken the lead in educating people about climate change and what actions must be taken to avoid it. The Catholic Church in Australia is an exception. In November 2005 their bishops’ Committee for Justice, Development, Ecology and Peace published an excellent document called Climate Change: Our Responsibility to Sustain God’s Earth. Given the potential disasters facing humanity and the planet, climate change should be a central pastoral priority for every parish, diocese, religious congregation and the Holy See. Christian churches working together with people of other faiths—Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists—could create a moral climate that would make it easier for political leaders to urge the necessary sacrifices that this generation must make to protect creation for all succeeding generations.

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11 years 4 months ago
It is good to see America consistently address environmental issues and particularly climate change. However, I take exception to Sean McDonagh's article in the June 18-25 issue. He certainly is right that the Australian Catholic Community has the issue of climate change on their list of public policy priorities. But for years, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has voiced its concerns about climate change, particularly its impacts on the poor at home and abroad. Both Bishop John Ricard and Bishop Thomas Wenski--as past and current Chairmen of the USCCB's International Policy Committee--have written Congress and the Administration on the issue and urging action that will enhance the ability of the world's poor to adapt to this looming crisis. John Carr, Secretary of the Department of Social Development and World Peace testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on behalf of the bishops in early June citing similar concerns and urging federal action. The bishops' conference also supports the work of the year-old Catholic Coalition on Climate Change which partnered with state Catholic conferences to convene stakeholders on the issue this Spring in Florida, Ohio and Alaska. This month, over 70 diocesan social ministry leaders spent two full days in Milwaukee learning about climate change, the policy priorities of the bishops and discussing ways to implement climate change programs in their dioceses. Finally, efforts small and large in dioceses and parishes are being discovered all the time. Truly leadership is emerging within the Catholic community. While the U.S. Church may not have the public flash of the Australian Church, it is hard to deny the significance of past activity and the promise of even greater efforts in the next few years. Daniel Misleh Executive Director The Catholic Coalition on Climate Change.
9 years 2 months ago
features various increasing reviews


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