The Ethics of Energy Choice: On the moral demands of environmental policy
The next few months will be critical for the development of a new national energy policy in the United States, which is arguably the most important issue on our national agenda. There are two reasons for this. First, large amounts of energy are vital to every facet of our modern lives; second, the environmental impact of energy use is global in scope and has reached a crisis stage. The latter point has been made clear in recent calls for action to address global climate change by many leading scientific organizations, including the National Academies of Science and Engineering.
An important ethical obligation should be a central consideration in the formulation of any new national energy policy. Here I examine the advice being given to the administration in light of this ethical obligation and describe significant new initiatives taken by Christian churches, like “The Catholic Climate Covenant” with its “St. Francis Pledge to Protect Creation and the Poor.”
At an Energy Crossroads
We in the United States, and our friends in other industrialized countries, have been traveling down an energy road that is coming to an end. The intensive energy system and lifestyle we have built on fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas and coal), which serve as a model for the rest of the world, will not “scale up”; there is no way to extend them to developing countries. A consideration of China, India or developing countries in Africa and South America makes this clear.
Per-person energy consumption rates in China are still about one-sixth those in the United States, but let us imagine they rise to our level. China’s catching up alone would require roughly a doubling in world energy production rates. Even the most ardent petroleum-supply advocate would admit that resource limitations do not allow for such a doubling. Additionally, were China to reach our per capita fossil fuel consumption level, the resulting increase in world carbon dioxide emissions would be catastrophic in terms of global climate change.
This inability to “scale up” our current energy system and lifestyle to include the rest of the world points out an important ethical obligation: it is not ethically acceptable that our current energy use requires less-developed countries to remain in poverty; nor is it acceptable that our carbon dioxide emissions bring about global climate change that will be particularly harmful to the poor. The ethical conclusion that follows from this analysis is profound. A new U.S. energy policy must take into account the welfare of all seven billion people on earth.
In recent years the rationale for United States energy initiatives has most often been expressed in terms of narrowly defined self-interest. Such an approach is flawed from the start, and the resulting policies have widened the gap between affluent and poor countries. We need to build an energy system and lifestyle that can be extended to developing countries. A new U.S. national energy plan should move us toward an energy system that “scales up.” To do anything less is to ignore our responsibilities to the populations of developing countries and to future generations, including our own children and grandchildren.
Elements of a New National Energy Plan
What is the solution? Organizations like the National Academies of Science and Engineering, the National Resources Defense Council and others have advised the new administration primarily to expand energy conservation and to develop renewable energy.
A major energy conservation effort plus the use of renewable energy technologies like wind and solar would “scale up” for use by developing countries. The enormity and sustainability of these energy forms mean that our use does not preclude our neighbor’s use. Use of renewable energy also avoids to a great extent the production of the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change. If energy use in the United States and other industrialized countries were based primarily on renewable sources, that system could be adopted by developing countries. Then if China reached a per-person energy consumption rate equal to that of the United States, it would not pose catastrophic environmental problems.
In a lecture at Miami University this year, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, addressed the energy and environment topics he covers in his new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded. He likened the folly of continuing down our current energy path to pouring money into typewriter research and development after society had entered the computer era.
A major change of direction is now required because expansion of the status quo is both unsustainable and unethical. The scientific community’s advice to wean the nation off fossil fuels and move it onto renewable energy sources would, of course, satisfy both problems.
What Faith Communities Can Do
“Our religious communities are deeply important...almost the only institutions left in our society that posit some goal other than accumulation for our existence here on this planet,” writes Bill McKibben in God and the Environmental Crisis. A prominent American environmentalist, McKibben believes that religious communities have an important role to play in societal energy and environmental matters and in the development of a national energy plan. The role of churches and religious organizations follows from the ethical nature of energy and environment stewardship.
Religious organizations have long recognized the moral issues associated with food; “feeding the hungry” is a corporal work of mercy in the Christian tradition. Local congregations and regional and national organizations are taking part in a variety of efforts to address global climate change. These include educational activities to increase awareness of the problem, concrete steps to reduce consumption of fossil fuels in churches and their institutions, and development of a “Caring for God’s Creation” element within the liturgy.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other organizations, like California Interfaith Power and Light, have sponsored a series of meetings focused on global climate change that have given birth to an impressive nationwide program of activities.
In particular, the Catholic Coalition for Climate Change, established in 2006 under the auspices of the U.S.C.C.B., announced in April “The Catholic Climate Covenant” and “The St. Francis Pledge to Protect Creation and the Poor.” The covenant and pledge bring the Catholic social justice tradition to bear on the current energy and environmental crisis. In making the pledge, dioceses, parishes and other organizations will promise to:
• pray and reflect on the duty to care for God’s creation and protect the poor and vulnerable;
• learn about and educate others on the reality of climate change and its moral dimensions;
• assess their participation in contributing to climate change;
• act to change their choices and behaviors contributing to climate change;
• advocate Catholic principles and priorities in climate change discussions and decisions, especially as they have impact on the poor and vulnerable.
At the international level, Pope Benedict XVI has shown leadership in addressing energy and environmental issues: “Today the great gift of God’s Creation is exposed to serious dangers and lifestyles which can degrade it. Environmental pollution is making particularly unsustainable the lives of the poor of the world…. We must pledge ourselves to take care of creation and to share its resources in solidarity” (Statement for the World Day of Peace, January 2008).
The Vatican has also completed an installation of 2,400 solar panels atop the Paul VI Audience Hall. These provide electricity to the hall and surrounding buildings; any excess feeds the electrical grid. Earlier, the Vatican cut energy consumption in St. Peter’s Basilica by 40 percent, principally by upgrading the entire lighting system. Such leadership could motivate other churches and religious groups to reduce their own carbon footprint.
Increasingly, religious activism on energy and environment is grounded in serious scholarship at the interface of religion and ecology. In a lead article in Reflections (Spring 2007), the journal of Yale Divinity School, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim wrote: “A many-faceted alliance of religion and ecology along with a new global ethics is awakening around the planet.... This is a new moment for the world’s religions, and they have a vital role to play in the emergence of a more comprehensive environmental ethics.”
A new U.S. national energy plan should move us toward a future energy system that is sustainable and “scales up.” It could be adopted by developing countries. Such a plan, based on a noble vision and purpose, would also serve as a unifying cause, which is sorely needed today in the United States and throughout the world. Concrete initiatives like “The Catholic Climate Covenant” and “The St. Francis Pledge to Protect Creation and the Poor” enjoin the churches to play an important role in education; they also encourage the implementation of a national energy policy based on concern for others throughout the world.