Is Climate Change Our Biggest Moral Issue?

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 68, Lent 2014

Jim Consedine

Franz Josef glacier could dwindle to a few kilometres in length by the end of this century, driven by a warming climate. Glacial ice could retreat by up to 60 percent by 2100.
The Press, Christchurch, 26 November 2013

Is the issue of climate change the biggest moral issue facing humanity at this time? I am well aware of other gigantic moral issues that we face as human beings – world hunger levels, the arms race, violence in our streets and in our social structures, militarism, racial discrimination, environmental destruction through pollution, the list is endless. These all have one thing in common. They are not universal in their disadvantages. They don’t affect everyone but rather focus on certain sectors of the human community.

The issue of climate change presents as a universal. While it will not affect everyone the same, its negative effects appear to be everywhere. The question of the heating of the very air we breathe and the overall atmosphere affects everyone. It is not only the atmosphere that is warming up – the ocean is absorbing more heat, and that is what is giving rise to an increasing spate of super storms.

Changing and volatile weather patterns should be obvious to everyone. However, too often these regular events are remembered only in isolation. Who can remember Hurricane Mitch back in 1998 – the worst storm in the Western Hemisphere for 200 years? Then there were the European heat waves of 2003 and 2006? No one who was there will forget them. And those last year in the US and Russia? And the massive floods in recent years in the US, India, China, Pakistan?

Look what Hurricane Sandy did in October 2012 to the Eastern coast of the US: to New York, New Jersey and surrounding cities, and down through the Caribbean Islands. It caused an estimated $68 billion in damage. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s warning that this is what the future is like was stark as it was real. It struck a chord in many.

What about the burgeoning forest fires in January 2014 in our near neighbour Australia, with whole states placed on fire alert? Temperatures rose above + 40 degrees C causing havoc with huge fires and widespread water restrictions. Contrast that with the ‘polar vortex’ storms which hit North America and Canada at the same time. Cold weather records were shattered in every state, with temperatures plummeting to – 40 degrees C in some parts, and consistent temperatures below – 30 degrees C for many days in some parts.

This fluctuating weather is another sign of the massive changes the climate is undergoing. The UN climate chief, Christiana Figueres, this past month has called on corporate investors ‘to move their investments out of high-carbon assets like oil and coal into assets promoting renewable energy, greater energy efficiency and more sustainable ways of doing business. The continued dangerous rise in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is in large part the direct result of past investments in energy and mobility systems based on the use of fossil fuels.’ (The Press, 17 January 2014)

A Prophet from the Philippines

Possibly no one has articulated the issue with the credibility or required urgency better than Yeb Sano, the Philippine’s delegate to the 19th UN Framework Convention on Climate Change held in Warsaw in November 2013. With a voice full of passion, he spoke not from academic papers, nor statistics nor some sense of ideology but from a breaking human heart as he articulated the huge damage that Typhoon Hayian had inflicted on his country that week, compounded for him by the loss of family members. He told the delegates,

‘Science tells us that simply, climate change will mean more intense tropical storms. As the Earth warms up, that would include the oceans. The energy that is stored in the waters off the Philippines will increase the intensity of typhoons and the trend we now see is that more destructive storms will be the new norm.’

‘Loss and damage from climate change is a reality today across the world. Developed country emissions reductions targets are dangerously low and must be raised immediately, but even if they were in line with the demand of reducing 40-50% below 1990 levels, we would still have locked-in climate change and would still need to address the issue of loss and damage.’

The reality is that despite all the evidence and the heartfelt cry of Yeb Sano, the Warsaw conference failed to deliver the necessary changes needed to stave off the pending global warming. Observers knew the conference was in deep trouble when many NGO delegates walked out in the penultimate session claiming that the conference was going nowhere in its deliberations. In the event, on the last day it cobbled together a statement which met some of the demands of delegates but which essentially failed to stop the catastrophic warming already under way. However, the deal struck will be the first agreement ever to bind all the world’s countries to curbing atmosphere-polluting greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal, oil and gas. How it will be implemented is another matter.

Moral Obligation

We have a moral obligation to protect and enhance the environment in all its aspects. Clearly, the heating of the atmosphere with its resultant rising sea temperatures and the volatile weather this produces is a moral question of the most extreme importance. Christians believe everything will be brought together under Christ in the fullness of time. (Col 1/20) This is what the Parousia is about, the second coming of Christ as referred to in the New Testament.

Most of the science is saying that because of our abuse of fossil fuels and the resulting changes to the climate, we are gradually destroying Planet Earth. But there needs to be a new economic paradigm, based on a de-carbonisation strategy and set in an ecological framework that is sustainable for future generations and includes full employment and inclusion of all. It requires visionary thinkers – but it is possible.

We can approach it from two levels. At the macro-level, the level of international action, we must demand that our government takes a stronger, more principled position than it took at Warsaw. As a nation we are still basing our future economic development largely on the pipe dream that we will find reserves of oil and gas fields off our coasts. Hence the recent contracts let to overseas conglomerates and mining companies to come and mine. This is crazy thinking. Fracking too should be off the agenda. It’s a destructive process and is anathema to right-thinking people. We need also to support more vigorously international accords promoting renewable green energy and limiting greenhouse gas and CO2 emissions. Staying away from TPPA and further ‘free trade’ pacts would also be a smart move.

At the micro-level, there are a variety of small steps we can attempt. All things are interconnected. Supporting local economic development projects including farmers and community markets, job creation for the unemployed, promoting sustainable agriculture, keeping our carbon footprint to a minimum through use of public transport and less use of private cars, taxing the rich at higher rates and using the funding for better education facilities in low income areas, making doctors more affordable to the poor. These are all areas where social justice needs to be effected and inequality overcome. The better educated the young are, the more likely they are to embrace the social change necessary. And the better the chance we have to save the planet.

Of such is the Kingdom of God in whom we trust. But as Teresa of Avila said succinctly all those years ago, ‘Christ has no body now but mine, no hands, no feet on earth but mine’. Responsibility lies with each of us.

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