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Ethics and climate change – as Christians, we are all called to be stewards of God’s creations

Climate change is one of the most serious ethical issues facing humanity in the 21st century. The facts speak for themselves. China’s glaciers are diminishing each year. If they disappear where will the 250 million people who depend on their melt waters get water during the dry season? The water supply for the cities of Lima in Peru and Santiago in Chile also depends on melt waters from glaciers in the Andes.

In 2007 Australia was in the midst of a 1000-year drought which is, most probably, due to global warming. Will there be enough water to support the population of Perth or Sydney?

A report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in April 2007 predicts that “Australia will be hit by more frequent and intense heat waves, bushfires, floods, droughts and landslides as global warming causes the temperature to rise during this century.”

The IPCC report also predicts that a rise in sea levels is virtually certain to cause greater coastal inundation, erosion and loss of wetlands. A significant rise in sea levels will inundate many of the cities of the world and create a torrent of environmental refugees. A rise of one metre in the sea level would make it impossible for over 30 million Bangladeshis to live in the delta area.

Climate change will cause horrendous pain to hundreds of millions of people, which is why it ought to be one of the priorities of an organisation like the St Vincent de Paul Society, whose members are dedicated to helping those who are less well off in our world.

Climate change could also cause the extinction of one third of the species of the planet. According to Tim Flannery, who won the 2007 Australian of the Year for his work in raising the profile of environmental issues, “visitors travelling to Queensland by 2050 may see the Great Stumpy Reef,” because of the impact of climate change on coral reefs. Australian scientists believe that climate change could cause a loss of 88 per cent of Australian butterfly species’ core habitat.

No wonder the chief scientist to the British Government, Sir David King, believes that climate change is a greater threat to humanity and the earth than terrorism. Another scientist, Sir John Haughton, believes that it is a weapon of mass destruction.

Many economists are now saying we must take urgent measures to stabilise the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which is one of the main causes of global warming. Sir Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist with the World Bank, has stated that global warming is the greatest failure ever of market economics. According to him, if we tackle it now by lessening our dependence on fossil fuel, it will only cost about one per cent of the global gross domestic product (GDP). If we leave it for another 10 or 15 years it could cost in the region of 5-20 per cent of global GDP.

Behind these figures lies not just the death of possibly hundreds of millions of people, but the fact that the earth will be a less hospitable place to live in for each succeeding generation of humans. I was an observer at the UN climate change conference at Nairobi in November 2006. I noticed that almost all the negotiations around climate change quoted scientific, political and economic data but seldom mentioned the core ethical values involved in any human activity, particularly a destructive one like emitting greenhouse gases.

This is a shame because many profound ethical questions can be obscured by scientific and economic arguments about various climate change proposals. Unless ethical arguments are addressed individual nations will continue to seek their short-term economic gain no matter how this affects the global common good, especially poorer countries.

One of the first ethical principles is identifying those who are responsible for the damage caused by climate change. This principle states that a nation cannot use the excuse of minimising the cost to its own economy as an ethically acceptable excuse for failing to take action on greenhouse gas emissions that affect the whole planet. This is the reason the Bush administration in the US and the Howard government in Australia gave for not signing up to the Kyoto Protocol, even though they are two of the chief polluting countries on the earth.

If we reduce the issue to manageable proportions the moral implications of climate change become more evident. For example, if I persisted in pouring a noxious substance into another person’s house which made it impossible for them to live there I am sure that reasonable people would come to a number of conclusions very quickly. Firstly, that what I was doing was morally wrong. Secondly, that my excuse that it was necessary for my economic growth would be brushed aside. Thirdly, that I should desist immediately. Fourthly, that I should pay compensation for the wrong I had done. Rich countries, which are mainly responsible for releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the past 200 years, are obliged to pay compensation for climate change damages that are unavoidable. In a spirit of global solidarity they 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.

Carbon trading is questionable, not merely on ethical grounds, but on economic and ecological grounds as well. In essence buying carbon credits, which the Irish government is doing to the tune of €270 million to meet its Kyoto commitments, is paying others, poorer people, to clean up our mess. Keith Bradsher highlighted a number of scams in an article in the New York Times on 21 December 2006 entitled Outsize Profits, And Questions, in Effort to Cut Warming Gases. He gave the example of an old, inefficient chemical factory in Quzhou in south-eastern China which emits as much greenhouse gas each year as a million cars in the US or Europe, each of which had clocked up 12,000 miles (19,300 kms). It is estimated that the cost of an incinerator to clean up the mess at the factory is in the region of $US5 million. Yet the foreign companies involved in the deal will pay $US500 million for the incinerator. The reason for this staggering 100 times increase in costs is the European-based market in carbon dioxide emissions. Because the waste gas has a far more powerful effect on global warming than carbon dioxide emissions, the foreign companies must pay a premium price, which is way beyond the actual cost of the cleanup. Despite the inflated costs, these deals still make sense to the companies that are financing them because it is a lot less expensive than having to clean up their own operations. The huge profits from the Quzhou deal will be divided between the owners of the chemical factory, the Chinese government, and the consultants and bankers who cobbled the deal together in the wealthy Mayfair district of London.

When it comes to allocating 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 everyone, but especially industrialised countries, must assume their responsibility by cutting their carbon emissions.

Some countries have used the excuse of scientific uncertainty with regard to climate change to avoid cutting their greenhouse gas emissions. Petrochemical corporations, especially Exxon- Mobile, have played a very negative role in trying to pretend that climate change is not due to burning fossil fuel. Once again this excuse transgresses basic ethical norms. When there is a possibility that activity, in this case burning fossil fuel, will cause great harm then the precautionary principle dictates that nations take precautions not to harm other nations. At this point in time scientific uncertainty around global warming is now minimal.

Listening to some of the delegates at the Nairobi conference, especially those from the US, Australia and Russia, one would think that new technologies will solve all our problems. Traditionally we used to pray ‘Our help is in the Name of the Lord.’ Now the mantra seems to be ‘Our help is in technology which will save us.’ No adequate technology exists at present to capture carbon. The only way to proceed at the moment is to reduce our dependence on fossil fuel. The IPCC believes that we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 60-80 per cent by the year 2030.

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

Our faith calls us to care for others, especially those most vulnerable. We know that climate change will have a terrible impact on the poor, the very people who did least to cause the problem in the first place.

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

Unfortunately the Catholic Church, either in its central offices in Rome, diocesan structures, religious communities or development agencies, has not given the lead in educating people about climate change and what actions must be taken to avoid it. The Australian Church seems to be an exception. The Bishops Committee for Justice, Development, Ecology and Peace published an excellent document called Climate Change: Our Responsibility to Sustain God’s Earth in November 2005. The main drafter of that document was Columban Missionary, Fr Charles Rue. Unfortunately, the fate of Catholic EarthCare Australia in the past year raises serious questions about the commitment of the Bishops Conference to genuinely tackle climate change.

Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See’s representative to the UN, believes that “The Earth’s climate system has demonstrably changed on both a global and regional scale … Even if greenhouse gas emissions were to be stabilised at the present levels – an unlikely eventuality as things stand – the global warming and sea-level rise would continue for hundreds of years due to the atmospheric lifetime of some greenhouse gases and the long timescales on which the deep ocean adjusts to climate change.”

Action is needed now to stabilise the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If we continue with a ‘business-as-usual’ approach to our use of fossil fuel, we could soon reach irreversible ‘tipping points’ like the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which will make the world a less hospitable place to live in for all succeeding generations.

There is hope if we face up to the challenge. The final IPCC report in April is optimistic. It believes that we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 billion tonnes by 2030. It is absolutely clear that governments, industry and individuals must work together if we are to succeed. It believes that we have the know-how and money to limit the average global temperature rise to between two and three degrees Celsius. What we are still lacking is the political will to make the changes. Religions and caring organisations such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul ought to help their members make the necessary changes in their lifestyle to protect the earth today and for our grandchildren.

 Fr Sean McDonagh is an Irish Columban missionary who has written several books on Christianity and the environment. This article was taken from the 2007-2008 summer issue of The Record (TheRecordSummer0708).

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St Vincent de Paul Society is a lay Catholic organisation working towards a more just and compassionate society.

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