The “burning issue” of course is climate change, and it raises many life-changing ethical questions. Covid-19 and the Delta variant are serious problems for sure. Climate change, however, is a looming catastrophe.
On Monday, August 6th, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its latest assessment about the state of our planet. The cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases, led by the United States and European countries since the start of the industrial age, and now more recently by China, have not only heated up our planet, but have set it on course to get much worse in coming years.
The IPCC report validates decades of scientific predictions about our human contribution to climate change and its already severe impact all over the globe. We have to brace ourselves for more extreme heat waves, more droughts, more floods, more wildfires, and more hurricanes. Rising sea levels will threaten coastal cities like Miami and even locations like Mar-a-Lago.
A week later, on August 13th, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared July 2021 the world’s hottest month in 142 years. NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad stressed in his statement: “This new record adds to the disturbing and disruptive path that climate change has set for the globe.”
A record-breaking heat wave that has touched temperatures of up to 46 degrees Celsius, or 115 degrees Fahrenheit, has also set off wildfires in the United States, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Siberia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, and places in between. Elsewhere in Europe, floods that used to come once in a millennium in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands have killed at least 196 people. Not far from where I live, the flood devastation and destruction of homes, buildings, and infrastructure is tremendous.
Water levels at the largest reservoir on the Colorado River — Lake Mead — have fallen to record lows. Lake Mead, formed by building the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, supplies water to millions of people in Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico.
Thomas Reese SJ observed, nevertheless, in NCR last week: “Millions of us are going about our business worrying about our daily lives while Catholic bishops and elites (myself included) argue about the Latin Mass, Communion for politicians and Grindr, rather than the coming climate apocalypse.” Pope Francis warned about climate change in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, yet millions of Catholics, including bishops, are ignoring the looming climate apocalypse and the individual and systemic transformation needed to address it.
In 1967, historian Lynn White Jr. argued that Christian beliefs promoted the domination and exploitation of nature, and therefore were incompatible with environmentalism. Almost half a century later, polls showed that fewer than 50% of all US Protestants and Catholics believe the Earth is warming as a result of human actions.
I remember when Pastor Robert Jeffress, who belonged to the former US president’s Evangelical Advisory Board, retorted on Fox News: “Somebody needs to read poor Greta (Thunberg) Genesis, Chapter 9 and tell her the next time she worries about global warming, just look at a rainbow. That’s God’s promise that the polar ice caps aren’t going to melt and flood the world again.”
Many evangelical Christians, polls show, still agree with Jeffress. Others who reject climate change are simply convinced it is a hoax. Nevertheless climate change ignorance contributes to impending disasters. A helpful book here is Robin Veldman’s The Gospel of Climate Skepticism: Why Evangelical Christians Oppose Action on Climate Change. Veldman observed in an interview in Newsweek “Part of being a part of the evangelical community is showing that you keep good theologically conservative company and environmentalism is associated with being liberal.”
Recall the story of Chicken Little playing in the yard when an acorn hits her on the head. She yells. “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” With climate change we now realize the alarm is real. It is neither an hysterical nor a mistaken belief. Climate disaster has begun, and more frightening scenarios are imminent.
Climate change has been described as a “perfect moral storm” because it brings together three major challenges to ethical action. (1) Climate change is a truly global phenomenon. (2) Emissions have profoundly intergenerational effects. Emissions of the most prominent greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, typically persist in the atmosphere for a long time. This contributes to negative climate impacts not for a few years but for centuries. (3) Our combative tools are underdeveloped in many essential areas, such as international justice, intergenerational ethics, scientific uncertainty, and the appropriate relationship between humans and the rest of nature.
The issue of climate change is complex, but the message is simple:
• Global warming is real. Human activity is the major cause.
• Global warming is dramatically changing the world around us today.
• Urgent action is called for.
• If we do nothing new (business as usual), the consequences will be dire.
Individuals, groups, associations, churches, and governments must take concerted action now. We must study. We must seriously reflect. We must all collaborate and act.