This week, a day earlier than normal, a hot weather reflection about ethics and global warming/climate change.

Glaciers continue to melt, sea surface temperatures increase, and sea levels keep rising. Climate change is real. 

Some quick observations: 

  • While our Earth’s climate has changed throughout its history, the current warming is happening at a rate not seen in the past 10,000 years.
  • In the United States, in 2021, 58,968 wildfires burned 7.1 million acres. As of July 11, 2022, over 35,700 wildfires have impacted about 4.8 million acres this year.
  • According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “Since systematic scientific assessments began in the 1970s, the influence of human activity on the warming of the climate system has evolved from theory to established fact.”
  • Scientific information taken from natural sources (such as ice cores, rocks, and tree rings) and from modern equipment (like satellites and sophisticated instruments) all reveal signs of a changing climate.
  • From the global temperature rise to melting ice sheets, the evidence of a warming planet is beyond doubt. (Although there are still “doubters.”) Sea levels along the U.S. coastline, for example, are projected to rise, on average, 10 – 12 inches by 2050 which will create increased and regular regular coastal flooding. Florida currently has more 3,600 square miles in the 100-year coastal floodplain. By 2050, this area is projected to increase to 5,300 square miles due to sea level rise. 
  • And in Belgium where I currently live, the rising sea levels could be catastrophic, because much of the country lies at or below the current sea level. Already by 2030 the rising sea level will present severe flooding all along the Belgian coast and as far inland as seven miles. 

As we move along in summer 2022, parts of the United States have already experienced punishingly high temperatures. Projections suggest more abnormally hot weather, an expansion of drought, above average wildfires, and hurricane activity in coming months. 

On Sunday, July 24th a fast-moving brush fire near Yosemite National Park exploded in size into one of California’s largest wildfires of the year, prompting evacuation orders for thousands of people and shutting off power to more than 2,000 homes and businesses. 

Each year Pakistan struggles with the June-through-August monsoon season. This year it has already been particularly brutal, an urgent reminder that in the era of global warming extreme weather is becoming the norm. Just in Karachi, monsoon rains this month have killed close to three hundred people and damaged close to six thousand homes. 

We feel the global warming in Europe as well. As of July 24th France is facing  severe forest fire situations.The three main fires are located in Corsica, in the department of Alpes-Maritimes, and in the region of Luberon. More than 7,500 acres have burned. The fire danger remains very high for the coming days. For two days last week, my wife and I escaped to our downstairs living room with curtains drawn and fans blowing, as record heat in Belgium and in Europe is surpassing all maximum temperature records. We do not have air conditioning and are now preparing our plans for August. More fans? 

Our climate is changing rapidly and dangerously. My area of expertise is not climatology. But I do experience and closely study what is happening. I am a theologian, with a background in ethics and climate change blasts an ethical alarm. 

About climate change, one can easily say we are all responsible — individuals, groups, and countries around the globe. Climate change can only be dealt with by unparalleled levels of global cooperation. It should compel countries to question economic models, invent new industries, and recognize the ethical responsibilities that wealthy nations have to the rest of the world, placing a value on nature that goes far beyond economic success and growth.

In some respects, however, it is too late to alter the coming impacts of climate change. In poor countries the impact will be very bad. They have less money to pay for adaptation and more need of it, not least because they tend to be in zones where heatwaves can push temperatures to unsurvivable levels. They also tend to have high population growth, meaning more and more people will be affected. 

Our world is in dangerous climate health. The illness does not have to be fatal. We certainly cannot just surrender our responsibility.

My reflection this week is an invitation for further reflection and action. I don’t have all the answers. We all need to collaborate on that: individuals, groups, parishes, companies, politicians, and governments.

I see climate change bringing together three major ethical challenges.The first springs from the reality that climate change is a truly global phenomenon. Regardless of their source, greenhouse gas emissions have climate effects everywhere on the planet. Collectively most countries would prefer to limit global emissions and reduce the risk of severe or catastrophic impacts. When acting individually, however, too many countries continue emitting unimpeded. And it is true as well that many of the world’s most vulnerable countries and people are those who have emitted the least historically. Their emissions levels continue to be relatively low.

The second challenge is that current emissions have profoundly intergenerational effects: for us, for our grandchildren, and for our great grandchildren. On and on. They will impact coming generations for hundreds of years. For example, emissions of the most prominent greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, persist in the atmosphere for a very long time, resulting in negative climate impacts for centuries. 

The third challenge to ethical action is that we need to expand our our ethical thinking. I think immediately about ethics and international justice, about intergenerational ethics, about honesty and dealing with false scientific information. And we need to ethically consider the appropriate relationships between humans and the rest of nature. Climate change raises questions about the value of nonhuman nature. Do we have obligations to protect nonhuman animals, unique places, and nature as a whole? How do we do that?

So far my reflection has focused on addressing climate change from a more collective perspective. But what responsibilities do individuals have with respect to climate change? 

Some people argue that the responsibilities of individuals are primarily political, and that they have little obligation to change their consumption or lifestyle choices. This is a perception problem. A faulty perception problem. One person’s emissions do seem very small in comparison to the global total. The reality, by way of example, however, is that on average and over the course of a lifetime, the emissions of a single typical U.S. American are significant enough to contribute to the severe suffering and/or deaths of two future people. Yes. Our intergenerational impact.

The U.S. environmentalist Lester Milbrath (1925 – 2007) often argued that the only way to save our planet was through social learning, enabling us to “learn our way to a sustainable society.” He strongly made this argument in his 1989 book: Envisioning a Sustainable Society: Learning Our Way Out(SUNY Press, 1989). In his view, the key is to understand environmental perceptions and values and build on those values and perceptions to modify both individual and institutional behavior. For more than ten years Lester Milbrath headed the Environmental Studies Center, at the University of Buffalo. He then directed the University’s Research Program in Environment and Society, which focused on future societies, environmental beliefs and values, and public policy. 

Milbrath, often stressed that historically human efforts to dominate nature had worked too well, and now a new approach was needed: “Learning how to reason together about values is crucial to saving our species,” he wrote in his book. “As a society we have to learn better how to learn. I call it social learning. It is the dynamic for change that could lead us to a new kind of society that will not destroy itself from its own excess.”

Human beings, in their need and greed, have done too much to not only harm the environment but humans as well. Human activities that harm the climate include deforestation, relying on fossil fuel, and industrial waste. The ocean level is rising. Glaciers are melting. CO2 in the air is increasing. Forrest and wildlife are declining.

So…what to do? Here are five quick suggestions:

  1. Be well informed and counteract fake climate change beliefs. Learning how to learn and teaching how to learn.
  • Make our voices heard by those in power. Joining a social movement or campaign that focuses on environmental activities gets everyone talking about climate change action. We need to vote for climate change politicians. And vote the others out of office.
  • Leave the car at home. Walk or cycle if possible. Use public transport or try car sharing. Cars greatly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Air pollution caused by exhaust fumes poses a serious threat to public health. If driving is unavoidable…Investigate trading in your diesel or gasoline car for an electric or hybrid model.
  • Reduce energy use. Lower thermostats in winter. Air conditioning in the summer? Turn off lights and appliances when not needed. Replace light bulbs with LEDs or other low-energy lights.
  • Respect, protect, and promote forests – we need trees — and green spaces such as parks and gardens. They absorb carbon dioxide and lower levels of air pollution. They reduce flood risk by absorbing surface rainwater and can provide important habitats for a wide variety of animals, birds, and amphibians. Green spaces also reduce our stress levels.

Again, I am not a prophet of doom but a clear-eyed realist. The future is in our hands. As the old seafarer said: “The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The realist adjusts the ship’s sails.” 

  • Jack

Addendum 1: For further reflection I suggest: A Perfect Moral Storm: the Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change by Stephen M. Gardiner (Oxford University Press, 2011). Gardiner illuminates our dangerous inaction by placing the environmental crisis in a new light, considering it as an ethical failure. He is professor of philosophy and Ben Rabinowitz Endowed Professor of the Human Dimensions of the Environment at the University of Washington in Seattle. Stephen Gardiner clarifies our contemporary moral situation, with three assertions: (1) The world’s most affluent nations are tempted to pass on the cost of climate change to the poorer and weaker citizens of the world. (2) The present generation is tempted to pass the problem on to future generations. (3) Our poor grasp of science, international justice, and the human relationship to nature helps to facilitate inaction.

Addendum 2: I would not recommend a book which just came out this week: The Truth about Energy, Global Warming, and Climate Change: Exposing Climate Lies in an Age of Disinformation by Jerome R. Corsi. The author is a fiercely far-right conspiracy theorist and QAnon supporter. His new book aims to expose climate change as a neo-Marxist and anti-capitalist global warming hoax. His two earlier books were indeed New York Times best-sellers Unfit for Command (2004) and The Obama Nation (2008). Both books attacked Democratic presidential candidates. But both books have now been severely criticized for the author’s narrow vision, his their distorted information, and numerous inaccuracies.

12 thoughts on “Climate Change an Ethical Alarm

  1. So you recommend that people don’t read Mr Corsi’s book? Are you afraid of opposing viewpoints?

  2. Another good one. My only addition would have been to note Pope Francis international Laudato Si program and Catholic Climate Covenant. There are some good things that come from the Catholic Church and these are a couple of them. Peace!

  3. Thank you, Jack, for this thoughtful and thorough analysis of this very real and all consuming crisis all of us humans face. And thank you, also, for the very specific personal actions we can take to do our part to help bring change for the better. This is a mission that should unite us all to save our world and civilization.

  4. Thank you so much for turning our attention to lucid statements about Life at this precious moment. Yes, how crucial it is to jump up, to human up, our ethical thinking to a new level. I have two comments that I hope comport with your work on the behalf of Earth, this blue planet that depends on us.

    (1) Hard on the heels of your vibrant analysis of our troubling of the climate and our impending decisions about extinctions, comes news this morning of a possible “deal” twixt Democratic senators Manchin and Schumer on a bill that mitigates pollution damage in a few years that the USA is doing to biosphere. As you say, Dr. Jack, the effects will be observable centuries from now, but even one decisive action is a glimmer of hope, even when faith in the wisdom of Congress is weak. In your prescription of how to act, for many it is indeed a matter of writing often and clearly to our congressional representatives at the local, state, and national levels about what is at stake. As yet, it seems unclear how the current brood of Democrats are different from the current brood of Republicans, on the matter of extinctions. The Democrats seem, at least in terms of popular media coverage, not to have eloquently or lucidly stated their appeal to the People about the ethical virtues of beauty and truth, or better, the beauty of justice, in matters of nurturing Life– all life– on this fragile Earth, our island home. Who can ignore the synchronicity of NASA’s Webb lab showing how gorgeous and precious Creation has evolved, and how rare Earth is, in any universe?

    The beauty of justice should be the resounding note in the call to action: examples abound that need us to give voice or coverage in the info-gaming-media that show how Struggle is what makes us all human in our observing, judging, and acting for Life, and against Death and extinctions. Making “deals” in a two-party-only Congress about matters of extinction, as if Life were a game, should mean, if wisdom were ever to prevail, that inclusion always honors truths, because exclusion only serves injustice twice. Write to everybody about it, especially if you disagree. This is the way.

    (2) The ethical courage to act with guts is mostly about timing born of lucidity (“phronesis”) from observation. We see the enantiodromia in the arc of events, the pause at extremes before plunging toward a brief moment of balance than back again. The pause is the very space in which judgment gathers the will and the strength to act decisively at the precise moment that effects all that transpires subsequently, in the extremeties of living our lives as Earthlings. Are we not at one of those moments, again, where Life locates “Sapiens”– how we have (exclusively) “styled” ourselves? The answer resides in whether we humans can live up to the title we have attached to our being here, by giving more in gratitude to Creation than we have taken from it. That means loving deeply and widely what has been given to us for cherishing, as the world lurches between catastrophes. We matter more to the living Earth than many realize, so the love of that truth in this good place in space and time requires struggle against nihilism and entropy. Write to everybody about that, it is the way forward.

    I look forward to hearing more from you, thank you so much for being prophetic and phronetic.

  5. Another excellent essay, Jack, including all the important references! Another suggestion would be to VOTE like the lives of our children and grandchildren depend on it and encourage others to do the same.

  6. Jack, well said. We all know what has to be done, but our leaders don’t seem to have the will to make the hard choices and make it happen. I agree that it is an ethical issue, but once again our Church leaders, with the exception of Pope Francis, are no where to be found.

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