Saturday, February 18, 2012

Loving the Least of These: Addressing a Changing Environment

"Love does no harm to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."

- Romans 13.10.

Last year, the US National Association of Evangelicals published a conversation piece called Loving the Least of These: Addressing a Changing Environment. It is another attempt to articulate an evangelical approach to thinking about climate change, especially as it relates to the global poor. Loving the Least of These highlights three theological reasons to care about a changing climate: (a) Love God, Care for Creation; (b) Love God, Love Your Neighbour; (c) Love God, Witness to the World. Each standing alone would be sufficient to motivate Christian response, but together they provide compelling reasons to care deeply about the effects of a changing climate.

Interspersed with vignettes from a pastor, a scientist and a development worker, the publication speaks into a social context in the USA where many evangelicals are deeply suspicious of climate science and/or of the most commonly proposed policy responses to it (it is worth carefully distinguishing these, as they are very different issues, far too often conflated). As such, it is somewhat minimal in its goals, simply speaking to those who might accept that humans play some role in the climatic changes we have already witnessed and so bear some kind of responsibility for trying to minimise the ill-effects of these on those who bear least responsibility and yet are most vulnerable to them. Similarly, the impacts focus on the bottom end of the projected range of changes (i.e. the most optimistic scenarios combining the rosiest outlooks on both emissions reduction and climate sensitivity). Higher possibilities are acknowledged, but the effects are not mentioned. This has the result of keeping the focus on the global poor, since the report explicitly assumes that rich nations will have the means to adapt successfully to the coming changes. The problem with this approach is that it invites the response: "if we can adapt because we're rich, oughtn't the focus be on adaptation rather than mitigation, and on growing the economies of the two-thirds world so that they can afford adaptation too?" Without some sense of the impossibilities of adapting to the changes that are possible, even likely, on our present trajectory, then the immediacy of the ethical response is dulled.

Let us be clear: taking into account presently agreed and aspirational emissions targets, we are still most likely on track for a four degrees plus world within the expected lifetime of my daughter. That is, a world that is on average at least four degrees Celsius warmer than it was in pre-industrial times. Over land, that means far more than four degrees (since land warms faster than oceans). The ecological, economic, social and political changes likely to be associated with such a pace and scale of climatic alteration "would, in the long term, be likely to exceed the capacity of natural, managed and human systems to adapt" (IPCC, AR4, WG2 TS 5.2). That's putting it mildly.

Unless we acknowledge the full scale of the threats we face, we will continue to live in a fantasy - one with dire consequences for God's creation, our neighbours and the church's witness.


byron smith said...

America Magazine: Climate change - a life issue. A catholic perspective with a decent summary of climate as a moral issue.

A couple of small quibbles:
• "“positive- feedbacks”—processes that take a small change in temperature and amplify it with exponential effect"
Positive feedbacks need not be exponential (and often are not)

• "Across the globe, forests are dying back."
Many are, though others are actually expanding as temperatures warm, such as the northern tree line of the Arctic boreal forests.