Tuesday, July 24, 2007 • 11:13 AM Comments (4)

Global warming IS a moral issue

posted by David Tebaldi

In March 2007, leaders of several conservative Christian groups sent a letter to the National Association of Evangelicals complaining that the organization’s focus on global warming is diverting attention from “the great moral issues of our time,” namely abortion and sexual morality. There is reason to suspect that the letter writers’ motivation was more political than moral, but the point needs to be made that climate change is a great – perhaps even the great – moral issue of our time.

In his Oscar-winning documentary and in many of his public appearances, Al Gore asserts that global warming is a moral issue, but he never explains what it is that makes it one. Instead, he lays out in graphic detail the horrific consequences of steadily increasing carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere and appeals to our self-interest: “If we don’t start reducing carbon emissions now, really bad things are going to happen to us.” The understatement may be deliberate, but his title is “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Being the selfish creatures that we are, one might expect that an appeal to self-interest would carry the day. But clearly it isn’t working. We continue our profligate ways. Part of the problem is that people, even rational people, tend to discount negative consequences – or positive ones, for that matter – that lie in the future, especially if they appear to lie in the distant future. Some people believe that a technological fix will save us – ethanol, biodiesel, hydrogen-fueled cars. A smaller number is simply in denial.

This is one reason why the evangelical Christian movement’s recent attention to the issue of climate change is so welcome. Reducing carbon emissions is not just the smart thing to do; it’s the right thing to do. Ignoring or dismissing the problem is not only unwise; it is morally wrong. But why is it wrong?

The relationship between environmentalism and Christianity has been contentious. In a provocative and widely anthologized essay that first appeared in the journal Science 40 years ago [March 10, 1967], the medieval historian Lynn White, Jr. argued that our ecological crisis is rooted in the Judeo-Christian notion that God gave mankind dominion over nature – that man, formed in God’s image, is apart from nature and not a part of nature. According to this view, nature has no intrinsic value. It exists solely to satisfy the needs of mankind.

White’s essay prompted an impassioned response from Christian apologists. They cited chapter and verse to disprove his claim that man’s rapacity enjoys biblical sanction. White’s argument did not rely exclusively on scriptural interpretation, however, and the responses fell short of a refutation. Nevertheless, they did succeed in drawing attention to a biblical alternative to the notion of dominion – the concept of stewardship.

By characterizing man’s responsibility toward nature in terms of stewardship, the moral dimensions of our relationship to the natural world begin to emerge. But this biblical interpretation presupposes that nature is, in effect, God’s property, that we humans are God’s servants, and that we are obliged to care for our Master’s property. To the extent that Christians or other believers in a God of Creation find this argument compelling, we should be grateful. But a moral argument is needed that does not rely upon such religious beliefs.

What does it mean to be moral outside of a religious context? Behaving morally is a matter of paying due regard, in all our deliberate actions, to the interests and the well being of others. Morality requires that equal interests be treated equally regardless whose interests they are, especially basic interests that all humans have in common.

Some interests are more important than others but never because they are my interests, or yours; and not because they are the interests of present generations rather than those of future generations.

Clearly, our children have the same interest in a livable environment that we have, and so too their children, and their children’s children. This is the moral truth embedded in the bumper sticker slogan reminding us that “we don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our grandchildren.” The interests of our near and distant descendants in a livable environment have a moral claim on our behavior now.

Some environmental ethicists go farther and point out that humans are not the only beings that have an interest in a livable environment. All living things share this interest equally. And since morality requires that equal interests be treated equally, regardless whose interests they are, polar bears and pine trees also have moral claims on our behavior.

But we need not embrace this final implication to assert with confidence that global warming is the greatest moral issue of our time. What makes it the greatest moral issue of our time is the sheer magnitude of the looming catastrophe and the staggering number of people who will suffer as a result of our failure to do the right thing now.

If you want to know what Jesus would do, Jesus would drive a Prius.

--David Tebaldi, Executive Director, Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Comments (4)
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I think Jesus might ride a bicycle (in fact, I'm pretty sure I've seen him).
Posted by Hayley on 7.24.07 at 8:31
Earlier this summer, NASA Administrator Michael Griffth sparked controversy when he stated during a National Public Radio interview that he is "not sure that [global warming and climate change] . . . is a problem we must wrestle with. To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth?s climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn?t change." He went on to say, "I guess I would ask which human beings ? where and when ? are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that?s a rather arrogant position for people to take." But of course no one is arguing that the existing climate is the ideal climate for human beings. Nowhere on earth, except perhaps the San Francisco Bay Area, has an ideal climate (whatever that is) for human beings. Here in New England, we might benefit from a longer growing season and a milder winter. My in laws in Phoenix would appreciate a cooler summer and more rainfall. That's not the point at all. The point is that we know with something like scientific certainty that the earth's climate is warming, that CO2 generated by human industrial and recreational activity is a major cause of the warming, and that the change in climate will cause demonstrable harm to vast numbers of people and other living beings. It doesn't matter that the changes in climate might conceivably be beneficial in the long run or preferable from someone else's perspective because our moral code does not sanction sacrificing the interests of some people for the equal interests of others. Equal interests must be treated equally. It works in both directions.
Posted by David Tebaldi on 7.25.07 at 3:23
Whether or not one agrees with David Tebaldi that the issue of climate change is a moral one--and, given the poor track record humans have had in the last century in trying to base policy on "moral" grounds (after all, who is to decide what is moral or whose judgment should prvail), one may wish to avoid that issue entirely--any response to climate change has to be based, not on morality, but on a thorough, scientific understanding of what is happening. I think that this warrants some scepticism regarding many things that David Tebaldi states as facts. I believe that a sober review of the scientific literature reveals that while there is a scientific consensus that the climate is warmiing--and it is the apparently fast rate of this change that is especially noteworthy--there is not a consensus that this change is being cased by human CO2 emissions, nor is there a clear picture of whether this will continue and what the impact of it will be. As for future predictions, most of the crisis predicitons are based on computer models which are so complex that any change in variables could radically change their results. Before acceptiing them, we should undestand what presumptions are being fed into them--iinformation not given by media accounts. As for the causes of warmiing, historical records iindicate that the earth has been warmer than it is now long during historical tiimes but before there were carbone emissions like those we have now. For example, in a recent BBC probram on the history of Britaiin from the Iron Age, Simon Schama began a discussion of the Iron Age settlements in the north of Scotlandwith the comment that it was much warmer in those days than it is now. And it was warmer in Roman Britain than now. How that information fits into today's climate models or Al Gore's analysis is not at all clear. So, contrary to Gord (and, I fear, Tebaldi) I would not deride the intelligence of people (like myself) who maintaiin some scepticism as to the causes and the effects of the present warming trend, as well as with regard to polcy proposals based on our current, incomplete analysis. This is not to say that we shouldn't conserve and cut down on pollution--those are warranted for health and other reasons, which are sufficient to me. As for what Jesus would drive--He probably wouldn't be able to afford a Prius and anyway wouldn't want the hubris of owning one, so I'll go with a ten-year old Corolla. I presume that David Tebaldi wouldn't miind that either.
Posted by Martin Newhouse on 7.25.07 at 10:53
On the current link between faith, morality and the envoronment, I would love to point folks toward the work that a great organization in Cahicago is doing. Called Faith in Place, it is working with congregations of all sorts to link their theological/moral claims about the world thier god has given them with current envoronmental stewardship practices. Check it out! http://www.faithinplace.org/index.php
Posted by Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello on 7.26.07 at 10:02
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