Why a Christian response to climate change? 

In this second of two articles, Chris Mulherin considers scepticism and belief in climate science and in Christian faith. Christianity, not science, provides the moral basis for action on climate change, he argues.


It had been a good semester in Introduction to Climate Change. The students attended class, they submitted assignments, and – icing on the cake – they chatted enthusiastically about the greenhouse, solar irradiance, black body radiation and ocean acidification. Most were convinced that humans were causing dangerous levels of global warming and that something must be done. 

Enter Rick – week 11 – Monday morning – class discussion about the future.
 
“I understand about the science and that humans are probably causing the problem. But why should we do anything about it?”
 
There is a lengthy silence – some students are surprised at such foolishness. For others it dawns on them that Rick is onto something.
 
Carol speaks first. “That’s a good question...”
 
Last month in TMA I drew parallels between climate change and Christian faith, suggesting that they were both examples where certainty is impossible and yet the issues in question are life-changing. In the case of the climate, scientists are confident that humans are warming the planet, while sceptics demand unreasonable levels of certainty.
 
This month we turn to Rick’s not so innocuous question about the moral reasons for action. On what grounds would a soon-to-be Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, famously refer to climate change as “the great moral challenge of our generation”? 

A high stakes game

There is no doubt that the global warming stakes are high. According to The Guardian, climate change is already responsible, every year, for 400,000 deaths and over USD1.2 trillion in costs. That’s the situation now, with global temperatures only 0.7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
 
A global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century seems inevitable. A rise of 4 degrees would be catastrophic, leading to widespread human and ecological devastation. And the consequences would fall disproportionately on those in the less developed world as they pay the price for 200 years of growth of the now-rich nations. This is an ‘ecological debt’ owed to those whose resources have been obtained at bargain prices to fuel the health and wealth of energy-hungry industrialised societies.
 
Climate change forces us to recognise that how we live today deeply affects the people of the planet who are distant from us in space and time. And it tells us what we ought to have known long ago; unrestrained economic growth, dependent on resource use, is unsustainable.
 
The climate debate particularly matters for Australia because we have the highest emissions per capita of any country in the developed world. We are the 15th largest emitter and, if our coal exports are included, we are responsible for almost 5% of global carbon emissions. All this in the country that has by far the highest median adult wealth in the world. 

Solutions are hard to come by

Not only are the consequences of global warming grave, but solutions involve difficult commitments. While science offers scenarios, it cannot make the decisions for us. And a confidence in market forces would be naïve; the market has no interest in time scales of 50-100 years, or of fundamentally changing the relationship that humanity has with the natural environment. For the first time ever, if the majority of humanity does not agree to act together, we risk global catastrophe. For the first time in the history of the market economy we face the fact that we have to renounce our aspiration to grow ever richer and more comfortable.
 
Now put yourself in student Rick’s shoes. Let’s say Rick is a product of the secular age, a man of no fixed religion with a basic commitment to his own welfare above all else. He is also a man of science who has imbibed of naturalistic wells. He knows that nature is red in tooth and claw; the lesson of evolution is that the fit survive. Rick also knows that while climate change might be a concern on a global and generational scale, it will hardly touch his own comfortable life in the Antipodes. A dose of retail therapy to buy another air-conditioner will take his mind off the problem.
 
So while much current debate focuses on the sceptic’s challenge to climate science, hiding in the wings lurks the moral sceptic. Rick has no moral convictions robust enough to induce a change in lifestyle or voting preference. He simply has no serious reasons for acting on behalf of future generations of animals (including humans), or on behalf of a planet that will one day disappear into the cosmic nothingness out of which it was spawned.
 
In the absence of deep moral convictions we are also faced with what is known as the tragedy of the commons, a reference to public land on which cattle grazed. This common resource becomes depleted because, while it is in everyone’s long-term interest to care for it, in the short-term it is in no one’s self-interest to do so. On a global scale there are over 200 sovereign territories, all competing for growth. While it is in their collective interest to curb climate change this century, it is in none of their interests to do so in the next decade or election cycle.
 
The crucial question then, is not whether human-caused climate change is occurring; it is not how climate change is occurring; it is not what solutions are open to us. The crucial question, presupposed by all discussion, is the one Rick asked the class: “Why should we do anything about climate change?” 

The is-ought problem

Unbeknown to Rick, he puts his finger squarely on a philosophical problem highlighted 350 years ago by a Scottish polymath. David Hume railed against ‘vulgar systems of morality’ that would magically derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. In simple terms, no amount of science and economics, no amount of discussion about grave consequences, no facts about lost species or deaths attributable to global warming; none of these can tell us what we ought to do about it.
 
Last month on the ABC’s Q&A, physicist and ‘new atheist’, Lawrence Krauss, was asked about the relationship between science and ethics. He was quick to respond that science is highly moral and offers us a ‘better’ world. But in his concern to paint science as superior to religion and philosophy he neglected to say that science of itself cannot tell us the meaning of ‘better’. Rick’s ‘better’ world, based on a survival of the fittest morality, might be one in which billions of humans perish, so easing the ecological congestion we are currently suffering.
 
To quote biologist Richard Dawkins, the guru of the ‘new atheism’, “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
 
Meanwhile ‘Morality and Climate Change’ was the topic for a recent conversation at Melbourne University that included Australia’s most famous and controversial philosopher Peter Singer. But again, while our individual moral responsibility was assumed, no reasons were given that might answer Rick’s question. When asked at the end of the lecture how people could be motivated to act, Singer replied gloomily that he wished he knew. 

The western clash of worldviews

In the end we face a clash of worldviews. On the one hand is a non-religious evolutionary naturalism that, although it speaks moral language, has no transcendent realities and has no intrinsically moral foundation for ecological action; the ultimate reality is the law of the jungle and the meaningless cosmos.
 
On the other hand are religious views, particularly the Judeo-Christian perspective that underlies Western moral sensibilities with its robust foundation rooted in the intrinsic goodness of creation and the inherent dignity of all people. Christian faith overturns common ideas about both human rights and attitudes to the creation, and it offers two fundamental moral reasons for acting on climate change, one rooted in a creation ethic, the other in an ethic of justice. 

The earth is the Lord’s

“The earth is the Lord’s,” says the Psalmist, and for the Christian the creation is just that—a creation that reveals its author in the wonder and beauty of the natural order. God the creator is sovereign over the cosmos and human creatures have been entrusted with the stewardship of this masterpiece.
 
Humans are called to live in harmony with the planet and to reject delusions of growth at no cost. We have lived too long with the illusion of mastery that comes with science and the belief that there will always be a technological fix that does not require a change of heart.
 
In that vein, last month in TMA Thea Ormerod suggested that increasing extreme weather events are a way the creation has of crying out for “humanity to restrain our consumption in order to protect the ecological balance that allows life to thrive on the planet.” 

Love your neighbour

The other moral resource that Christians draw on is a view of justice that is not rooted in the useful forensic fiction of human rights, but in the theological truth of the dignity of every human being, each one made in the image of God. Our Lord’s call was not to speak the language of rights and to claim what is mine. It was to love our neighbour and especially the one who is poor or blind or the victim of robbery or the ones dispossessed of their island home due to rising sea levels. It is my planetary neighbours, suffering already and who will do so increasingly, that bear the cost of Rick’s air-conditioner or my plane flights.

A Christian response to climate change

Why a specifically Christian response to global warming? Because the Christian faith offers the moral resources that give sound reasons for action. Christianity makes sense of those intuitions we have about social justice, about shared responsibility, about the value of the natural world, about species extinction, about the global good.

It is time for Christians to help our culture recalibrate its moral compass. It is time to admit that materialism and over-consumption and greed are evil. It is time to accept that happiness does not increase with abundant wealth and that he who dies with the most toys does not win, but rather risks losing his soul. It is time to acknowledge that ‘better’ does not mean growing and spending like us. It is time to confess that planet-abuse is an offense to the creator and robbery of our neighbour. And it is time for us in Australia, the world’s rich, to remember that our Lord took the side of the poor and the hungry and the dispossessed – those most exposed to the ravages of the groaning creation.

The Revd Chris Mulherin is an Anglican minister writing a doctorate on the relationship between science and faith.
 

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