Have you ever heard of “climate ethics?” In many values-based circles, climate change and its effects are seen as both an ethical issue, and an issue of faith. Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, says that, for the Catholic Church, climate change is not only a matter of “thermometers or scientific analysis, we are talking about human beings, and the sufferings of human beings… Catholics need to know that climate change is real…” (America, Dec. 19, 2011).
So, we face a very basic truth: we live in a world that is evermore interdependent, where the actions of some of us, affect the quality of life for all of us— as well as the integrity of Earth and her resources. “Solidarity” has become a word a little over-used, and a little diluted. But Pope John Paul II’s words challenge us all, both personally, and in the way we conduct our economic and political lives: “Solidarity is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortune of so many people both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all, and of each individual, because we are really responsible for all.”
The “common good” is not a term that is used in talking of climate change or the economy. What tends to drive decisions is national self-interest, to the exclusion of all else. But, the “common good” is a key principle in Catholic Social Teaching, and should guide our response to these critical global issues. In October 2011, the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace issued a stunning document calling for the reform of the global financial and economic system. The document reminds us often of the responsibility we have for one another: “Every individual and every community shares in promoting and preserving the common good. To be faithful to their ethical and religious vocation, communities of believers should take the lead in asking whether the human family has adequate means at its disposal to achieve the global common good.”
As we consider the damage already done to Earth’s air, water and ecosystems, it is clear that the human family’s ability to reach the global common good has been terribly compromised. In preparing for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (RIO + 20) this June, governments submitted papers expressing their deep concerns about global climate change and their hopes for the outcome of the conference. The submission from the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) – Fiji, Nauru, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga Tuvalu, Vanuatu – expressed the crisis clearly:
“Climate change is the single greatest factor undermining sustainable development… sea level rise is the most dire threat…such a scenario would redraw political borders and devastate low-lying islands in the Pacific…Rio+20 must acknowledge major gaps in implementing sustainable development summits in relation to climate change, as greenhouse gases keep on rising.”
The Pacific Islands seem a world away. But we are fellow citizens on this one Planet, Earth. When any of Earth’s citizens suffer the devastating impact of climate change, our collective humanity is diminished. Many faith traditions and values-based organizations are trying to ensure that ethical questions are part of the public discourse on climate change. The Climate Ethics Campaign is one such organization.
In its “Statement of our nation’s moral obligation to address Climate Change,” the Climate Ethics Campaign presents three significant points for each of us to consider:
- Our collective moral obligation to prevent suffering and protect life
- Our moral responsibility to honor principles of justice and equity; and
- Our moral obligation to honor and protect the processes that make life possible.
The statement says: “To disrupt the climate that is the cornerstone of all life on Earth, and to squander the extraordinary abundance of life, richness and beauty of the Planet is morally wrong.”
The Vatican document on global financial and economic reform asks “communities of believers to take the lead in asking whether the human family has adequate means at its disposal to achieve the global common good.” As members of parishes, religious congregations, this is our responsibility: to keep asking the right questions; questions that can finally expose the lies of narrow national self-interest based on unlimited economic growth based on a reliance on fossil-fuel; and move us toward real solidarity for the sake of our common humanity, and our one precious home, Earth.