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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
want to know what Jesus would do, Jesus would drive a Prius.
Tebaldi, Executive Director, Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities