David Miliband, the U.K. Minister of Environment recently gave an interesting talk about the ethical and moral implications of climate change in Rome this week at a seminar on climate change organised by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. I am impressed--especially since the Minister focuses on the implications of climate change on the world's poor as well as God's call to stewardship. Here are some highlights:
Climate change is not just an environmental or economic issue, it is a moral and ethical one. It is not just an issue for politicians or businesses, it is also an issue for the world's faith communities. The common thread that underpins my speech today is a belief that it is our moral duty to protect future generations, particularly those in the poorest countries who will experience the most acute suffering, from the effects of environmental degradation.
Across the world, we are now beginning to see a shift in attitudes to climate change. But well before climate change gained the profile it currently holds, the Catholic Church was warning of its consequences. In 1990, Pope John Paul II in his address to celebrate the World Day of Peace warned us of the dangers of irreversible damage caused by the greenhouse effect.
"In our day, there is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources ... Today the ecological crisis has assumed such proportions as to be the responsibility of everyone ... its various aspects demonstrate the need for concerted efforts aimed at establishing the duties and obligations that belong to individuals, states and the international community."
Seventeen years on, the warnings are reaching a crescendo. A chorus of scientists and economists, entrepreneurs and politicians are voicing their concerns. Our challenge now is to translate the growing awareness of global warming into a sustained movement that changes the way we live, work and travel.
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While we have underestimated the scale, urgency and impact of climate change, so too have we underestimated our capacity to address it. The technologies, policies and institutions exist or are emerging. The public support to sustain political change is also rising. Global warming can be addressed.
We must ensure that global emissions peak and then decline within the next 10 to 15 years, if we are to avoid warming of above 2 degrees centigrade. Above this threshold, the impact on people and nature is dangerous. Rising temperatures will see entire regions experience major declines in crop yields, up to one third in Africa, with rising numbers of people at risk from hunger. Rising temperatures will mean significant changes in water availability, with some areas seeing major water shortages, and sea-level rises threatening major world cities. Whole eco-systems from coral reefs to the rainforests face collapse and many species will face extinction. Storms, droughts, forest fires and flooding will have a major impact on human life. The poorest countries will suffer the most from the effects of climate change. The costs will fall on the countries who have done least to cause climate change, and are least able to adapt to its effects.
The wealth of evidence on the scale and impact of climate change has produced a major shift over the last 12 months. Paradoxically, the most urgent environmental challenge facing the planet has stopped being primarily an environmental issue. Climate change is not just, as Al Gore puts it, "a planetary emergency" but a humanitarian one. Climate change has also become an economic issue, a national security and foreign policy issue (triggering the possibility of unprecedented migration), and an international development issue.
But we must also recognise that climate change is an issue that raises profound moral and ethical questions. Economic or scientific analysis cannot tell us what value to place on the lives of future generations, or how far the developing world should help the poorest nations to adapt to the effects of climate change, and develop low-carbon energy. These are questions that must be guided by values, or principles, as well as facts.