The Common Good

Taking Climate Change Seriously

Climate change is about people, not just science and politics — it is an inter-generational ethics issue. The earth is the Lord’s, and in Genesis, God entrusts us with caring for Creation. The earth that we leave to future generations is already being changed by climate change, and so far, our nation has done little to stop climate pollution. The Clean Power Plan, announced Monday by the EPA, is a great step forward for our country in taking climate change seriously.

The policy will treat carbon the way it should be treated — as a pollutant that’s harming our health and our planet. It will reduce our carbon pollution 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, but will allow each state the flexibility to decide how it reaches that goal.

The rule reflects some of the best values we hold dear. It will help prevent premature deaths and asthma attacks caused by smog and other air pollutants. But most importantly, it will reduce the pollution that fuels climate change. It’s clear that President Obama cares about the legacy he leaves to today and into future generations. While there is a lot more that can and should be done by this administration and by Congress, President Obama deserves our appreciation for embracing the common good and taking such a big step to preserve the earth for our grandchildren’s grandchildren.

Congress has been unable to deal with the issue of climate change. Very powerful special interests — like the coal, oil, and gas industries — literally prevent changes in our energy policies from occurring. So, as with other issues, a social movement is needed to move America and the world to deal with climate change.

And strong social movements need strong and powerful narratives. On climate change, the narratives of science will not be enough. Neither will extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy, which capture our attention momentarily but offer a glimpse of the storms that are projected to grow worse and more frequent..

I believe the most compelling narratives for dealing with climate change must be moral ones, theological ones, and biblical ones, especially if we are to reach and engage the faith community — which every successful social movement must do. God’s instructions in Genesis to be good stewards of the world God has created are central now. And generational ethics are central to that.

We should not and cannot leave our children’s children with a fundamentally different planet. Perhaps we should replace the classic image of a polar bear on a small floating piece of ice, with an image of our great grandchild standing in line for his or her water ration.

Of course, the poorest and most vulnerable of us, who contribute least to these changes are the most dangerously affected by them. Ultimately, as followers of Christ, climate change is about our faith, our theology, our moral identity, and our calling as God’s children.

Climate change is not another issue to move higher up the list of our concerns. Rather it is the concern central to all other issues. Let’s take the well-known 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, which was my own conversion passage that brought me to faith in Jesus Christ.

All of the categories of those whom Jesus called “the least of these” will be directly affected by climate change.

“I was hungry.” Climate change could dramatically influence food supplies and create very serious food shortages.

“I was thirsty.” Drought is a direct result of climate change.

“I was naked.” The impact of climate change could strip whole groups of people of everything they have.

“I was a stranger.” This text has converted a whole movement of Christians around how we treat immigrants — but climate change is already creating refugees of island nations.

“I was sick.” Public health is extremely affected by the pollutants in our environment, and climate change increases that. And we are already being jeopardized by these pollutants.

“I was a prisoner.” Global warming could cause massive social and societal disruption that easily can create more crime and burden criminal justice systems. There is a direct correlation between rising temperatures and rising violence.

Our children’s children will want to know why we were so selfish and short-sighted; why did we not listen to the biblical ethic of stewardship? This is certainly a matter of science, but until it also becomes an issue of faith, we will not have the social movement that we need to change our whole way of fueling our lives. Reducing and ultimately eliminating dirty energy, investing our future in clean energy, and becoming seriously committed to saving energy are such big and fundamental tasks that they will require the imperatives of faith and the leadership of the faith community.

The EPA has opened a public comment period on their Clean Power Plan, and the agency needs to hear voices of faith – voices passionate about the moral question here, about how we will treat “the least of these” in the face of climate change. They’ll be hearing from industry and environmentalists during the comment period, and we are working to make sure they hear from us – from the people of faith who care deeply for God’s creation and people. Please join us in showing your support for the Clean Power Plan.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God’s Side, will be released this spring. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

Image: Cracked earth, Microstock Man / Shutterstock.com

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