Tackling climate change requires knowing the truth about nature and about man, which means knowing the truth about God.
CLIMATE CHANGE is one of the top drawer issues of our day; right up there with the global financial crisis. Governments compete on reducing emissions; individuals abridge their ‘carbon footprint’; companies – from car manufacturing to petroleum to tobacco – are all going green. Even a Green Bible, with ‘verses and passages that speak of God’s care for creation highlighted in green’ was recently published. Is the hype worth the depth; is it mere political correctness to talk green or are we really faced with a climate crisis?
The first reaction is skepticism, seeing Al Gore and Brad Pitt towing the green line and with the sensationalism about future catastrophes. But beyond the publicity there is overwhelming scientific proof that the recent global temperature changes are a direct result of increased greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere due to emissions and these changes will have consequences for the future if unchecked.
It was not surprising then that Pope Benedict XVI dedicates a good portion of his most recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) to the question of our relationship to our environment and the duties arising from this relationship. This is closely linked and indeed it is an aspect of the question of human development, which the encyclical extensively addresses. Coming during a time of the global financial crisis and concerns about the environment, the underlying message of Caritas in Veritate is that of charity, the ‘synthesis of the entire law’ is the principle of both ‘micro-relationships (with friends, with family members or within small groups)’ and ‘also of macro-relationships (social, economic and political ones)’. As charity runs the risk of being misinterpreted and seen as unnecessary or as an obstruction, truth is relevant for charity for it is in truth that ‘charity shines forth’. As truth ‘preserves and expresses charity’s power to liberate in the ever-changing events of history’ it is necessary for ‘development, social well-being, the search for a satisfactory solution to the grave socio-economic [and environmental] problems besetting humanity’.
Tackling environmental problems therefore requires knowing the truth about nature and about man which means knowing the truth about God. For if ‘nature, including the human being, is viewed as the result of mere chance or evolutionary determinism, our sense of responsibility wanes’. Why should I care about the environment if it is an end result of an unguided process that did not have me in mind in the first place? What do I owe future generations if ultimately we are nothing more than a conglomeration of atoms with no transcendental end?
For the Christian, nature is prior to us and given to us by God as the setting of our life. The biblical injunction ‘to till and to keep’ (Gen 2:15) implies a responsibility towards nature which is not a ‘heap of scattered refuse’ but as something ordered and which should lead us to our creator from whom it’s order comes. Being made in the ‘image and likeness’ of the creator means we can understand this order and be able by our act towards protecting it. These truths about nature form the basis of a true concern for the environment.
Another very important truth emphasized in the encyclical is that nature is not more important than the human person. There is the sad tendency to see combating climate change as so important as to warrant disregarding the human person. The current tendency to link population growth to climate change, and to see population reduction (using force if necessary) as a way to reduce green-house emissions, is a case in point.
Benedict goes even further to make the more profound and much ignored point, ‘the way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa.’ A society that regards the unborn and the terminally ill as dispensable cannot be called upon to regard the environment. The selfish, pleasure seeking life-styles, common to the affluent in both the developed or developing societies remains the one of the main causes and the biggest obstacles to solving the climate problem. Cases of environmental degradation especially in the developing world are closely linked to the poverty and underdevelopment among the inhabitants stemming from mismanagement and neglect on the part of their leaders. A positive approach to climate change requires human and environmental ecology. Nature has to be considered in all its aspects, including the human.
Caritas in Veritate reminds Christians of their duty towards the environment. This duty lies in helping people to understand these truths about nature and being in the forefront of a true ecology that does not treat environmental questions independently from human questions but as closely intertwined.
In November 2009, the nations of the world will gather in Copenhagen to take steps and set targets for climate change. Plans based on a wrong view of nature are bound for failure. If the love we have to show to our environment is not based on the truth — about nature, about man and ultimately about God — our plans will end up being inhuman and therefore against the nature we are trying to preserve. Only in God can we truly love the environment.