Climate Change – Seeking the Common Good

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 40, Lent 2007

by Sean McDonagh SSC

The Churches should be in the forefront in tackling global warming at the moral level.

Concern for the common good has traditionally been at the heart of Catholic moral and social teaching. Anything that throws ecosystems or the whole biosphere out equilibrium, such as global warming is a disruption of the common good in a most fundamental way – especially if it creates irreversible changes.

That is exactly what climate change is doing. To sum up the challenge briefly: In January 2004, Sir David King, the chief scientist to the British Government, stated that climate change was to most serious issue facing the human community. Therefore in his view US climate policy is a bigger threat to (the) world than terrorism. 1

We have learned about the global systems that will be adversely and irreversibly affected by global warming. These include:

Major Problems with Water. Global warming will affect the availability of water both for human consumption and for agriculture. Areas where paddy rice can be grown may be come less available, so the elaborate and expensive irrigations systems which have been built during the second part of the 20th century may become irrelevant

Desertification. Scientists believe that desertification is being exacerbated by global warming. Over 770 square miles of China becomes desert each year. One cannot argue that global warming is the only cause of this phenomenon as over grazing and other destructive agricultural practices also take their toll. Nevertheless, global warming does play a significant role. Long-term records indicated that there is a declining rainfall in the area and temperatures have risen at twice the global average in recent decades.2

More frequent and violent storms. In 2005 more hurricanes appeared in the Atlantic – Caribbean since records began beating the previous record which was set in 1969. One of the most memorable ones was Hurricane Katrina which destroy New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama. Almost one and a half million people were displaced. The storm breached the levees in New Orleans and sent water pouring into the city which is 6 feet below sea level.

There is empirical evidence that hurricanes are becoming more intense though not necessary more frequent. The science magazine Nature published a study by Kerry Emanuel, a hurricane scientist at M.I.T. that by one measure hurricanes have doubled in intensity over the past 30 years.3 While indisputable causal connections between the increase levels of carbon dioxide in the air and global warming cannot be made there is increase unanimity in the scientific community that global warming is actually happening.

Naomi Oreskes of the University of California, San Diego wrote an essay for the journal Nature in which she analysed 928 articles published in scientific journals between 1993 and 2003. She found that none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position that human activity is causing a rise in global warming.4

The insurance companies are also aware that climate change is happening. In 2000 one of the largest insurance companies in the world – Munich-Re – published a report claiming that climate change could trigger world-wide losses totalling many hundreds of billions of US dollars per year. Most countries can expect their losses to range from a few tenths of a percent of the GNP per year; and certain countries, especially Small Island States could face losses extending to 10%. 5

Rising Sea Levels. As the oceans warm up and expand, sea levels will rise, anywhere from four inches to three feet by 2100, leading to severe flooding over lowland areas. The main reason for the rise in ocean levels is not the melting of polar ice caps but the thermal expansion of the ocean water. Scientists calculate that sixty per cent of the rise in sea levels will be due to thermal expansion and only twenty per cent will be due to the melting of land ice.

Christian Response

In response to the destruction of whole ecosystems and the extinction of creatures the Church should preach embody a Gospel of Life. Bio-responsibility calls us to extend the covenant of justice that we find in to bible to include all life-forms as God’s beloved creatures and as expressions of God’s presence, wisdom, power and glory.

In Solidarity

Solidarity was a concept much beloved of Pope John Paul 11. In his Encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (Concern for Social Realities, 1987) he describes solidarity not as a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common: that is to say the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all. In the context of the deepening ecological crisis solidarity acknowledges that we are increasingly bound together as members of the Earth community. We are responsible for the well being of the poor and all creation. Our destinies are linked. We will either pass on a fruitful, beautiful and vibrant planet for the wellbeing of all creatures or all future generations will be forced to live amid the ruins, not merely of the technological world, but of the natural world itself.

Through a Preferential Option for the Poor

Another principle in our search of an ecological theology is the preferential option for the poor. This is a relatively recent moral principle which emerged, especially in Latin America, during the second part of the 20thcentury. It is now enshrined in Catholic Social Teaching and challenges individuals and societies to examine ethical and economic choices from the point of view of how it will affect poor people, not just in their locality, but globally. Will these choices enhance the life of the poor or further impoverish them. Global warming will have a devastating impact on the poor as these few examples will illustrate. One of the abiding tragedies and ironies in reflecting on global warming is that the poor, who have contributed least to it, will suffer most.

Intergenerational Justice

Another source for shaping a theology and morality on global warming comes from a concern for intergenerational justice. Traditional ethical concerns normally dealt with the impact of our behaviour on individuals or communities in the here-and-now or the immediate future.

The basic principle which arises from this ethical concern is that future generations have the right to inherit a world as fertile and as beautiful as the one which we inhabit. We have to seriously counter an attitude which is prevalent among many people, especially politicians and bureaucrats that ‘if something is not going to happen on my watch, then I’ll leave it to my successor to deal with it even though I know what I am doing now will exacerbate the problem and maybe create a situation which is irreversibly’. In response to that the Church needs to develop its teaching on sustainability. We need to be reminded that the earth is finite and that we must live in a way that is fair and just to future generations of humans and other creatures.

We also need to understand the nature of irreversible ecological damage and its implications for future generations. The potential damage from global warming to the earth and the peoples of the earth is enormous. Unless this and the next generation stabilize the emissions of global warming gases then the consequences are inevitable and irreversible in geological time. It is an extraordinary and awesome moment in human and earth affairs that the behaviour of one or two generations can have such profound and irreversible impact, not just on human history, but on the planet as well. And no future generation, no matter how moral or motivated it might be, will be able to reverse the damage.

The Prophetic Role

A biblical based moral theology emphasizes the prophetic role of the Church. There are two aspects to this prophetic stance of the Church. First, having weighted up the issues involved the Church must challenge individuals and institutions who are primarily responsible for global warming to change their affluent lifestyles and their profligate use of energy.

Kyoto is the only game in town at the moment. It is not nearly enough but it is a beginning. It is the end of a long torturous process rooted in the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 which reached its culmination in The UN Conference on Climate Change in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997. While the scientists who were members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change insisted that a 60 to 80 per cent cut in greenhouse gases was required to stabilize the global climate, all the participants at Kyoto could come up with was an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by between 5.2 and 7 per cent on their 1990 figures by the year 2012. The European Union agreed to cooperate but the US set its face against any legally binding reductions almost from the beginning. Even though they represent less than 5 per cent of the world’s population they are responsible for 25 per cent of greenhouse gas pollution. The Churches should support legal frameworks like the Kyoto protocol and should, even how, be promoting its successor.

The second aspect of prophecy moves beyond critiquing and condemning unjust social, economic and political structures. It attempts to liberate the imagination of individuals and Christian communities and empower them to seek new ways of living that will be just, non-polluting and sustainable. If Christians simplify their energy demands and support renewable energy initiatives they will be following the injunction of Yahweh in the book of Micah to act justly, love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). Here we can draw on two Christian virtues – generosity and frugality. Generosity call us to share Earth’s riches with all humanity and all creation and to promote the common good of all creation. Frugality invites us to restrain our economic production and consumption patterns, especially in rich countries, for the sake of the well-fare of the poor and the Earth. Jesus has warned us that we will not achieve happiness by accumulating material things. Frugality promotes moderation, sufficiency and temperance.

Concern for the wider Earth Community.

Another element in our moral framework, namely a concern for the wider earth community, has only begun to emerge in very recent times….Other creations have intrinsic value. They are God’s creatures and God loves them. We humans are linked to them through close genetic bonds. Given our present ecological challenges either the whole biosphere will prosper or we all go down together. In a recent reflection on Psalm 135 Pope Benedict XV1 said that, the first visible sign of this divine love is found in creation …. 6

As results of insights from ecological theology, Christian ethical behaviour must no longer be confined to our relationship with God and other human beings but it must also inform our relationship with creation. We must reformulate the Vatican 11 sentiment, which has been the teaching of the Church since patristic times – by saying that the goods of the earth are meant for all the people of the world and all the creatures of the world.

Finally, in the context of global warming one overall all moral principle might be formulated as follows. Are these policies and programmes liable to make people and the earth more vulnerable to the effects of global warming? The test will be: Is this climate friendly or climate proof?7


It can be done. It is worth emphasizing that most experts believe that it is possible to make significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions through a combination of policy measures in the areas of energy supply and use, conservation and technological innovations. In fact the world that would emerge from these kind of changes would also be much more satisfying for human living. We must not present the options facing us in the area of climate change as a choice of donning more and more prickly hair shirts. But the jury is out; will we have the political and moral will, facilitated by religious belief, to make the far-ranging changes which are demanded to halt the present slide.

Faced with global warming Christians are called to opt for a new way of life based on simplicity, and sufficiency rather than endless greed-driven accumulation of material possessions.

1 Steve Connor, “US climate policy is a bigger threat to world than terrorism”, The Independent, January 9, 2004, page 1.

2 ibid.

3 New York Times, September 11th 2005.>

4 Robin Mckie, “ Condemned to death by degrees if we fail to act”, The Observer, July 7th 2005.

5; Solidarity with the Victims of Climate Change, January 2002, World Council of Churches, page 9.

6 Fides services, November 7, 2005

7 Africa – Up in smoke? The second report from the World Group on Climate Change and Development, page 4. Published June 2005 by NEF (economics as if people mattered).

Comments are closed.