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The Greatest Moral Issue?

November 5, 2018

I was shocked to read last week that a major study has found a 60% decline in global wildlife in just the past 40 years. The World Wildlife Fund measured trends in 16,704 populations of 4005 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. The result was a frightening picture of the earth becoming increasingly uninhabitable for a wide range of earth’s creatures. For instance, the Amazon rain forest, crucial for absorbing carbon dioxide and providing biodiversity for our planet, has shrunk by 20% in the last 40 years–and continues to disappear. Natural systems essential to our survival are in rapid decline. The way we “feed, fuel, and finance our societies and economies is pushing nature … to the brink” the report states.

Related to this bad news was the most recent report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Unless we limit further global warming by less than one degree Fahrenheit, the West Antarctic ice sheet will kick into irreversible melting, ocean levels will rise substantially, most of the coral reefs will die, nations will be inundated with devastating floods, populations of tens of millions of people will have to move, there will be a dramatic rise in deaths from heat and smog and infectious diseases, substantially more droughts will lead to massive starvation and loss of fresh water, animals will become extinct at an accelerated rate, and storms will become more frequent and devastating. To prevent this from happening would require cutting carbon dioxide emissions by half by 2030, and to near zero by 2050.

The really bad news is: such a cut in carbon emissions–though technically possible–is politically impossible. According to economist Robert Samuelson, to achieve such a cut in emissions would probably require a stiff fossil fuel tax that would double or triple the price of these fuels in order to discourage their use, and then invest the tax money in developing carbon-free energy technology. Not only would the United States need to do this, but so would China, India, and Indonesia. The problem with our democracy is that we have shown no willingness to vote for politicians who promise to substantially raise taxes and force us to sacrifice for the sake of our planet’s future viability.

As a result, our politicians either do nothing to cut carbon emissions (in fact, they encourage the expansion of carbon emissions for the sake of short-term economic gains and making the public happy), or they commit to symbolic half-measures which will not get us anywhere near the target of keeping global warming from pushing up beyond another degree.

So is this a lost cause? Are we doomed? Yes and no. It is unimaginable that we will take the measures needed to prevent the scenarios predicted by the IPCC. But it is faulty thinking to then conclude that we ought to do nothing. Anything we do on a governmental or business level to reduce carbon (and methane) emissions will help reduce the rate of global warming. Anything we do will help lessen the collapse of the environment and unneeded deaths. We cannot prevent the tragedy ahead, but we can make it somewhat less massive. Because if this is what is going to happen with a one degree rise in global temperatures, imagine what will happen if it goes up 2 degrees, or 3, or 4. At some point our very survival as a human species is at stake.

This is why, for me, global warming is the greatest moral issue facing humanity. We can list any number of other moral issues that are extremely important for us to deal with: the illegal status of 11 million people living in the U.S. (and a thousand crossing the border illegally every day); a current annual budget deficit of 440 billion (and a 22 trillion national debt for generations of future Americans); the weakening of democracy and the rise of failed or repressive states worldwide; the possible use of nuclear weapons; approximately 900,000 abortions in the past year in the U.S.; the growing entrenched power of the super-rich (and the growing gap between the rich and the poor); the lack of affordable healthcare for everyone; systemic poverty; systemic racism; unjust incarceration; unending terrorism and war; etc. As serious as all of these issues are, none (with the possible exception of nuclear war) potentially harms as many people for as long a period of time as global warming. In the worst case scenario, it could even lead to our extinction, because this is the only planet we can live on.

When the crisis is so bad that no one can ignore it or doubt it any longer, and even the rich and protected are worried about their future, our nation will finally take action. By that time the action will need to be even more drastic and costly than it would be now. It is always cheaper and easier to avoid a problem than to fix a problem. As expensive as it will be to switch over to carbon-free energy, it is a lot more costly to invent and build technology to try to pull the carbon out of the atmosphere. Far better to act sooner than later.

I cannot in good conscience avoid this message to as many people as possible. Nothing tests our genuine love more than our willingness to stop further global warming.

In the biblical story, humanity is placed in a garden “to till it and keep it.” We’ve done plenty of tilling in the garden, but now we are utterly failing to keep it.

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