The Perilous Morality of Climate Change

It's a challenging endeavor to discuss "what's working" with climate change. News outlets the world over are littered with stories of doom and gloom, of current calamities and human suffering. A quick perusal of the summary of the most recent IPCC report lays out where we are and what that means.
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Co-authored by Drew Holden

It's a challenging endeavor to discuss "what's working" with climate change. News outlets the world over are littered with stories of doom and gloom, of current calamities and human suffering.

A quick perusal of the summary of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report, the definitive scientific body on the topic, lays out where we are and what that means.

As it stands, the global temperature is rising, fueled by anthropogenic increases in carbon dioxide, methane and other gases, often the byproduct of industrialization and development. When the temperature rises, other problems soon follow.

Throughout the United States, current problems and future concerns include droughts (like the current conditions in California), heat-waves, rising sea levels, floods (like the tragic flooding in Texas), increases in both the size and intensity of storms (think more Superstorm Sandys) among others.

But look to the rest of the world and the concerns, both immediate and near on the horizon, are even worse.

Take Guatemala as a use case, a country among the top-ten most at-risk for climate change. Part of it is location - squeezed between two oceans and three tectonic plates, Guatemala is vulnerable to severe hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, rising sea levels and more which promise to continue wreaking havoc.

These problems are compounded in that they can't be solved domestically, making developing countries' low emissions contributions largely moot. Unfortunately for them, CO2 particles are indifferent to national are hurricanes, droughts and rising temperatures.

But perhaps the most over-arching difference is that these countries lack the resources to address climate change. Given the huge costs to adapt to a warming climate, economically disadvantaged countries face unique hurdles.

The Bright Side?

This isn't to say there's no good news out there. This blog, as well as others, lauds current efforts, from battling deforestation and habitat destruction to creating alternative fuels and low-impact lifestyles, to fight climate concerns.

The issue is that climate change is the sort of problem that gets worse all on its own...our collective, passive action doesn't lead to an undisturbed, passive outcome because the status quo makes climate change worse every day. The human costs won't simply sit nascent as we decide how to address them.

Fueled by increased appetites for everything from cars to beef in countries such as India and China and a gas-guzzling developed world, humanity continues to dump more troublesome greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Perhaps more troubling still, environmental positive feedback loops promise to continue to perpetuate these problems for generations even if we could plug the spout of carbon dioxide.

So we must put these good examples into the appropriate context. They aren't simply new and innovative ways to chip away against the monolith of Wrong in the world, grinding down the misbegotten troubles of yesteryear indefinitely into the past. No, it's like fighting the tide - even your mightiest struggle won't slow your opponent.

Even worse, there's something pernicious and futile about holding up these isolated examples as solutions for a better future. It creates a false hope, pushing along a notion that we can throw more smart people doing smart, well-meaning things to cure the world's ills.

And it's attractive because it's easy - little action is required from everyone else, life continues and eventually things work out, like they always do. But this optimism is naïve - we know that climate change will take far more to even make a dent in the problem. Even the attempt will be costly and painful. There's no listicle, no Facebook-share campaign that'll fix it.

This means we need to collectively evaluate difficult moral choices -- getting away from "win-win" solutions to stare down the barrel of challenging realities. There's no "silver bullet" here, no happy answer where everyone walks away unscathed.

But this isn't nihilism -- it isn't to say that nothing can stop the indefatigable march of climate change. No, it's just saying that we need more, and not more of the same.


We must call climate change what it is -- a demanding, demurring moral question. While the calculus for effectively weighing this question is nebulous at best, the necessity of action is clear. The current state, according to Stephen Gardiner of Washington University, a leading voice in the discussion, is a "perfect moral storm" where a convergence of extenuating factors, incentive misalignments and environmental realities creates a system our current ethical and governmental structures are powerless to address.

Thankfully, many around the world are taking up the challenge.

From writers, to scientists, to activists there's a concerted attempt to make the discussion more relatable and digestible -- translating it from the overwhelming consensus in the world's labs and scientific journals into the hearts and minds of people the world over.

And an influential voice is helping -- Pope Francis. His Holiness has begun to force the issue with the worlds' faithful to connect protecting our planet with good moral action.

The logic is largely two-fold. For one, the humanity's pastoral responsibility is an easy thread to pull within the Christian ethic. The second, while similar, is more nuanced - those most affected by climate change happen to be those the Church worries most about...the poor.

This is where the Pope is able to draw tremendous strength, weighing in unequivocally in his new encyclical, Laudato Si, calling on "the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development." In so doing, he infuses a moral and religious case to a divisive topic, welding numbers and science to the human condition those realities engender.

This rebrands a hippie conversation among nature-lovers (think the oft-referenced "tree-huggers") into a human rights issue concerned with serving the poor and the planet. In so doing, it recasts the issue to a broader audience to pull in support across a wider swath of people.

So what, exactly, is working?

It's that we've finally made it to a point where we can start this discussion. It certainly won't be enough on its own, but with it comes the hope of more change in the future.

Most articles such as this end on a high-note, something positive to look forward to that lets us know it'll all be all-right, the story-book ending where the hero rides into the sunset saddled on his trusty steed and the moral righteousness of his cause. But our rider isn't there yet...not even close.

The bright side, here, isn't awful bright... it's a grim scene our rider looks out upon, with no certainty that his cause will carry the day. We can hope, and we can act, but it'd be a disservice to be unfairly optimistic at our current juncture.

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