Do right by nature

  • December 4, 2009
{mosimage}World leaders are descending on Copenhagen this week for a UN climate conference that seeks an aggressive strategy to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Their ultimate goal is a new international agreement to replace the failed 1990 Kyoto accord.

It is an ambitious undertaking and, even before it starts, Canada has been cast among the villains. The UN General Secretary has singled out Canada as lacking stringent reduction targets. Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore has been targeting the Alberta tar sands as a threat to the planet’s survival. The left-leaning Guardian newspaper of London published a column that called Canada a “corrupt petro-state” that, more than any other nation, has been trying to sabotage a new climate agreement.

Canada has never been a leader on climate issues. The Liberals under Jean Chrétien scored significant public-relations points by supporting the Kyoto accord but then thumbed their nose at the treaty. Chrétien’s successor, Stéphane Dion, tried to remake Canada into a white knight of the environment but was slayed by his own party. The Conservatives under Stephen Harper have candidly admitted that, rather than lead, they prefer to see what the Americans do and then meekly follow.

The climate debate is largely about society trying to balance its addiction to material comforts against a moral obligation to respect God’s creation. People long for luxury in our cars, homes, appliances, vacations, food and clothes, and expect governments to build economies that provide the jobs and institutions to support a consumer lifestyle. Polls may suggest society is searching for a moral high road to save the planet but the way we spend and the way we vote often suggests otherwise. 

The position of the church is clear. The planet is a gift entrusted to us by God and we are called to exercise stewardship over nature in a way that protects it, cultivates it and uses it responsibly for our legitimate needs. When that stewardship conflicts with lifestyle choices and economic policies that promote exploitation and degradation of the planet, we are called to review our consumerism before it inflicts catastrophic environmental harm.

Canadians, though, have been slow to embrace that message. A recent study found Canadians overwhelmingly believe climate change is mankind’s defining crisis and we have a moral responsibility to save the planet. But the same poll found half of Canadians said tax dollars put towards environmental cleanup would be better spent on health care and the national debt. That ambivalence — recognizing the deadly perils of greenhouse gases but unwilling to make sacrifices to fix the problem — explains Canadian political inaction and our sagging international reputation.

For the most part, while acknowledging the moral argument, Canadians apparently still see climate change as primarily a political and economic issue. That position, not the moral one, is what Harper will promote in Copenhagen. Unfortunately.

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