Morality should trump politics on climate change

  • November 30, 2007

globeWarming.jpgTORONTO - Grade 9 students at Pope John Paul II Catholic Secondary School probably won’t learn anything about Bali in their geography class this week. The Indonesian island might get a passing mention from their science teacher, but it’s not on the exam. But in religion class, Bali will definitely be a focus.

“It fits very well into the unit we will be starting after this one,” said Tony Haggeman, a religion and philosophy teacher at John Paul II.

Haggeman intends to get his students from Grades 9 through 12 reading newspapers about the climate change conference which kicks off in Bali Dec. 3. He will download newspaper articles and prod his students to talk and think about what 180 nations gathered in Bali can, will and should do about climate change. In the next unit, what Haggeman’s students have to learn about Catholic theology is the central role of justice in a Christian world view.

Haggeman has grasped the central idea of the Bali conference by the throat, according to University of St. Michael’s College theologian Dennis Patrick O’Hara.

Bali basics


The aim of the Bali conference is to prevent an increase in the global temperature of more than two degrees.

The International Panel on Climate Change, a global scientific reference group mandated by the United Nations, warns that unchecked human-made global warming could wipe out up to 70 per cent of plant and animal species, cause mass starvation and drought, drown entire nations under rising seas and lead to catastrophic storms on a regular basis.

The cost of keeping global warming within the two-degree limit would be less than 0.12 per cent of the global economy each year between now and 2050, according to the IPCC. To reach the two-degree goal, global emissions must decrease 50 to 85 per cent from 2000 levels by 2050.

The deadline for the post-Kyoto agreement is 2009.

The Kyoto agreement already specifies that major emitters among developing nations — China, India, Brazil and others — must have hard targets for greenhouse gas reductions post-2012. At Bali countries will discuss what those targets should be and how they can be reached.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which organized the conference in Bali, will be trying to persuade the United States to accept internationally mandated reductions. The new government in Australia has already committed itself to being part of the post-Kyoto agreement.

There will be 10,000 delegates representing 180 nations and hundreds of non-governmental organizations.

Among the delegates will be 131 environment ministers, including Canada’s John Baird.

An official Vatican delegation will participate, as will Catholic NGOs.

“It’s fundamentally wrong to create a situation which threatens (poor nations’) existence and then do nothing about it,” said O’Hara, who is director of the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology. “As a church, we should care about Bali.”

The situation which threatens human existence in many of the poorest countries is human-made global warming. With the industrial revolution, starting in about the middle of the 18th century, rich nations — mostly Western Europe and North America — have poured millions of tons of carbon and related gases into the world’s atmosphere. Those gases have caused temperatures to climb, weather to turn violently erratic and sea levels to rise, according to the Nobel Prize-winning International Panel on Climate Change.

O’Hara compares the situation to a giant feast. Wealthy nations arrived first and ate most of the food. Now it’s the rich nations that have to go on a diet. For guests who have just arrived and barely tasted the banquet it’s not quite fair to put them on the same diet, said O’Hara.

This principle of differentiated responses to climate change, putting a greater burden on rich nations than developing economies, will likely be the primary political battle as countries in Bali begin negotiations for a post-Kyoto agreement to take the world past 2012. The United States rejected this principle of differentiated response when it withdrew from Kyoto in 2001. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper also objected to it as the Commonwealth leaders hammered out a statement on climate change at Kampala, Uganda. in November.

But it’s not just politics. It’s also morality, said O’Hara.

“There’s an order to creation. The Earth is telling us quite clearly that what we’re doing is quite wrong,” he said.

For the Franciscans who will send a delegation to Bali, the question of why a religious order would be at an international gathering of NGOs and government ministers on a matter of science is a no-brainer.

“Francis embraced God’s conception of His creatures as a family of brothers and sisters, like Brother Sun and Sister Moon,” said Sr. Gloria Oehl of Franciscans International, an organization with official NGO standing at the United Nations. “That’s one of our basic concerns going back 800 years, building relationship with all of creation — which includes, of course, the environment.”

Franciscans International will send biochemist Friar Bernd Beerman of the Capuchins to take part in scientific discussions in Bali. For the religious order it’s not about cheering from the sidelines. It’s about getting results, said Franciscans International director Fr. Elias Mallon of the Atonement Friars.

“It’s an opportunity. It’s a very serious opportunity, and an important opportunity,” he told The Catholic Register from New York. “Whether it will be taken or not, I don’t know. That remains to be seen.”

Jesuit Father Jim Profit counts himself among those who have seen climate change with their own eyes. This past summer the pond at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Ont., was dry, and the organic farm the Jesuits run on their property suffered through a severe drought. It worries Profit that people seem not to have made the connection between environmental crisis and their faith.

“As church people, we’re more silent than we should be,” he said.

Profit would like to hear parishes offer petitions for the success of the Bali conference at prayers of the faithful in parish Sunday Masses. He’s not holding his breath.

“I yearn for the day when our prayers of the faithful include a prayer for the species that are lost, or for some issue in ecology, for an awareness of the Earth issues,” said Profit. “I think praying for the Earth, the Earth community, is very important.”

As part of an ecumenical World Council of Churches delegation, Profit attended one of the predecessor gatherings to the Bali meetings in Montreal in 2005. He believes the Holy Spirit is at work among people who strive to protect God’s creation at such conferences.

“That’s how the Spirit works, really. It’s through people, whether they’re people of faith or not, whether they belong to a church or not. But that’s how change happens,” he said.

One of the most important things religion can contribute in the fight to control climate change is to help people overcome a sense of helplessness when they face a vast, planetary problem, said Profit.

“The helplessness comes from a sense that little me can’t do much in such a big problem that’s bringing about so much death. Well, the experience of the Resurrection says that’s not the end of the story, and little me can do a lot — especially when I do it with others, in community,” Profit said. “(We’re) assuming that really it’s the corporations and the government that has the big step to make, when in fact all of us contribute to the problem of climate change through our lifestyle. All of us have a part to play.”

For Oehl of the Order of the Servant Franciscans, paying attention to climate change means embracing a spirituality of conversion.

“The environment affects the poor and vulnerable of our world. We commit ourselves to a serious review of our lifestyles — aiming at solidarity, avoiding unnecessary waste and the exaggerated use of natural resources. We commit ourselves and invite everyone individually and collectively to assess their conduct in the area of ecology,” she said.

The starting point for conversion is prayer, said Oehl.

“It’s so vital for the good of the planet, and that includes humankind and our most vulnerable brothers and sisters,” she said. “We pray for the poor, and this global warming impacts them greatly.”

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