It no longer seems rational to assume that
humanity, encountering an existential threat,
will behave rationally”. Nathaniel Rich
It may already be too late. In his book Losing Earth (the clue is in the title), Nathaniel Rich points to the decade 1979 to ‘89 when there was a concerted and optimistic international attempt by scientists and diplomats to wake the world up to the realities of climate change, culminating in the Noordwicjk conference of world leaders in November 1989. Thanks to the unrelenting efforts of the major oil companies and the blind inertia of many of the G7 countries, including the US and Great Britain, the rising hope of many delegates to instigate a global freeze on carbon emissions came to nothing. Since then, more carbon has been released into the atmosphere than in the entire history of civilisation preceding it. The world is warming more quickly than most climate models have predicted. There may only be twelve years left before the changes become irreversible.
Losing Earth is a book that everyone on the planet should be reading. That and Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’, (On Care for our Common Home) which Rich sees as prophetic:
“For human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins. For to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God.
(These environmental problems) require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms” (Laudato Si’).
Everything must change in the way each one of us conducts our lives. It is easy to complain that the problem is too vast and each of us is too small. Listen to Pope Francis:
“ A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty of care for creation through little daily actions and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle. …avoiding using (single-use) plastic…reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can be reasonably consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights or any number of other practices. (Laudato Si’)
Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979 and the main principles were settled beyond debate. Yet as Rich points out, today almost nine out of ten Americans (and surely we can extrapolate to other countries!) do not know that scientists agree, well beyond the threshold of consensus, that human beings have altered the global climate through the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels. The more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warmer the planet. Without urgent action, long-term disaster is now the most likely scenario. If we do not restrict the warming quickly and very significantly, this will lead to widespread starvation and drought. The inundation of the coasts and the expansion of the deserts will force hundreds of millions of people to migrate, creating huge struggles over natural resources leading to conflict and war. In other words, global warming is a very real existential threat to the whole of civilisation.
If we truly wish to save our beautiful common homeland therefore, we must all have a change of heart:
“We are speaking of an attitude of heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full… (If we) become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment.” (Laudato Si’).
What can we do?
The Bishop of Salford, John Arnold, who is currently the chairman of the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (Cafod), has produced the following suggestions (see below) that each one of us can consider. Cafod suggests many practical ways of helping those in the world already facing the catastrophic effects of climate change. You can find out more at www.cafod.org.uk
It may not be too late if we all act now.