If it is to give a credible response to the ecological crisis, Christian action needs to be based on a profound knowledge of the sources establishing its identity. Foremost among these sources is the Bible, which for Christians is “the source of revelation and the basis of their faith”.18 That said, Bible texts do not offer any directive norms on how to handle the issues of destruction of the environment and climate change. The dangers we now face were unknown in Biblical times. This historical distancemust be borne in mind when we consider the issues of our time in the light of Biblical texts. The Bible is not amanual onmorality, but it forms a point of reference that assures us of our identity and provides a basis for Christian debate on these issues.
Bringing food to flood victims in India.
Creation | Between flood and rainbow | The Message of the Kingdom of God | Christian and ethical reflection
The starting point for all Christian activity is the Biblical notion of the world as creation. Christian responsibility for the environment begins with appreciation of the goodness of all God’s creation. In the beginning, “God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good” (Gen 1,31).
The creation story, as narrated in the book of Genesis, obliges us to treat God’s work responsibly. God creates men and women in his image, and calls on them to take care of the Earth accordingly (Gen 1,27- 28). Of all God’s creations, men and women are therefore challenged in a special way to take responsibility for creation19. Nevertheless, they are not the Creator; they are a part of this creation, not its master. Pope Benedict XVI clarified the position:
“To the extent that the Earth was considered God’s creation, the duty of ‘subjecting’was never understood as an order to make it a slave, but rather as a duty of being a custodian of creation and developing its gifts; of collaborating ourselves in an active way in God’s work, in the evolution that God placed in the world, so that the gifts of creation are prized and not trampled upon or destroyed.”20
Between flood and rainbow
The fragility of the human family’s Godgiven responsibility to care for creation is evident in prehistory. Nature is experienced by men and women as unpredictable and full of dangers (Gen 3,17-19). They are not able to fulfil their responsibility as keepers of this order. But there is a new beginning, with God concluding a covenant with His people following the Flood (Gen 9). This new world order takes account of the competing relationship between the human family and the animals. Henceforth, men and women are permitted to kill animals for food (Gen 9,3). But, on the other hand, they are held responsible for creation, in a more extended manner, and they still are not given any unrestricted power of disposal over it (Gen 9,5-7).
In many other Old Testament texts, one can find references to the understanding of the world as creation, for instance in the Psalms or in the Book of Job, where God reveals the greatness of his works. Common to all of these is the notion of the shared presence of God in His creation, which is a gift that has been freely given. Men and women are to act on Earth as custodians and shepherds. They hold a responsibility for creation in trust, and are to“cultivate and take care”of it (Gen 2,15). However, the ultimate knowledge of creation, its origin and starting-point lies with God (Job 38-39).
The Message of the Kingdom of God
The notion of the world as creation that is intrinsic to the Old Testament is also taken as a given in the NewTestament: for instance, Jesus proclaims that the Kingdom of God is close at hand (Mk 1,15) and with it the message that salvation is already present alongside the reality of creation and life, but simultaneously, in a mysterious way, hidden and repeatedly to be sought afresh.21 The world, despite all its conflict and ambivalence, is creation, the place of the redemptive influence of Christ and the start of the Kingdom of God.
“In nature, the believer recognises the wonderful result of God’s creative activity, which we may use responsibly to satisfy our legitimate needs, material or otherwise, while respecting the intrinsic balance of creation. If this vision is lost, we end up either considering nature an untouchable taboo or, on the contrary, abusing it. Neither attitude is consonant with the Christian vision of nature as the fruit of God’s creation.”22
Christian and ethical reflection
The Bible does not offer any concrete rules for dealing with climate policy. Seeking guidance from Biblical texts does not dispense with a need for sensible justification of ethical standards. Christian positions which seek to be conveyed convincingly in a pluralist society need to give an account of the initial thinking which informs them and to bring this into a fruitful dialogue with other disciplines. Moral insight can only call for those things which prove compatible with common sense and appropriate to the context. There is therefore a need for matching normative criteria. One approach for this is offered by the principles of social ethics.
Human Dignity: The Christian narrative revealing God’s creation of men and women“in the image of God”, is also to be found in the philosophical discussion of the human person. Common to both concepts is the attribution of dignity to the human person, as an unconditional value which precludes any exploitation. An understanding of this kind, as is also to be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, must contribute towards a consideration of climate change. Respect for human dignity is a central value in the Christian tradition. It encompasses the whole person in all her or his dimensions and includes the right to life and its sanctity at all stages. Climate change and its results threaten the basic right of all human persons to life today and in future generations.
“Our mistreatment of the natural world diminishes our own dignity and sacredness, not only because we are destroying resources that future generations of humans need, but because we are engaging in actions that contradict what it means to be human. Our tradition calls us to protect the life and dignity of the human person, and it is increasingly clear that this task cannot be separated from the care and defence of all of creation.”23
Solidarity and the common good: In the Catholic tradition, the universal common good is specified by the duty of solidarity, “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good”, a willingness “to‘lose oneself’ for the sake of the other instead of exploiting them.”24 In the face of “the structures of sin”, moreover, solidarity requires sacrifices of our own self-interest for the good of others and of the Earth we share.
Solidarity places special obligations upon industrial democracies. “The ecological crisis,”Pope John Paul II wrote, “reveals the urgent moral need for a new solidarity, especially in relations between the developing nations and those that are highly industrialised.”25 Working for the common good requires us to promote the flourishing of all human life and all of God’s creation. In a special way, the common good requires solidarity with the poor who are often without the resources to face many problems, including the potential impacts of climate change. Our obligations to the one human family stretch across space and time. They tie us to the poor in our midst and across the globe, as well as to future generations. The commandment to love our neighbour invites us to consider the poor and marginalised of other nations as true brothers and sisters who share with us the one table of life intended by God for the enjoyment of all.
All nations share the responsibility to address the problem of global climate change. But historically the industrial economies have been responsible for the highest emissions of greenhouse gases that scientists suggest are causing the warming trend. Also, significant wealth, technological sophistication and entrepreneurial creativity give these nations a greater capacity to find useful responses to this problem. To avoid greater impact, energy resource adjustments must be made both in the policies of richer countries and in the development paths of poorer ones.
The principles of solidarity and the common good remind us that we are all responsible for each other and must work for social conditions that ensure that all people and groups in society are able to meet their needs and realise their potential. Every group in society should take into account the rights and aspirations of other groups, and the wellbeing of the whole human family.26
Pope John Paul II said, “We cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention both to the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the wellbeing of future generations.”27 Responses to global climate change should reflect our interdependence and common responsibility for the future of our planet. Individual nations must measure their own self-interest against the greater common good and contribute equitably to global solutions.
Subsidiarity: Most people will agree that while the current use of fossil fuels has fostered and continues to foster substantial economic growth, development and benefits for many, there is a legitimate concern that as developing countries improve their economies and emit more greenhouse gases, they will need technological help to mitigate further atmospheric environmental harm. Many of the poor in these countries live in degrading and desperate situations that often lead them to adopt environmentally harmful agricultural and industrial practices. In many cases, the heavy debt burdens, lack of trade opportunities and economic inequities in the global market add to the environmental strains of the poorer countries. Developing countries have a right to economic development that can help lift people out of dire poverty.
Wealthier industrialised nations have the resources, know-how and entrepreneurship to produce more efficient cars and cleaner industries. These countries need to share these emerging technologies with the less-developed countries and assume more of the financial responsibility that would enable poorer countries to afford them. This would help developing countries adopt energy-efficient technologies more rapidly while still sustaining healthy economic growth and development. Industries from the developed countries operating in developing nations should exercise a leadership role in preserving the environment.
No strategy to confront global climate change will succeed without the leadership and participation of the United States and other industrial nations. But any successful strategy must also reflect the genuine participation and concerns of those most affected and least able to bear the burdens. Developing and poorer nations must have a genuine place at the negotiating table. Genuine participation for those most affected is a moral and political necessity for advancing the common good.28
Only with equitable and sustainable development can poor nations curb continuing environmental degradation and avoid the destructive effects of the kind of overdevelopment that has used natural resources irresponsibly.29 Poor countries need empowerment, and that means helping the poor to help themselves.
Sustainability: The problem of climate change is, above all, a question of sustainability. The principle of sustainability has its starting-point in responsibility for future generations, for unless there is adequate protection of natural resources in the medium and long term, no life worthy of human dignity is possible on Earth.
The first to suffer from climate change are the poorest countries and their citizens. Here, the challenge is to make the Christian Option for the Poor a strong reality. It is a structural injustice that those who have contributed least to the problem of climate change, because they live in less developed and less industrialised regions, are the first to feel the effects.Without ecological sustainability, successes in the fight against poverty can only be of limited duration. Sustainability is therefore included in the UN Millennium Development Goals for combating poverty, because climate change affects the poorest in particular and also exacerbates poverty. Unrestrained economic development is not the answer to improving the lives of the poor. Catholic Social Teaching has never accepted material growth as a model of development. A“mere accumulation of goods and services, even for the benefit of the majority,” as Pope John Paul II said, “is not enough for the realisation of human happiness.”30
Climate change is, however, not just a problem for the poor – it affects all people and the basis on which they are able to conduct their lives, as well as future generations. Sustainability is therefore also a question of responsibility towards creation, which is simultaneously the basis for global and intergenerational justice. In our use of the environment “we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole”.31
In spite of the degree of certainty that has been reached about the problem of climate change, we still have to act in the midst of uncertainty, because the speed and strength of climate change in the coming years and decades, as well as its regional effects, cannot be accurately forecast.
“The principle of foresight is a decision-making aid which lowers risks and protects the natural means of livelihood for future generations. […] In addition to the principle that the party responsible is liable for damages and the precautionary principle, the Christian point of view also calls for the principle of proportionality: the good cause – environmental protection for the good of mankind and creation – does not always justify the means […] i.e. any harm caused may not be greater than its achieved benefit.”32
Authentic development supports moderation and even austerity in the use of material resources. It also encourages a balanced view of human progress consistent with respect for nature. Furthermore, it invites the development of alternative visions of the good society and the use of economic models with richer standards of wellbeing than material productivity alone. Authentic development also requires affluent nations to seek ways to reduce and restructure their over-consumption of natural resources. Finally, authentic development also entails encouraging the proper use of both agricultural and industrial technologies, so that development does not merely mean technological advancement for its own sake but rather that technology benefits people and enhances the land.33
RESOURCESAnnual reportHow Caritas works: Climate Change Guide on Environmental JusticeClimate change on Caritas BlogClimate justice newsletter vol. 6