Time to Sound the Alarm
Eduardo Moisés Peñalver January 6, 2007 - 10:42am
Here in Ithaca, NY, daffodils are pushing up through the soil in my garden and it is an unbelievable 60 degrees on the Feast of the Epiphany. Last January, it was nearly 50 degrees for the entire month. This year, we have yet to see real snow in upstate New York. In Minnesota, the Jaycees have permanently decided to move their annual ice-fishing tournament north after having to cancel it four of the last five years. It's long past time to be very, very concerned about this. Sure, the mild weather is pleasant. I love going outside without a jacket. But entire ecosystems depend on the cold, and there's no reason to think that climate change is going to stop once we reach a nice mild northeastern winter or that we have any way to predict what the effects of tinkering with the global climate might be. (UPDATE: As one of the commenters below aptly points out, there's no guarantee that climate change will be an oderly affair, like turning up the thermostat in your house a few degrees. We're playing with a chaotic system that we don't really understand all that well. For that same reason, it's true that we can't know that this warm weather is related to global climate change or just the product of el Nino, but, as a climatologist said on NPR last week, climate change increases the likelihood of record warmth and decreases the likelihood of record cold, so while we can't ever know that a particular weather episode is "caused by" global warming, we can be sure that, over time, it's going to increase the liklihood of certain sorts of episodes. Consequently, it seems fair to use one such episode as an excuse for writing a post like this.)
John Paul II reminded us that, as Catholics, we should have a special awareness of our obligation to be responsible stewards of creation.
Man, who discovers hiscapacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his ownwork, forgets that this is always based on God's prior and original gift of thethings that are. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth,subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its ownrequisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but mustnot betray. Instead of carrying out his role as a co-operator with God in thework of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends upprovoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized thangoverned by him.
Unfortunately, I think the Church has been not nearly visible enough on this issue. Surely the question of environmental protection is part of our Culture of Life, and climate change is the biggest environmental issue of them all. But environmentalism has been relegated to something of a poor relation within Catholic moral thought, and on global warming the Church has been nearly AWOL.
The U.S. Catholic Bishops did come out with a nice statement back in 2001. But the issue has been treated with none of the urgency with which they have imbued other questions, like abortion, stem cell research, and even gay marriage. And isn't this part of the problem with global climate change as an issue? The most drastic consequences are uncertain and, apparently, decades into the future (though the speed of the shifts seem to be surprising even the most pessimistic of forecasters). Yet the action to stem off catastrophe needs to be taken today. Compared to the immediate evil of abortion and stem cell research, climate change seems like a distant contender for Catholic attention, an asymmetry that has led some Catholic conservatives to assert that it is categorically unreasonable to vote, for a pro-choice Democrat against a pro-life Republican (and even, under certain circumstances, for a pro-life Democrat against a pro-choice Republican), notwithstanding the view of the Republican leadership that global warming is a hoax on which no action needs to be taken, or Republican views on any other issue of concern to Catholics, for that matter.
In part, my interest in the problem of climate change has been heightened by the birth of my son a few months back. I think about the uncertainty climate change presents for our future, and I wonder what sort of planet he is inheriting. Will he witness the extinction of polar bears in the wild? The death of the earth's great coral reefs? Chaos and famine as agricultural systems fail to cope with the shifting climate and the increasingly frequent extreme weather?
Meanwhile, our boy king fiddles.
[UPDATE: Although it's not the central topic of the post, there's extended discussion in the comments of the degree to which the Robert George post on First Things to which I link in the main post is reflective of his views on assessing how Catholics ought to vote. In light of the questions raised in the comments, I wrote to George to ask how best to characterize his position. His response made clear that my language in the main post was oversimplifying his view, and so I've adjusted it to try to more accurately reflect what he believes. The short version is that in determining how to vote for a pro-life Democrat, he would distinguish among various types of elected office (i.e., the degree to which the candidate would be subject to party discipline), which, as I understand him, leads him to take a stance supportive of the permissibility voting for pro-life Democrats running for executive positions. On the legislative side, he would -- for the most part -- rule out the permissibility of voting for Democrats in elections in which the party stood to gain (or lose) majority power in a legislative body. (This is likely to be the situation in the U.S. Congress for the foreseeable future -- given the narrowness of the majorities in both the House and Senate -- and so I take it that, applying his principles and barring some exceptional circumstances that are unlikely to arise in most cases, George would think that a Catholic cannot in good faith support even a pro-life Democratic candidate for, say, the Senate, such as Casey in Pa.).) There are a few caveats in all of this about intention (e.g., what to do if the Republican candidate is demonstrably corrupt, etc.), and I'm sure I haven't fully captured the nuance of his views, but suffice it to say that he does not rule out the permissibility of ever voting for a pro-life Democrat, which is contrary to my initial understanding of his position, although he does rule it out in some cases (which is consistent with the post as now revised).
With that said, my original point still stands, because my observation in this regard was simply meant to point out that the view held by certain people -- including George -- that abortion trumps differences over over global warming, notwithstanding global warming's potentially catastrophic effects, seems to be based in part on the delayed nature of the harm global warming portends. Moreover, I continue to disagree with George's position -- even as clarified in this update -- because I think the Church's teachings permit one to vote even for apro-choice candidate or party, provided that one is not voting for the candidate or party because s/he is pro-choice and provided that one's reasons for favoringthe pro-choice candidate are sufficiently weighty (a requirement that George and others think is not reasonably at play within the current range of political debate in this country, but on whose satisfaction I think reasonable, faithful Catholic voters can -- and do -- disagree).]
About the Author
Eduardo Moisés Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the subjects of property and land use law.