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The Morals of Climate Change

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Climate change has become impossible to ignore. For some time it has a nebulous concept, hard to quantify and hard to feel. Humans tend not to be great at believing things they can't feel or experience. There are many exceptions to this of course - faith and religion being two of the largest - but I would maintain that if humans can't see it, they won't believe it. With respect to environmental matters, many humans cannot see the dire impacts we are inflicting upon the planet. For most, rising sea levels that swallow islands in the South Pacific are only stories; they have no immediate impact on one's life and therefore are inconsequential.

But climate change is just the tip of the rapidly melting environmental iceberg. Environmental and ecological concerns present many of the greatest moral questions of this era. Environmental degradation and climate change are inextricably bound to people's ability to safely access food and water. We can see this in the Southwestern United States, currently experiencing Dust Bowl levels of drought. But the effects are even more pronounced in the Global South. Paraphrasing 350.org founder and climate activist Bill McKibben, who recently gave a sermon at Riverside Church in New York City: the climate change induced drought of the American midlands pushed grain prices up 30 percent last summer. A 30 percent increase does little to the average American who may see the price of Corn Flakes go up a few cents. But to a person in Haiti, a 30 percent increase in price is the difference between having food on the table and not.

Ensuring that food gets to mouth is a moral issue, just as it is a moral issue to ensure that people have access to clean drinking water. It's too easy to avoid this problem. By and large we excuse ourselves of wrongdoing. We refuse to recognize our complicity in the systems that lead to man-made climate change and environmental degradation. We fail to acknowledge our own complicity in these systems of climate change and environmental degradation, and if we do, we often acquiesce to the systems that exist rather than exercising the agency we possess to change the status quo.

Since this blog is aimed toward a religious audience I'll say that I'm not expecting people of faith to all be members of environmental organizations. However, I do think that there should be more of an uproar about the flagrant degradation of the planet God gave us to take care of (the "stewardship" of Abrahamic religions). How can we say that we love our neighbor when we daily partake habits of consumption that destroy the very land upon which our neighbor live?
We seem ready to disassociate land from neighbor, yet our neighbors form the land that they live on. We seem ready to forget that we are inextricably bound to the environment and the people around us. We are ready to assume that we live on an island and that our actions, or the actions of others, somehow will not affect our ability to live well. It's a questionable position to hold considering our global economy. It's a questionable position to hold considering that the device I'm writing this article on (and you're reading it on) came from a factory in China with minerals (presumably) strip-mined from neo-colonized Africa.

Environmental issues are part and parcel of the myriad social problems and human rights violations we face today. Mountain top removal, coal plants, fracking, toxic waste depositories...tragedies that often take place in communities that are forgotten about. Environmental disaster typically strikes the hardest in areas of the world where the voice of protest is represented the least. It happens in faraway China, beyond the prying eyes of environmental activists. It happens with mountain removal in economically depressed Appalachia, a region unfairly written off by many Americans. It happens with toxic waste sites being located in poor minority communities across the United States. It happens with deforestation in the Amazon where the primary population is indigenous, poor, and largely forgotten to history.

But because they are forgotten does not mean that they do not exist. Sadly these have become tired tropes, mantras that have turned into vague murmurs easily (and readily) lost amidst the calamitous demands of life. We can disassociate ourselves from the moral imperatives that climate change and environmental degradation present because they are often hidden from the public eye of Americans.

With President Obama's speech on Tuesday, though, climate change and environmental degradation are moving from the corners of public discourse into the center stage. Now it is time for the public to respond and to recognize the environmental and moral imperatives climate change presents to us. We can hope and believe that someone somewhere will stop the change. But the fact of the matter is that in order to assuage the effects of a changing planet, the change begins with us.