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Climate Change Demands Moral Change

06/29/2015 05:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

"God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."" (cf. Gen 1:28).

Whether or not you are religious, this iconic phrase from the Book of Genesis has had immense influence on the way you live. So much of what has come before you, be it Enlightenment thought, the Industrial Revolution, urbanization or otherwise, has been shaped by the fundamental notion that man ruled over the Earth and its creatures. Its consequences may never have been clearer than today, when scientists are debating if we have entered the geological epoch of the Anthropocene, when human behavior directly shapes the Earth's ecosystems.

This thought is central to Pope Francis's Encyclical on climate change: he seeks to replace the understanding of man's dominion over the Earth as a license to pillage it with an understanding of our responsibility to till and keep it. While this objection concerns only a couple of verses in the Old Testament, it reflects the enormous demand for a paradigm shift within the Christian faith and beyond. Pope Francis demands that we take responsibility for the havoc we are causing our planet. And when we do, we must change our entire way of inhabiting it. This recognition of climate change as a moral question is growing, as exemplified by the Summit of Conscience for the Climate taking place in Paris on 21 July in preparation for the COP 21 climate negotiations.

Morality versus politics

The Pope does not offer any new insights into the facts of climate change. Indeed, he aligns himself with the most moderate scientists in the field. Where his encyclical contributes something new is in terms of its insistence that climate change is not simply a scientific, or even a political or economic issue -- at its core, it is a moral issue.

In its insistence on climate change as a moral issue, the Encyclical challenges the entire existing debate on climate change, which thus far has often been relegated to political bickering or downright disregard. This dilemma posed by the Encyclical is nowhere clearer than among so-called "climate skeptic" Catholics, particularly in the United States. As one commentator asked after the publication of the encyclical, "In the age of Pope Francis, can a good Republican be a good Catholic?" If a good Catholic follows the Pope's teachings, the answer thus far appears to be no. Presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum have openly declared their skepticism towards the Pope's stance on climate change, asking that the Church stick to "making us better as people", without interfering in politics. Meanwhile, only a quarter of Republican Catholics believe climate change is man-made and a serious problem, compared to 71% of American Catholics overall. Republican politicians in turn have made a virtue out of explaining their lack of knowledge about climate change with the defense "I am not a scientist," insinuating again that climate change is a subject with which they do not have to engage.

As nonsensical as the position of American "climate skeptics" appears to most outsiders, the perceived rift between morality and science is not unique to them. As Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder and head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a primary environmental adviser to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany explains, scientists are reluctant to making moral recommendations. Thus far, an assumption has persisted that if people were simply presented with the horrid facts on climate change, they would be immediately moved to action. This has proved not to be the case. The question is if this may not have something to do with our failure to understand climate change as a moral and spiritual challenge concerning every person on the planet.

Ignorance is not bliss

As Pope Francis insists, climate change touches on every aspect of modern civilization. It irrevocably impacts communities around the world, and especially the poorest and most marginalized. In terms of the way we think about democracy and living together within our separate societies, and perhaps even more in terms of the way we think about global solidarity and assisting those in need, climate change will define our future.

That is why it is long overdue that climate change is addressed as a moral issue. The linkage between morality and religion on the one hand and climate change on the other is evident from the increased activism among religious, spiritual, and interfaith groups, such as the Alliance of Religion and Conservation (ARC) and the World Council of Churches. Governments, too, are recognizing the importance of spiritual and religious engagement: on 21 July, the French Government will host a "Summit of Conscience" for major religious and moral figures ahead of the UN Climate negotiations in Paris this December.

At this summit, a new initiative will be launched :The Green Faith in Action. Its aim is reducing the carbon footprint of the 330 million people who go on pilgrimages every year and thus inspire a connection between faith and environmental protection. The initiative is a joint venture between the ARC, an interfaith environmental organization; R20, an organization that connects regions, technology and finance to build sustainable low-carbon projects; and the Scandinavian based thinktank Sustainia, focusing on identifying sustainable solutions from all parts of the world . The new initiative demonstrates the potential for the discourse around climate change to be turned into a moral, spiritual, and solutions-oriented conversation.

As Yolanda Kakabadse, President of WWF International stated after the release of the Encyclical, "the message from Pope Francis adds a much needed moral approach to the climate debate." One might go further and wonder if the Pope is not actually taking the debate back to its moral beginnings.

A new consciousness for a new agenda

We are not lacking evidence, scientific or otherwise, that climate change is happening. Rather than discuss the extent of our possible extinction,, we need to discuss what climate change really means. We are likely to find that it means we must shift our mindset in the direction that Pope Francis demands. A mindset that understands the limitations of our dominion over the Earth, and a mindset that contains solidarity with those most affected by climate change and least able to mitigate We have passed the time , where climate change was a scientific, political, economic or business issue. It deals with our moral as human beings and our joint responsibility for the future of The Planet.

Whether one is optimistic about the prospects of such a conversation is another matter. The fact remains that it is our only option, because climate change demands more of our moral imagination than ever before. As Malcolm Bull, Professor of the History of Ideas at Oxford University has expressed it, "climate ethics is not morality applied but morality discovered." The problem of climate change requires a new understanding of our responsibilities toward each other, a new understanding of democracy, and ultimately "a new chapter in the moral education of mankind." Rather than an ideological battle, climate change invites humanity on a quest to find solutions for people of all persuasions, and as such, this moral challenge contains vast new possibilities of how to imagine the future.

Mobilizing our conscience could be the game changer in fighting climate change.