The Common Good

Who Will Take Personal Responsibility for Denying Climate Change?

This week the National Climate Assessment Report was released, documenting the disruptions already being experienced due to global warming. President Obama has tried to raise the alarm by talking about the Report with weather reporters in different cities.

What’s amazing to me are not the findings of the report. More flooding, extreme temperatures, drought, severe wildfires — these have been predicted for years. And the crushing effects of global warming around the world are felt most by the poor and marginalized.

The most shocking reality is that this argument still needs to be made. For me this is personal. I was called to join the staff of the World Council of Churches in 1989 as Director of Church and Society. The WCC had just adopted a new program emphasis called “A conciliar process for justice, peace and integrity of creation.” And as good as the term “integrity of creation” sounded, no one really knew what it meant. Because of work I had done during that decade on theology of creation and the biblical call to take care of the earth, I was asked facilitate the WCC’s work in this area.

No specific issue seemed to speak more clearly to the challenge of preserving the “integrity of creation” than global warming and its human causes, which were becoming recognized at that time. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which gathered the best scientists from throughout the world to study this issue, met and issued its first report in Geneva in 1990. We gathered a group of church leaders from around the world to meet with the panel, and that began the WCC’s work on climate change, which continues to this day.

That first report, issued 24 years ago, was scientifically prophetic. The warnings it included then about potential effects, which some critics said were alarmist, are now headlines we read and hear about severe weather events, and their tragic human consequences, around the world. The scientific truth about the reality of climate change, its human related causes and its catastrophic effects, have been clear for years. The IPCC has issued four more reports, refining and clarifying its findings, and also winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Countless other studies, including the National Climate Assessment released this week, have affirmed these realities.

Doubting today that the global climate is warming, due largely to humanity’s actions increasing the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, is like questioning whether smoking causes cancer. And yet, there’s still a struggle to make the case. Remember that in the Republican presidential primaries only one candidate, Jon Huntsman, said he believed that climate change, and its human causes, was real.

We’ve seen a whole industry of climate change denial, heavily funded by coal and oil interests, with their political allies in Congress who even today warn about a “war on coal” rather than the effects of global warming. And the press hasn’t been helpful either, treating the climate change debate as if, scientifically, there are two equal sides to the question, and to be “balanced,” you must always give equal time to the skeptical voices. It’s like finding one out of a hundred people in medicine who doubt whether smoking damages health, and quoting that voice equally in any story about regulating tobacco use.

Recently I’ve heard more voices talking about the “adaptations” we need to make in light of global warming. So there’s a growing pragmatic acceptance of some realities. But here’s what I’m waiting to hear: a political leader, or their allies from industry, who have consistently denied climate change and fought against every step or piece of legislation to address it, to simply say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Let’s figure out some actions to take.”

Those who have led the charge against addressing climate change need to take personal responsibility for their actions. “Personal responsibility” is a phrase I hear my conservative Republican friends talk about a lot. And I agree. In any understanding of building society’s common good, personal responsibility for how one’s actions affect others is a necessary ingredient.

But those who have denied climate change and thwarted actions to prevent or mitigate its effects have not just been mistaken. They are responsible for the increase in human suffering that has resulted now, and will continue in the future, from its effects. In the wake of yet another credible report speaking clearly and objectively to realities which we now directly experience, I would love to see someone actually take “personal responsibility,” admit that he or she has been mistaken, and see a readiness to work in nonpartisan, constructive ways that offer a hope of still preserving the integrity of creation.

Wes Granberg-Michaelson is the author of From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church. For 17 years he served as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America, and has long been active in ecumenical initiatives such as the Global Christian Forum and Christian Churches Together. He’s been associated with the ministry of Sojourners for 40 years.

Image: "Banksy is a climate change denier." by Matt Brown / Flickr.com

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