Amid the avalanche of rogue supreme court decisions that have come out in the past few months, there’s one that has slid under the radar: West Virginia v. EPA.
Previously, the EPA regulated power plant emissions based on policy made in the Clean Air Act. However, in a 6-3 decision , the Supreme Court gave a ruling that limits the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory power. This ruling not only applies to broad-based, regulatory policies but also cap-and-trade programs, which let the government set “caps” on the amount of pollution an emitter may release and allows emitters to sell unused emission allowances to other companies. Cap-and-trade is a weak way to address climate change, so it’s a bad sign that conservatives are squashing even the weakest federal policies meant to protect the climate.
This Supreme Court ruling should motivate Christians to fight back against climate change and apply a sharp, analytical framework to issues of climate justice. And that requires us to shift from a mindset of “creation care” to one that actually address the scope of our problems: eco-socialism and degrowth.
Since the 1980s, some Christians and organizations have been advocating for environmental action and policy, using the framework of “creation care” to convince people to care for the earth (Genesis 2:15).
For example, the Evangelical Environmental Network offers many resources for evangelical Christians interested in creation care approaches to climate change. Many of these examples come down to advocating for market-based plans to make your church or home more energy efficient. Creation care relies on a thoroughly reformist approach; it does not condemn the system that got us here in the first place: the system of capitalist growth and accumulation. While well-intentioned, creation care is a fundamentally flawed approach to stopping climate change. There’s nothing wrong with these reformist approaches; it’s good to make sure your church is energy efficient, but it’s also important to be realistic about the limited efficacy of this approach. Capitalism creates the conditions for human-caused climate change, and small modifications will not solve the climate crisis.
Unlike creation care frameworks, degrowth recognizes that unbridled capitalist growth is pushing our climate to its breaking point through needless production and consumption. In response, degrowth focuses on reorienting society towards economies that focus on less production and consumption while promoting social, economic, and environmental justice.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released numerous reports from 1990 to the most recent in 2022, stressing how dire the climate crisis is. In their 2021 report and policy summary, the IPCC issued a dire warning for human civilization if we refuse to change course: In every case that they examined, they came to the conclusion that even if humanity were to adopt adequate policies to reduce carbon emissions, the planet will still heat up by at least 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040. However, in Less is More economic anthropologist and author Jason Hickel hypothesizes that even if every country sticks to its word about its current climate plans and projects, we’ll most likely hit a 3.3 degrees Celsius of global average warming by the end of the century.
If we fail to act altogether, we’ll see what the IPCC lays out in their fifth scenario (SSP5-8.5): The planet could heat up by 4.4 degrees Celsius, which would be catastrophic for human life and biodiversity, resulting in rising sea levels, unprecedented heat waves, droughts and water scarcity, increased frequency of intense storms, and loss of biodiversity.
While this all seems pretty apocalyptic, there’s actually plenty that we can do and change systemically!
Notably, the sixth IPCC report also includes a section titled “Summary for Policy Makers” that outlines ways our governments could make meaningful structural changes to ease warming. But a small group of scientists revealed that many governmental bodies heavily edited the original draft before publication because of their vested interest in economic growth. One piece of information that was omitted was an explanation about how the people most responsible for driving climate change are the wealthiest 10 percent. Other omitted recommendations suggested that gas and coal plants should be closed within the decade, that people should move away from meat-based diets, and that participatory democracy can combat politicians’ stagnation when it comes to addressing climate change. These are the types of policies that degrowth advocates for, and they are the type we should embrace.
While governmental bodies omitting certain findings of the IPCC policy summaries should scandalize us, it should also give us hope: The unedited research demonstrates that an uninhabitable planet is not a certain future.
In The Future is Degrowth, Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter, and Aaron Vansintjan, define degrowth as an umbrella term for many different ideas that 1) imagine a future society where success does not hinge on the growth of gross domestic product and 2) focus on planning a more sustainable economic and social metabolism through participatory democracy.
It’s critical to note that degrowth stands in stark contrast to eco-fascist approaches to climate change, including Malthusianism, an idea rooted in a 1798 essay by English clergyman Thomas Robert Malthus, who
Degrowth imagines a future where the scales between humans and environment are leveled through the process of participatory planning based on geographical specificity and social need. The United States, for example, is among the countries with the highest rates of carbon emissions and was responsible for 4,981.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2020. Considering the scope of the United States’ emissions, degrowth in the United States would look different from how it might look in the global South. In the U.S., we would look to limit flying, transition away from a car-based culture, eat less meat, rewild portions of our country, and completely transition away from fossil fuels as examples of degrowth.
Thinking about a fundamental reorientation in how humans relate to the earth and to one another feels like a gargantuan project. But Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff argues that this reorientation is more urgent than ever. Boff says that the first thing we must do is “create a deep affective bond with nature and the Earth. Love them and take care of them. Second, we need to live in intimate communion with them… we can feel like brothers and sisters of all things in the style of Saint Francis of Assisi.” Practically speaking, this means recognizing that our lives and the life of the earth are completely bound up with one another. Love and care for creation means that we have to transform our patterns of production and consumption so that there is a future for creation.
In a world where the power of federal agencies like the EPA are limited and dire scientific reports are altered in the interests of businesses and economies, Christians must urge repentance of ecological sin through action and organizing.