Love Your Neighbor, Love the Earth

By Jim Wallis 5-14-2009

The industrialized world's collective failure to both regulate pollution and curb gross overconsumption has put millions and billions of the world's poorest and most vulnerable people at increased risk of hunger, thirst, flooding, and disease. The failure of Christians to live up to the God-given mandate to "serve and preserve" the earth and be good stewards of the resources God has given us means an additional failure to live out God's mandate to care for the poor. We cannot claim to care for the poor while we turn our backs on our role in the destruction of the most basic resources our neighbors need for survival. Love for your neighbor and love for the planet on which your neighbor lives cannot be separated.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world's leading authority on the issue, an additional 40 to 170 million poor people are at risk of hunger and malnutrition this century, and 1 to 2 billion people already in poor areas could see further reduction in their water supplies. More than 100 million people could be affected by coastal flooding. These dangers are not long off. In Africa, 75 to 250 million will face water scarcity by 2020, and crop yields could be reduced by 50 percent in some areas. All these changes could quickly produce a refugee crisis with as many as 200 million displaced persons by 2050.

This reality, while depressing, comes with a sign of hope. According to a recent poll sponsored by Faith in Public Life and Oxfam America, 71 percent of Catholics and nearly two-thirds of white evangelicals believe there is solid evidence that the earth is getting warmer, and nearly eight in 10 Americans and roughly the same percentage of Christians believe that we have an obligation to care for God's creation by supporting stricter environmental laws and regulations. Nearly seven in 10 Americans and a similar number of Catholics and white evangelicals believe that climate change is making life harder for the world's poorest because of drought, famine, and crop failure, and even more of that same group -- nearly three quarters -- support helping the world's poorest people adapt to these changes.

Jim Ball, my friend and founder of the Evangelical Environment Network, described to me the other day the uphill fight he used to have in churches to get Christians to pay attention to the environment. That, he says, has changed significantly over the past few years to a broad acceptance of the message of "creation care" and the direct connection that care for the planet has to care for the poor.

This summer, Congress will, for the first time, vote on comprehensive climate change legislation. The American Clean Energy and Security Act is now being debated in a House committee, and much of its shape, thrust, and impact are still being discussed and decided upon. The goal of the legislation will be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through setting a cap on them and requiring businesses to hold permits to emit them. Just like you pay the city for the garbage you create by paying for sanitation services, large industries will have to pay for the garbage (greenhouse gases) they throw away into the air we all breathe. The more they throw away, the more they are charged; the less they throw away, the more they can save. If they really cut back, they can even make money by selling their extra permits to pollute to their less clean neighbors.

Comprehensive climate change legislation must prioritize care for creation, not the special-interest lobbyists on both sides of the aisle who are working to pick apart this legislation. In addition, poor people, both at home and abroad, must be supported with "adaptation" resources to ensure that the cost of this legislation does not fall unduly on their shoulders. The world's poor will need resources to "adapt" -- to move away from or change living structures in at-risk coastal areas, use irrigation technologies in drought areas, or even mosquito nets for areas in which malaria will become a new or increased risk. They will also need support as certain resources -- fossil fuels or products dependent upon fossil fuels -- increase in price due to more significant regulation.

Our voice is crucial in this process and input is greatly needed today. In December, the U.S. will join other countries to discuss an international climate treaty in Copenhagen. With strong leadership from our country, in both word and deed, this could be a transformational conference and result in a climate treaty with some teeth and real impact.

The scriptures do not directly address the benefits of coal vs. nuclear vs. solar power, or carbon taxes vs. carbon markets, or appropriate fuel-efficiency levels for mid-size sedans. But scriptures do make clear priorities for Christians that should frame and guide this debate. With any legislation, policy, or personal behavior we should ask two questions: Does this further our God-given mandate to "serve and preserve" God's creation and acknowledge that we are not owners of the earth but the earth's caretakers? How do our decisions affect the world's most vulnerable people?

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