This century is on course to witness unprecedented environmental changes. In particular, the projected climate changes or, more appropriately, climate disruptions, when coupled with ongoing massive species extinctions and the destruction of ecosystems, will doubtless leave their indelible marks on both humanity and nature. As early as 2100, there will be a non negligible probability of irreversible and catastrophic climate impacts that may last over thousands of years, raising the existential question of whether civilization as we know it can be extended beyond this century. Only a radical change in our attitude towards Creation and towards our fellow humans, complemented by transformative technological innovations, could reverse the dangerous trends that have already been set into motion inadvertently. A sustainable future based on the continued extraction of coal, oil and gas and their use in the “business-as-usual mode” will not be possible, because it raises the specter of a world that could be significantly warmer than 2°C by the end of this century. Such a temperature rise, occurring in a warm inter-glacial epoch that we call the Holocene, has not been seen in tens of millions of years. This creates a serious risk that Earth will cross critical thresholds and tipping points, pushing whole environmental systems, such as rain forests, continental ice sheets, coastal wetlands, monsoon patterns and marine food webs into different states or even annihilation. To quote the most recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Synthesis Report released in 2014: We risk “increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”
The climate system is highly complex and it could respond in surprising ways that have not yet been anticipated by models that project the future climate. But the uncertainty can go both ways. For example, the actual warming of the planet to continued build up of the greenhouse gases, can be a factor of 2 smaller or larger than the projected values. Climate change that is a factor of two larger than the predicted changes poses unacceptable risks to society, ecosystem and the economy, particularly since the life time of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a century or longer and the life time of the heat added to the deeper layers of the oceans can exceed several centuries.
There is still time, however, to mitigate unmanageable climate changes and thus to protect humanity and nature. Adequate technological solutions and policy options have been clearly prescribed in numerous reports and need no extended repetition here. Suffice it to note that the most important steps involve the shift from fossil fuels to zero-carbon and low carbon sources and technologies, coupled with a reversal of deforestation, land degradation, and air pollution. In contemplating these needed “deep de-carbonization” transformations, however, we must not ignore the underlying socio-economic factors that are responsible for our current predicament. Our problems have been exacerbated by the current economic obsession that measures human progress solely in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth, a practice that could be justified only if natural capital were of infinite size. Present economic systems have also fostered the development of unacceptable gaps between the rich and the poor. The latter still have no access to most of the scientific and technical benefits of the modern age. During the 20th Century by far the greatest emitters of carbon were the world’s rich nations. In the 21st century world it is, again, the rich who are doing most of the greenhouse polluting, but the rich now are no longer confined to the rich world. The three billion poorest people continue to have only a minimal role in the global warming pollution, yet are certain to suffer the worst consequences of unabated climate change.
The Catholic Church, working with the leadership of other religions, could take a decisive role in helping to solve this problem. The Church could accomplish this by mobilizing public opinion and public funds to meet the energy needs of the poorest 3 billion in a way that does not contribute to global warming but would allow them to prepare better for the challenges of unavoidable climate change. The case for prioritizing climate-change mitigation depends crucially on accepting the fact that we have a responsibility not only towards those who are living in poverty today, but also to generations yet unborn. We have to reduce the potentially catastrophic threat that hangs over so many people. Though it is late in the day, the world’s governments are recognizing the challenges that we face on a global level. The UN Member States have announced their determination to place Sustainable Development at the center of global cooperation, building a holistic cooperative strategy on the pillars of economic progress, social inclusion and environmental sustainability. This would involve the adoption of new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to help guide global cooperation during the course of future generations. All people of good will should encourage their governments to undertake these commitments to action. We should also advance our intellectual capacities as well as scientific knowledge, both of the natural and the social sciences, which can be expected to insure the well being of many future generations in a relatively stable environmen
Over and above institutional reforms, policy changes and technological innovations for affordable access to zero-carbon energy sources, there is a fundamental need to reorient our attitude toward nature and, thereby, toward ourselves. Finding ways to develop a sustainable relationship with our planet requires not only the engagement of scientists, political leaders and civil societies, but ultimately also a moral revolution. Religious institutions can and should take the lead on bringing about such a new attitude towards Creation.