Monday, January 08, 2007

The "New" Moral Issue and The Politics of Climate Change

One can hardly turn on the tv, listen to the radio, or shift through unsolicited emails these days without hearing about climate change and global warming. The unusually mild weather in the east and the wild storms in the west seem to be catching the attention of average Canadians. Not to mention that the absence of snow through most of the country has ski hill operators and ski enthusiasts seriously considering the future of this Canadian winter passion.
When PM Stephen Harper shuffled his cabinet last week and replaced environment minister Rona Ambrose with John Baird, the media picked up on Harper's efforts to shore up government efforts to take this issue seriously. A new Decima Research poll indicates that the environment has now become the number one concern of Canadian voters with 19% of poll respondents indicating that it's their top concern (over health care, the Afghanistan conflict and the economy) - see and Al Gore's timely movie, An Inconvenient Truth has hit Canadians hard and some churches are even reported to be showing the movie to their congregations in an effort to raise awareness about climate change. An interesting title, isn't it? An inconvenient truth. I wonder if truth is ever convenient, really.
Predictably though, there are those who refuse to get on the bandwagon and who are insisting that the sky isn't falling after all. Or, at least not as fast as we might think. I can't help thinking of a film I saw back around 1980 called Only One Earth. The basic premise of that documentary film (as I recall) was that if things didn't change - dramatically and very soon - the future of planet earth beyond the year 2000 was in serious jeopardy. It really caught my attention. Al Gore's take is equally or more impressive. And yet, I confess there's a niggling doubt in the back of my mind.
Don't misunderstand me, please. I am totally convinced that we ought to be good stewards of this incredible environment. I believe that humanity (and I suppose more specifically, humanity in the western hemisphere) has exploited the earth's natural resources in very crass ways and that we have left a very dirty and deep ecological footprint. But is there a danger that the pendulum might swing too far - that we might become so focussed on environmental issues that we neglect other important and even related issues?
Obviously, public opinion is a very powerful force behind the political machinery of a country. Abraham Lincoln once said:
"Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. He who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or decisions possible or impossible to execute." (from
I'm reading a little volume edited by Bjorn Lomborg entitled How to Spend $50 Billion to Make the World a Better Place (2006). By the way, Bjorn Lomborg is the author of a larger volume called The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (2001) in which he subjects the various measures used to portray climate change and other environmental indicators to rigorous statistical analysis. I think it's fair to say that his basic argument is that climate change is nothing new and that the earth is perhaps in better shape than we think, or at least that it's capable of recovering from the abuses we continue to subject it to. And, if this is the case, we shouldn't spend all of our energy and resources fighting it.
For the 2006 book a group of economists (the Copehnagen Consensus, including four Nobel laureates!) ranked the 10 worst problems facing humanity and made hypothetical decisions as to where $50 billion could be best invested to alleviate the real suffering of real people, based on a cost-benefit analysis. I'm not going to tell you what they recommend (read the book for yourself) but I will say that climate change doesn't make the list. Again, remember that it's not that they think climate change is unimportant, but that in terms of costs and benefits, the money will have a better return on things like HIV/AIDS prevention programs, providing micronutrient-rich dietary supplements to the malnourished, trade liberalisation, mosquito nets to control the spread of malaria, agricultural research and improved sanitation and water quality for the one billion poorest people on the planet. OK, that's a pretty big part of what they say but you should still read the book!
Lomborg's views have been controversial (to put it mildly). And I don't have the expertise to tell you how his ideas stack up against Al Gore's "inconvenient truth". My instinct is that we don't have to pick sides on this one. Let's learn what we can, be careful of bandwagons, work towards good stewardship of all scarce resources and always remember the three fold instruction God gave through Micah: act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God!