The holidays are a time of friends, family and faith. For many, gift-giving is part of the holiday tradition.
One of the most important offerings anyone can bestow to others is the gift of life. Taking ethical action to address global climate change worldwide is a bequest that will give life to people now and in the future.
The moral obligation to reduce climate-damaging consumption and carbon emissions is the central message of the new book, “Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril.” Co-edited by Kathleen Moore, a professor at Oregon State University, the manuscript describes 14 moral imperatives, depicted by 83 different authors, for dealing with climate change.
Unless human-produced emissions are rapidly reduced, climate instability will alter profoundly conditions for humans and all other organisms on Earth. With only 4.5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has contributed about 30 percent of the cumulative atmospheric emissions that are destabilizing the climate. We have failed to address the problem.
Why haven’t we acted? Lack of information about the risks is obviously not the problem. Plenty exists. But factual data do not tell us what we ought to do. Moral conviction is required for that purpose, and clarity over the moral imperatives to act on climate change has been missing.
Professor Moore told me that she and a group of colleagues came to this conclusion about three years ago. They decided to hold a meeting at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in Blue River to discuss what to do. The book is one of the results.
One of the moral messages of the book concerns the need for a change in thinking about who we are as humans and the role we play in the world. Many people believe that humanity exists separately from all other processes and species on Earth. From this perspective, everything is created for our use alone, right now. We are thus not obligated to control our behavior to safeguard other people, species or future generations.
Ecological science, quantum physics and almost all of the world’s religions have found this view to be wrong and dangerous. We know that nothing exists by itself. An intricate and interdependent web of climatic, biotic and ecological systems creates and sustains all life on Earth, including each of us.
If you doubt this, take a deep breath. Now think about what just happened.
Oxygen entered your body and sustained your life. About three-quarters of the oxygen was produced during photosynthesis in single-celled green algae and bacteria in marine environments. The remainder came from the same process in forests and other vegetation. Complex interactions occurring in the oceans and other landscapes created the oxygen that makes your life possible.
One group of moral arguments discussed in the book thus focuses on “the consequences of acting or failing to act” on climate change. Every person has an obligation to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and to support collective efforts to do so, because ignoring this responsibility puts all of the organisms and processes that support life on Earth, including us, at grave risk.
Another theme of the book is our moral obligation to “do what is right.” A number of theologians said that God calls on all of us to be stewards of divine creation, and that we fail in our moral duty if we fail to protect what God created.
Other writers said that doing the right thing has nothing to do with a God. Humans have a duty to act in a just manner. It is unjust for Americans to undermine the livelihoods and cultures of people in Africa, Asia and the Arctic, and the poor in this country, that have contributed little to climate change. But that is exactly what we are doing through our consumption and emissions.
The last category of moral arguments is “based on virtue.” It focuses on the virtues that should shape our character as human beings.
Some writers said that human virtue requires that we honor our obligations to the future. Controlling our behavior today is virtuous because what we do now will determine the options available to our children and their children.
Other writers said we have an obligation to be the best we can be as individuals and as a nation. When we fail to slash our emissions, we become much less than we can or should be.
Through beautifully written narratives, the book makes a compelling case that each of us has a moral obligation to protect current and future life on Earth by curbing our consumption and carbon emissions. One of the greatest gifts anyone can give this holiday season is to take that message to heart.
Bob Doppelt directs The Resource Innovation Group and teaches about global warming at the University of Oregon.