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Climate Change and a Politics of Morality

In 1979 Claire L. Parkinson published her scientific paper “Arctic sea ice decay simulated for a CO2-induced temperature rise”. Based on mathematical modeling, Parkinson and her co-author William Kellogg estimated that once atmospheric carbon dioxide doubled above pre-industrial levels, the Arctic would become ice-free in summer by about 2050. The paper was more or less ignored.

It turns out that the paper was remarkably accurate. That was 38 years ago. Scientists began worrying about climate change in the 1860s. Certain parts of the United States government began worrying about climate change in the 1950s. President Johnson was briefed on climate change in 1965. The warning he received was that if emissions weren’t cut dramatically by 2000 we would be in real trouble. In 1969 NATO became concerned about climate change and began preparing contingency plans for how to deal with the coming disruptions.

The point here is not a stroll down memory lane. The point is that we knew. We knew that climate change was happening at least sixty years ago. We knew we had to do something about it at least fifty years ago. And we didn’t. That is immoral.

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How does a child come to understand climate change? And then, what will they do about it, if anything? It is the children who will be most impacted by climate change. Their parents and grandparents have failed them. They are condemned to deal with an issue that should have been solved before they were born. That is immoral.

My daughter and I recently travelled to California to meet with a group of lawyers and children who are suing the Federal government over climate change. These are the people of Our Children’s Trust. You see, our children have the legal, Constitutional and moral right to life, liberty and property. The Constitution exists to promote the general welfare. Our children have a right to a stable climate and a healthy atmosphere. They have a right to a decent quality of life. The legal argument is, in part, that by not dealing with climate change 50-70 years ago when we learned about it, the government has violated the rights of young and future Americans. And so, this is a moral fight.

The upcoming trial, which will begin this summer, is huge. This is as seminal as the Scopes Monkey Trial.  But with bigger implications. This is the moment when our nation decides if it is science and fact-based in how it makes its decisions or will it be run by “alternative facts”.  In other words, complete rubbish.

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What do I mean by “moral”? What is a “moral life”? By that I mean living your life with empathy, sympathy, kindness, understanding and forgiveness.  Are your actions making the world a better place or one that is worse off? Are you doing everything you can to make the world a better place?

What is immoral?  It is immoral to have children drink water contaminated with lead. It is immoral to kill 5.5 million people a year with air pollution. It is immoral to limit someone’s access to health care. It is immoral to keep working people mired in poverty. It is immoral to trap someone in a lifetime of debt so they can get an education.  It is immoral to tear apart families that came to this country for a better life. And it is immoral to saddle our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren with a climate that is increasingly out of control.  I don’t care who you are. If you think that any of these things, or anything similar, is somehow “OK” or justified then you are not a moral person. If you believe solving these problems is a question of money then you are an immoral person. It is time you took a long look in the mirror.

By not acting on climate change our society has chosen to devalue the lives of our children and future generations. This is not right. It is not justice. It is immoral.

climate change

By not doing anything about climate change we are stealing from our children and grandchildren. Climate change will hurt future generations in numerous ways. They will see increased financial hardship and lost productivity. Consider that Hurricane Sandy destroyed nearly 2 million structures and homes. The economic losses were nearly $70 billion. Katrina cost $40 billion. That is all money that can’t go to education, infrastructure, health care and R&D. Business groups report that nearly half of the companies they surveyed have seen climate related disruptions. Climate change is already having infrastructure impacts from sea-level rise to floods, droughts and wildfires. All things that are costly to maintain or repair.

Our children will see increased challenges to their physical health. These range from new diseases, heat-related impacts, air-quality, intense storms, water related illnesses and food safety. And none of that is cheap to deal with either.  Then there are the mental health challenges they will face from climate change.  They will face displacement and conflict like we’ve never experienced. They will simply have less opportunity that we did. We are cheapening their future by not making drastic changes now. That is simply unfair.

And we are not just stealing from our children. We are stealing from other people too. The nations most responsible for climate change are ironically the ones that will see fewer impacts. Already we are seeing climate change hit the developing world.  The mass movement of people to the USA and Europe is a direct impact of climate change.  And the world isn’t prepared in any legal or ethical way for climate induced migration.

It is time that we engage in a politics of morality. Political decisions can no longer escape moral judgment. Likewise, morals can no longer remain apolitical.

Climate change is a civil rights issue and any debate needs to encompass the essential question: what is right and what is wrong? When people want to take actions that result in children drinking lead-tainted water we have to ask: is that a moral decision? When people fight against laws that would make the air cleaner we have to ask: is that moral? The question should not be if people have a right to health care. The question should only be how we most effectively deliver it.  When it comes to climate change the only moral question on the table is HOW we deal with it as quickly as possible.

climate change

On the return flight from San Francisco, my daughter and I argued about the nature of evil.

I don’t exactly believe in “evil”. I believe people make choices based on their experiences. Those choices may not be wise and they may indeed be harmful. They may be immoral. But people tend to act from an ethical place most of the time. People who cause harm more often than not believe they are actually doing good. So, I don’t believe anyone is actually evil. At least I didn’t think so. My daughter on the other hand disagrees and she is persuasive.

For her, evil is when someone chooses to do something they unequivocally know is wrong.  For her, the perfect example is those who sow doubt and denial about climate change. She sees that her generation is at the crossroads.

There are those who have drunk the Kool-Aid of climate change denial and are lost. No amount of evidence or discussion will change their minds. Then there are those who know that this is happening and actively work to deceive and lie about it. To her, the first group isn’t evil. They are just stupid. The second group, however, does indeed match the definition of evil. They are condemning generations for short-term profit. They know what is happening. Yet, they choose to do nothing about it and they mix the drink that is the Kool-Aid from which the denialists sip. That is immoral at the very least.

Perhaps she is right. Actually, she probably is.

With the future quality of life of our children at stake, those who deny and resist action are not just foolish. They are morally bankrupt. They are wrong. Perhaps even, they are evil.


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