Rajendra Pachauri, left, and Al Gore were featured at the North American summit. (Photo: The Climate Project/Ted Parks)
Al Gore's North American summit in Nashville began on May 14 with a laser-focused address on the ethics and equity of climate change, really the ethics of the inequity of global warming's impacts on the marginalized.
It is a word the vast majority of Christians need to hear.
From right to left across American Christianity has emerged agreement that the biblical witness calls believers to prioritize protection of the poor. Some prioritize individual and congregation initiatives, such as sheltering the homeless during the winter. Others invest in projects abroad, such as well-drilling and medical mission trips. Still others campaign for just public policies.
However, moral consensus about responsibility for the weak and vulnerable has yet to trigger awareness about and activism on global warming. That must change, and quickly.
Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made the connection clear when he told some 500 summit participants that the poorest everywhere were the ones most at risk to the impacts of climate change.
"Disproportionate share of the climate change burden will fall on the poor regions and populations of the world," said Pachauri, a native of India. "This, of course, is totally in contrast with their low contribution to climate change."
Noting that less developed nations lacked the capacity to adapt to climate change, Pachauri added that even in rich countries the marginalized are "extremely vulnerable" and pointed to Hurricane Katrina's impact on New Orleans.
"More than 90 percent of deaths related to natural disasters occur in developing countries," he said. "This clearly brings out the inequity of the impact of climate change."
Pachauri said that climate change will exacerbate Africa's malnutrition, water shortage and deteriorating soil conditions. By 2020 between 75 million and 250 million Africans will face "water stress" that, in turn, will be the source of conflict.
The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient with Gore added: "The poorest, weakest communities in the world are going to be affected the worst in terms of impacts on human health."
Diseases such as malaria are spreading into new areas as the climate changes.
"Communities have been adapting to changes in climate and weather for thousands of years, but the rate at which climate is changing will completely overwhelm the capacity of the same communities to be able to accept these changes in the future," said the even-spoken Pachauri.
"A major share of cost of the financial and economic crisis will be borne by hundreds of millions of people who have not shared the benefits of recent growth," he said. "Climate change will act as a threat multiplier especially in developing countries."
Pachauri cautioned, "Poverty and food scarcity play an essential role in creating conditions of social desperation and discontent. Food scarcity and the resulting higher food prices are pushing more countries into chaos. … Failed states are the places from where there will be an export of disease, terrorism, illicit drugs, weapons and refugees."
What should be done?
The emissions of greenhouse gases—gases that cause global warming—must be reduced. Nations of the world must place "an effective price on carbon," said Pachauri.
What should people of faith committed to the advancement of the common good do?
We must quickly realize that the biblical witness has twin moral imperatives: care for creation and care for the poor.
These moral imperatives are interconnected. Protecting the environment from global warming protects the poor from the impacts of climate change. When we act to reduce greenhouse gases, we act for the weakest and most marginalized among us.
David Suzuki, the noted Canadian broadcaster, said, "We are at a unique point in all of human history."
More pointedly, Christianity may well be at a unique point in its history. Either Christians can choose to be part of the solution based on our moral obligations or we can be morally indifferent, slothful, about what is happening to God's creation and human creatures.
If we waffle much longer in our decision-making about whether to take seriously climate change, we will have made a decision. We will have chosen the path of moral indifference.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.