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Why Climate Change Requires an Ethics of Urgency

Most of us seem to live somewhere between Chicken Little’s “The sky is falling!” and Rabbi Gamaliel’s counsel to “wait and see” (Acts 5:33-39) on the theological and spiritual validity of the emerging Christian movement.
Some issues seem more urgent than others, at least on the surface.

Issues of long standing – disease, radical extremism, domestic abuse – are pulled into the spotlight of urgency by images of people dying in the streets from Ebola, brutal beheadings by ISIS radicals, and an elevator video of the slugging of a young woman by her NFL star fiancé.

Such images so blatantly violate our collective moral consciousness that they pull us beyond our normal partisan concerns and unite us in a call to “do something.”

Disease is not new, nor is radical violent extremism or domestic abuse. However, the vivid expression of these in public display brings them to center stage in ways that jolt us from an ethics of complacency to an ethics of urgency.

This has brought much needed attention to challenges within the human family. As a result, the problems are being explored at a deeper level than is normally the case.

For example, some have pointed to the role of poverty and unemployment in the context from which most of the radical extremists of ISIS are drawn.

Others have observed the effect of a narrow and distorted focus of a religious faith as a fuel for passionate destruction of “unbelievers.”

Still others have pointed to a culture of thinly veiled gladiatorial violence as a contributor to domestic abuse.

These observations are prompted by the urgency of situations that require something to be done in response, but they also call us to recognize the underlying causes of the problems that will have to be dealt with if a long-term solution is to be found.

A forceful military response to ISIS and harsh penalties for domestic abuse within the NFL may well be necessary to deal with the immediate circumstances, but “quick and easy” responses are seldom if ever solutions for the long run.

An ethics of urgency will be realistic on two fronts: (1) the seriousness of the problem as it is expressing itself and (2) the complexity of the problem that will have to be addressed.

The public display of these problems has brought both these fronts into clearer focus.

We might wonder if there are other issues and challenges that might benefit from an ethics of urgency. Let me suggest one:

The U.N. General Assembly of global leaders met recently to address the issue of climate change.

While there is urgency on the part of many in response to this problem, dramatized by an interfaith summit and a massive climate march in New York preceding the U.N. meeting, there is also resistance from powerful quarters whose economic advantage is challenged by attention to this problem and its proposed responses.

An ethics of urgency will need to be more than Chicken Little’s declaration that the sky is falling based on an uninformed misreading of the evidence (it was an acorn, remember?).

It will also need to be more than a simplified version of Gamaliel’s “wait for more light to see by” wisdom on a religious question, which can easily be made to support complacency and the status quo.

The consequences of inattention to climate change are less blatant than a beheading, the epidemic of a deadly virus or a slugging on an elevator, but there is a preponderance of evidence that the longer we wait to respond with corrective measures, the greater its damage will be.

A generation ago, when tobacco companies attempted to blunt the urgency of warnings about the harmful effects of smoking and other forms of tobacco use, people continued to harm themselves and others by not taking the warnings seriously.

Could we be facing a similar challenge with the issue of climate change?

An ethics of urgency will counsel, as it has with Ebola, ISIS and domestic abuse, “It’s time to deal with this – on all levels. No more waiting.”

It is more than just a “right side of history” question. Concrete consequences for future generations depend on it.

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.