A Planet Commanded to Our Care

At the inauguration of President Barack Obama, we heard a rather stunning statement:

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

And what is that creed? It was the theme of President Obama’s address:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Putting aside for a moment the context partisan politics (which, maybe for some of us, is about as easy to do as to temporarily use a different set of eyeballs), what is it about climate change that might hamper anyone’s capacity to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? How can an increase in a few degrees over a few generations really impact the quality of life for our future generations? Let’s take Utah, for example. Climatologists estimate that snowpack in the American West will be reduced anywhere from 30-50% by 2050. How might that affect future generations? The better question is, how can it not affect them? Our population levels are not going to remain steady; they are going to increase in the West, not only because of birthrates but because of increasing numbers migrating to the West. And where will these folks get their water? How can agriculture be sustained in the West? How will the shrinking resources of the Colorado River watershed be able to sustain our growth, especially when we consider the decrease in snowpack?  This is, of course, not to mention the other symptoms of environmental degradation that are happening simultaneously with climate change—air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels, higher mercury levels from the burning of coal, devastation to forests due to the ravages of the pine beetle, staggering levels of biodiversity loss, and devastating mining practices in the desert due to proposed fracking and tar sands production.

And what about other parts of the world? What about Bangladesh, where close to 120 million people live at or below sea level? If the ocean rises 40 centimeters in the next century according to predictions, we will see millions of people displaced from their shoreline homes, especially among the most impoverished nations on the earth. Most of the humanitarian efforts conducted by the LDS church in recent decades have reached areas of the world suffering the exacerbating effects of climate change and environmental degradation. Increased flooding, severity of storms, drought, and countries of high political instability that are dependent on the uncertainties of a global petroleum economy—all of these contexts mean that climate change is a humanitarian concern. I have written about climate change before here and have noted too how other faith communities have managed to grasp the connection between climate change and human dignity. Climate change is not some vague concern for polar bears, as important as their plight might be, but it is a global crisis in public health, human development, and social justice.

Some might balk at Obama’s language, maybe because it seems to imply that climate change is something that we are commanded by God to believe in. That would be an inaccurate rephrasing of Obama’s point. He is simply saying what theologians have been saying now for decades, if not for hundreds of years—that the earth is the Lord’s, that it has been entrusted to us, and that we will be held accountable for how we treat it. Any cursory reading of the Bible provides such insights, as well as any reading of the Quran. A reading of the Doctrine and Covenants certainly highlights these same principles. I have elaborated on them here.

But somewhere along the way, we lost our bearings. We started to think that God’s gift of the physical resources of life was a gift of our own making. Why? Because we never plant seeds, we don’t watch our food grow, we have no real concern with the weather, apart from its impact on our mood, our travel plans, or our recreation. Technology takes care of everything from health to food to transportation to climate. We are no longer vigilant like we once had to be about the earth’s many moods—its bounty and depravation, its harshness and its gentle succumbing to our labor and we think we are no longer vulnerable. We take pills, we watch the world through mechanical eyes, and we monitor our happiness as if it should be measured by the hour. We don’t have the stamina to stay with the world, to work for its restoration. How can we when we can’t even believe the narrative that science tells us about its compromised capacity to regulate our climate or to sustain a broad diversity of life. We do more than disbelieve. We mock, we openly parade our indifference, as if it were a mark of our intelligence and wisdom, even of our morality, to have the “proper” perspective on why human life and human interests come first. At the very least we shrug our shoulders as if it isn’t a big deal. Obama reminds us of something fundamental to biblical ethics: our hearts must be turned to the children. We cannot live morally if we do not learn to live for future generations. And while there are few among us who wouldn’t wish for our children’s children to have the same opportunities of life that we have enjoyed, there are few among us willing to work for just such a world. What kind of fool is it that believes that his life and his interests, his chances for happiness in this world, have nothing to do with the health of the planet or that the health of the planet has nothing to do with the well being of others or of future generations? A human fool, the only kind of fool there is, and they come a dime a dozen.

  • g.wesley

    thanks for this.

    it pains me every time i ‘take out’ the garbage. shamefully i have yet to learn where and how to recycle in my city, and other than the natural limits of a student income i don’t do much to restrain my consumerism. but it does pain me every time.

    we only have one car in our household, and i use public transportation monday through friday. i have lived in other parts of the world where most people do not own a single car and instead walk or ride a bike or take the bus everywhere they go. i don’t think it would be impractical in the u.s., though it would certainly require some large group changes in lifestyle, changes with health benefits for the earth and its residents.

  • http://www.rulonbrown.com Rulon Brown

    Excellent post. I agree with the President and appreciate you drawing attention to the exceptional mandate Mormons have to care for the earth as a sacred gift… It was and still is.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Since the Kyoto Protocol was offered for adoption by the nations of the world in 1997, very little has happened to actually decrease the rate of emissions of CO2, methane and other greenhouse gases. GHGs have continued to grow, with China taking the lead as the highest emitter in the world. Yet the average global temperature has stayed largely flat, falling well below the rate of increase that had been charted from 1975 to 1997. If the Kyoto Protocol had been adopted by the US, China and India, and severe measures taken to achieve its goals on limiting GHG emissions, its advocates would be taking credit for the deceleration in temperature increases. The fact is, the temperature graph of the last 15 years is contrary to all of the models used by the UN IPCC, and I have seen no news reports of a significantly modified model that can accurately account for the actual temperature graph of the last century. That is in addition to the failure of the models to explain the temperature DROP that occurred from 1934 to 1975, despite the increased emission of CO2 with World War II and the post-war expansion and population boom. When a scientist’s theories do not match with reality, an honest scientists is supposed to go back to the drawing board. So why has the increase in global temperatures basically stopped for one sixth of a century, even while GHGs have been building up at an accelerating rate? Water vapor is also a greenhouse gas, but it also is related to the formation of clouds, which reflect sunlight. I have not seen any reports that any of the IPCC favored models has been modified to even take water vapor and cloud formation into account. I am all in favor of funding good research to try to understand the climate cycle better, but people who claim they can predict the climate 50 and 100 years from now have not demonstrated they could predict it accurately 10 and 15 years ahead.

    As to the matter of storms, the fact is that the historical record shows plenty of devastating storms back when global temperatures were lower than now, while the actual frequency and severity of major storms has NOT increased with temperature rise. Prior to Katrina the worst hurricane hit taken by the Gulf Coast was Camille in 1969, in the depths of the lowest temperatures in the 20th Century. Claiming that we are experiencing abnormally severe storms NOW displays either severe ignorance or intentional misrepresentation.

    Finally, the proposed “solutions” to combat global warming are clearly not of sufficient magnitude to have any significant or certain effect on CO2 levels for several decades. Manufacturing and erecting wind farms requires added emissions of GHGs in order to transport and form the equipment, and there are no electric trucks and cranes that can transport and erect a windmill generator. That means that erecting wind farms creates an initial increase in GHGs, which will stay in the air for years, delaying any benefit of decreased GHGs for power generation for several decades.

    Even if the US shut down all use of fossil fuels, it would not decrease the CO2 levels already in the air. It is more rational to learn more how the climate works, so we can find ways of addressing adverse climate impacts in the most efficient ways, without impoverishing ourselves into a state where the global temperature is the least of our worries. Within 50 years, the advance of science and technology may well offer much smarter ways to address climate issues. MOst of the problerms will not arrive until then. Trying to solve the next century’s problems with today’s knowledge and wealth, when we can expect both knowledge and wealth to increase exponentially by then, is not the most obviously rational approach.

    • georgehandley

      Ronald, I might refer you to my previous response to your comments on an earlier post. I prefer not to make this blog into a debate about the science of climate change. I will, however, reluctantly respond to a few points here because of their logical problems. To measure global output of CO2 since the Kyoto Protocol as evidence that the protocol has been ineffective is not a rational position. Surely there are other factors that have affected global output—increased populations levels, greater access for more people to automobiles, etc, etc. Moreover, the claim that the flattening of the temperature record over the last 15 years is evidence that climate change is unrelated to CO2 emissions has been roundly discredited by the science. Natural cooling and heating trends happen in the background of climate change. Every model I have looked at recognizes this. And yet the temperatures continue to rise, even if slightly less dramatically given a natural cooling cycle. Moreover, what is widely recognized by all the international societies that share the basic science of climate change with the public and what is even explained at the high school level is how scientists have eliminated water vapor and other GHGs from serious consideration as the determining factor in climate change. I am surprised to hear you say that water vapor is not taken into serious consideration in any climate change report. I have not seen any study that doesn’t at least explain why we CO2 and methane, and not other GHGs, are the ones to worry about. Moreover, you are simply incorrect about the models. They have proven exceptionally and increasingly reliable, even with the inevitability of error and a steep learning curve, and give us reasonable grounds for caution. We have predicted events accurately in the last twenty years or so.

      My argument would be with your logic and with your trusted sources of information. Why would you prefer to take higher risks of doing nothing on the basis of your unfounded assumption that science cannot be relied upon? Surely yours is an argument that aspires to be as scientific a claim as any other. After all, you are decrying the lack of scientific reliability in your assessment of climatology. So what is the science that you are using that somehow avoids the trap of not being as advanced as we will be in 50 years, of not being smart enough? Why are we to believe your claim of scientific reliability against the supermajority opinion of scientists today? I recognize the logic you have used in the publications of conservative think tanks and professional skeptics. We hear it everywhere, but it isn’t in the published research. So it is misleading to seem to be invoking the authority of published research when in fact it is published skepticism about the research. Trusting scientific understanding yet to come (that the think tanks mysteriously already have in their possession) is like claiming that the most advanced research we have on cancer cannot be trusted in treating cancer because it isn’t perfect or complete. No one ever said it was. But if you then turn around and propose no treatment at all and claim this is a more scientific approach, where, other than from the mythical science of the future, does your evidence come? When you invoke the specter of water vapor as if this wasn’t already soundly established by extensive research as a non-factor, it is hard to trust your reasoning. You can’t seriously advocate more research, can you, when you have just declared research woefully and inevitably behind the times? I think you are playing fast and loose with a question of enormous magnitude that deserves much more sober and much less ideological thinking.

      I haven’t pretended to know what the best solutions are, but the lack of an adequate solution does not make the problem disappear. We certainly cannot expect to find adequate solutions if we have already decided that we cannot trust science to identify the nature of the problem.

      In any event, I am grateful for your engagement and wish you the best.

    • JohnH

      Wind farms in general have problems. However there are still lots of measures that can and should be taken as they are net gains to the economy. Regardless of the reality or cause of global warming we should still make the best use of the resources we do use as that is simple economics and a command of God.

      Also, debating on a blog about the reality of global warming or the wisdom of wind farms are not things which are productive regardless of what one believes on the subject as policy makers and scientists are not likely to read or take into account information on a blog. What a blog can do is change personal action and belief or hold a conversation on personal action and belief. If anyone wants to debate policy run for state or federal office, if one wants to debate the science then one should get the data and start constructing their own models and probably posting on arxiv (or something similar) ones findings as it isn’t likely any journal would touch that debate, however if one wants to discuss the wisdom of personal actions such as led lighting, better windows, more efficient appliances, improved insulation, and such things then a blog can be more effective.

      I completely agree that we individually and as nation should not be spending billions of extra dollars on projects which do not otherwise make sense economically to combat the problem. I also know that there are many measures, practices and policies which are green as a matter of faith and not in reality. Some types of recycling in some areas is actually less environmentally friendly then the alternative, corn to ethanol helps drive the destruction of the rain forest as well as causes starvation and revolution in some areas *and high prices everywhere* and last I read ended being emitting more co2 when the inputs were accounted for then otherwise. (Also ditching ones current car for an electric hybrid is a net negative due to the cost of production of the hybrid compared to the emissions of running ones car into the ground.)

      If both sides could drop the rhetoric, look at what actually makes sense economically and environmentally then it would be possible to come up with a list of actionable items which are net investments and savings and could therefore be acceptable to everyone regardless of their acceptance as to the reality, severity, and eventual cost of Global Warming. Until then both sides will see the irrationalities of the other side and both will rightly fear the other and distrust everything they say.