Our planet is a beautiful and fruitful place. The land, seas and sky work in harmony to provide us with everything we need to maintain life. We depend on its proper functioning for the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. Any small change to nature’s system can lead to an imbalance that knocks the entire basis of life off-kilter.
Tragically, we are seeing one such change today. Earth’s temperature is now 0.85 degrees higher than it was in pre-industrial times. Each of the last three decades have been successively warmer than any preceding decade since 1850.
The scientific evidence is unequivocal: not only is our climate changing, it is changing as a direct result of carbon emissions from human activity. If emissions continue as they are, experts warn that, by 2100, average global temperatures will be between 3.7 and 4.8 degrees higher than today. Such a rise would have a profound impact on sea levels, rainfall patterns and the frequency of extreme weather events.
Crop yields are predicted to fall by up to 50 per cent in some African countries as a direct consequence of climate change. Even optimistic predictions forecast an additional 86 million malnourished children in the world by 2050.
We do not have to look to the future to see the devastation of climate change, of course. Today, one in 12 people across the world is at risk of hunger. Through my work with Trócaire, I have seen how drought, storms and floods are plunging people into further poverty.
One of the central tenets of Christianity is the notion of stewardship, which tells us of our responsibility to care for God’s Earth and to pass it to the next generation in good health.
As far back as 2001, St John Paul II accused mankind of “humiliating” the Earth, saying: “Man is no longer the Creator’s steward, but an autonomous despot who is finally beginning to understand that he must stop at the edge of the abyss.”
Pope Francis has made the environment a core aspect of his papacy. In the homily of his inauguration Mass, he explained that "protecting all creation [and] respecting the environment in which we live" is the responsibility of everyone.
The Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference recently published The Cry of the Earth, a pastoral reflection and call for action on climate change. This document reminds Catholics in Ireland of their Christian duty to care for the Earth.
Wellbeing of millions
While climate change is a technical, scientific and economic issue, it is also a moral one. The choices we make can undermine the wellbeing of millions of people and condemn future generations to live in an inhospitable world.
The Earth is God’s gift to the whole human race. Each person therefore is entitled to have access to what he or she needs to live with dignity. All other rights are subordinate and ought to be at the service of this fundamental right.
Actions which undermine the wellbeing of our common home, including the excessive burning of fossil fuel, have to be evaluated in light of our responsibility for the common good. Ireland has one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emission rates in Europeand nternational commitments bind us to reducing its emissions by 20 per cent from 2005 levels within the next six years.
Africa is responsible for less than 3 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, yet is suffering most. Droughts and rising sea levels caused by industrialised nations fundamentally threaten the lives of millions of people in poor countries. This is an injustice.
We need change. Each of us has a role to play, be it in our homes, our schools or our businesses.
Climate change is no longer simply a scientific concern; it is a human crisis. We have a moral obligation to rise to this challenge and ensure that future generations do not pay a terrible price for our failure to cherish this beautiful planet.
Bishop William Crean is Bishop of Cloyne and chair of Trócaire. See catholicbishops.ie for a copy of The Cry of the Earth. A pastoral resource to accompany the document, GLAS, is available at trocaire.org/resources/parishes