By Fr. Bud Grant
As I write this article (missing my deadline, I admit) we are still waiting for the official White House decision on whether or not the United States will honor our commitment to the Paris Accord, which sets global standards to mitigate climate change. This is probably becoming a tired subject, it dragging on for so long. But given the stakes, let’s resist “climate fatigue.”
President Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that his decisions are unpredictable. So it is no surprise that his administration is sending mixed signals about the Paris Accord. That is actually the most positive statement I have ever made in reference to Mr. Trump and environmental concerns. This is because he has been utterly unequivocal in his words (climate change is a “Chinese hoax”), his deeds (executive order reassessing policies; cutting the budget for the EPA, opening federal land to resource extraction, etc.) and his appointments, including a former Exxon executive, Rex Tillerson, as Secretary of State.
Indeed Tillerson has injected this glimmer of uncertainty (read “faint hope”) into the equation. At a recent gathering of the nations that border the Arctic — cleverly dubbed the “Arctic summit” — Tillerson embraced a joint document with the other seven signatories of the “Fairbanks Declaration” (can you name all eight members of the Arctic Council? One clue: the indigenous Gwich’in nation is, oddly, not a member).
The statement notes “that the Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the global average … that the pace and scale of continuing Arctic warming will depend on future emissions of greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants, reiterates the importance of global action to reduce both greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants to mitigate climate change…” (23). Indicative of the breadth of the issues, the statement also addresses marine debris (11), arctic shipping lanes (10), mercury poisoning (16), economic development (17), telecommunications (19), and pre-school education (21).
Some environmentalists are bothered that the statement does not explicitly refer to “human caused” climate change and, that it does not call for members to implement the Paris Accord. But look: Trump’s Secretary of State signed an international accord that acknowledges climate change and calls for “mitigation and adaptation” actions. This is big.Of course, Tillerson also reiterated an oft heard sentiment: “We’re going to work to make the right decision for the United States.” Interpretation: no climate mitigation/adaptation measures will be made at the cost of economic development. That climate change is the ultimate threat to global economies, not to mention human life, is side-stepped.
Of deeper concern is the implied “America First” policy. Economists generally agree that protectionism is not a sound strategy. Nor is it a particularly ethical. My first-year students recently unpacked a peculiar formula — first espoused by Cicero, now embedded in such documents as the United Nations’ Declaration on Human Rights and Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes. The argument is that it cannot be in one’s (national) self-interest if it is not also for the Common Good (including the global community). The problem, of course, is that it sure SEEMS against my best interest to sacrifice my good for that of others. The solution is sublimely soteriological: my good is served by my sacrifice because my deepest good is to serve the common good.
Thus, the most compelling argument for protecting the earth is an appeal to the theology of sacrifice. Addressing climate change is the right thing to do even if negative economic consequences exist at home. The reputation of the United States in the global community has long included our willingness to stand with the oppressed, the attacked, and the threatened. It also happens to be the essence of the Gospel. The mysterious glory of the resurrection is that, in choosing the greater good against mere self-interest, we really do, ultimately, serve our own self-interest.
(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)