Our duty is to serve the common good

It has been an interesting few weeks for those tracking climate change responses. On Oct. 8 the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was released, alerting us that we have between 12 and 30 years to make adaptations and mitigations to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

On Nov. 23, 14 U.S. federal agencies released their fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA). It reinforced the IPCC conclusions with specific information regarding the impact on the eco-regions of the United States. The Midwest, for example, is experiencing more intense storms and longer, late-season droughts. With no adjustments, agricultural output could drop 25 percent.
These reports triggered two very different, if equally problematic, responses from world leaders.

One was President Trump’s frank response to the NCA: “I don’t believe it” (Nov. 26.) He is the only G7 leader to deny anthropogenic, advanced, climate change. He seems to have made a political calculation that is popular with his base. But it is at the expense of planetary health.

On the other end of the spectrum was French President Emmanuel Macron. Gallantly assuming the mantle of global leadership on climate change, he implemented stiff taxes on diesel fuel. His economic calculation seems to be that if behaviors that threaten the environment are more expensive, then fewer people will engage in them. Instead he set off riots. With quintessentially French irony, the Gilets Jaunes (yellow-vested) protesters forced a reversal of policy. Those vests, by the way, are required as a safety feature in every French automobile. President Trump was quick to exploit President Macron’s failure as proof that his own position is correct.

President Trump’s base is often cast as those who experience status anxiety in an increasingly pluralistic and diverse society, such as white, older, evangelical, rural, non-college-educated males. The Gilets Jaunes were rural blue- collar workers experiencing a “slipping standard of living.” They dismissed President Macron as an elitist who doesn’t understand them.

His error was in assuming that he knew what was good for the French and thus it was perfectly rational for him to impose his decisions on them. Call it paternalistic noblesse oblige. President Trump’s mistake was to focus on short-term, narrow, political gain rather than the long-term common good. Call it Machiavellian calculation. The former was insensitive to the economic suffering caused by his otherwise useful ecological policies. The latter, insensitive to ecological suffering, exploited the threat of economic suffering in order to justify inaction.

What, then, should a world leader do to address climate change without alienating the very people she or he seeks to assist? They have to address suffering. Few leaders do this unpleasant chore better than the last three popes. St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Francis clearly situate the problem of human and natural suffering — not only as economic, political or ideological — but also as moral and spiritual issues.

Their moral persuasion cannot be legislated, imposed or coerced. Rather, moral truth must reach beyond all that separates us to that which is most exquisitely human about us all … our sense of relationship to one another (including the marginalized and future generations), the earth and — at least for religious people — God.

Pope Francis, like his predecessors, appeals to our innate goodness and our profound duty to serve the common good. All three tap into the best of our character and urge us to make sacrifices for that good: “Our goal,” Francis says, “is … to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it” (Laudato Si 19).
And in that mysterious and perplexing way that is the essence of the Gospel, it is only through that suffering that “Eternal Life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place” (LS 243).

(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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