CNEWA Connections: Caring for ‘Our Common Home’

The challenge of climate change

If the Amazon rainforest forms the “lungs of the planet,” Mother Earth has pneumonia.

It has been a bad summer. As the G-7 met in France this week to discuss, among other things, climate change, several thousand fires were burning in the Amazon. Many of the fires were set by humans using “slash and burn” techniques to “clear” the land. Europe experienced its hottest weather ever with temperatures in France reaching 107°F. It is estimated that 10 billion tons of ice (in pounds, that’s 20 followed by twelve zeroes) melted in Greenland on Wednesday 31 July 2019—one single day! Indonesia has recently announced that it is moving its capital from Jakarta because the city is being drowned by rising sea levels.

CNEWA’s world is not being spared either. Southern India, which was devastated by monsoon flooding in 2018, is once again under water, bringing suffering and death to hundreds of thousands. (CNEWA has received urgent appeals for help from our brothers and sisters in Kerala. Click here to learn what you can do.)

All of the above is becoming the “new normal.”

This has implications not only for those CNEWA serves but, in fact, for every one of us. Pope Francis stated as much four years ago.

On 24 May 2015, Pope Francis published Laudato si’ (“be praised!” from the opening line of St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun). Most encyclical letters are addressed to Catholics around the world; some will mention “people of good will.” But in this encyclical, which bears the subtitle “On Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis explicitly addresses “every person living on this planet.” Written in close cooperation with Bartholomew, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, the encyclical is ecumenical in a new and very practical way.

It is, however, more than ecumenical; it addresses and challenges every one in the world. And for good reason: each of us has a stake in caring for the planet, and will bear responsibility for what we leave behind for future generations.

Make no mistake: climate change is real. While there are disagreements about the details of climate change and about the extent of human involvement, there is no serious disagreement among scientists about the fact of climate change — and that human agency is one of the main drivers of the change.

Science, of course, is not religion. One can agree or disagree with scientific conclusions and try to prove one’s point of view. “Not believing” in a given scientific fact/theory, however, is simply an irrelevant position and, one is tempted to say, one that does not merit a response. Gravity, for example, is not as simple a scientific “fact” as the average person would think. Gravity too is a “theory,” and a very complicated one at that. However, to walk off a roof because gravity is “only a theory” and, hence, not worthy of “belief” would be foolish in the extreme.

To ignore climate change is no less foolhardy.

Pope Francis (and Patriarch Bartholomew) sees responsibility for the environment through a spiritual/moral lens. Both realize that self-interest plays a great role in caring for our “common home.” If that home can no longer sustain human life, we humans will go extinct like thousands of other species. When an organism—like the planet—has a pathogen, one of the responses is to raise the temperature—in bodies, a fever—to make the environment hostile to the pathogen and ultimately kill it. It is unlikely that life will go entirely extinct on earth. There are any number of organisms that can easily survive temperatures that would kill human life. We humans may bring about our own extinction but life will go on.

Francis realizes that it is in our self-interest to be aware of the danger. However, he also sees that danger as a spiritual one. There is the temptation to be utilitarian, to see creation no longer as a marvelous gift of the Creator but as little more than the raw material for making money. Francis realizes that such thinking brings with it not only a real risk of physical extinction for humanity, but also of the spiritual death of humanity.

Christians and other peoples of faith in different ways have looked upon humanity as stewards of creation. Stewards are those who “work and protect” (Gen 2:15) the creation entrusted to them. Francis speaks of an “integral” spirituality which, while realizing our dependence on the planet for food, resources, etc., also recognizes an ethic which uses the goods of the earth in a responsible way. This should not be overlooked. To be sure, climate change has scientific, social and economic ramifications. However, Francis is making a strong point that living responsibly on our planet, our common home, needs to be part of our spirituality as Catholic Christians. It is not something “added on” to our Christian lives. Francis sees it as an essential—integral—part of what it means to be a Catholic follower of Christ.

Religious leaders are more and more realizing the importance of living ethically on our planet. We are responsible for those who will follow. To let greed determine our decisions, to wantonly plunder the planet and its resources and to leave our descendants an increasingly uninhabitable planet is the ultimate crime against humanity.

Ironically it is not those who are the major consumers of the planet’s resources who are the first to experience the devastation of climate change. For the most part, those who are on the cutting—one might well say killing—edge of climate change are those living in farming or fishing communities, those living in small island nations, those whose survival is closely linked to the availability of clean water and the vagaries of weather — in short, those who inhabit the very regions CNEWA serves. While these may not be concerns of the developed world, Pope Francis reminds us forcefully that this is our common home. Those very things which threaten the existence of others today will sooner or later threaten the existence of even the wealthiest and most privileged.

When such a time comes, Francis knows it will be too late. All the money and power in the world will not be enough to stop it.

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