Rediscovering the moral dimension of climate change

'The kingdom of God belongs to such as these'. Children in Tacloban City, Leyte Province, Philippines, amid the wreckage of Super Typhoon Yolanda / Hiyan, 21st December 2013. Photo: United Nations Photo via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
'The kingdom of God belongs to such as these'. Children in Tacloban City, Leyte Province, Philippines, amid the wreckage of Super Typhoon Yolanda / Hiyan, 21st December 2013. Photo: United Nations Photo via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
Pope Francis's forthcoming statement on climate change could just revitalise progress towards significant emissions cuts, writes Jonathon Porritt. But more than that, it will open up the space for a wider spirituality to guide our thinking, and campaigning, on climate and other key global challenges.
Citizens need to be the subjects of social change, not just its objects, with spiritual perspectives playing a key role in shaping and expressing the roots and values of democratic culture.

Which of the following publications will have the bigger impact on the all-important climate conference in Paris at the end of the year?

1. Individual statements from governments of their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions ('INDCs')?

2. The forthcoming encyclical from Pope Francis on the environment and climate change, rumoured to be in its final draft?

Of course both are of critical importance. If the INDCs from governments, indicating the scope of cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to be achieved over the next 15 years, demonstrate a high level of ambition, this will create the context for a hard-hitting global agreement in Paris.

And if the aggregated 'total' of all those country targets falls so far short of what the science tells us is now necessary, it will confirm for many that our politicians are incapable of understanding the true consequences of accelerating climate change for the whole of humankind.

But only Pope Franics can challenge 'Christian conservatism'

Should the Pope clearly spell out the all but inevitable consequences of today's BAAU (Business Almost As Usual) responses to accelerating climate change - especially regarding the impacts on the world's poorest people - it will force Catholic leaders the world to re-think their moral obligations.

With more than a billion Catholics all around the world, that's pretty important in its own right. Leadership from that source has been minimal, to say the least, and there are many Catholic politicians and climate change sceptics who play a very influential role in today's climate politics.

Especially in the USA, where they've formed what can only be described as an 'unholy alliance' with the evangelicals to stymie any effort by their respective churches to step up to the plate on the issue of climate change and personal responsibility.

And that's why I believe the impact of any papal edict in this area will be far, far greater than its immediate impact on the Catholic Church.

I believe such a broadside, framed essentially in the name of the world's poorest people, of all future generations, and of the rest of non-human creation, could just re-legitimise a deep and radical moral case for changing our ways before it's too late.

Doing what's expedient - or what's right?

For that's what's missing today. Governments are compelled, at every turn, to put national self-interest ahead of what's actually needed for humankind as a whole. Sovereign interests almost always trump the common good. In that respect, we're all prisoners trapped in a classic and potentially terminal dilemma.

By the same token, the business response to climate change is held back by companies' adherence to their tried-and-tested 'business cases', built up so rationally and mechanistically over the last decade, for fear of deviating in any degree from their unbending commitment to profit-maximising shareholder supremacy. No moral dimension here please!

Citizens need to be the subjects of social change, not just its objects, with spiritual perspectives playing a key role in shaping and expressing the roots and values of democratic culture.

Which in turn allows the world's media baronies to go on lying, distorting and obfuscating about climate change, ensuring that most citizens the world over end up confused and disempowered, just waiting for a different quality of leadership.

I have to admit that I feel a little odd saying that. I've spent most of my life inveighing against the Catholic Church's utterly idiotic views on procreation and family planning - and I'm not sure that Pope Francis's reminder to his believers that they 'do not have to breed like rabbits' goes quite as far as he so obviously needs to go.

However many times one comes back to the fact that there are two elements to the global metric of 'per capita emissions' - namely, emissions and heads - today's climate diplomacy still focusses exclusively on the emissions. And the Pope must realise that.

But who else is going to put that utterly critical moral dimension back into our deliberations? Prince Charles has laboured mightily to do exactly that, but 30 years on from the time when he first started urging politicians to get to grips with the threat of climate change, far too many people now set his continued advocacy to one side on the grounds of 'been there, done that, got the t-shirt'.

New politics, new economics

So what about the politicians themselves, in terms of reviving that kind of moral dimension? Until the recent triumph of Syriza in Greece, and the rise of Podemos in Spain, I would have dismissed out of hand any suggestion that a generation of politicians totally in thrall to today's dominant neoliberal ideology would have anything at all to offer by way of moral guidance.

But the election of Syriza in Greece provides another very powerful reminder that there's a radically different way of doing politics. Writing in the Financial Times recently, Professor Mark Mazower pointed out the moral underpinning for Syriza's surge in popularity:

"With youth unemployment above 50%, an entire generation is being consigned to the scrapheap. At the same time, the notion of the common good is being sacrificed by forced sell-offs of state-owned lands, as well as businesses, with the prospect of ecological destruction as a result. If finance is to serve Europe rather than run it, a notion of the common good needs to be restored."

Today's economic orthodoxies are so transparently not for the common good. Yet with the full support of our self-serving, right-wing media, it's been possible for politicians to obscure the worsening impact of structural inequity on people's lives. But as that inequity bites deeper and deeper, even their obfuscatory skills can no longer paper over the cracks.

Time to develop the spiritual dimension

It is of course perfectly possible to define (and work for) the common good from an entirely secular perspective. But many would now argue that faith-based and spiritual perspectives can bring both a deeper and a more enduring dimension.

Which is why I was so fascinated to discover that the RSA (full name: Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), an organisation that presents itself as a bastion of rational and enlightened secularism, has just brought out a rather intriguing publication under the title of 'Spritualise: Revitalising Spirituality to Address 21st Century Challenges'.

As if to acknowledge that this might be a bit shocking to the RSA's empirically minded supporters, its Director, Matthew Taylor, was in somewhat sheepish mode in introducing the publication:

"The fact that the RSA - known for its work on policy issues like city growth, self-employment and public service reform - undertook this project is a sign of the growing importance being attached to spirituality as a source of motivation, meaning and creativity.

"Spirituality is coming into the mainstream. It could powerfully affect the way we approach major 21st century possibilities and challenges."

Only in the UK could you get away with the utterly absurd notion that spirituality is only just "coming into the main stream"! Blinded as we are by decades of de-spiritualised materialism in this little country of ours, we conveniently forget that the vast majority of human beings on this planet still lead lives informed (and, for the most part, enriched) by spiritual insights and practice.

Climate change is a moral issue

To be honest, I'm not sure that I either understood or ended up sympathising with the publication's explicit aim of "giving spirituality an improved intellectual grounding and greater cultural and political salience."

But I did find myself aligned with its explanation of how spirituality might help inform our deliberations about many of today's key issues: "The overarching societal role of spirituality is to serve as a counterweight to instrumental and utilitarian thinking.

"At an economic level, that means intelligently critiquing the fetishisation of economic growth as a panacea and global competition as the only game in town. At a political level, it means that citizens need to be the subjects of social change, not just its objects, with spiritual perspectives playing a key role in shaping and expressing the roots and values of democratic culture."

So can we now look forward to spiritual perspectives playing a bigger part in the debate about climate change?

Will the Pope's increasingly trenchant comments about the moral deficiencies (or even 'sinfulness') of much of today's politics encourage other religious and spiritual leaders to join the fray, to demand that we take a more morally-based approach to delivering the kind of radically decarbonised world that we now so urgently need?



Event: These are the kind of questions we will be delving into during our second Reconnections@Findhorn course, taking place at the Findhorn Foundation from 26th to 30th April. So if you'd like to spend a few days looking at sustainability issues from a rather different, more reflective perspective, then why not join us?

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future His latest book, 'The World We Made' is available from Phaidon.


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