The Moral Downside of Climate Change

By Dr. Jeff Mirus

Now that parishes and Catholic schools are being urged to show a documentary on climate change, perhaps it is time to comment on the wisdom of attempting to turn climate change into a moral issue. This is a danger currently being courted by those who portray climate change both as a disaster of epic proportions and as something we can control, causing them to seek to invest the issue with a high moral priority in both education and politics.

Based on my own review of the arguments surrounding climate change, I believe that the evidence is scanty or non-existent that these changes are either well-understood or under our control even in theory. The situation is even more dubious when we consider what realistic steps a disunited world with very limited financial resources is likely to be able take to effect any consistent or controlled change. If I am correct in this assessment, then climate change may still be a problem for some people in some regions, or it may even be a general human problem at some point, but it is not a moral problem. We may be called to assist those who suffer (as we always are, for whatever reason), but we are not morally impelled to join the fight against climate change itself.

Catholics, of course, have more reason than most to foster good stewardship of creation, as a moral priority, so that present resources are not used by some to the detriment of others, including future generations, and so that we weigh carefully the potential harm of various human activities which may be under consideration for approval, disapproval, expansion or restriction. But to more deeply grasp that the implications go beyond what is fashionable, consider that we might start by ceasing to pollute our bodies and our waters with contraceptive chemicals. In any case, as Pope Benedict has pointed out, such an analysis must be done not as if man is the enemy of nature, but as if man is the apex of visible creation, to whom all of nature has been given for use, while at the same time being placed under his stewardship by God, to Whom he must give an account (Caritas in Veritate, # 48).

At the same time, preaching a moral responsibility when there really is none (as I believe is the case with our current knowledge of climate change) can only serve to distract people from more pressing things that they ought to be doing to protect and enhance human life and the common good. It is no coincidence, I think, that belief in the moral imperative to “do something” about climate change declines in inverse proportion to how religious people are and, for Catholics, how frequently they attend Mass. The issue is widely viewed in such circles as another alleged crisis fashioned by “the world” as an excuse for ignoring the more pressing moral and spiritual business of the human person.

It seems likely, after all, that what we are witnessing in the furor over climate change is a rerun of the wildly off-base population explosion announced in the 1960s, or the brief romance with a threatened ice age in the next decade, or the treatment of pregnancy as a disease, or the pressing need for safe sex, or the horrors of growing up in a world in which not everyone respects and affirms our every choice. These have all been made the moral basis for social, political and economic action, yet most people in our culture understand these issues either badly or wrongly. Worse still, the actions taken at best waste time, energy and resources and at worst either make the problem worse or create new problems in their wake.

Think how much more good could be done if those who are rushing to join the climate change crusade, especially as it relates to yet another set of coercive government policies, were to put even half of their fervor into living chastely, protecting the lives of the unborn, discouraging divorce, nurturing families, participating actively in local churches and community organizations, supporting neighborhood health clinics, promoting charitable work, or actually lending a hand to those in concrete, discernible and remediable need. Instead of trying to be seen on the “moral high ground” of the latest fashionable cause (be it whales, diversity, gender-neutral speech, or climate change), we could all actually begin to construct a better world one person at a time.

After observing the secular social order for some fifty years, I am absolutely convinced that both the human person and society as a whole have a deep need for a moral orientation, and when a society either rejects or ignores the natural law and Divine Revelation because these conflict with inordinate desires, then people are strongly drawn to ersatz causes in order to achieve moral satisfaction while distracting themselves from deeper issues. The effort to get climate change documentaries into parishes and Catholic schools is, I believe, a signal example of this common failing, arising as it does from an almost willful refusal on the part of the proponents to open their eyes to the for more pressing moral infections which have already metastasized in our culture like a deadly cancer.

A study of climate science in educational institutions is certainly both appropriate and important. As with knowledge of almost anything else, but especially of those things which may affect our lives, we should want to study climate and learn what we can about it. But we also need to recall that there have been significant climate changes before, even during the past few thousand years of recorded human history, complete with widespread shifts in what crops could be grown in different places and where people preferred to live. One thinks, for example, of the Medieval Warm Period which affected Europe and other regions between about 950 and 1250, which was followed by the so-called Little Ice Age. We probably do not even have a long enough window of serious climate study to know what we ought to consider the outer limits of “normal”.

In any case, it will take far more study, with far more accurate and universally respected results, over a much longer period of time before our limited human comprehension can form a true picture of what is happening, why it is happening, whether it is a source of long-term concern, and whether there is anything particular to be done about it. Under these circumstances, making climate change into a moral priority—that is, a guilt trip—is extraordinarily imprudent. It will serve as more than a distraction. Like many a cause célèbre before it, climate change will become an excuse to ignore the damage done through human relationships that are sadly based on a rejection of God and the natural law.

As many a pundit has said in other contexts: It’s not the heat, it’s the humility. Or at least it ought to be. We could place greater trust in researchers who recognize this. And if all the rest of us could recognize it too, and so stop our endless rebellion against the real moral law, even the environment would benefit.

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