“Never give in charity what is owed in justice.” — Pope John XXIII
We Americans are a generous people. According to the National Philanthropic Trust, we gave over $300 billion to charity as individuals in 2020. That’s nearly 2 percent of our nation’s GDP. And we are not just generous with our treasure: nearly one in three adults also invested our time and talents by volunteering in the community.
Giving as an act of charity is a powerful thing. Such giving is essential to countless nonprofits like the New Hampshire Food Bank that make life better for people in need, especially at this time of year. But sometimes it is not enough. While we take pride in our record of charitable giving, our record of doing justice is not so clean.
After the global climate summit just concluded in Glasgow, America is presented with an urgent opportunity — indeed a moral responsibility — to give not just in charity but also in justice to protect our common home. Our own Christian faith, like other faith traditions, demands nothing less.
Allow us to explain. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, human beings have pumped more than 2 trillion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, according to the latest peer-reviewed scientific research. Because of the heat-trapping properties of CO2, which were first discovered 165 years ago by the pioneering female scientist Eunice Foote, the combustion of coal, oil, and gas is directly responsible for raising global temperatures about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900. In fact, carbon concentration in the atmosphere, and the resulting over-heating of our planet, are at their highest levels since human life began, according to the latest science summarized by NASA.
Who caused this overheating and its accompanying climatic extremes? More than any other nation in the world, we did. Rigorous research into the sources of CO2 from power plants, automobiles, deforestation, and the like finds that more than 20 percent of global carbon pollution since the industrial revolution has come from the United States. Although we make up just 4 percent of the world’s people, our share of greenhouse gas emissions from CO2 and other sources dwarfs our share of global population by a factor of five. Only China, with four times as many people, has higher total emissions than America today.
The price of this pollution in human terms is staggering. According to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, more than 20 million people have been forced to leave their homes since 2010 by floods, storms, wildfires, heat waves and other climate disasters. Thousands more are rendered homeless and jobless each year by more gradual climatic changes like coastal erosion and droughts, including the multi-year droughts our family members have experienced in Southern Africa for much of the last decade. The frequency and severity of these so-called “natural” disasters are definitively tied to greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, according to reams of scientific research and the latest IPCC report. In fact, climate scientists have been predicting precisely these kinds of extreme and deadly events for decades as carbon pollution intensified.
Although climate damage is the largest contributing factor to today’s refugee crisis, and more people are refugees today than at any other time since World War II, warnings from the UN make clear “we ain’t seen nothing yet.” If current emissions trends continue, an estimated 1.2 billion people will be forced to leave their homes by 2050 due to climate change — a humanitarian crisis the likes of which we have never seen before. Already the number of people in low-lying areas directly threatened by coastal inundation has climbed from 160 million a generation ago to over 260 million today as sea level rise intensifies. Most of them live in poor countries like Bangladesh or small island nations like the Maldives and Kiribati, which are forced to spend millions of dollars they do not have on climate mitigation. Some are even at risk of being wiped off the map this century.
The destabilizing impacts of such massive dislocation of people around the world are one reason the Pentagon has termed climate change a top national security threat of the 21st century.
Carbon-fueled natural disasters like fires and floods may be the “breaking news” of climate damage but they are far from the most deadly. Public health researchers at Harvard have found that over 8 million people died silently from exposure to fine particulate matter caused by burning fossil fuels in 2018, the last year for which we have reliable data. That’s 22,000 innocent people whose lives were cut short per day — equivalent to the entire population of Portsmouth or Keene. Although particulate pollution is largely the result of more localized fossil fuel combustion, as less developed nations seek to overcome their poverty by exploiting coal and oil, thousands more people around the world are dying from carbon emissions beyond their shores. Indeed, scientists have clearly shown how planetary heating from carbon pollution drives droughts and desertification, ocean warming and acidification, which destroy crops and fisheries and a host of ecosystem services in the process. The cost in both lives and livelihoods is staggering.
So what can we do? First, we must acknowledge the outsized role our nation has played, and continues to play, in causing the climate crisis, and the harm it has wrought on billions of people and countless other species around the world. Not just in some distant future but today. Not just in some far off land, like South Africa, but increasingly here at home as well. Although we as individuals did not choose this destructive path, we have benefited immensely from it as Americans. Now it is in our power to make things right.
Second, we must recognize that undoing the damage our nation and fossil fuel companies have caused is not a matter of charity but justice. It’s not a “nice to” but a “have to.” Just like we teach our kids to fix what they break or pay the consequences, we must hold American fossil fuel companies accountable for the damage they have done in the name of profit, while sowing doubts and denial about the climate science. At the same time, we must take responsibility for the part we individually play in accelerating climate damage, and mobilize our families and communities to replace fossil fuels with clean renewable energy.
Finally, as people who embrace hard things — from defeating global fascism in World War II to developing life-saving COVID vaccines today — our nation must take up the generational challenge of decarbonizing our economy and helping poorer countries do the same to avert a climate catastrophe. Structural change must begin with passing the Build Back Better Act in Congress to unleash American innovation, add millions of good-paying jobs, and ensure environmental justice for communities hit first and worst by climate change at home. It also requires that America join other developed nations in finally making good on our stated commitment in 2010 to invest $100 billion annually in helping poor nations weather the climate crisis and decarbonize their economies — not with more high-interest loans that saddle them with debt but through direct donations made in the name of justice.
Our faith teaches that doing wrong has consequences, whether we meant to or not. Today we see how, on account of our collective actions, “the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens, and even the fish of the sea are taken away.” (Hosea 4:3) Yet we know the story does not end have to end there — if we will but “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)
Let’s match our charitable spirit this holiday season with a commitment to climate justice at home and abroad. Because it’s never too late, or too soon, to do the right thing.