What Is Morally Required?

In a high, trembling voice, Middlebury student Abigail Borah interrupted the UN climate change talks in Durban last week, shouting over US Climate Envoy Todd Stern until she was led away by guards. Why did she do it? "I've stopped settling for what is deemed 'politically feasible' by obstructionists and started asking for what is morally required and scientifically necessary," she explained later.

"No one is listening to you," the president of the session chided. Maybe not, but US leaders should be paying close attention to both the scientific and the moral arguments. Scientists have spoken clearly about what steps are necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change. What we need are equally clear and insistent ethical voices, telling why immediate action to prevent climate catastrophe is required of us as moral beings and as a moral nation.

Many times, the American people have created dramatic and rapid social change -- the War of Independence, the emancipation of the slaves, the mobilization during World War II, the civil rights movement. In every case, while economic and political considerations were undeniably at play, the change itself was powered by widespread public affirmation of great moral principles of justice and human decency. Action on the greatest of our challenges -- climate change -- will require the same moral resolve. The essential questions are not what is politically feasible or what is profitable, but what is right and what is deeply, devastatingly wrong.

So let us say it loud and clear: It's wrong to wreck the world. To take what we need for our comfortable lives and leave a ransacked and dangerously unstable world for the future is not worthy of us as moral beings. And when, to enrich a powerful few, rich nations threaten to disrupt forever the great hydrological and climatic cycles that support all the lives on Earth? This is moral monstrosity on a planetary scale. We have a responsibility, individual and collective, to leave a world as beautiful and life-sustaining as the world that has nourished us.


Here are three reasons.

One: to honor human rights. All people have a right to life, to liberty, even to the pursuit of happiness. Yet the material conditions that sustain life and permit the exercise of liberty will be undermined by the effects of climate change; the familiar short list includes catastrophes from destabilized economies to food and water shortages -- all the forces that wreck peoples' homes and hopes. Without quick action, climate change will create the greatest violation of human rights the world has ever seen. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, former International Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, speaks of the effects of climate change on the Northern people: "These monumental changes absolutely threaten the memory of who we were, who we are, and all that we wish to be."

Two: to honor duties of justice. Those who spew carbon in the air for profit or convenience are reaping the benefits of their profligacy, even as they cast off the burdens on those least able to speak in their own defense -- children, future people, plants and animals, marginalized people everywhere. This is not fair. It violates the basic principle of equity, that benefits and burdens should be deserved, and the principle of retributive justice, that one person should not be punished for the wrongdoing of another.

The wrongful taking of the necessary conditions for thriving "is our shame," says ecologist Carl Safina. "Shame, because the unborn, who did not choose it, will come saddled with all conceivable consequences. Shame because the poor, who likewise did not choose it, will be hit first and foremost."

Three: to honor duties of compassion. "In matters of climate change, as in all our lives," Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu says, "our obligation is clear: we must do unto others as we would wish them to do unto us." Scientists give us the probable numbers -- numbers of wildfires, durations of drought, intensity of tropical storms, etc. Our moral imagination allows us to translate the numbers into the suffering of parents and children, and our capacity for empathy allows us to understand that the suffering is morally intolerable.

As science converges on a consensus about the dangers of climate change and as violent winds converge on villages, the moral and religious traditions of the world are converging too. We are called to act, they all tell us, for the sake of the children, for the sake of human survival, for the stewardship of divine creation, for the sake of compassion, for the sake of justice, for the rights of present and future generations, for the sake of human integrity -- and for the sake of the beautiful, beloved, life-sustaining Earth.

"The key thing is the sense of universal responsibility," says His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. "If our generations exploit everything -- the trees, the water, and the minerals -- without any care for the coming generations or the future, then we are at fault, aren't we."

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