"If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation," writes Pope Benedict XVI in his message for the January 1, 2010, World Day of Peace.
Our duties towards the environment flow from our duties towards the person and the degradation of the environment jeopardizes the welfare of the poor and especially of future generations. He writes:
Prudence would thus dictate a profound, long-term review of our model of development, one which would take into consideration the meaning of the economy and its goals with an eye to correcting its malfunctions and misapplications. The ecological health of the planet calls for this, but it is also demanded by the cultural and moral crisis of humanity whose symptoms have for some time been evident in every part of the world.
Pope Benedict cites several problems as evidence of a growing need to address environmental concerns: pollution and deforestation, the aggressive exploitation of natural resources found in impoverished countries, the conflicts that have arisen over control of those resources, the spread of untrammeled consumerism, the appearance of "environmental refugees" who leave their homes to escape a degraded habitat. These problems, he said, are "ultimately also moral crises, and all of them are interrelated."
To address these crises, and to build an economic system that allows for sustainable and equitable development, we need to adopt "a lifestyle marked by sobriety and solidarity." The Pope notes that solidarity should extend to the poor of our own generation—who are most vulnerable to the effects of environmental degradation—but also to future generations, who will be forced to cope with whatever environmental damage we have done.
In reflecting on recent negotiations held in Copenhagen, the minimalist stance of our Canadian government, and on the words of Pope Benedict, it is worth emphasizing that although climate change affects us all, it affects some more than others. Poor people held back by sustained and chronic deprivation of resources, capability and power, which limits their choices and security, are being affected first and most profoundly.
The impacts of climate change on global meteorological systems are widely recognized. These include the increasing occurrence of extreme weather events, heavy and erratic rainfall, drought, sea level rise, glacial melting and retreat, sea-ice shrinking, and the contraction of snow cover and permafrost thawing. When we look at how climate change is experienced by affected communities it becomes clear that the impacts are both multifaceted and far-reaching.
- Natural disasters
Between 1990 and 1998, 94 percent of the world's 568 major natural disasters and more than 97 percent of all natural disaster-related deaths were in the developing countries. People living in poverty are often vulnerable and marginalized in their societies due to poor-quality housing, overcrowding, and a lack of alternative livelihoods. As a result, they are more exposed to the impacts of natural disasters where many lose their lives, most lose their dwellings and crops, and their water sources are polluted. Furthermore, increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters mean that those living in poverty do not have the time or resources to adequately recover from one disaster before they are hit by the next.
- Food scarcity
The number of under-nourished people world-wide stood at 923 million in 2007. This figure is set to increase as rises in temperatures are already causing increased drought and flooding. In 2007 and 2008 we have already witnessed food riots in over 30 countries due to rising food prices, which have been linked in part to reduced yields due to the effects of climate change.
- Water Security
Access to clean, safe water, already inadequate in many countries, is being further eroded in many communities as a result of climate change. This is due to drought and as a result of salt water invading the soil in low-lying coastal areas, poisoning freshwater wells. In Africa alone, the population at risk of increased water stress due to climate change is projected to be between 75 and 250 million people by 2020.
Erratic temperature changes, including extremes of heat and cold cause higher death rates with fatal diseases, and Greenhouse Gas pollution and smog have a severe impact on respiratory diseases. Climate sensitive diseases, for example, those transmitted through water and via vectors such as mosquitoes, are among the largest global killers; diarrhea, malaria and protein-energy malnutrition alone caused more than 3.3 million deaths globally in 2002.
We are not powerless, and our history shows that we can act effectively. In the 1970s the international community responded with relative success to serious environmental alarms over acid rain and in the late 1980s to a growing hole in the ozone layer. Civil society has made major achievements in eradicating national debts of developing countries, which take away much of the resources they could use to invest in development. Climate change presents a greater and more complex problem that fundamentally questions our aspirations to certain styles of living and ways of thinking about development.
At a personal level we can act daily to decrease our ecological footprint, but it is urgent that we have leadership at the national and international level to foster a global future of climate justice.
The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, said. "So while I am satisfied we have a deal here in Copenhagen, I am aware that it is just the beginning. It will take more than this to definitely tackle climate change, but it is a step in the right direction." I would suggest that it is a very small step.
☩ Frederick Henry