Related to the previous post and the two maps there, it’s clear that some of the largest emitters (North America, Europe, Japan, etc) of carbon dioxide and other so called “greenhouse” gases are not the same countries with the most deaths due to diarrhea. It’s also clear that the countries with the most deaths due to diarrhea (Africa, Pakistan, India, etc) are countries that emit very little carbon dioxide (CO2), in comparison with others in the world. But, what’s the point? What’s the connection? And, who cares?
Increased CO2 warms the planet by effectively not allowing heat to escape into space. Warming creates drought, which reduces the availability and variety of food and reduces the amount of food eaten. This then leads to nutritional deficiencies, which lead to diarrhoeal diseases and, in too many cases, death.
It’s critical to point out that CO2 and a warming climate are not the immediate precursors to poorer health, which is part of the reason that many rich countries (and rich people in poor countries) can afford to emit so much CO2 without suffering ill effects. There may indeed be reduced availability and varieties of food, but, for those who can afford to move, those who can afford to pay higher prices, those with access to imported foods, etc, malnutrition will probably be avoided. Climate change and a warming world affect the poorest, the most vulnerable, those without the means to adapt. And, those of us who most contribute to that climate change will often feel only the inconvenience of higher prices.
In addition to malnutrition, warming also favors the spread of disease, creates water shortages, increases the spread of malaria (by boosting reproductive rates and prolonging the breeding season), and increases the prevalence of asthma, among other health impacts.
So, what should be our response?
Recent polls in the U.S. suggest that about half of the general public is skeptical about human-induced climate change, even though the overwhelming consensus of scientists is that we do indeed play a significant role. A journal I enjoy, First Things, has written about the topic on several occasions, and, as far as I can tell, each time has taken the position that recent talk of global warming is simply an overreaction to a naturally-occurring phenomenon—that talk of the climate warming due to our actions is “nonsense.” One of their articles mocks the idea that climate is something than humans can affect:
"Before the Enlightenment, the weather was almost universally considered to be the result of divine forces…. Today’s establishment belief that the weather is under human control represents the greatest intellectual change since Galileo observed the moons of Jupiter and the spots on the sun…."
"When we blame each other for weather we do not like, rather than accepting it as God’s will or considering it the result of impersonal natural forces, when every degree too hot or too cold for our liking confirms our prejudices,…. when we fight vainly over nature’s thermostat the way we fight over the temperature in our offices, we have truly entered a New World in which we must be Brave."
When I first read this, I wanted to respond that it is reckless to simply accept as God’s will circumstances and events that may in fact have a lot, or at least something, to do with how we choose to live. Denying outright that we have any role in our changing climate is self-serving and defeating, leaving us without any other option than status-quo.
Some of the smartest people in their fields have come to agreement that human are adversely affecting our climate. But, regardless of whether you think a warming world is natural or human-caused, those of us who follow Christ have an obligation to value the earth as God’s creation. And, we need to understand that living in this world is more than about my personal rights. Indeed, a belief in the dignity of all people, whether based on the Bible or on principles of human rights (which are very much complimentary) leads one to understand that the rights, dignity, and needs of others must very much inform how I choose to live.
Speaking very specifically to the intersection of climate change and human rights, Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child reads, in part, “States shall take appropriate measures to diminish infant and child mortality…to combat disease and malnutrition….” This is going to require that we take greater care of how we live in this world.
Global warming is a loaded term these days. If the term scares you, don’t use it. But, understand that climate does impact health. A faith-based and rights-based perspective on life does not allow one to settle for the status quo. Even if I am not impacting the world’s climate by the way I live my life, I have an obligation to care for the environment and to not make my comforts and rights the only things that guide me.
And, if, as many experts have carefully concluded, I am contributing to a warming climate, I am even more compelled to think of those whose lives I am impacting and to live in such a way that improves their health, honors their rights, and respects their worth.
An excellent resource on climate change (though certainly not the only one): http://www.ipcc.ch/