There has been global dismay this past week with the decision of the current administration in the U.S. to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. This Accord commits the global community to efforts and national targets to keep the global rise of average temperatures from the pre-industrial age to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) through reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and contributions to help poorer nations implement cleaner technologies. The dismay has to do with the dominant place the U.S. plays as a world leader in many ways–technology, political leadership, and in our contribution to greenhouse gases (although China passed us in 2006 and contributes twice as much).
I don’t want to get into an argument here either about this decision nor the climate science debate. Instead, I want to explore what those who differ on these things in the U.S. might agree upon in terms of what I hope are commonly shared values.
1. Care. Pope Francis, in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, makes the case that we all have a fundamental interest in caring for our common home. The earth is a beautiful place filled with an incredible diversity of creatures, as well as 7 billion human beings. Having grown up in the rust belt, I’ve seen what can happen when beautiful lakes and rivers are treated as sewers for industrial waste. Fish kills, algae blooms, and toxins in our drinking water. It is clear that ocean levels have risen with rising temperatures, and some island nations and coastal peoples, many in poverty, face the loss of our homes. We can fight about causes, but will we care for the people who may lose their homes, no matter what the cause?
2. Caution. While some of our political leaders question the models of the results of continued global warming and the role of humans (despite the strong correlations between carbon emissions, CO2 levels, and temperature rises) it seems to me that at least caution is warranted when this is the only planet we get. I grew up in an era when physicians and medical researchers began warning of the consequences of cigarette smoking while manufacturers, growers, and many users denied the dangers of smoking. I’ve watched people die because of denials and lies, the refusal to face the truth about smoking. At very least shouldn’t the possibility of the danger to our life on the planet warrant redoubled efforts to know whether this is a clear and present danger, and what may be done to avert it? Do you want to risk the lives of your children and grandchildren on the hope that there is no danger?
3. Community. I also wonder whether there is a silver lining in the withdrawal from this accord. It is a false delusion that agreements of governments can effect the change needed. Yes, governments can incentivize or disincentivize certain behaviors. But we are those who behave. I’m glad to see mayors of so many cities saying they will press ahead with their efforts to reduce the emissions of their cities, to have clean, efficient cities that are better places to live. All of us, in our homes and businesses, can make a difference, and on our own initiative may come up with better solutions than the ones imposed on us–but we need to act.
4. Conserving. I garden. It makes me aware that whatever I take out of the soil must be replenished or I have weak and diseased plants. I was a volunteer with Boy Scouts when I was young and we taught kids to “leave no trace.” The goal was to leave the places we camped with minimal evidence of our presence so others could enjoy them just as much. Can we agree that the good things we enjoy from the earth should be replenished and especially when we use that which cannot be replenished, that we use only what is truly needed? It would seem that both “conservatives” and “liberals” should believe in conserving.
5. Consumer power. Businesses change their behavior because of customer demands and their own self interest. With coal, the major challenge is how dependent we are on it for power generation (59 percent of my home state’s power, 24 percent by natural gas). We’ve been able to reduce our household power consumption by 35 percent with more efficient appliances, light bulbs, and other energy saving measures. But it also seems that we need to press companies to shift to using renewable forms of power generation. Only 2.2 percent of our state’s power comes from renewables. I also wonder if we can use this power compassionately for those whose livelihoods have depended on coal–to invest in individuals and communities who invested their lives providing our energy.
6. Creative edge. It was interesting to me that the Mayor of Pittsburgh issued an executive order that his city would continue to adhere to the Paris Climate Accord, after his city was mentioned in the President’s speech. He said, “For decades Pittsburgh has been rebuilding its economy based on hopes for our people and our future, not on outdated fantasies about our past. The City and its many partners will continue to do the same, despite the President’s imprudent announcements yesterday.” Can we not agree that maintaining our creative, innovative edge is critical? For years, I watched the steel companies in my own city refuse to invest in modern technology while countries overseas were doing so, spelling the death of steel-making. I’ve also watched Pittsburgh turn from steel-making to becoming a technology center, leveraging resources like Carnegie-Mellon to build a new economy. Can we not agree that thinking about tomorrow rather than protecting the past is critical to national greatness?
In questions about climate change and the environment, as in so many other areas, we must move beyond two sides who won’t talk to each other. Whether the six points I’ve outlined are adequate to find common ground from which to work, or not, I will leave to you. What I hope we can agree upon is that caring for our common home, to use the Pope’s words, requires the love, and thoughtful action of each and every one of us. No Accord should be needed to convince us of that, nor the absence of one excuse us.