“For the beauty of the Earth
for the glory of the skies,
for the love which from our birth
over and around us lies;
Lord of all, to thee we raise
this our hymn of grateful praise.”
– For the Beauty of The Earth, v.1
Yesterday, President Trump announced the United States of America’s withdrawal from what’s known as the Paris Accords. Citing an economic burden and disproportionate responsibility on our shoulders, he vowed to get a better deal for America. Pointing out that the is the President of “Pittsburgh, not Paris,” President Trump announced his intentions to act entirely in the best interests of this country, over and against the interests of all other countries. Albeit not in an instant (it doesn’t work like that), we’re out of the Paris Accords.
What I’d like to look at more closely is the issue of responsibility. Who is responsible for what kind of action, when it comes to the climate?
First off, I have to say that our country has uniquely politicized the issue of climate change and man’s effect on it. In most countries, I think this is a question of science, not the left/right political spectrum. In our country, that is largely not the case. If you believe in man-driven climate change, you’re a liberal. If you’re a conservative, it’s all bunk (though there are a few notable exceptions). I have to confess, I find this to be a bizarre phenomenon. I do see this as a science question and it seems to be a largely settled question in the scientific community. In questions of science, I defer to the experts. Experts say: Yeah. It’s real.
After that begins our questions of responsibility.
Government or Private Sector
In our tour of responsibility, we can philosophically ask, who should be the one who is the responsible party for adjusting carbon emissions and such? This, I think, is where the actual discussion of liberal vs. conservative actually makes sense. Forget asking whether climate change is real (or don’t… but then you can skip most of this blog post). The real heart of the conservative/liberal divide is the role of government in any given question.
Liberal answers to the question of responsibility will lean (and sometimes very heavily lean) towards government intervention. This is probably at the heart of much of the unexamined mistrust of the Paris Accords. The idea that the government can come in an fix the problem is, at face, a nice idea, but with government power to fix things comes… government power. And governments have been notoriously bad at efficiency and efficacy and things like that. At least, to the conservative mind. On the other hand, the questions involved in carbon emissions and the incentive that cheap products give means that it may be necessary for an institution as large as the government to put a check on business.
Conservatives tend to say (either moderately or to extremes) that the government has no business doing anything. More government power equals less personal liberty and the possibility for disaster. People acting in their own self-interests are far more effective at innovation and change. Let people solve the problem! Of course, people are also very self-interested and who’s to say that we won’t milk the cheap and easy solution for way too long?
Cards on table, I think there’s actually a decent argument for a solution that relies primarily on private sector innovation, but with helps and incentives from the government. You’ll be shocked to know that on the liberal/conservative scale, I usually tend to be a a right-leaning centrist. Well… here you go. A middle way is what I’d be interested in. The government can provide baseline regulations and incentives (tax credits for green technology) and disincentives (CO2 taxes) so that the market then turn towards the problem of making/saving people money. People motivated by money are powerfully creative. Let that creative energy do its thing!
Developed vs Developing
One of the primary questions of responsibility revolves around nation-states. Who, exactly, should be responsible for curbing consumption of fossil fuels? This question is the one very much in play with the Paris Accords. Of course, now all but three nations on Earth (hey guys!) agree that everyone has a part to play. But who should bear a leading burden? Countries that we’d formerly call First World countries? The US, Germany, Japan, etc.? Or countries that are more likely to be more populated (per square mile), poorer, and unable to purchase green technology?
I think the “we’re all responsible” answer has a lot of merit. But as an American, I have to look at the list of nations most responsible for CO2 emissions and… well… we’re number two. China beats us by a good bit. But we’re a strong number two. If you are the number two contributor to a problem, you should probably bear some burden in solving that problem. Everyone on that list has some degree of responsibility. But we can’t shirk our own responsibility and just say, “AMERICA FIRST!” when America doesn’t have designated and isolated “America atmosphere.” We’re contributing to a global problem. We have to take responsibility.
Meanwhile, the most serious offender, China, is staying in and trying to clean up their act. They don’t have some of the natural advantages that we do. And their participation could merely be a giant marketing ploy as they try to step onto the stage of global leadership. But hey… they’re in the game. We’ve just stepped out of it. We’ve said, “Responsibility? Nah.”
I think that’s a mistake.
God vs. man
I’d like to speak explicitly as a Christian here. I mean, I guess I always do. But I’d like to take a theological look at responsibility on this issue. I guess I would point to Congressman Tim Walberg’s comments as a type of thought on this issue that I often hear from Christians. Some variation of “God will fix this/God gave us this Earth to use/It’s all going to burn anyway/Save the people not the lame trees/What about abortion killing people.” That umbrella.
Responsibility here, is actually a question of anthropology. And I don’t mean that in the sense of the university department normally associated with “Anthropology.” I mean the study of the nature of man in the field of theology. The Christian belief is that people were created in the “image of God.” What that thing is, that image, has been the subject of a lot of spilled ink over the millennia.
I think it’s best to read that term in light of the focus on “images” that runs throughout the Old Testament. What does that term “image” usually refer to? Idolatry. Images were idols, representation of a spiritual reality. But they also have monarchical ramifications, because we know that, in Israel’s time and place, kings would conquer territories and set up their own idols, their images in conquered lands to loudly announce to the people, “This is Emperor Steve’s land now. Deal with it or die, suckers.” There weren’t billboards or Facebook or even beepers back then. There were these images that announced authority.
Humans bear the image of God. Humans were meant to be walking, talking, breathing declarations to Creation that God is the Good King of the whole Earth. The Image of God, does not mean that we became God on the Earth. It’s that we have some divine distribution of authority proclaiming God’s own authority and power. And God the Good Gardener, the Creator King, left us to replicate his task on the Earth to the degree that we, seemingly pathetic little images that we are, are able.
So is climate change God’s responsibility? Well… kinda. It’s his world after all. But we already know his solution to the problem. He’s already given his intended answer. He’s sent his emissaries to clarify the task, the intention. Who are they?
Well, they bear the king’s image.
Yeah. It’s us. We are responsible to reflect the image of the King into the Creation and steward his Creation. And while, yes, the Christian story does involve some fire at the end, it doesn’t involve an abandonment of Creation. In fact, it involves God’s eternal home being joined to the natural world. New Heaven and New Earth. Same place. Forever.
Are trees more important than babies? No of course not. But let’s not go hunting for false dichotomies here. We can be responsible image bearers and stewards of the rest of Creation while, at the same time, caring for and protecting human life. In fact, because our lives are so entertained with the natural world (which modernity keeps trying to get us to forget), if the planet we live on really is heading towards some serious problems, then human life is heading towards serious problems.
Any way you turn, the question of responsibility keeps pointing back to this answer: We’re responsible. We are.
Like I said, I’m not a scientist. I don’t have all the solutions for us. I’m not saying that the Paris Accords were the be-all, end-all of this question. I don’t think that’s how they were designed to work, considering there was nothing legally binding in the agreements to begin with. I’m not running around, waiting for the global conflagration that is coming tomorrow because of global warming. I’m really not.
But it’s worth considering the question of responsibility. Along what axises do you answer those questions? What is your understanding of your role in all of this? And how do you understand that role in light of God as Creator-King? These are questions worth considering.
The picture above is from Glacier National Park. The glaciers there are shrinking/disappearing at an alarming rate. Places like that induce me to sing hymns like the one at the top. This question of responsibility is one that matters to me because I want to keep beautiful places like that where my heart can be stirred to think on the Creator-God and delight in him. As with all areas of my life, I’m sure you can find hypocrisy on these issue in me. I’m confident of it. But I pray that God might help me to better reflect his image into a Creation that groans and longs for the resolution of all things. I hope that I can help work towards the future reflected forward a bit, a little taste of the New Earth before it arrives, a little glimpse of redemption from afar.
I think that task is my calling. My responsibility.