This past weekend, I attended a public meeting hosted by the local chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), a national environmental organization working to slow global warming through enactment of a national carbon tax. The event focused on Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si, and his much anticipated speech to a joint session of Congress on September 24.
To my surprise, the featured speaker, Donald A. Brown, chided the CCL activists in the room for not consistently framing their advocacy in moral terms. “Moral arguments are the strongest arguments,” Brown said; “they have the most potential to change people’s opinions and their behaviors.” Yet environmental activists in the U.S. typically frame their advocacy in economic terms. Such an approach implicitly concedes that if it doesn’t make sense economically for us to reduce our use of fossil fuels, then it shouldn’t be done, even if it means killing people in other parts of the world.
This is morally wrong under all of the world’s religions, Brown stated, and is legally culpable behavior.
In Laudato Si, Pope Francis described the social, economic and environmental factors that have set in motion the “spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us.” He warned of a “false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness” and an evasiveness that “serves as a license to carry on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption . . . delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.”
His message to Congress and the American people is expected to be framed in moral terms. Monetary profit has become an idol, a false god; respect for human life and the care of Earth must guide our actions. Only then will our grandchildren and their descendants have a decent chance to live on Earth.
As Brown spoke, I felt sympathy for the CCL activists in the room. Are we Americans persuaded to act against our own economic self-interests by the lives of people living in Asia or Africa? Western sanctions caused the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children during the 1990s. When asked if that wasn’t too high a price to pay, President Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, said it was “worth it.” Albright has since been honored as a great humanitarian.
The illegal and unjustified U.S. invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush caused at least another one million Iraqi deaths. While few still say it was worth it, the regret has more to do with American deaths and loss of treasure than Iraqi deaths, which apparently don’t count for much.
More recently, we Americans have watched as our government has destroyed Libyan society, pushed Ukraine into civil war and facilitated the emergence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In none of these places has there been a threat to the USA; each intervention has entailed the death of many of “them” in order to protect some economic interest of “ours.” President Barack Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, planned and facilitated these three atrocities. Yet most of the criticism he has received from Americans suggests he has too little blood on his hands, not that he has too much.
My point is that we Americans have a history of regarding the moral dimension with disdain. We act as if there is no god to hold us accountable for taking human life in order to advance our economic interests.
What will Pope Francis say to such a people?