The Daunting Moral Calculus of Climate Change

Posted by on Oct 5, 2016 in cosmos, land | One Comment
The Daunting Moral Calculus of Climate Change

Human-caused climate change is not a belief, a hoax, or a conspiracy. It is a physical reality. Fossil fuels powered the Industrial Revolution. But the burning of oil, coal, and gas also caused most of the historical increase in atmospheric levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. This increase in greenhouse gases is changing Earth’s climate.

So begins a recent open letter from 375 members of the National Academy of Sciences, including 30 Nobel laureates. They continue:

Our fingerprints on the climate system are visible everywhere. They are seen in warming of the oceans, the land surface, and the lower atmosphere. They are identifiable in sea level rise, altered rainfall patterns, retreat of Arctic sea ice, ocean acidification, and many other aspects of the climate system. Human-caused climate change is not something far removed from our day-to-day experience, affecting only the remote Arctic. It is present here and now, in our own country, in our own states, and in our own communities.

They wrote their letter because Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump promises to withdraw the United States from the unanimous pledge made last December by 195 countries to keep the global average surface air temperature from crossing the 2-degree-Celsius mark (meaning a total warming of 2 degrees C above the preindustrial level). The nations realized it is SO dangerous and urgent that they unanimously agreed the world must do all it can to keep the total increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius, with a goal of no more than 1.5C. And today the final procedural hurdle was crossed, and the agreement will come into force on November 4. Trump, however, promises to renege on our nation’s pledge, and he and the Republican Party promise to double down on our production of fossil fuels.

We are at a crossroads, and it is vital that people understand the moral aspects of their decisions about who to believe, and what actions to take. A new report by Oil Change International, which uses the fossil fuel industry’s own figures, makes it clear that if the world is to reach the goal that all the nations say is essential, we are going to have to stop fossil fuel exploration, production and use far faster than what most people realize. As George Monbiot summarized in The Guardian, “Burning the oil, gas and coal in the fields and mines that is already either in production or being developed, is likely to take the global temperature rise beyond 2C. And even if all coal mining were to be shut down today, the oil and gas lined up so far would take it past 1.5C. The notion that we can open any new reserves, whether by fracking for gas, drilling for oil or digging for coal, without scuppering the Paris commitments is simply untenable.”

This means that to stay below 2 degrees C, we can only use about 85 percent of the fossil fuel that is already in the pipeline. Yet even this doesn’t guarantee we’ll stay under 2 degrees. The Oil Change International report uses the standard United Nations metric of what it would take to give us a 66 percent chance of staying below 2 degrees of warming. In other words, if we want a better chance than that–say 80 percent or 90 percent–the fossil fuel cuts will have to be even greater, sooner.

And if we can’t burn all the oil, gas and coal that is currently in production or being developed, this means it is foolish to open up any more new locations for exploration and development. As the report says at the beginning, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.”


“The climate is always changing,” say those who don’t want to accept the reality of what we face. That statement is entirely irrelevant–the KIND of change we are starting to experience, and the CAUSE, are unprecedented. Agricultural-based human civilization has only known the blue part of the graph. If you look to the right you’ll see that blue line shoot up like nothing humans have ever seen. That’s the warming so far that we have caused by our use of fossil fuels. That red line is where we’re headed over the course of the century. In fact, if we continue to dither instead of rapidly transition away from fossil fuels, by 2100 we may well be another 1-3 degrees celsius higher than the top of this chart. More info about this graphic available here:

My goal here isn’t to teach the basics of climate change. Frankly, while it is not at all hard to understand the basics of the science, that isn’t really necessary in considering the moral dimensions of the issue: The vast consensus from the evidence is that the warming caused by our use of fossil fuels poses a serious, urgent threat to humans around the world as well as to vital ecosystems and at least tens of thousands of other species. Either we rapidly phase out fossil fuels, or we pass a legacy of death and destruction on to future generations for millennia.

  • The first number in our moral calculus: 30,000. Once we stop using fossil fuels, it will take a very long time for the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to be reabsorbed. On the positive side, scientists expect about half of it to be reabsorbed in 50 years, and about 70 percent in a century. Meanwhile, of course, the extra gigatons of CO2 will continue to wreak havoc on the planet, and as that first century of slowly declining CO2 levels progresses, it will take increasingly longer for the remaining CO2 to be reabsorbed. It will take two more centuries for the next 10 percent. And that final 20 percent? Tens of thousands of years, and possibly hundreds of thousands. And it will continue to affect ice sheets, sea levels, and extreme weather throughout that time. The “mean” lifetime of the effects of human-caused global warming is 30,000-35,000 years.

This means that we are taking it upon ourselves to decide what kind of world our descendants will experience for millennia. They have no vote, no say. To dismiss the reality or seriousness of human-caused climate change, therefore, is morally to gamble with hundreds of generations of your descendants’ lives. I call that daunting.

  • The second number in our moral calculus: 97. There have been at least seven major studies examining the strength of consensus among scientists who actively publish research related to climate change. The study with the lowest level of consensus still found 91 percent agreement among the scientists that humans are causing the climate to change because our use of fossil fuels is warming the planet, and that it poses a serious and urgent threat. One study found 100 percent agreement. Most of the studies found 97 percent agreement among the experts in the field. To dismiss the reality or seriousness of human-caused climate change, therefore, is to take the moral gamble with your descendants’ lives that almost every expert is wrong. I call that daunting.
  • The third number in our moral calculus: 80. Just in case you’re suspicious of the seven studies mentioned above, 80 national academies of science around the world have examined the evidence and endorsed the findings. Not one national academy of science has disagreed. To dismiss the reality or seriousness of human-caused climate change, therefore, is to take the moral gamble with your descendants’ lives that every national academy of science is wrong. I call that daunting.
  • The fourth number in our moral calculus: 800. Based on what the world’s experts have discovered about the relationship between carbon dioxide and average global temperature, this is the number of gigatons of CO2 the world can release into the atmosphere to have a 66 percent chance of staying below a total temperature increase of 2C. There is a margin of error on either side of this figure, so there’s a chance we could burn a little more, but a similar chance that we actually need to burn a little less. This is often called our “carbon budget.”
  • The fifth number in our moral calculus: 942. This is the new figure provided by Oil Change International, and it comes right from industry’s own numbers. It represents the gigatons of CO2 that would go into the atmosphere if we burn all the coal, oil, and natural gas currently in production.
  • The sixth number in our moral calculus: 142. That’s how many gigatons of CO2 we will overshoot the carbon budget by if we burn all the coal, oil, and natural gas currently in production. Even without adding new mines and oil and gas fields, we will overshoot the 2C mark merely by using what’s already in the pipeline. To put it another way, to have even a 66 percent chance of staying below 2C, we must begin closing some of the mines and fields already in production. We cannot afford to open any new ones. I call that daunting.

Moreover, as Bill McKibben explains in his recent article examining these figures,

“Two degrees Celsius used to be the red line. But scientists now believe the upper limit is much lower. We’ve already raised the world’s temperature by one degree—enough to melt almost half the ice in the Arctic, kill off huge swaths of the world’s coral, and unleash lethal floods and drought. July and August tied for the hottest months ever recorded on our planet, and scientists think they were almost certainly the hottest in the history of human civilization. Places like Basra, Iraq—on the edge of what scholars think was the Biblical Garden of Eden—hit 129 degrees Fahrenheit this year, approaching the point where humans can’t survive outdoors. So last year, when the world’s leaders met in Paris, they set a new number: Every effort, they said, would be made to keep the global temperature rise to less than 1.5 degrees. And to have even a 50–50 chance of meeting that goal, we can only release about 353 gigatons more CO2.”

That means, as McKibben points out, “To have just a break-even chance of meeting that 1.5 degree goal we solemnly set in Paris, we’ll need to close all of the coal mines and some of the oil and gas fields we’re currently operating long before they’re exhausted.” It doesn’t all have to happen immediately. As McKibben explains, “we don’t have to grind everything to a halt tomorrow; we can keep extracting fuel from existing oil wells and gas fields and coal mines. But we can’t go explore for new ones. We can’t even develop the ones we already know about, the ones right next to our current projects.”

George Monbiot agrees, saying that the world’s nations face three choices:

First: a gradual, managed decline of existing production and its replacement with renewable energy and low-carbon infrastructure, which offer great potential for employment. Second: allowing fossil fuel production to continue at current rates for a while longer, followed by a sudden and severe termination of the sector, with dire consequences for both jobs and economies. Third: continuing to produce fossil fuels as we do today, followed by climate breakdown.

He asks, “Why is this a hard choice to make?” And yet so far all indications are that our world’s leaders are not remotely up to the task, and are defaulting to option three. Again, they are gambling that every national academy of science in the world is wrong, and they are making this gamble on behalf of hundreds of generations of people who will have to live or die with the results. And not just people: even the 2C mark will risk the extinction of roughly 1 in every 4 species on earth. Once we exceed 3.5C–which easily could happen by the end of the century, if we continue to use fossil fuels–40 to 70 percent of all species will be at risk of extinction. In between there, at 3C–which we may surpass even if all the nations live up to their Paris pledges–the earth will warm enough over time to submerge New York City.

These examples just scratch the surface of what our decisions mean to the future of humanity and the rest of creation. To act as though the scientists are wrong and we can freely go on living as we are without consequence is to make a daunting moral decision that hundreds of generations must live with.

Aristotle defined prudence as “right reason applied to practice.” For Christians, prudence is considered one of the four chief natural virtues. And yet it has been greatly misunderstood in recent times, with many Christians believing they are acting with “prudential judgment” whenever they consider an issue and come to a conclusion. That is not what prudence means. Prudence requires judging correctly; therefore, to simply discount the clear advice of the experts in a field is to be imprudent, which has always been considered sinful, and potentially gravely sinful. As Pope Francis wrote in his environmental encyclical, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity.”

We face the potential destruction of modern civilization, the loss of hundreds of millions and possibly even billions of human lives, and the extinction of potentially more than half of all species. It doesn’t have to be this way. It is economically and technically possible to get 80 percent of the world’s energy from renewable sources by 2030. Clean energy costs are plummeting, and we need not pass on a legacy of gloom and doom. But such a transition is not easy, and takes political will. And the political will won’t come about if citizens don’t force the politicians to act or vote them out of office.

We face a daunting moral calculus, and to ignore it does not escape moral culpability. What we face is biblical both in the scale of destruction, and in the sinful recklessness of humankind. Stopping the fossil fuel industry before it burns all of what is already in the pipeline, and making a rapid transition to renewable sources of energy, is THE pro-life issue of the century. The pro-life movement has always, for better or worse, been strongly identified with efforts to stop abortion. But there is no inherent deadline to that battle, for those who wage it. Climate change is different. We have a very strict deadline, and a carbon budget we dare not exceed, if we care about the lives of hundreds of generations of descendants, let alone the rest of creation. There are many important issues, but only on this one does the fate of civilization itself hang in the balance, and the clock is ticking. That, to me, is daunting. But we have the technological and economic capability to make the necessary transition within the necessary time frame. As Monbiot says, “Why is this a hard choice to make?”


it’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?

surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?

as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?

did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?

what did you do

–Drew Dellinger, “Hieroglyphic Stairway”


Photo: old cross carved in pine stump, New Melleray, Iowa, July 30, 2012
Evening Prayer of the Woods
Elegy for the Arctic

1 Comment

  1. Gathering Runes Genuine Climate Science Skeptics vs Lovers of Partisan Fairy Tales – Gathering Runes
    July 6, 2017

    […] and, given the stakes involved, this attitude is what Christianity has always described as a gravely sinful lack of prudence. Right now, political forces are actively distorting the science for the sake of greed and power. […]