Our relationship to the planet
Changing climate is changing our human relationship to the planet
Previous generations used to speak of Nature as ‘given' to us, and we responded to it, enjoyed it, sometimes shamefully exploited it, and damaged parts of it, but it remained distinct from us. But now we are changing the way our earth system works. We are now, for better or worse, active in shaping the world's climate; we are changing Nature. We are becoming what Tim Flannery calls "weather-makers".
And everything which depends on the weather is changing too. In other words, climate change is opening up in fresh and inescapable ways questions about our human relationship to the natural world, our human place in the natural order, the purposes for which we live and act, and the goals for human activity. What are we for?
Climate change also forces us to reflect on our human creativity, not least in relation to technological expertise. There are some who see technology as the source of our problems. It is the requirement of energy resources on such a scale resulting from the industrialisation of the world which has caused the situation in which we find ourselves. Can technology also find the answer? Is the challenge of climate change one that can be answered in terms of human ingenuity and human technical skill? To do so would require global cooperation of a sort not yet seen. Is the human race capable of such co-operation? Or is there a dimension to the human condition which is ultimately self-centred and self-absorbed, and which could frustrate even the best intentions of the best of us to use our ingenuity positively and for the sake of others?
Even if we could agree on such co-operation, are we ready to? Part of the problem is that we are being asked to make decisions which are costly for us now in the hope that they will improve the world in fifty years time.
Many of us would prefer that the question will just go away. It is, as Al Gore put it, an "inconvenient truth".
This is a moral and spiritual question
Climate change also opens up fresh perspectives on our human fragility and vulnerability. If there is a measure of uncertainty and fear in our generation about the likely effects of sea-level rise, increasing coastal erosion, and the disappearance of some low lying lands, what vulnerabilities are we creating for future generations? How do we now allow future generations to put their needs and their rights before us?
There is a further moral factor, namely that the parts of the world most severely affected by global warming will be the places which are most vulnerable, most poor and most disadvantaged. As David Miliband said in a speech to the Vatican in May 2007, this is a moral question. "Climate change is not just an environmental or economic issue, it is a moral and ethical one. It is not just an issue for politicians or businesses, it is an issue for the world's faith communities."
Climate change is thus opening up for us in ways which we would not have sought, questions about human life and destiny, about our relationship to the planet and to each other, about altruism and selfishness, about the place of technology, about our values, hopes and goals, and about our moral obligations for the present and for the future. There are moral and spiritual and therefore theological dimensions.