climate change environment human rights poverty

Blog action day – climate change is not an environmental issue


Today is Blog Action Day, the theme is climate change, and my contribution is the reminder that climate change is not an environmental issue. At least, not just an environmental issue. It tends to get pigeon-holed as such, dealt with by environment action groups and government departments. The way we talk about it confirms it and reinforces this impression. We need to ‘save the planet’, ‘do our bit for the environment’. The most common climate change images are of icebergs, polar bears, or the earth from space. It’s odd that the earth has become the prevailing image, since the planet itself is the one thing that will emerge unscathed from climate change.

Perhaps this is part of the reason that climate change doesn’t always get the attention it needs. If it’s an environmental issue, it’s easy to ignore. That’s not my thing, not my department. Biodiversity loss is a major consequence of climate change, but most of us don’t particularly care about the plight of bears. If we’re going to get any serious action on preventing the worst extremes of climate change, we need to get some broader perspectives:

  • It is a human problem. The cost of climate change can be expressed in homelessness and hunger, serious illness and numbers of refugees. Rising sea levels and extreme weather events shouldn’t be talked about in the abstract, but in the reality of human suffering. The aid agencies are leading the way on this, since climate change is turning out to be a massive obstacle in development. I hope the message is trickling through to the mainstream, and the latest billboard campaigns from Oxfam have been helpful.
  • It is an economics issue. Our current model of growth economics is completely incompatible with the natural limits of the earth. Economies can grow, so ‘zero-growth’ is a misnomer, but we have to reach a level of zero material growth. The though-put of materials needs to reach a sustainable equilibrium, or the ever-increasing consumption of land, water, fossil fuels, plant and animal life will make climate change unavoidable. In the end, the consumer economy consumes itself, and climate change will force us to sooner or later reinvent our economics from the ground up.
  • It’s a justice question. Climate change is caused by the richest and most developed countries, but those that suffer most are the poor. Those least responsible are the ones who bear the heaviest burden. If the developed nations fail to prevent runaway climate change, this generation will be responsible for an injustice every bit as serious as the slave trade or apartheid, and every bit as racially divisive. I don’t think the moral offensiveness of climate change has hit home yet, but I believe history will judge us for it if we stand by and let our luxurious lifestyles destroy the basic livelihoods of millions.
  • It is a spiritual matter. Behind the threat of climate change lie a whole series of spiritual disconnections – between each other, with ourselves and with the earth. We need to dismantle the lies of both social darwinism and misplaced theology. Survival of the fittest is not a license to conquer nature. A theology of dominion over creation is not permission to exploit it. A holistic response requires us to re-discover our relationship to the land, and our place as ‘a little lower than the heavenly beings’, but still dust. And that’s to say nothing of the spiritual vacuum of our consumer society, the hollow promises and lonely individualism that drives us to seek satisfaction in possessions and wealth. Life does not lie in that direction. (try this instead)

For more on the human aspects of climate change, visit CARE’s website, where you’ll find stories of both crisis and hope. You’ll also find out what you can do about it, and to donate towards their work among those worst affected by climate change.


  1. The main problem is the recent debates about free will. It’s often said that free will can’t exist because there’s no physical process that can give us such a gift. The problem with this argument is that free will isn’t a gift; it’s a handicap.

    Automatic ritual determines the lifestyle and survival skills of most animal species. People, however, are incapable of it. The only way people can join together in ritual is to decide to do so, either voluntarily or under other people’s authority.

    Other animals, through ritual, produce a pattern of signals that guide them as a team. We can’t produce such a pattern; but to compensate for that lack, we have the unique ability to guide each other through the belief that such a pattern exists. Unfortunately, our tendency to elaborate on such beliefs has made us dependent on stories that we now know are false. In place of such stories, it’s not surprising that we turn to commercial goods that we know are real because we can see, feel, or taste them.

    It’s not enough just to invent new stories we can offer each other. We need to be able to make our own stories, as admitted works of private fiction, to motivate ourselves and each other. And we need to cede the public narrative to honest discussions of the factual world.

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