Many of us have become aware of a recent report issued by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in which we receive a dire warning from climate scientists. It is difficult to overestimate the urgency of this document. Previous reports warned about the effects of climate change that will occur when average global temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, an outcome which the Paris climate agreement is designed to prevent. But this latest report indicates that many of the worst effects will begin to occur at a lower temperature threshold: an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius. (Average global temperatures have already risen by almost 1 degree Celsius.) Assuming that the consumption of fossil fuels continues increasing at the current rate, the 1.5-degree increase will be reached by the year 2040, well within the lifetimes of most people reading this essay.
At this point in time, it would be counterproductive for us to review the detailed list of specific changes that will occur, should we reach the 1.5-degree threshold of temperature increase. (But if you really want to know, this CarbonBrief interactive graphic will tell you.) Prior to this most recent report, journalist David Wallace-Wells provided a very detailed list. Exercising some dramatic license, Wallace-Wells arranged the worst effects of climate change within a speculative doomsday narrative of projected political and economic catastrophes, presumably in order to shock his readers into taking decisive steps now to prevent what can still be prevented. But such a fear-based strategy is not the approach I recommend as we take stock of the recent IPCC climate change report.
While fear may indeed be a frequent motivator of human actions, and while it may even motivate right actions to the extent that the fear is rational, I do not think that this emotion can produce a sustainable commitment to the kind of radical structural reform that we need. Indeed, our evolutionary ancestors acquired the emotional adaptation of fear because it was necessary for survival. But in the context of contemporary society, fear usually disposes us to think in terms of the individual rather than the collective, to act in pursuit of short-term security rather than long-term sustainability. For example, fear is unlikely to drive political organizing aimed at changing national and global energy policy in highly specific ways, such that we successfully ban the burning of coal, invest public funds in solar and wind energy, and impose carbon fees on large, corporate polluters. Instead, fear is more likely to make us cling to our fossil-fuel burning vehicles and let the entities most responsible off the hook.
As an alternative to fear-based motivation, I concur with Willis Jenkins in recommending we come to terms with our own “moral incompetence.” This phrase refers not to any professional incompetence in the field in which we are trained, but to the ways in which our culture negatively shapes our agency. As Catholics working in the context of North America, the dominant “Western” culture in which we are immersed cannot offer us the resources we need to envision and implement a form of political economy that will counteract climate change. Western individualism and the free market mechanism are among the factors that have gotten us into this pattern of environmental exploitation in the first place. Neither can the quintessentially Western aspiration to technological mastery of the world save us from this mess. Thus, when culturally Western people are forced to confront the latest report about climate change and our causality for it, our default cultural settings dispose us to feel overwhelmed by a privileged sense of helplessness, an emotional response which transitions into apathy, fear, or denial. This default is our moral incompetence. As a group, the privileged would rather pretend to be helpless than survive.
Since our part of the world has so disproportionately contributed to the current climate crisis, recognizing our own moral incompetence is an indispensable first step on the way to articulating and enacting more constructive responses. This step is what I interpret Pope Francis as having done in his encyclical letter Laudato Si’, wherein he calls for a radical reinterpretation of the conceptual traditions and practical application of Catholic social thought through the lens of “integral ecology.” Among other things, integral ecology offers a framework for perceiving the interconnection of environmental justice concerns with other applied ethical areas, such as bioethics, intergenerational justice, economic justice, racial justice, and justice for indigenous peoples affected by “Western” (i.e., white settler) colonization. In dialogue with Paul VI’s concept of “integral human development,” integral ecology functions as a corrective to the default cultural setting of anthropocentrism that persistently shapes a Western sense of agency in Catholic ethics. In a way, implicit anthropocentrism is a version of moral incompetence peculiar to culturally Western Catholics. Having recognized this incompetence, integral ecology invites us to the second step of reimagining and expanding our sense of agency. We are asked to accept the moral insight offered to us and the moral claims being made on us by the non-human life with whom we share this planet and on whom we depend for our mutual flourishing and survival.
So, let us ask ourselves: Will we respond to the latest climate report by resisting our habitual stances of apathy, fear, and helplessness, acknowledging our incompetence, and heeding Pope Francis’ challenge to radically reimagine a morally competent sense of agency? Or will we be content to wait helplessly, fearfully, and apathetically for an outcome that is not, if we act now, inevitable?