When the ozone hole was discovered, it was a serious problem for the entire planet. Every living thing on earth is touched by the sun. Everyone was affected by the news. And global climate change is the same sort of problem -- there is nothing on earth that can't be affected by weather which causes droughts and fires, floods and disasters. Here in Edmonton we had a tornado in 1987. Calgary had the flood of 2013. And for most of us in Alberta, these were fairly minor events. But for people living in developing countries, a typhoon like Haiyan causes more deaths and destruction than we can imagine, and the people there don't possess the resources we have to deal with such disasters.
"With regard to climate change, advances have been regrettably few," says the Pope in Laudato Si, his letter to the entire world. "Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the parts of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most" (paragraph 169). That would be most of the countries in the western world, including us.
Unfortunately, instead of just tackling greenhouse gas reduction by adopting more stringent measures when it comes to reducing the use of fossil fuels, our past leaders have pointed fingers at other countries, poorer than ours, who aren't doing their share to protect the environment. So we in Canada have wasted valuable time, and haven't done much to stop climate change as of yet. But the Pope reminds us:
there is a need for common and differentiated responsibilities. As the bishops of Bolivia have stated, "the countries which have benefited from a high degree of industrialization, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused." (Quote from the Bolivian Bishops' Conference Pastoral Letter on the Environment and Human Development in Bolivia, El universo, don de Dios para la vida from March 2012 (86).)Those Bolivian Bishops have a lot to say when it comes to the environment, and Bolivia has been a leading country in fighting for the rights of Mother Earth. I wish I could read the entire letter, but it's not available in English, so I'll stick with Laudato Si.
I was happy to see that the Pope and his encyclical writing team addressed the issue of "carbon credits" in paragraph 171. It has never made sense to me that countries could pay a certain amount of money to "remove" so many tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere -- after the fact. If I fly to Tahiti and buy a carbon offset so that I can feel better about "dealing with" the greenhouse gas emissions caused by my tropical vacation, someone might plant a tree somewhere with that offset money, but it will take years for that tree to actually remove my emissions. It would be better not to fly at all... and maybe I need to be more serious about how I'm creating greenhouse gases from the beginning.
Unfortunately, so far no one really believes that climate change is so serious that we shouldn't be taking tropical vacations. Of course, I applaud people who do what they can to offset their air travel, and I'm not saying that carbon offsets are bad -- heaven knows our world needs all the help it can get with trees being planted and whatever else offsetters do. But we also need to reconsider frivolous things like tropical vacations! And our big, polluting corporations need to stop polluting instead of buying carbon credits from developing countries that don't produce their share of greenhouse gases. The idea is to reduce our greenhouse gases and improve the health of our atmosphere, not just to maintain things at the present level of pollution!
Paragraph 172 references the difficulties faced by poor countries and the help they will need from wealthier nations to develop less polluting forms of energy production. It also contains the encyclical's first mention of solar energy as a solution, noting that
Taking advantage of abundant solar energy will require the establishment of mechanisms and subsidies which allow developing countries access to technology transfer, technical assistance and financial resources, but in a way which respects their concrete situations, since the compatibility of [infrastructures] with the context for which they have been designed is not always adequately assessed (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Energy, Justice and Peace, IV, 1, Vatican City (2014), 53.)
It seems to me that, here in North America, we are too afraid to change, to take on our greater responsibility as people who live in some of the countries that contribute the most to climate change. We think it will be too expensive, or too difficult, but in reality, climate change will be more expensive, and more difficult. We're especially concerned about our livelihoods here in Alberta, where fossil fuel extraction and related industries have been our main employer for fifty years. But if we really think about it, fossil fuels are a dead end because our great-great-grandchildren can't live on a planet choked with greenhouse gases and terrorized by catastrophic events caused by an unstable climate. So we need to change now.
Out on my garage roof, a fellow named Paul has been working away for the past week. He used to work in the Oil Sands near Fort McMurray, but he saw that the future for highly polluting chemical processes to extract bitumen from the sand, water and clay up north was going downhill, fast. So he pulled the plug on that career and retrained to install solar panels. Clearly it's hard work, but he says it feels right. Rather than adding to climate change, he's participating in less polluting work in the energy field and improving the earth's health, long term.
And more of us need to think this way. How can we change and find better ways to deal with the pollution created by our lives? How can we reduce waste? How can we save energy? How can we in North America, who have created greater greenhouse gas emissions with our larger homes, multiple vehicles, and excessive possessions, shoulder our greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems our lifestyles have caused the planet?
What is one right thing we can do in the week ahead? Or one change we can make?
We found a way to help the ozone layer. Now we need to help the rest of our beautiful planet.
Next up: Looking after our 'global commons'