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Blind trust is not enough

by
01 August 2007

The Old Testament stories of Noah and Joseph have plenty to tell us about the moral imperative of tackling climate change, says Michael Northcott

Rainbow warriors: Greenpeace’s copy of Noah’s ark erected on Mount Ararat near Dogubayazit, eastern Turkey, in May 2007, as a message to G8 foreign ministers about the urgency of addressing climate change PA

Rainbow warriors: Greenpeace’s copy of Noah’s ark erected on Mount Ararat near Dogubayazit, eastern Turkey, in May 2007, as a message to G8 foreign mi...

THERE IS NOW unanimity among university-based climatologists that the growing frequency and force of extreme weather events in the past 30 years is a consequence of increases of between 0.6 and 3°C in ocean and land temperatures, and that this warming is a consequence of human fossil-fuel burning.

During the 300-year history of the industrial revolution, human beings have released approximately 600,000 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from fossil-fuel burning and cement making. This extraordinary feat is now affecting the atmospheric heat exchange between the earth and the sun.

Technology has transformed the relationship of human beings to the earth to one of conquest. But this fossil-fuelled conquest has proceeded largely without thought for the long-term consequences, the most grave of which is not — as some environmentalists predicted — that fossil fuels are running out. The gravest consequence has arisen because this unprecedented release of energy is heating up the planet.

Climate change is an urgent moral problem for this generation because it is life-threatening. Prolonged droughts and reduced crop outputs in southern Africa are the most life-threatening feature of climate change, because of the poverty of the continent of Africa.

Climate change is also a threat to other regions. In Nepal, the poorest country in Asia, Himalayan glaciers are the principal fresh water source in many rural areas. But because the glaciers are shrinking, ancient mountain communities may become unsustainable.

In the past 20 years, north India, Bangladesh, East Africa, and parts of South America have experienced marked increases in flash floods and coastal flooding. And the struggling farmers and indigenous peoples of north-east India are seeing deserts grow and land temperatures rising.

The World Health Organization forecasts that the numbers of those killed annually by climate change will double by 2020. The intergovernmental panel on climate change, in their fourth assessment report, suggest that up to three billion people, mostly in the tropics and the southern hemisphere, will be displaced or suffer serious threat to their well-being if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

Although the possibility that carbon emissions could exacerbate the greenhouse effect was first proposed in 1896, it is only recently that scientific opinion has reached anything like consensus on the issue. For most of the 20th century, natural scientists dismissed the possibility that human impact was powerful enough to change the climate of the planet.

They reflected in this resistance a Newtonian view of cause and effect, which argued that the earth was essentially a machine whose behaviour was according to fixed and predictable law with which neither God nor humans are capable of interfering.

This mechanical model unseated a much older model that presumed a close interaction between human behaviour and the weather. In the classical world, and in Christian tradition, it was assumed that cosmology and ethics, metaphysics and morality, were related. Previously, forms of Christian and Jewish worship sustained connections between divinity and society, cosmos and humanity, so that climatic events were said to be interconnected with human morality and humanity’s relationship to divinity.

Climate scientists who find a biophysical response to the modern industrial economy in the behaviour of the planet are recovering this ancient linkage. But many resist their findings because they have been trained by Newtonian physics to discount such connections.

While generative of advances in the human capacity to transform the material world in the light of human desires, Newtonianism fostered the illusion that there are no biophysical parameters to, or relationship between, the expression of these desires and the constitution of the material world.

Nowhere does this assumption remain more in the ascendant than in the pseudo-science of modern economics, whose practitioners continue to hold, after Adam Smith, that the choices of individual consumers are intrinsically rational when they act severally and in their own interests and without regard for the common good.

The ideology of rational choice sustains the illusory claim that our welfare is advanced by economic growth because such growth increases our range of choices. Individuals find it hard to imagine that the biophysical world represents any kind of limit to the expression of their desires.

Industrial civilisation has, at most, 20 years in which to radically reduce the use of fossil fuel before the likely effects of global warming become catastrophic.

But the models used by economists to judge the nature of human well-being remain firmly wedded to rational-choice assumptions, and the logic of economic growth. Such trenchant disregard is intrinsic to the modern loss of a sense of relation between human society and cosmic order.

In Christian tradition, as in other ancient cultures, the key device for teaching cosmology was storytelling. There are two foundational biblical stories where individuals act to stave off climatic disasters, these being Noah and Joseph.

In the flood narrative, Noah learns that God intends to flood the earth because “the wickedness of humankind on earth was great” (Genesis 6.5). Noah begins his ark in accordance with divine instruction, and his neighbours ridicule him. They are content; they do not suspect that disaster will befall them. When the flood comes, the only ones who survive are those whom Noah has seen safely aboard his ark.

The biblical story of the flood echoes similar accounts of primordial inundation in the ancient Near East. In about 5600 BC, the rising waters of the Mediterranean precipitated the inundation of the deep basin that contained the freshwater Lake Euxine and resulted in the formation of the Black Sea. This ancient saga is a moral tale in which the flood is seen as divine punishment for a generation so depraved that “every planning and striving of its heart was always only wicked” (Genesis 6.5).

The covenant God made with Noah and his descendants after the flood promised that the earth would never again be threatened by the bursting forth of the chaotic waters. It was, as the English Jesuit Robert Murray suggests, a “cosmic covenant”, in which the idea of confrontation between the powers of ocean and climate and the ordering and sustaining power of God played a central part.

For the Psalmist, the regularity of the rains is evidence of the sustaining action of the creator, but they are also seen as a sign of good government. Pollution is seen as a consequence of the failure to follow divine law.

After Noah, and before Isaiah, the Old Testament speaks of another patriarch who not only foretold an impending climate disaster, but helped an alien nation, and through them God’s chosen people, to survive. The story of Joseph offers a more hopeful scenario for our climate-change predicament than that of Noah.

Like the story of the flood, the story of Joseph may also have historical roots in the memory of a drought in the Near East, which Greenland ice cores reveal took place in a 300-year period from 2200 BC. Although the drought was not caused by Egyptian agricultural or imperial practices, it would have shown up any weaknesses in those.

Above all, the claim of their rulers to be gods was shaken by the famines. The lesson they learned was the strategy recorded in the Joseph saga — that investment in agriculture and centralised storage was a more effective means of managing the vagaries of the climate than the claim that rulers could control the forces of nature.

The story of Joseph not only shows how climate plays a part in shaping the destinies of civilisations, it is also a powerful story of divine providence. Through his betrayal by his brothers, his perseverance during servitude and imprisonment in Egypt, and through his prophetic wisdom in interpreting dreams, Joseph became vice-regent in Egypt.

In that capacity he established a system of tithes and taxes, and thence a centralised system of agricultural storage. When his family visit the court of the Pharaoh to plead for help, they are in awe at the power and wealth of the court, and doubly so when they realise that Joseph, the brother they betrayed, is now ruler in this great empire.

The story shows how God works through the seemingly unconnected events of history to bring about the salvation of the people of God. From the jealousy of Joseph’s brothers to the years of drought, the divine hand saves the sons and daughters of Jacob.

The fathers of the Early Church interpreted Joseph as an analogy for Jesus. Just as God preserves his people through the undeserved suffering of Joseph, so God redeems the new people of God through the undeserved suffering of his son. There were no doubt many in Egypt who scoffed at Joseph’s prediction of drought, and who argued that the prophecy of a coming cataclysm was mistaken. The science of global warming finds a powerful analogy in this story.

Forward planning to mitigate climate change has a bad name among contemporary economists. An aversion to planning infects economists’ accounts of the costs said to be involved in reducing fossil-fuel dependence. Rational choice theory suggests the invisible hand of the market is the best promoter of wealth and welfare in societies where individuals are free to pursue their own interests, without regard for the interests of others. There is presently little evidence that climate change has unseated the cultural power of this description of rational human behaviour among economists, and the corporations and governments that they advise.

Trust in divine fidelity is at the heart of the Jewish and Christian moral traditions. But the God-given capacity to discern a future of climate change requires concerted moral action, not simply blind trust that God will somehow defend us.

In one sense, as Christians, we already know our end, for we learn from the resurrection of Christ that our bodies will be raised with his on the last day. The resurrection directs Christians to care for the conditions which sustain mortal flourishing.

The Joseph saga suggests that prophetic insight into the threats to life that human activities or planetary cataclysms may represent, and the wisdom to deal with such threats, are among the gifts God gives to his people to help preserve the creation from destruction.

If the signs of disturbances in the climate signify a potential cataclysm from fossil-fuel burning, then the Genesis stories of Noah and Joseph show that there is a divine will to preserve creation from cataclysm.

These stories also teach us that prophets of climate change must be heeded. Without metanoia, and a sense of humility before the forces of this planet, we will not be able to achieve the transformation needed to avert planetary meltdown.

This is an edited extract from Chapter 2 of Michael Northcott’s A Moral Climate: The ethics of global warming published on 20 August (Darton, Longman & Todd, £11.95 (CT Bookshop £10.75); 978-0232-52668-4)

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