Climate Change and the Consistent Life Ethic: An Opportunity to Connect Issues
by John Whitehead
Climate change and how to counter it has been much in the news over the past few weeks, with these topics being raised in the United Nations and in the streets. Harm to our shared environment should concern all of us and should especially concern advocates of the consistent life ethic. We should consider how climate change connects to other threats to life we are committed to working against: how climate change worsens poverty; can harm children, including children in the womb; and may make war or other violent conflict more likely. Such connections should heighten our commitment to work against violence to the earth.Climate Change and Poverty
A warming climate will hurt the poorest the most, especially through negative effects on food production. Global warming will reduce yields of staple crops such as rice and wheat. Regions such as Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa are particularly vulnerable to climate change’s effects on crops. People with the fewest resources, who are most directly dependent on their own farming, will most likely bear the greatest burden of such effects.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) describes the possible effects of climate change on the world’s poorest people. The IPCC projects what an average global temperature increase of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in the coming decades will mean. Such an increase
would disproportionately affect disadvantaged and vulnerable populations through food insecurity, higher food prices, income losses, lost livelihood opportunities, adverse health impacts and population displacements . . . Some of the worst impacts on sustainable development are expected to be felt among agricultural and coastal dependent livelihoods, indigenous people, children and the elderly, poor labourers, poor urban dwellers in African cities, and people and ecosystems in the Arctic and Small Island Developing States.
(IPCC, Global Warming of 1.5 ºC, Chapter 5)
Further, a global temperature rise of only 1.5°C may prove unrealistically optimistic. If the increase is greater, perhaps reaching 2°C, the effects on the poor will be even more dire.
Climate Change and Children
The IPCC also warns of increased temperatures leading to health problems and disease. A warming climate leads to heat-related deaths, poorer air quality and hence respiratory illnesses, and the spread of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. Disruptions caused by extreme weather events can also lead to food and water supplies being contaminated, also leading to illnesses.
Children are especially vulnerable to these kinds of environmental dangers, given their developing immune systems; the quantity of outside material, relative to their size, they take in by breathing, eating, and drinking; and the amount of time they typically spend outside. For example, the US Environmental Protection Agency reports that infectious diarrhea, a water- and food-borne illness, annually kills 1.5 million children, most of them in developing countries.
Climate change-related health risks extend to preborn children as well. In pregnant women, respiratory illnesses or dehydration from heat can contribute to pre-term birth or low birth weight. Moreover, if climate change and related extreme weather events worsen poverty or malnutrition, as noted above, that may also harm pregnant women and their children’s health. These effects of climate change concern those who wish to protect children, before and after birth.
Climate Change and War
Another feared result of higher temperatures is that the resulting damage to farming and food supplies will lead to violent conflict. Such conflict might arise from competition over scarcer resources, for example, or from civil unrest over governments’ failures to address scarcity.
Whether such a connection between climate change and violent conflict really exists has been a long-running controversy. Some research supports this connection. A 2013 survey of 50 studies on the topic found “strong support for a causal association between climatological changes and conflict across a range of geographies, a range of different time periods, a range of spatial scales and across climatic events of different duration.” One surveyed study found that the risk of conflict in tropical countries increases with the shift from the (relatively cooler and wetter) La Niña weather pattern to the (relatively hotter and drier) El Niño pattern. This finding suggests that an overall shift toward a hotter, drier world might increase the risk of conflict.
However, others argue against this supposed climate-conflict link, criticizing the methodology involved in reaching this conclusion as well as the neglect of other factors that lead to conflict. At worst, linking climate change to conflict might lead to a kind of fatalism that holds violence to be inevitable as long as climate change persists.
These criticisms are well taken and we should not automatically assume that climate change makes war or other conflict more likely. Nevertheless, we should not ignore or dismiss the possibility either. Even a critic of the climate change and conflict connection noted that “there’s no doubt that climate change can, on some occasions, be linked to violence and warfare.” A group of social scientists with various views on the climate change–conflict relationship recently, after various consultations, reached the tentative conclusion that climate change may have had only modest effects on conflict to date but, if left unchecked, could increase risks of future conflict.
Further, the notion that climate change could make conflict more likely makes sense simply on an intuitive level. If poverty, famine, and disease, as well as disruptive events such as extreme weather and mass migration, become more common or severe they could well strain political institutions’ ability to resolve conflicts peacefully. Certainly we would be naïve to expect climate change’s negative effects to decrease conflict or make the world a more peaceful place. Those concerned with peace building would do well to devote attention to countering climate change.
As two writers on climate change observed, this important topic can too often seem “abstract, uncertain, unfamiliar, impersonal, diffuse and seemingly distant.” Connecting climate change to its impacts on people’s lives can make the issue more vivid and the stakes clearer. For consistent life ethic advocates specifically, making these connections shows how protecting the environment connects with protecting human life against other threats that already concern us. Preventing further warming of the planet, by measures such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pursuing renewable energy sources, should be pursued as a way to also prevent worsening poverty, increased illness, and perhaps even violent conflict. At the same time, responding to climate change requires aiding the world’s poor and those people, especially children, suffering from the health effects of a damaged environment. Building structures for managing the stresses of scarcer resources or extreme weather events in a peaceful, constructive way is also an important response to climate change—and a proactive form of peacemaking.