In recent weeks, there has been extensive news coverage of disastrous flooding, first in central Europe, then southern Alberta and Toronto. In all these cases, flooding was caused by extreme rainfall. While loss of life has been thankfully limited, the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people due to displacement and damage to their homes and possessions is immeasurable. And the costs of repairs, rebuilding and upgrading of infrastructure to reduce future risks will be astronomical.
Even if we were not directly affected by these disasters, we will pay for them. Through home-insurance premiums, taxes and lost economic opportunity, these costs get spread around.
Is it just the media coverage that makes it appear such disasters are occurring more frequently? No, the insurance industry and climate scientists both confirm that the frequency of these extreme weather events globally is increasing, and the costs are mounting. We spend more and more on cleaning up the mess, recovery, rebuilding and protection from future disasters. We can see increasing evidence of the impact from a changing climate, brought on mainly by growing use of fossil fuels.
In the face of the high costs of disaster recovery, there is pressure to boost economic growth to pay the expenses. In Canada, with resource industries such a large part of our economy, this could mean more oil exports, more pipelines and rail tank cars crossing the country. It would mean more energy use, and more emissions. But this seems contradictory. We are paying for the costs of climate change by making the problem worse. How do we find a solution?
Christian teachings can shed light on this dilemma of economic and environmental policy. The theology of the United Church, as with most other Christian traditions, clearly identifies the fundamental role of humans in creation as one of responsibility. There are many scriptural references to God’s charge to humans that they should use the fruits of a productive Earth wisely and steward the resources provided to them. The evidence suggests we are failing in this sacred duty. We are causing unprecedented damage to the ecological systems and the climate that supports productive life on our small planet, and we will pay the price one way or another.
Typically, policy makers present the situation as an unavoidable tradeoff: We can improve the environment and make our society more sustainable, but only at the cost of economic investment and jobs.
Leaving aside the ecological and economic fallacies in this argument, the moral and spiritual imperatives are clear. The United Church of Canada has been one of many faith communities who have repeatedly pointed out that sustainability cannot be traded off. More than 20 years ago, the general council of the United Church called for the protection of the planet’s life-sustaining environment to fulfil humanity’s sacred obligations of stewardship and to ensure the rights of generations yet unborn to benefit from the abundance and productivity of our shared heritage of complex living systems. This call arose out of a spiritual vision that affirms the rich diversity of life on Earth as a sacred gift, and in which love is the basis for our relationships with one another and with nature. The general council affirmed 12 key ethical principles that guide the church’s work on ecological issues including economic justice, human responsibility, sustainable life styles, the protection of biodiversity and ensuring the rights of future generations.
There is a long way to go, but the warning signs should be spurring us on to action now.
Henri Lock is the United Church Chaplain at the University of Victoria, through Multifaith Services. Stephen Tyler is a member of Cadboro Bay United Church in Victoria.