University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Is Global Warming Immoral?

Religious groups are seeking to influence the debate over climate change

When U of T religious ethicist Stephen Scharper listens to Al Gore describe the battle to reverse climate change as a moral imperative, he recognizes the influence of Father Thomas Berry, a self-described “geologian” who was an inspiration to the former vice-president and Nobel Peace Prize winner. “When Gore speaks,” says Scharper, “I hear the resonance of [Berry’s] thought.”

Berry, a Catholic priest from North Carolina, observes that Gore’s ability to communicate the threat of global warming uses the language of morality. Scharper says this offers a clue to policy-makers seeking to break the apparent impasse over a new climate-change deal between the developed North and the developing South.

In his view, and those of a growing number of the world’s religious leaders, the debate must be broadened well beyond the realm of science and policy.To find commonalities and the possibility of consensus, Scharper says, the societies of the North and the South need to find a way to exchange ideas about mutual values, ethical frameworks and cosmology.“When you speak to people at that level, it is for many a moment of galvanization.”

Scharper points out that, increasingly, global religious and spiritual movements have sought to influence the negotiations at important summits such as the Bali conference last November. When the United Nations Development Program began formulating a climate change plan, “they realized they had to enlist the support of the world’s religions if they hoped to change the habits of the heart. It’s not just about policy, but also traditions and values.” And justice: Scharper believes that a globally acceptable climate change agreement must go well beyond the consumption-oriented North imposing environmental constraints on the South. “It’s also a question of just economic relationships.”

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