Nopenhagen: Not There Yet

FAITH IN ACTION By Katherine Marshall I’m dreading my son Patrick’s caustic comments about Copenhagen when he gets home from … Continued


By Katherine Marshall

I’m dreading my son Patrick’s caustic comments about Copenhagen when he gets home from college for Christmas break. As he predicted, the older generations have tied themselves in knots. Despite multiple all-nighters, passionate speeches, and huge efforts by an extraordinary and creative array of groups (prominently including religious leaders), Constipagen’s modest “deal” falls far short of pretty modest expectations. There’s an agreement, but it’s not unanimous, it’s not binding, and it’s limited in scope. For young people of Patrick’s generation, it will surely be a huge disappointment.

But the stakes are too high to give up. It’s especially important in these next phases to put the spotlight on the interconnectedness between poverty and climate change, between security and action on resources.

It’s humbling and galling to have to concede some points to the likes of Robert Mugabe : “When these capitalist gods of carbon burp and belch their dangerous emissions, it is we, the lesser mortals of the developing sphere who gasp, starve, sink and eventually die.” His biting sarcasm and spectacular chutzpah in playing the blame game should not detract from the reality that the world’s poorest citizens stand to lose most from delayed action.

A thoughtful piece by foreign policy guru Walter Russell Mead in The American Interest has a great title: “Make us Green, Lord, But Not Yet”. He harks back to Saint Augustine, who prayed for chastity, just not quite yet. Mead offers a commentary on the climate summit that holds out some hope. Expecting over 190 countries with conflicting politics and interests to do something serious about a problem that still seems a bit remote may have been overoptimistic. That kind of action, he suggests, “is something people are spectacularly bad at.” But sometimes we can solve big problems a bit at a time. And people act best, he says, when they feel “the force” is with them.

And that brings us back to the moral dimensions of the issue. Few make that point more powerfully than Yale University’s Mary Evelyn Tucker. She argues passionately that we face an existential threat that links every dimension of world problems. Poverty, violent conflict, all tie into the moral challenge of addressing the mortal wounds mankind is inflicting on the earth. And it is in core religious values that she sees hope for a global moral consensus for action.

The classic tools of economics and technology all will have their place as we bumble forward from Copenhagen: price incentives, carbon cap and trade deals, monitoring of forest welfare, and research into green energy and clean fuel are all essential. But, surely, so is a more coherent ethical sense of what is right and just. We need to build a true willingness to bind ourselves to common, reasonable norms in the interests of the world’s future. We need to live up to the moral standard of a “poverty line” below which it is unacceptable to allow people to fall, and limit ourselves to some form of “greed line” that represents unacceptable excess.

The real challenge is to find practical ways to harness the energy and fear that the climate change debates have stirred to create the positive moral “force” that can impel real change. There are solid foundations for action. Among them are the Earth Charter, a bold ten-year-old initiative that sets out a creed of values and principles for a sustainable future, and the recently launched Charter for Compassion that fulfills writer Karen Armstrong’s wish for a binding commitment to the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The modern “social sins” that Mahatma Gandhi articulated in the 1920s resonate powerfully today, especially the first two: wealth without work and pleasure without conscience. We need to hark to them all. Theologian Hans Kung is pushing a global economic ethic to guide business towards a “triple bottom line” that ties profit and shareholder value to ecological and social sustainability.

So the principles and the tools are aligned and appetites for action are whetted. The challenge is to convince Patrick’s generation that this is not so much hot air, that with the positive “force” of common commitment to the welfare of future generations and to social justice, the promises held out for “Hopenhagen” will indeed become reality. That’s my Christmas wish and New Year’s resolution.

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and a senior advisor for the World Bank.

By Katherine Marshall | 
December 21, 2009; 12:06 AM ET

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  • ccnl1

    Georgetown U went past the “greed line” when they accepted $20 million dollars from a Muslim sheik to “make nice” the horror and terror religion of the 21st century(aka Islam).Ms. Marshall needs to get her priorities correct but then again she works for Georgetown U!!!!!!!!