Global poverty and climate change

Following up on previous posts, prompted by the UN Council which has been meeting on the situation of world poverty , Millennium Development Goals, and other key issues, there is a critical challenge that is going by almost unnoticed. Not unnoticed by Roger Pielke Jr. who in this post identifies some contradictions in policy approach to poverty alleviation and combating climate change. He says:

I understand what Birol is trying to do — he wants to avoid any perception that poverty alleviation comes into conflict with efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.  So he is arguing that you can lift people from poverty with almost no effect on carbon dioxide emissions.  This argument is just wrong.  While this argument allows the poverty alleviation and carbon dioxide reduction agendas to seemingly co-exit harmoniously, it dramatically downplays the challenge of emissions reductions.

This is a shame, because the best path forward to accelerating decarbonization of the global economy lies not in pretending that a conflict does not exist between poverty alleviation and emissions reductions, but precisely the opposite.  The only way that we will meet the world’s energy needs of the future — especially the needs of the 1.5 billion lacking access — is to diversify and reduce the cost of energy via a commitment to innovation.”

The apparent opposition here is certainly clear. As suggested, we should do both, reduce the negative impacts of climate change and reduce poverty. Roger places all his hopes on innovation, but this rings of technophilia and the myth of progress. Certainly, from a faith perspective, there is nothing wrong with technology and innovation, in fact it is commended by God (number 7). Within the acceptance of current culture, laws and structure, certainly innovation and policy changes seem like a sensible direction to go. But how about adaptation, which responds to climate change precisely by directly helping the most vulnerable, usually the poor. Adaptation, as well as innovation, can be a synthetic response that embraces both the fight against poverty and climate change. But outside of our pragmatic blinders, there are other things that can be done, not in opposition to innovation or adaptation, but along with it.

Much of the predicament we find ourselves in, be it climate change or poverty, is a fruit of a culture and lives according to certain standards that promote excessive consumption, materialism, selfishness etc. Cultural change takes much more time and is more complex than policy or technical changes, but culture does  and can change and the effects can be more long lasting  and profound on shape of  the world’s future. At the core of culture lies religion and the fundamental questions about truth, freedom and ethics. which shape  politics, media, society and free enterprise.  In a historic address to the British Parliament in Westminster Hall last week, Pope Benedict XVI brought this up:

The inadequacy of pragmatic, short-term solutions to complex social and ethical problems has been illustrated all too clearly by the recent global financial crisis. There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world. Just as “every economic decision has a moral consequence” (Caritas in Veritate, 37), so too in the political field, the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can afford to ignore…

The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.

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