Houston, TX – Texas National Guard Soldiers arrive in Houston to rescue stranded residents in flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 27, 2017. Photo by Lt. Zachary West.
“You’re asking us to do a lot of new stuff, aren’t you?”
—Judge Andrew Hurwitz of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals,
questioning Julia Olsen, Counsel for plaintiffs in Juliana et al vs. the United States.
Yes, Your Honor, that is exactly what our children are asking. And they are asking it of all of us.
Today the voices of our children call out to us. Sometimes it is a conscious cry, as in the school walkouts by hundreds of thousands of children in more than 100 countries, or as in the case of Juliana v. United States. Sometimes the cry is unarticulated, and reflected through our children’s behavior, which too often mirrors our own irresponsibility. Either way, their cry to us is unmistakable.
Climate change is the defining Moral Issue of the 21st Century. Every decision we make, at the individual level, at the institutional level, and at the societal level, creates winners and losers. This is a responsibility we cannot avoid.
The May 11, 2019 measurement of atmospheric carbon dioxide at 415.26 parts per million is a milestone of shame. No generation in human history has failed its children and future generations more than those of us who have come to maturity in the last half of the 20th Century.
We are the first generation in human history that has had the opportunity to achieve sustainable and just societies. We have had the knowledge, the technology, and the wealth to succeed. Moreover, for half a century, we have known what the consequences of our choices would be for the world of the future and for our children. It is clear that we have lacked the courage and the will to make the morally right choices, to do the necessary “New Stuff.”
The reality that will follow from our refusal or inability to act is clear in its outline, and even in much of its detail. We humans have chosen to allow ourselves to become a force of geological proportions – to create the Anthropocene Age. Our fingerprints are all over every sin against the natural world and against our children.
Each and every one of us is responsible for the world our choices have created. Each day that passes without our finding the courage to make the decisions we know are necessary adds to the unconscionable burden we bequeath to our children and grandchildren. The difficulty of the decisions we leave to them will far exceed the difficulty of the decisions we face today.
Our children may curse us for our cowardice and greed as they consider their legacy of emptiness, poverty and violence, but an even more dire fate awaits our grandchildren. We leave them a world that our parents would not recognize, bereft of much of the beauty, complexity, and riches we have squandered. Our actions are poised to break the bond between grandparents and grandchildren; we will not recognize the world in which we condemn them to live, and they will be strangers to the beauty and bounty of the world our parents left to us.
No one who truly believes in divine judgement at the end of our lives can possibly believe that any just god will not find us wanting.
Many of our scientists have built a body of knowledge that leaves no doubt about the imminent destination of the paths we are on. Some policy makers and advocates have called for fundamental change. Some economists and financial analysts have documented the effects of our wanton waste of the planet’s precious resources and of our willful indulgence of our own greed and unsustainable consumption. None of them have yet been sufficiently effective to change the policies of the world’s major nations, and they all bear the responsibility for that.
But religious and faith leaders, especially at the local level, who have a responsibility to lead in paths of righteousness, have largely remained silent in the face of the greatest challenge faced by humankind, and it is their silence that will be most noticed by future generations.
Their silence does not excuse our silence, however. We each bear the responsibility for our own actions. Individual decisions we make in our own lives may seem to have small consequences in terms of the cumulative overall impact of CO2, but the moral implications of those decisions are not small for the individual making the decisions. Even if we make conscientious decisions ourselves and advocate for wise decisions and policies, the fact that our positions did not carry the day does not relieve us from bearing responsibility for the impacts of the decisions and policies that have prevailed.
No person of good faith can deny that climate change is real and caused by the actions of humans. None can honestly deny that the consequences we are already experiencing will continue and worsen. We have chosen this climate-changed world with the decisions we have made, but we can still choose a different and better world together with our children. Our voices are important and our actions speak even more clearly.
The time for plain speaking and effective action is now.
So, “Yes, your Honor, we are” is the simple answer to Judge Hurwitz’s question, and “yes, we can” is the answer all of us must give to our children.
While the evidence of the reality of climate change and its devastating impacts has become increasingly clear even since the Juliana Case was filed, attorneys for the defendants have spent four years defending yesterday – literally “fiddling while Earth Burns.”
The rest of us have been doing our own fiddling and it’s time we all face our own music. We have no moral choice but to act in ways we have not acted before. The only truly “radical” choice would be to continue business as usual.
Thomas Jefferson put it plainly and simply:
“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
He also said, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever . . . .”
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