by David Wood
The United States did not sign the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. President Bush said it would “wreck” our economy. On Oct. 30, Sir Nicholas Stern, ex-chief economist of the World Bank, delivered a report to the British government that made a powerful economic case for drastic governmental action against global warming. He claims that if we invest 1 percent of our gross domestic product, we can head off the effects of global warming, which would mean a more than 20 percent drop in GDP. In other words, it’s an investment we cannot afford not to make.
Responding to the crisis of climate change need not be seen as anti-business, though it does challenge business as usual. Many people have argued that global warming presents major business opportunities for companies who take the lead in technological innovation – more efficient engines, wind turbines and solar panels; less toxic, better designed production methods; green building; and so on. Even without government regulation, enlightened consumer preferences and genuine efficiency gains will reward forward-looking businesses.
Vanderbilt’s Ecology and Spirituality Research Group recently co-hosted a lecture by Bill McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle, who argued convincingly for just such design-based free enterprise solutions. But Stern’s report goes further. He insists on the need for legislation, including carbon taxation, to set the rules for the new playing field. Only then will businesses and public bodies alike feel confident that in making these urgently needed changes, they will not be at a competitive disadvantage.
Yet obstacles abound. First, we need strong international agreements without exceptions. China and India were exempted from Kyoto compliance because they had so much catching up to do. And the United States refused to sign up at all. This time, it is vital that the United States not just sign up to a new treaty, but provide economic assistance to developing countries. An occasion such as this underlines how precious a thing is a nation’s moral authority.
Second, we need a political leadership that thinks beyond the normal election cycle – leaders with vision who can plan 20 years down the road. Stern compares the economic damage of failing to do this to that of the two World Wars or the Great Depression of the 1930s. If politicians had seen them coming, how could they not have sought to prevent them?
And third, we need a groundswell of public sentiment in support of these kinds of changes. As a green think tank at Vanderbilt, the Ecology and Spirituality Research Group has devoured the science on environmental change, but it has focused especially on the importance of religious and spiritual values in both blocking and facilitating changes in attitudes and behavior. It has met with local and national Christian leaders and environmentally oriented theologians to encourage ongoing dialogue. Increasingly, the message is being heard: Worship of the creator is ill served by the destruction of creation.
Some say we need an environmental 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, a wake-up call that would be so traumatic that it could not be ignored. Hurricane Katrina almost was, but not quite. But if we wait for such a disaster – like the reversal of the Gulf Stream – it may well be too late. We have to empower our leaders to fix the boat before it proves it is about to sink. Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth is no doubt having a global impact. Photographs of shrinking glaciers and charts of spiking CO2 are hard to dismiss. But perhaps it is all hopeless. Should we just clear the decks of the Titanic for a big “going down” party?
The science of climate change tells us that we are facing the most serious self-induced challenge to the survival of our species and indeed to other species on the planet. We can expect to lose 25 percent of non-human species by 2050. It is also a challenge to our most cherished values. If global warming brings conditions like those of war – including catastrophic flooding, disease, crop failures, mass migration and war itself – it can be expected to bring an analogous pathological suspension of civilized values, in which the survival of our nation, our race – “people like us” – becomes paramount. Yet translating these dire predictions into action is the real challenge.
The Stern report now sweeps away the last argument against making the kinds of changes needed. He tells us what has been giving the insurance people sleepless nights: We have economic reasons to worry, and to make changes now. But all the good reasons in the world are nothing compared to a change of heart, a refocusing on the kind of life that is genuinely fulfilling, that consumes less, that re-engineers our everyday habits and treads lightly upon the earth. Have we reached that tipping point? For our leaders to steer a different path may mean that a widespread spiritual renewal is needed. It is time to ask how best we can bring these changes to our campus community, to Nashville and to our country.
David Wood is a professor of philosophy and co-director of Vanderbilt’s Ecology and Spirituality Research Group, which is part of the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture at Vanderbilt.