Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Ted Cruz believes that climate change is basically on hold. Using narrow and flawed data he argues that there has been a significant slowdown in warming over the past 18 years, enough so that the dire predictions of scientists can safely be ignored and the difficult actions required to reduce carbon emissions and prepare for the damage that has already been done can be deferred.
Tell that to the operators of the Kariba Dam in Zambia where the effects of drought, magnified by global warming, have reversed a dramatic African economic success story, producing enough electricity not only to serve Zambia’s needs, but to export it to some of its neighbors. Zambia became a rare success story, with one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, all without the benefit of fossil fuel emissions. Now, however, power outages are a frequent occurrence; the water level at the Kariba Dam is at 13% and electricity production, formerly accounting for 40% of the nation’s output, has fallen to a quarter of its capacity.
Zambia’s average annual temperature rose by 1.3 degrees Celsius between 1960 and 2003 according to a recent story in The New York Times. Over that period rainfall has decreased 2.3% each decade, resulting in halving projections for economic growth, a drop in agricultural production, and regular planned and unplanned blackouts. The nation’s biggest steel maker has cut production by a third and has become unprofitable for the first time in its ten year life. A drop in the global demand for copper, Zambia’s largest export, coupled with heightened production costs due to the frequent power outages, have resulted in the layoffs of thousands of workers.
Zambia is a good illustration of the imbalance of cause and of effect in global warming. Along with many nations of the global south, Zambia has not contributed significantly to the emission of greenhouse gases that are the primary cause of global warming. Today 95% of their electricity for domestic and industrial use is produced by hydropower. And yet, countries like Zambia are now among the first to be experiencing the profoundly devastating effects of global warming and are least able to pay for the infrastructure needed to ameliorate those effects.
Pope Francis, in his 2015 Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’, points to the problem: Climate change’s “worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing, and forestry. They have no other financial activities or recourses which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social service and protection is very limited.” (par. 25)The World Council of Churches in 2009 described the situation using the concept of “ecological debt.” This debt is
“the exploitation of ecosystems at the expense of the equitable rights of other countries, communities or individuals. It is primarily the debt owed by industrialized countries in the North to countries of the South on account of historical and current resource plundering, environmental degradation and the disproportionate appropriation of ecological space to dumb greenhouse gases and toxic wastes. It is also the debt owed by economically and politically powerful national elites to marginalized citizens; the debt owed by current generations of humanity to future generations; and, on a more cosmic scale, the debt owed by humankind to other life forms and the planet. . . . It is the global South who is the principal ecological creditor while the global North is the principal ecological creditor.”
Ted Cruz and his ilk, of course, have no intention of paying off this debt, particularly a debt they pretend doesn’t exist. They live as if they can ignore global warming, though that may be a perilous assumption in Cruz’ Houston, Rubio’s Miami, and Trump’s New York. I remember as a child pondering the wisdom of Americans building back yard bomb shelters amid the cold war saber rattling of Russia and the United States. Even at a young age it struck me that it might be smarter to address nuclear proliferation and Cold War tensions than to imagine the prospect of waiting out a nuclear storm that is killing off your less fortunate friends and neighbors while ultimately making your own future intolerable. Imagining America as an exclusive lifeboat on the rising tides of the global warming is hardly the hallmark of the leadership required in the world today. Nor is it particularly consistent with the Christianity some of our wannabes in the presidential primaries claim as their polar star.
American politicians worry incessantly over our national debt. It’s time to add the ecological debt we owe to our list of obligations.
John H. Thomas
April 21, 2016
For a fuller report about Zambia, read “Climate Change Hits Hard in Zambia, an African Success Story,” in The New York Times, April 12, 2016