Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Climate Justice 101

Everybody wants justice. We all do, right? 

So did the great Hebrew King David, some 3,000 years ago, when confronted with an almost incredible story told by the prophet Nathan.

You probably know it already.  Like many Bible stories, it involved a rich man, and a poor one.  The rich man had many flocks; but his poor neighbor had only one little lamb, a cherished pet in the household.  When houseguests arrived at the rich man’s house, he bypassed his own vast herds, seized the poor man’s beloved  lamb, and slaughtered it for his meal.

Of all the stories of injustice in the Bible, this one really gets my heart racing.  Why would a rich person ever disregard the desperate need of his poor neighbor, and seize his only – and beloved – possession? That’s the way King David reacted too.  “This man deserves to die!” screamed the king.

We all know Nathan’s response, don’t we? “You are the man!”
The horrid truth collapsed upon King David like an avalanche, guilty of seizing a poor man’s wife and then arranging his murder in secret.
Well, centuries have come and gone, but stories of injustice for the poor abound wherever you look.  Last week, this year’s Climate Risk Index (CRI) laid out a particularly compelling example.  The CRI named Bangladesh, Myanmar (Burma) and Honduras as the three countries that have suffered most over the last 20 years from extreme climate events.
The CRI, compiled by a European NGO called Germanwatch, is an annually-published pointer of which countries are most in need of shoring up defenses against floods, storms, drought and heat waves, which climate scientists say will continue to worsen this century.  It measures direct effects of extreme weather events, from direct human fatalities to economic impacts, and adjusts them for valid comparison between richer or poorer countries. (See Note 1.) 
The CRI ranks almost all countries in the world according to their risk from extreme climate events.  And the ten most vulnerable over 20 years of observation are listed below.  Some you know: Bangladesh, Pakistan and Burma have seen repeated flooding from increasingly severe monsoon rains.  Nicaragua, Honduras and the Caribbean isles have experienced increasingly severe hurricanes.  But they share one thing in common:  All are poor, according to IMF data.

Such a pity: Why should the countries bearing the brunt of the changing climate be poor to start with?
I wondered about the countries that are emitting most of the greenhouse gases – the ones that are driving the climate trends that threaten these poor countries.  Are they also poor?  Well, here’s the list of the top ten CO2 polluters worldwide, measured on the basis of emissions per person.

Hmm.  That doesn’t look right.  These people are rich!  In fact, they’re 17 times richer, on average, than the CRI Climate-Vulnerable citizens.  But they emit 25 times more carbon pollution than their poorer, vulnerable neighbors.
Take a close look at the numbers side by side: ten countries with 413 million people enjoy per-person GDP of $43,079, and emit on average 19.5 tons of CO2 for each of their citizens every year.  And ten other countries with 601 million living souls who eke out a living on $2,500 per person – they’re left to deal with the climate effects of that carbon pollution, while emitting almost none themselves.

What would King David say about this?  Well, I could guess.  But I’m pretty sure about the Hebrew prophet Nathan. Everywhere in the industrialized world, the prophet’s words are for us: “You are the man! … Why have you despised the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?”
Now in our day, we all know what most political leaders would do with this fact set.  It’s not true! There’s still scientific doubt! It’s only a theory! It’s a massive hoax! My lobbyists have told me it’s not that bad! Don’t listen to those pessimists! Besides, we need more jobs!

Alas! We don’t have King David around today.  Here’s how he responded to Nathan: “I have sinned against the Lord.”  And later in song: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

It was too late for David to make amends for what he had done.  And for the next thousand years, it’s too late for the rich countries of the earth to reverse the carbon pollution that we’ve poured into the atmosphere over the last few generations.  But it’s not too late to demand – and take – serious action now to stop the ongoing harm that we are foisting upon the poor of the world.

And this is especially so for followers of Jesus of Nazareth.  Our sacred scripture tells us this about him:  “Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you, by his poverty, might become rich.” Look again at the two lists of countries.  Who do you think that the poor man, who is now the Lord of Heaven, is preparing to defend in today’s world?

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Note 1:  The CRI rankings do not attempt to measure indirect effects of climate events, such as starvation, disease, and conflict related to drought and famine.  As such, it likely under-counts climatic impacts on African nations where climate-related hunger is most severe.


  1. Julia is using this post as a launching point for her 10th grade research paper. She will be emailing you with some questions!

    1. Hello Myhres! I'm so excited about Julia's research paper! There are all kinds of things to consider for further research. Because of Julia's life-long experience in Africa, she might want to run with the indirect effects (see footnote above) that under-count the impacts on Africa. Or she might want to look at some really poignant examples of innocent suffering, like Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Maldives and the Kiribati Islands. The latter two are preparing to entirely abandon their nations, while the first two combined for around 400 million people, and may end up doing essentially the same thing.

      Of course, it would be particularly compelling to look at the Horn of Africa and East Africa, since Julia knows these regions from personal experience. Drought and famine have many effects, and climate change is driving many of them, but absolute cause-and-effect links are always difficult with any single climate effect. But the whole world is watching East Africa and the famine there, and few regard the famine as unrelated to climate change.

      Whatever she chooses, I will be glad to field her questions and direct her to good resources.

      One thought Julia may be willing to consider: Would she consider letting the CR publish her paper, or a shortened version of it? No pressure, but I love young writers!