Global Warming Mitigation: Spirit, Systems and Science

Nature is a gift of Providence and, as a result, one which we all have an equal right to. But this also means responsibility, that we must pay for whatever damage that is done to nature, and those who are responsible should carry that cost. Where that cost is not applied in accordance to responsibility a social cost arises, and indeed, is encouraged. This includes deforestation and desertification, extraction of natural stock above bearable limits, and various forms of pollution, including the greenhouse gas emissions which cause global warming. As NASA states current climate change is "is of particular significance because most of it is very likely human-induced and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented in the past 1,300 years". The phrase "very likely" in this context refers to a probability of greater than 90%. The most significant human cause has been the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to levels far beyond what has been seen in the last 650,000 years (please note that whilst water vapour is the most significant greenhouse gas, it is a feedback not a cause of warming).

This may have profound effects in the latter half of the 21st century. In the past hundred years, global surface temperature increased by 0.74 degrees. In the next hundred years the increase will be anywhere between 1.1 to 6.4 degrees, the latter end of the scale due to runaway effects (e.g., release of frozen or oceanic methanes). According to Mark Lynas' degree-by-degree study at five or six degrees the tropical and subtropical zones would be completely uninhabitable. The prevention of catastrophic global warming has some difficulty; carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere after release for decades. Even if all CO2 emissions were stopped immediately, the effects of prior activity would still influence our weather for that time. A pessimistic view of the prospect of mitigation was expressed by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; however as a co-author of that very report stated: "We've dawdled, and if we dawdle more it will get even worse. It's time to move."

Because human beings are creatures of contemplativa and activa, the first step in the solution is actually a motivating spirit in the sense of being able to realise the threat and being able to act on it, which goes beyond mere instinct. One would expect the world's religious leaders to assess what is fairly clear secular evidence. From the Roman Catholic Church a representative of the Vatican stated bluntly "We can no longer pretend that human activity has little or no impact". The Vatican has particularly pointed out on the damaging effects that climate change would have on the poor. From the Eastern Orthodox perspective, the highly influential Patriarch Bartholomew has spoken for the need for action, and in particular on the responsibility that humans bear in moments of environmental damage. On the negative, a Pew Forum survey indicated that "white evangelical Protestants" in the U.S. were the least likely group to accept that the climate was changing at all as various denominations sought scriptual backing for their analysis of the situation.

Among Muslims there Dr. Mamdouh Mohamed has used the reality of global warming to proselytize. Deserving of greater seriousness, others have argued that the Quran teaches the virtues of moderation and that the earth is held by humans in stewardship. Some Vietnamese Buddhists have claimed that "global warming is basically caused by three poisons: greed, anger, and ignorance", and have sought both engineering solutions (e.g., adoption of integrated gasification combined cycle power plants) as well as individual behaviour change, such as the adoption of vegetarianism. Other Buddhists likewise argue that whilst individual action is worthy, it is also necessary to 'de-carbonise' energy production through the adoption of renewable sources. Hindus have held particularly prominent positions in the climate change debate, notably Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) a position he has held since 2002, particularly notable for his message; "Don't eat meat, ride a bike, and be a frugal shopper", matching an overall Hindu approach to planetary care.

Whilst most religious perspectives do recognise the reality of global warming (with a notable exception), mitigations is overwhelming orientated towards acknowledging human stewardship and responsibility, individual action with an orientation towards technical solutions, which is acceptable in its own right. But what is notably lacking is a systematic solution from the sample of faiths provided. The Unitarian Universalist Association at least advocated that countries adopt and ratify the Kyoto protocol and set targets for greenhouse emissions - but how are these targets to be achieved? Attempts to govern emissions through legislation and planning alone will quickly fail due to both complexity, a lack of flexibility, and problems in scalability. In contrast, a price mechanism is sufficiently flexible and scalable to adapt quickly to new scientific insights and is derived from the principle that recognises that if something has is cost, it must also be assigned a price. Further it embodies, as suggested by the previous religious viewpoints, the principle of responsibility for environmental damage.

Increasingly the scientific community, working with economists, have been discussing a carbon cost of c$43 USD per tonne representatin the social marginal cost per tonne of emission, although this figure is highly uncertain due to a range of economic and environmental uncertainties. Nevertheless it does represent the average of multiple serious studies on the subject. Actual implementation of such a price is arguably either through a "cap and trade" method or a direct tax. The former method is the result of a political compromise, and suffers the problem of being distant, complex and difficult to verify. A stronger, more transparent method is a direct tax on greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately due to sectional interests even when these have been introduced (primarily in Europe) a uniform rate has not been achieved.

Whilst a tax on carbon emissions does represent a disincentive to engage in activity that causes such emissions, actions should also be taken to prevent further emissions. This includes removing the substantial subsidies that on industries that cause such emissions and the redirection of monies raised towards research into mitigation and temporary compensatory packages for those affected by such a tax (which is regressive in its effect). The UK Stern Review, for example contained a number of suggestions for mitigation. This includes alternative energy sources, both nuclear and renewable, energy efficiency, geoengineering and population control. A small number of countries (Iceland, Brazil, New Zealand and Sweden), already receive the majority of their energy from renewable sources. Different energy sources produce between 9 (wind) and 1050 (coal) grammes of carbon dioxide per kilowatt of energy over the generator's lifetime. Hydroelectric produces 10, solar thermal 13, geothermal 38, nuclear 66, and natural gas 443. A few countries get most of their power from renewables, including Iceland (100 percent), Brazil (85 percent), Austria (62 percent), New Zealand (65 percent), and Sweden (54 percent). Energy efficiency in insulation, illumination, building design, and transport are also features (the Beddington Zero Energy Development is a strong example). Urban planning is a significant issue; between 1982 and 1997, the amount of land consumed for urban development in the United States increased by 47 percent while the nation's population grew by only 17 percent - and it dovetails with the issue of deforestation, currently resonsible for almost 20% of anthropic greenhouse gas emissions. All of these - primarily scientific and engineering - means of mitigation can be funded in part from the compensation that polluters owe the community.

In summary, the environment is equally the birthright of all individuals. Emissions that cause global warming - like other forms of damage to the environment - is a social cost that arises from individual action and those responsible have a duty to compensate or repair the damage done. Minimising the effects of human activity of the climate require action and therefore a spirit for change, to which the major world's religions have only played a surprisingly moderate role in raising the debate on what is the most significant moral and economic challenge of our time. What can be achieved is the application of a systematic policy that applies both demand management (through enforced compensation for damage) and prevention (through mitigation programs). Through such actions real meaning can be placed on the apparently universal words that recognises the natural world as both a source of our commonwealth, of which we have stewardship and responsibility.