Ethical Imperatives for the Developed World in Light of Climate Change

By: James P. O’Sullivan

March 16, 2015

Climate Change, Development, and Catholic Social Thought

Since the 1971 Synod of Bishops document Justice in the World, Catholic social thought (CST) has recognized the limits and dangers of unrestrained industrialization and has exhorted what can be called more “sustainable” development. It is impossible, the bishops maintained, for the whole world to undertake the same kind of development as the wealthy nations due to the fact that “their rates of consumption and pollution” are unsustainable on such a worldwide scale. This warning is even truer today as the potentially disastrous effects of man-made climate change become ever more apparent. From the perspective of CST, the costs of altering course to more sustainable development must be shared among developing and developed nations. Indeed, a realistic reading of the signs of the times—and of history—makes very large and very real ethical demands on the developed world in particular.

Of course, developing nations—especially the largest emitters like China and India—have a responsibility to alter course and cease insisting that the “right to development” equates with a right to carbon-heavy industrialization. In CST, the right to development is understood not as a right to unlimited growth and consumption, but rather as a “dynamic interpenetration of all those fundamental human rights upon which the aspirations of individuals and nations are based.” Growth is certainly necessary for achieving this development, but especially given the reality of climate change, a different path than the last several centuries must be taken. 

To get on this path, developed nations—and the United States in particular—must accept the many and varied responsibilities that accrue from both their past and their present position. The effects of climate change will fall disproportionately on the poorest people of the world, from massive flooding in Bangladesh and poor island nations, enormous disruptions in water and food supplies in many already insecure countries, mass migration and displacement, to increased conflict in already destabilized regions. The principles of solidarity and the preferential option for the poor call for a multifaceted and vigorous response on part of the wealthy industrialized nations. Further, CST might speak more in the future of the special responsibility—one of “rectificatory” justice—that falls on the nations who have reaped the benefits of unsustainable development and are now in a better position to weather the coming “storms,” as well as to alter their courses and lessen their damage.    

The specific demands on developed nations include: 1) Working to mitigate climate change by dramatically reducing their emissions (unilaterally and through multilateral partnerships) and by offering multifaceted assistance to help less-developed nations utilize green technology and best practices for reducing carbon and methane emissions; 2) Committing to ameliorate the present and future harmful effects by stepping up assistance to refugee response, water and food sustainability, and conflict control capacities; 3) More generally, increasing commitment to fostering sustainable and authentic development, not least of all by embracing a robust and binding Sustainable Development Goals agenda to guide the next 15 years of global public policy. 
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