The moral challenge of climate change

Posted: 23 March 2009

Author: Archbishop Desmond Tutu and James Leape

On Saturday (March 28), many millions of people around the world will join together in 'a vote for the planet'. From New York to Beijing, from Cape Town to Paris, citizens will turn their lights off for sixty minutes to demand action on climate change. Here, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and James Leape, Director General of WWF International, explain why Earth Hours matters.

Earth Hour is a unique opportunity for us all to send a message to the world's leaders that 2009 is the year for a global deal to tackle global warming.

We are used to seeing climate change discussed in both environmental and economic terms. The impacts on the planet are all too obvious - melting polar ice caps, drought and rising sea levels have become the depressing staple of our daily news for several years. More recently, given the global recession, talk has turned to the economics of climate change, the costs of keeping it manageable and the costs if we don't.

Desmond Tutu
Desmond Tutu
Desmond Tutu.
The trillions of dollars in stimulus packages now being put in place across the world are increasingly seen as a chance to invest in sustainable green technologies and production which will not only help build a low-carbon future but which will kick-start growth and safeguard jobs.

But there is another dimension to the climate change debate which does not tend to get as much attention as the environmental and economic impacts - and that is the moral imperative which we all share to prevent a massive humanitarian crisis. Global warming is not just an ecological and financial dilemma - it is an ethical one which opens up unsettling questions concerning justice, fairness, responsibilities and obligations.

Climate refugees

When the world's leaders meet in Copenhagen in December to agree a global climate deal to replace the weak and ageing Kyoto Protocol, they will know that the eyes of the world are upon them. We expect them to do the right thing. That means agreeing a deal which is ambitious and achievable - and also equitable. A fair deal in Copenhagen must be based on the "polluter pays" principle -- those most responsible for climate damage must accept their obligations and bear most of the cost.

We believe the moral obligation we all bear for finding a sustainable and equitable solution to climate change is as compelling as the economic and environmental arguments. Climate change undermines livelihoods and widens the gulf between rich and poor. You only have to look at those who will be - are already being - worst affected by global warming to realize this is an issue of social justice, poverty and human rights.

Pleas for help from the ground at Grand Isle, Louisana, taken on August 31, 2005. Photo: NOAA
Pleas for help from the ground at Grand Isle, Louisana, taken on August 31, 2005. Photo: NOAA
Pleas for help from the ground at Grand Isle, Louisana, taken on August 31, 2005, two days after Hurricane Katrina struck the US Gulf CoastPhoto: NOAA
Climate refugees are already a reality - witness the coastal communities in the Indian state of Orissa who have been forced to abandon their homes and fields because of rising sea levels, or the victims of extreme weather events like Hurricane Katrina. Failure to keep global warming below the crucial 2°C threshold will see many, many more examples of climate refugees.

Last year global crop failures and spiralling food prices were exacerbated by - amongst other things - drought linked to climate change. Nearly half the world's population lives within 100km of the coast - where will they go when sea levels rise as a result of global warming? As is so often the case, the developing world will be hardest hit.

Energy efficiency

To be equitable, a global climate deal must also be effective. That means bold and quantifiable emissions reductions to protect vulnerable people and places from the worst impacts. The good news is that we already have the technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly half in the next thirty years by investing in energy efficiency, moving to renewable energy supplies such as wind and solar power, and stopping the destruction of the world's great forests. What's more, the costs of moving to a low carbon economy are affordable, especially compared with the costs of not doing anything. A recent study by McKinsey & Co identified more than two hundred opportunities spread across all regions and in all sectors of industry which - if they were all implemented - would help keep us under the critical 2°C threshold. What is currently lacking is the political will to implement the necessary measures.

We are hopeful that the political will to enable a global climate deal is changing. When the world's leaders sit around the negotiation table this coming December, they will have to come to grips with three powerful truths. As a matter of science, it is clear that if we fail to curb our emissions, we are heading for catastrophic climate change As a matter of economics, we can afford to meet the challenge. And as a matter of simple justice, we must act boldly and urgently to protect the most vulnerable among us. Between now and December, the challenge for all of us is to ensure our demand for action is heard - and that challenge starts with Earth Hour.

To join in Earth Hour, turn off the lights at 8.30pm local time, wherever you live.