Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Small Steps Forward on Climate Change and Public Justice

Rusty Pritchard


April 29, 2011
by Rusty Pritchard

Applying the CPJ Environmental Guideline faithfully at national and international levels to the issue of climate change is obstructed by an ideological divide among Americans, including Christians. The guideline defends the role of governments in protecting the common good and engaging in sensible and proactive regulation of harmful practices. These are consonant with historic, traditional conservatism, which would believe in the conservation of conditions for families to flourish, whether environmental conditions or social. Strangely, progressives have begun to accept many conservative contributions to the solution of environmental problems: the expansion of private property rights in the management of key natural resources, the reliance on market mechanisms like cap-and-trade rather than command-and-control regulation of pollution, the recognition of the perverse effects of government subsidies. Meanwhile a radical and well-funded libertarianism has burst onto the scene, leaving traditional conservatives concerned with public justice little incentive to preserve their place at the table in environmental debates.  

As Gregg Easterbrook has long noted, major bi-partisan accomplishments in improving public health and in restoring the health of the nation’s rivers, lakes, forests, air, and biodiversity are routinely ignored. Celebrating past success rarely serves the purposes of Democrats, who energize their base with looming threats. Neither do most Republicans spend time lauding the landmark Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, or Endangered Species Act, despite their role in establishing them. After all, they demonstrate that responsible stewardship, including strong regulation, was accomplished with no harm to the national economy. Efficient regulation is an unsettling concept for libertarians who draw more on Rand and Hayek than Burke or Kirk.

The election of President Obama and the prospect of undivided government sent the environmental community into a frenzied effort to squeeze every environmental concern in the global warming frame and to enact climate and energy legislation on the thinnest of legislative margins. Much of the national media flipped from its infrequent point/counterpoint coverage of climate to a more breathless reporting of impending catastrophe.

In reality, it will take time to build a national consensus on climate—time we don’t have, say many scientists, but what are the alternatives? The attempt to shortcut consensus—building with fear rather than hope—generated its own predictable backlash. Establishing major climate policy on razor-thin margins begs for future reversals and continued divisiveness. For now an incrementalist approach must suffice.

We need to do a better job separating debates about the science from fears about the impacts of proposed policies. Fomenting conspiracy theories doesn’t contribute much, but neither does circling the wagons.  There are genuine concerns about the transparency and accountability of climate research, but they aren’t impossible to address.

Having sharpened the debate on the science, we should find those unique places where Christians can contribute a common-good perspective on policy. Regardless of the cause of recent warming, we can see its impact on the poor here and abroad, and Christians can work together on adaptation measures—such as helping poor farmers get access to drought-resistant seeds and protecting wells and water resources by reforesting the watersheds that supply them—(which can be decoupled from attempts at mitigating climate pollution). A concerted effort to safeguard recent reductions in extreme poverty must include investments in climate adaptation and reducing vulnerability to natural disasters. Adaptation measurs cannot be held hostage to a desired outcome on mitigation.

Finally, because so few Christians have been salt and light in environmental policy circles, there is a growing threat that population control measures will be slipped into proposed climate solutions. Population control is the cuckoo’s egg of the environmental movement—it has a different parentage, it doesn’t belong, it shouldn’t be fed, but there it is. It’s time to push it out of the nest.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, there are no interventions short of coercion and forced abortion that will cause fertility rates (the number of children a women bears in her lifetime) to drop faster than they’re already dropping, in nearly every country. Population does have an impact on the environment, but there is no effective and ethical policy lever that can be wielded to influence it. Public justice demands that the sanctity of individual human life be prioritized as we find ways to ensure the joint flourishing of people and the creation they depend on.

—Rusty Pritchard is the CEO of Flourish, a Christian environmental non-profit serving churches and families. He holds a Ph.D. in natural resource economics and an M.S. in systems ecology from University of Florida. He lives in Atlanta, GA with his wife and three young children.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”