In 1960, my father stopped in Paris on his way home to Washington, DC, and for less than $1,000, bought himself a shiny new Renault Dauphine compact car. A few weeks later, it rolled onto a dock in New York harbor, on its way to our suburban Virginia driveway.
In an age of tail fins and chrome baubles, the Dauphine must have been the strangest sight in the neighborhood. Never a thing of beauty, the cartoonish little Dauphine was about half the size of everyone else’s car. And by the standards of JFK’s America, this car was about as ugly as they came.
But for this American first-grader, the memory of my dad’s Dauphine brings back an entirely different memory. I can still virtually taste it – the suffocating, acrid smell of my father’s cigarette smoke and ash tray. It permeated everything about the car. It coated the vinyl seats, and hung heavy in the air we breathed. Before the advent of seat belts and car seats, I would sometimes ride with my head out the window to escape the nauseating fumes. But it never occurred to either my father or me that something fundamentally wrong was going on.
This was America in 1960. It would be another four years before the Surgeon General would release his report on the health consequences of smoking, and three decades before the EPA would issue its findings on the hazards of second-hand smoke. The tobacco industry had already ramped up its disinformation campaign, which would go on for decades. To me, my dad was the embodiment of integrity and reason, but somehow it never occurred to any of us that he was making us sick.
Today, this would be unthinkable for most families. We recognize this simple truth: the cigarette may be yours, but the air is OURS. We all have to breathe – and the car, or the house, or the restaurant is not big enough to absorb your smoke without harming all of us. A revolution has occurred, whether or not we’ve noticed. We think differently now. The air is not yours or mine; it’s ours.
Last week, the revolution took two more big steps forward. First, the leader of the world’s largest religious group – the 1.3 billion-strong Roman Catholic Church – cast planet-warming greenhouse gases in the same light as my father’s cigarette smoke: harmful to all of us. And second, a sovereign state, the Netherlands, was ordered by one of its highest courts to make deep cuts in emissions of those same gases for the same reason.
This looks to me like the start of something big.
Pope Francis’ Ecological Encyclical
Of course, you haven’t missed Pope Francis’ authoritative encyclical, titled “Laudato Si” after St. Francis’ prayer beginning with the words: “Praise be to you, my Lord.” From the outset, Pope Francis linked his letter to our common reliance on the blessings of the created world. “Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone,” he wrote. “For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone.”
As a child in the backseat of the smoky Dauphine, I would have grasped this truth intuitively – you can’t burn all those cigarettes – or all those fossil fuels – without someone else bearing the cost from pollution – of water, land and atmosphere.
At 180 pages in length, Laudato Si can’t be realistically summarized here. But Pope Francis warned of a global ecological crisis that summons Christians and all people to nothing less than a profound conversion.
“It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism,” he wrote, “tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an ‘ecological conversion’, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”
And because the injured ecological systems were created by God as gifts to us all, the gospel calls us to protect every “common good” – including the earth’s climate system. “The climate is a common good,” Francis wrote, “belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.”Christianity is by far the largest religion on earth today, and the Roman Catholic Church is by far the largest among us. You’d think that such an appeal would have a meaningful impact on the way our seven billion humans begin to deal with the ecological crisis, wouldn’t you?
(Note: The Pope is not remotely the first Christian to blaze this trail: in 2010, the worldwide evangelical Lausanne Movement declared that care for the creation is “a core element of the gospel,” and warned of the impact of manmade climate change on the poor. And the Christian Reformed Church in 2012 adopted an exhaustive report finding that “human-induced climate change is an ethical, social justice, and religious issue,” and that climate pollution “poses a significant threat to future generations, the poor, and the vulnerable.” Scores of other Christian declarations have echoed these messages; see a partial list here.)
But last week’s news featured something revolutionary in the secular world as well.
Dutch Court Orders Emissions Cuts
With their exposure to rising sea levels and progressive attitudes, I thought that the Netherlands would be a virtual poster child for climate protection, but I was mistaken. On average, the Dutch emit 10.2 tons of CO2 per person every year, a little more than half of the 17.2 tons emitted by Americans, but much worse than fellow Europeans in Germany, France and Britain. Leading up to the global climate negotiations in Paris this December, the Dutch government has announced plans to reduce emissions by 14-17% from 1990 levels by 2020. But last week, a Dutch judicial panel ruled that that wasn’t enough – because of the scale of the global threat from climate change.
Like the Pope, the judges recognized that the global ecosystem belongs to us all, and any state’s actions affect everyone, for better or worse. The Netherlands recognizes principles forbidding states from polluting to the extent that they damage other states, and the EU’s ‘precautionary principle’ which prohibits actions that carry unknown but potentially severe risks.
“The state should not hide behind the argument that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend solely on Dutch efforts,” the judges’ ruling said. “Any reduction of emissions contributes to the prevention of dangerous climate change and as a developed country the Netherlands should take the lead in this.”
Could the Netherlands’ ruling impact other countries as well? I think so. There is a parallel case working its way through Belgian courts right now. So, what if Germany, France or the UK were next? At some point, might jurists in Brazil, India, Australia and Japan begin to mandate action as well? And Canada? And – just imagine! – the US?
The world is changing. Only fifty years ago, a good, loving father may have unquestioningly polluted the air his family breathed with cigarette smoke. Today, we pollute the atmosphere that governs climate systems in Bangladesh, Malawi and the Philippines – as well as here at home. But maybe it’s beginning to dawn on us that the air belongs to everyone.
The world’s largest church has recognized it. Christians all over the world have gone on record. Now, European courts are doing the same. Is it possible that carbon pollution is now headed the way of indoor tobacco smoke?
With hope that this has begun in earnest, we join St. Francis in his prayer Laudato Si – “Praise be to you, my Lord!” Amen!
John Elwood is an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, a leader in the evangelical mission to care for God’s creation, an organic produce farmer, and an active participant in cross-cultural gospel missions. He edits the Evangelical creation care website BelovedPlanet.com, serves as director of the mission agency Care of Creation, Inc., and collaborates with numerous Christian ministries focused on care for the natural world.