“Climate change,” President Barack Obama assures us, “can no longer be denied.” He is certainly on safe ground here since no one over the past few hundred years would deny it. It is an indisputable fact like saying that history is about the past, and we can no longer deny it. But why the bravado? “It can’t be edited out,” he goes on to say, “It can’t be omitted from the conversation. And action can no longer be delayed.” The President is presenting on obviosity as if it were an insight.
A high school student would be puzzled by this since he would know from his rudimentary science courses that planet earth and climate change have been inseparably intertwined from the very beginning. He would know, if he were attentive to his reading assignments, that the earth was formed around 4.54 billion years ago by accretion from the solar nebula. Volcanic outgassing may have been key factors in producing the ocean and a primordial atmosphere that at that time contained almost no oxygen. Much of the earth was molten because of frequent collisions with other celestial bodies. Changes were dramatic, violent, and constant. The first forms of life appeared between 3.8 and 3.5 billion years ago. Photosynthetic life appeared approximately 2 billion years ago providing the atmosphere with oxygen. Climate changes have been either providential or calamitous to the innumerable species of life that emerged over eons of time. More than 99% of all species—roughly five billion in number—have become extinct. The number of current species that inhabit the planet range from 10 to 14 million, of which, about 1.2 million have been documented and more than 86% have yet to be described and catalogued.
Meteorological and geological changes have been constantly occurring on Earth since the time of its formation. These changes combined with biological changes once life appeared on the scene. The biosphere affects the atmosphere and other abiotic conditions such as the ozone layer. In sum, these changes are stupendous, prodigious, and certainly undeniable.
Now the point here is not to criticize the president for what he said, but for other, and even more important things, that he could have said but chose not to say. For example, can we imagine Obama proclaiming the following: “The humanity of the fetus can no longer be denied. It can’t be edited out. It can’t be omitted from the conversation. And action can no longer be delayed.” If he dared say such a thing he would be on equally firm ground with the reality of climate change, but he would not be in accord with political correctness. Certain truth, then, should not fall victim to politics, but, if they are to be proclaimed, should stand on the strength of courage.
The President has talked wistfully about how sad it would be if American children of the future could not enjoy the pristine natural beauty of the great national parks. But it seems to escape his attention that in order to be spectator to such beauty, one must be alive. The millions of aborted children will never have the opportunity to enjoy such splendors. Again, this is not to criticize the president for allocating many millions of dollars to improving the environments of America’s national parks, but to point out his refusal to proclaim other important truths and the inconsistencies involved in the truths he chooses to proclaim.
Paul Tillich makes an important distinction between “world” and “environment”. As human beings, he states in Morality and Beyond, “Having a world is more than having an environment. Of course, man, like any other being has an environment; but in contrast to the higher animals, he is not bound to it. He can transcend it in any direction, in imagination, thought and action.” Animals are bound to their environment and this helps to explain that environmental changes have claimed more than 99% of all species. But man lives is a world of freedom within which he is able to become a truly unique person. Just as the state exists for man, and not vice versa, the environment exists for man and not the other way around.
Al Gore gave the wrong priority to the environment in his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance when he declared that “We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization.” But the environment cannot be central and human beings peripheral. As Saint John Paul II has insisted time and again, “the center of the social order is man.” It is preposterous in the strictest sense to put the environment first and man second (prae + posterious means putting first that which should come second). Man needs a “world” (cosmos, as the ancient Greeks called it) and the liberty it implies, in order to realize his potential as a unique personality. He was not made to sub-serve but to care for his environment.
An excessive concern for the environment can be accompanied by a diminishing concern for the rights of man. A lack of regard for the nature and rights of the unborn together with a similar lack of regard for other moral verities such as personal liberty, marriage, and religion can inhibit personal growth. Courage is needed in order to proclaim fundamental truths about man that happen to be politically incorrect. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s famous words delivered at Harvard in 1978 continue to ring true: “A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage . . . Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elite, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society.”