Opinion

Why the climate crisis is really a morality crisis

We wouldn't punch a stranger in the face, so why do we do nothing to prevent climate change having a devastating impact on people's lives, asks Elizabeth Cripps

A girl's home is surrounded by floodwater in Dohar, Bangladesh Photo: K M Asad / LightRocket via Getty Images

In Yorkshire, Kevin and Catherine Lorryman’s bungalow, home to three generations, was destroyed by floods after Storm Jorge.

In the Bahamas, 10-year-old Torres lost his home, his father, his school, his future, to Hurricane Dorian.

In Afghanistan, five-year-old Badro’s family were forced from their home by drought and conflict. Poor and desperate, Badro’s parents engaged her to marry a man 30 years older than her.

This is the reality of climate change. Three stories, out of innumerable personal tragedies. Women, men and children, their lives devastated by the actions of others. It’s a crisis. It’s also a moral failure on a cataclysmic scale. And it’s happening now.

Don’t hurt people. Don’t kill them, tear them from home or family. Few would deny these moral principles. But we’re not living by them.

Last year, hundreds died or were made homeless by winter storms in Texas and wildfires in Western Europe. In the global south, climate change has been a matter of life and terrible, painful death for decades. And things will get worse. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, more and more people will die from extreme weather, floods, droughts, heatwaves, and disease. The World Bank predicts that climate change will force 86 million from their homes in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2050, 40 million in South Asia, 17 million in Latin America.

Of course, I didn’t do this terrible harm. Not by myself. Nor did you (unless you’re the CEO of a fossil fuel giant!). This isn’t like punching someone in the face, shoving them into the rising sea. But it’s happening because of the way we live now, in rich countries like the UK. That makes it all of our problem.

Lives are being ruined by the oil and gas giants we buy from – the same ones that, if you have a pension fund, it’s probably invested in. Children will get malaria and encephalitis because of planes in the sky, car-clogged roads, the high-meat diets of people they’ve never met. The suffering falls hardest and fastest on those already at the receiving end of generations of injustice. Colonialism, slavery, racism and sexism.

And the governments who represent us? Look at the figures on fossil fuel subsidies ($180 billion globally in 2020, according to the International Energy Agency), and you get an idea of how seriously they’re taking this.

Our heating planet has been made a question for political side-taking. Climate change been characterised as a scientific challenge or, more sinister still, a matter of scientific debate. That’s ridiculous.

In fact, the credible, peer-reviewed science is unambiguous, and has been for years. This is happening, it is terrible, and some humans are causing it. (That’s some, not all: between 1990 and 2015, the richest 10 per cent produced 52 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. The richest 1 per cent churned out more than the poorest half of the world.)

And there’s no ‘technofixing’ our way out, whatever big finance and big corporations would like us to believe. This is about something more basic: whether, as human beings, we treat each other as human beings, whose lives matter. It’s about how global elites have failed to do that. It’s about how that failure has been institutionalised, made routine, so we don’t see it as the moral atrocity it is.

As individuals, we’re not powerless, however it may feel. We can act together. Doing the ‘right thing’ now isn’t just about not flying or eating beef (though that matters too – if you want to know why, see my new book, What Climate Justice Means). It’s about being part of a vast and growing campaign for basic justice. It’s about taking inspiration from the suffragette and civil rights movements.

In a collective crisis, we all need to be activists. Write to your MP. Phone them. Start petitions. Sign petitions. Engage in civil disobedience. Vote as though the future – and other people – really matters.

Elizabeth Cripps is a philosopher at the University of Edinburgh. Her book, What Climate Justice Means and Why We Should Care, is out on February 3 (Bloomsbury, £12.99). @ebcripps

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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