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Free Riders, Forced Riders, and the Injustice of Climate Change (Rev. Tom VandeStadt)

Free Riders, Forced Riders, and the Injustice of Climate Change (Rev. Tom VandeStadt)

Science Supports the Pope in his Call for Climate Justice


One of the most insidious aspects of climate change is the blatant injustice that lays at the heart of it.  Those contributing the most to climate change are the least vulnerable to its effects, while those contributing the least to it are the most vulnerable.  This injustice, a major theme of Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudito Si, was recently confirmed by a scientific study published in Nature's Scientific Reports.

In the Encyclical published May 24, 2015, the Pope addresses the world from the perspective of the world’s poor.  Nathan Schneider, who writes for the Catholic weekly, America, observed that this is the first Papal Encyclical to ever come from the Third World.  The Encyclical gives a voice to poor, oppressed and exploited people who live in poor, oppressed and exploited parts of the earth.  The author of the first draft of the Encyclical, Cardinal Peter Turkson, is from Ghana.  Brazilian Liberation Theologian, Leonardo Boff, also influenced the Encyclical’s content.  One of Boff’s books is entitled, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, which is one of the Encyclical's refrains.

Key to the Pope’s "Third World" perspective is the recognition that powerful people, institutions, systems, ideologies and human drives like greed are working in tandem to produce wealth by dominating, oppressing, exploiting, abusing and impoverishing other people on this earth, as well as the earth itself.  The earth is suffering.  Poor people are suffering.  And it’s the very same confluence of powerful people and forces that are causing both the earth and the poor to suffer.  In effect, powerful people and forces are treating the earth as if it were a poor person, and treating poor people as if they were the earth.  Speaking through its natural voices, the earth is crying out. And speaking through their voices of suffering and/or protest, poor people are crying out.  Cry of the earth, cry of the poor.

Moreover, the earth is suffering the most harm in those very places where the poor of the earth live.  There is a close relationship between abusing the earth and abusing the poor.  The earth suffers greater exploitation, abuse and degradation in those very places where the poor suffer exploitation, abuse and degradation.  The poor suffer even more because of the harm done to the earth where they live.  It’s a vicious downward spiral:  abuse the earth where the poor live, and make the poor suffer the consequences of degraded, polluted and despoiled land, water and air.   

The Pope’s critique of the powerful and his advocacy for the poor is supported by scientific analysis.  A recent report in Scientific Reports* empirically documets “an enormous global inequality where 20 of the 36 highest emiitting countries are among the least vulnerable to negative impacts of climate change” while “11 of the 17 countires with low or moderate GHG emissions, are accutely vulnerable to negative impacts of climate change.”  

The report identitifies countries it terms “free riders” and those it terms “forced riders.”  Free riders emit most of the greenhouse gasses that are caussing climate change, yet force poorer low-emitting countries to bear the worst effects of climate change, including rising seas and severe drought.  Most of the “free riders” are in the wealthy, high-production, high consumption northern hemisphere, while the hardest hit “forced riders” are island nations and sub-Saharan African nations in the southern hemishpere (see maps below).  According to the report, “future emissions scenarios show that this inequality will significantly worsen by 2030.” 

In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change committed to a principle called “common but differentiated responsibilities.”  All countries on earth bear a common responibility to protect the earth as humanity’s common home, and all countries must do what they can to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.  But not all countries bear the same responsibility.  The countries that are richer and more powerful, those that produce more and/or consume more, those that emit the most carbon, bear a higher responsibility.  The problem is these countries are using their power to elude responsibility and to force poor people to suffer the consequences of their irresponsibility.

The Pope has called on the countries that bear the most responsibility for causing climate change to own up to what they’re doing to the earth and to the poor.  The authors of this scientific report do the same:  “It is time that this persistent and worsening climate inequity is resolved, and for the largest emitting countries to act on their commitment of common but differentiated responsibilities.”

Actually, it’s way past time.  


Graphic:  Global inequity in the responsibility for climate change and the burden of its impacts.*

Map a:
Climate change equity for 2010.  

Map b:
limate change equity for 2030.

Countries with the highest emissions and the lowest vulnerability are shown in dark red (the climate free riders).  Countries with the lowest emissions and the highest vulnerability are shown in dark green (the climate forced riders).  Intermediate levels of equity are shown in graduating colors, with countries in yellow producing GHG emissions equal to their vulnerability to the resulting climate change.  Data deficient countries are shown as grey. 

 *Althor, G. et al. Global mismatch between greenhouse gas emissions and the burden of climate changeSci. Rep. 6, 20281; doi: 10.1038/srep20281 (2016).

Rev. Tom VandeStadt   is pastor at   Congregational Church of Austin  , TX, and a passionate social justice advocate. Check out a selection of Tom's sermons   here  . 

Rev. Tom VandeStadt is pastor at Congregational Church of Austin, TX, and a passionate social justice advocate. Check out a selection of Tom's sermons here

4 minute Climate Sermon (Rev. Felix Malpica)

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Politicians must follow the Pope

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