Editor’s Note: U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, is the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The views expressed are his own.
Ben Cardin: Our conscience should compel us to address climate change
Effects of climate change may be strongest felt by most vulnerable, he says
Pope Francis’ new encyclical on climate change is a profound reminder that we have a shared moral obligation to address climate change and the immeasurable human suffering it is causing around the world.
Climate change is causing irreparable harm to people who least can afford to adapt to the increasing instances and severity of extreme weather. To echo the encyclical, released Thursday, if you care about your fellow human beings, then you should support solutions that will help people survive climate change and work to reduce the climate pollution that endangers us all.
My Jewish faith has informed my sense of personal responsibility to work to protect people from climate change. Just last month, more than 340 rabbis from across the spectrum of Judaism penned a letter urging action to tackle the climate crisis. In that letter, they cite a passage from the Torah that warns that even if we refuse to let the Earth rest, it will rest anyway.
That Biblical warning is playing out before us now.
Climate change is already affecting the environment and economy in the state I represent. Seventy percent of Marylanders live in coastal areas, and the 2014 National Climate Assessment identified our state’s 3,000-plus miles of coastline as highly vulnerable to rising seas. Recent superstorms such as Irene and Sandy have also wrought damaging floods in places such as Annapolis and Baltimore, while the people of Smith Island are watching their island disappear under rising sea levels.
And it’s not just in my state. Severe changes are taking place across the country as well. This year alone we have seen unprecedented drought in California and unprecedented flooding in Texas. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration informs us that May was the wettest month in U.S. history.
But the effects beyond the United States could be even more severe, and will disproportionately impact the world’s most vulnerable people. The Maldives – a string of 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean with an average elevation of 5 feet – might be completely uninhabitable in the coming decades. Indeed, the country’s president is already reportedly seeking to purchase a new plot of land in India, Sri Lanka or Australia, where the country’s 400,000 people can move to if the islands are ultimately submerged.
The Sahel region in Africa spans 17 countries and is home to about 309 million people – roughly equivalent to the U.S. population – the vast majority of whom rely on subsistence farming. Increasing desertification in the region means less water for agricultural and personal use, leading to thinner harvests and greater risks of disease and famine.
As a low-lying country on the world’s largest river delta, the impoverished country of Bangladesh may be the worst affected. The confluence of rising sea levels, melting Himalayan glaciers and increasingly heavy monsoon rains have led scientists to predict that nearly 20% of the country could be underwater by 2050, displacing anywhere between 18 million to 50 million people.
The moral obligation to act to solve the climate crisis becomes even clearer when one realizes that the people who will be hardest hit by climate change have made a negligible contribution to bringing about climate change.
That’s why President Barack Obama has led the charge in helping developing countries to prepare for the impacts of climate change. Earlier this month, the President announced a new public-private partnership that will provide data, tools and training to countries that lack the ability to incorporate the effects of climate change into their economic growth strategies and disaster response plans. Empowering resource-strapped countries is a simple but important step in making sure that we prepare for and respond to our changing environment.
As members of the global community, we all have an obligation to put a stop to the suffering of our neighbors. Our moral conscience, clarified for many by religious teachings, compel us to address the looming issue of climate change. As we approach a global climate change agreement later this year, I will continue work in the Senate to support strong measures to lower emissions at home and help lead the community of nations to lower global emissions.
I hope that Pope Francis and his powerful voice can help further unite people around the world to collectively solve the climate crisis to the benefit of all.