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Dublin: 3 °C Wednesday 11 December, 2019
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We’re playing God with the lives of the poorest people on Earth

When it comes to climate change, we can’t blame ‘Acts of God’ for destroying our planet. We can only blame ourselves.

Donal O'Keeffe

“Act of God: An extraordinary interruption by a natural cause (as a severe flood…) of the usual course of events that experience, prescience, or care cannot reasonably foresee or prevent.”

– Webster’s Third International Dictionary.

I’M NOT THE biggest fan of God. He and I fell out sometime in the late 1980s – around the time we both stopped believing in each other – but I do still try to keep an eye on His activities and those of His representatives. As a former believer, I’m often struck by the phenomenon of “Acts of God”.

Acts of God seem to happen a lot to people living on islands a long way away. In many cases, Acts of God tend to stem from severe, freak weather conditions and they tend to kill, often in the hundreds and the thousands, the poorest people in the world – ironically the people most likely to rely desperately on God in the first place. Being a godless and gracelessly point-scoring heathen, I often think Acts of God represent particularly bad form on the part of the Almighty.

Acts of God sometimes take place on Bank Holiday weekends – when there’s not a whole lot happening here to feed our own news cycle – and so we, up here in our corner of the temperate and (however badly off we think we are) well-fed north, get to hear about tragedy in faraway and exotic places like Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Less dramatic than the Sturm und Drang of hurricanes and tornadoes – but no less deadly – are the drought conditions and rising sea levels under which so many island nations are slowly sinking. If God is not responsible for these, then who else could be?

People at the front line of humanity’s war against the Earth

As it happens, yesterday President Michael D Higgins met with Mr Tony de Brum. Mr de Brum is on Twitter (@MinisterTdB) and his bio reads “Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Fighting for the survival of my country in the battle against climate change.”

Minister de Brum was talking with our President in his (de Brum’s) capacity as representative of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). President Higgins is in Paris today to give a keynote speech to the Summit of Consciences for the Climate, something which might explain why Mr de Brum was anxious to speak with Michael D.

AOSIS consists of 39 member states: 19 countries from the Atlantic and associated seas, 16 from the Pacific and four from the Indian Ocean. These are the countries where climate change isn’t an abstract, ideological debate. These are the people who are at the front line of humanity’s war against the Earth, the people who are suffering the most – and the most immediately – as we strip-mine our future, as we burn the Earth and boil the skies.

Will rich countries do the right thing?

In a clever piece of press-baiting, Minister de Brum pledged on Sunday that the Marshall Islands will reduce its carbon emissions by one third within a decade. On the global scheme of things, this is an entirely symbolic gesture – the Marshall Islands have only 68,000 inhabitants and next to no industry – but the Marshall Islands are literally sinking beneath the rising waves of climate change.

“We will reduce emissions by 32 percent below 2010 levels by 2025,” de Brum told AFP. “And we will aim for a 45-percent reduction by 2030. This is in line with our longer-term vision to move towards zero-net emissions by 2050.”

“Our message is simple: if one of the world’s smallest, poorest and most geographically isolated countries can do it, so can you.”

I genuinely hope Minister de Brum is right but I have my doubts. It strikes me that so long as the wealthy north remains largely unaffected by climate change, then we will continue about our business and we will do so until the tides lap around our oxters. And then we’ll scream and whine and pretend we never knew what was coming.

Time is not on our side

Characteristically, President Higgins didn’t pull any punches in Paris today. “Climate change is the great challenge of our time, already challenging most severely those already poor, for whom, if we do not act, it will deliver devastation. Ours may be the final generation with the opportunity to effectively respond to the now urgent effects of climate change.”

Seeing as I mentioned His acts, God was well represented in Paris today too, with France’s foremost religious leaders attending the summit. In his speech, President Higgins instanced Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical, ‘Laudato Si’, in which the Pope called for individuals to act on climate change.

“Regrettably,” writes Pope Francis, “many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes… can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity.”

Pope Francis in turn quotes Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians: “For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the Earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the Earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the Earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins… (To) commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”.

We cannot say that we did not know

Maybe it’s time to rethink “Acts of God”. Maybe it’s time, when climatic tragedy strikes poor people living on islands far away, that we went a bit easier on the Almighty and owned up to the catastrophic consequences of our own actions. With 98% of scientists who work in climatology speaking in one voice, the time for climate change scepticism is long-past.

Where climate change is concerned, we’re the ones who are playing God with the lives of the very poorest people on Earth. As President Higgins said today, “When history records the actions we take or fail to take at this our moment of truth, we will not have the excuse that we did not understand, that we did not know.”

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