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Climate Action will not make us better people

In 2018 National Post columnist Kelly MacPharland wrote an opinion piece criticising Environment Minister Cathernie McKenna and what he called the Liberal party’s “faith in their moral infallibility”. Building on this during the 2019 election campaign, Andrew Scheer took issue with Justin Trudeau’s use of campaign jets and accused him of hypocrisy. The sentiment is clear: why should Canadians let wealthy elites in Eastern Canada tell them how to live? Climate action is a luxury which most Canadians can’t afford and the “virtue signalling” of elites is almost comical, or so the thinking goes. Many Christians resonate with this thinking.

The choice to consume or advocate for these actions signals a virtue that is unattainable by most people.

I am not here to tell you that this is crazy talk. On the contrary, I think this root of this sentiment is well-justified. The reason is that we can’t expect people to be good simply because they are lucky.

Secular philosopher Bernard Williams coined the term moral luck to describe circumstances where moral praise or blame is granted to a person because of circumstances beyond their control. In the case of climate action, wealthy people are better positioned to afford electric vehicles or carbon offsets; the choice to consume or advocate for these actions signals a virtue that is unattainable by most people.

Climate virtue seems similar to the indulgences sold by the reformation era church.

I can see how it would be concerning that political leaders would claim moral authority when their “moral luck” puts them in a position that is vastly different from the experience of most people in Canada.   Asking working class people living in rural regions to drive less or take public transit, especially if there are simply no such options or they are just getting by, is unfair. 

Surely then, if Williams is correct, living green does not necessarily make someone a better person; people who have the power (and money) to take climate action just got lucky. This criticism may particularly stand out to Reformed Christians because climate virtue seems like the indulgences sold by the reformation era church. Wealthy and corrupt people used to allegedly buy their salvation, just like how big consumers of private jet fuel could pay for carbon offsets to seem virtuous.

The Reformed worldview has a case for climate action that is fundamentally different from the one addressed by the moral luck criticism. Reformed Christians often believe that no amount of moral action can lead to salvation. Our virtuous acts do not make us better people. Every person is enslaved to sin. Only the grace of God can save us, and that was done through the resurrection.

It is in this way that climate action is not wasted.

Yet, what we do in life still matters! In 1 Corinthians 15:58 after a discussion about the Resurrection, Paul concludes: “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” As N. T. Wright points out, it is clear (to Paul, in 1 Corinthians, at least) that what we do in the present matters for the future. Though sin was defeated, we are still living in a world that is yet to be reconciled with God’s great kingdom. We are not called to build this kingdom through our efforts, but are called to play a part in God’s work. This is why we are called to take climate action. We choose to take action because we are saved; God will find a way to use good actions in his plan.

I do not do it to be a better person.

Long story short: why do I choose to support and take climate action? I do not do it to be a better person. I do it because it is the right thing to do. This said, personal action will not be enough to solve the climate crisis. Given the scale of the problem, we need a system-wide and international response, but this also requires political will. 

Psychologist Matthew Adams points out, only collective action through our extended social groups (e.g. churches) and civil society can motivate us to act and avoid the worst. If Reformed Christians are motivated to do the right thing, it is imperative that we bring climate action into our church life and the language we use every day. We can do this by learning together about the issue and then perhaps by taking action to ensure that the governments of Canada and the United States achieve their international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We are called to do what is right; if Christians take steps to work together, we might actually succeed.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

The Reformed family is a diverse family with a diverse range of opinions. Not all perspectives expressed on the blog represent the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church. Learn more about this blog, Reformed doctrines, and our diversity policy on our About page.

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