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The Role of Theology and Imagination in Climate Ethics

In a focus article recently published within WIREs Climate Change, Clingerman and O’Brien analyze these two very different ways of framing the moral problem of climate change, proposing that each leads to different outcomes for climate ethics and policy.

Climate scientists and activists alike frequently present climate change as a deep moral challenge. Is this challenge best understood as a brand new kind of problem, unlike anything the human species has ever dealt with before? Or is it best understood as comparable to other great challenges that human beings have faced in the past —such as winning a global war, or of overthrowing slavery?

In a focus article recently published within WIREs Climate Change, Clingerman and O’Brien analyze these two very different ways of framing the moral problem of climate change, proposing that each leads to different outcomes for climate ethics and policy. They argue that those who see climate change as a new kind of problem tend to focus on the instability and unpredictability of natural systems and so call for new kinds of thinking. Those who find historical moral precedents for climate change, by contrast, tend to emphasize the continued relevance of existing traditions, in particular commitments to social justice and opposition to destructive economic and political structures. A unique part of Clingerman and O’Brien’s argument is the recognition of how religion affects the debate, since the worldviews of a large percentage of the United States and world population are affected by religious belief. The examples in this essay primarily come from Christianity, and the authors suggest that each approach is connected to a particular “theological imaginary,” an interpretive engagement with the meaning of climate change. However, interdisciplinary engagement suggests that the same trends can be true in other fields, and that there might be political, economic, meteorological, and chemical “imaginaries” that frame climate change as a new or historic problem.

Clingerman and O’Brien note that there are good reasons to say that climate change is brand new, that it has historical precedents, or that ethics and policy should integrate the two positions to understand how it is both old and new. What has thus far not been sufficiently recognized, however, is just how much a decision about whether climate change is “new” or “old” frames moral and political responses. This leads to an important conclusion: explicitly addressing the question of this essay is necessary, because each answer differently shapes the way one imagines climate change and societal responses to it.

Text contributed by Forrest Clingerman.

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