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It will take a spiritually great West to make COP26 work

It will take a spiritually great West to make COP26 work

Ben Ryan looks at the need for a cohesive moral vision at the heart of our environmental policymaking post–COP26. 3/11/2021

Environmental policy is exactly the sort of issue our Western political leaders are singularly ill–equipped to deal with. To make the sort of progress that scientists warn is necessary will demand legislating for radical lifestyle changes and long–term, expensive policies and projects – including costly and disruptive changes to infrastructure and industry that will potentially never see any economic or practical benefit. The opposite, in other words, to what short–term electoral cycles work towards.

To this unpromising cocktail, we can add that a successful COP26 will require multilateral co–operation and states acting in concert rather than competition. This has rarely seemed a more remote prospect. Absolute sovereignty and political isolation are more in vogue than they have been in decades. It is difficult to see how the chairing UK government representative can insist on multilateral co–operation for a global common good with a straight face while the government unilaterally run a coach and horses through the 1951 Refugee Convention, to name just one current example among many.

But aside from this political context, the really depressing question is whether we even have the intellectual and ethical capacity to respond to what is unfolding.

The big moral picture seems obvious enough: it would be nice to leave more than a smoking cinder behind for our grandchildren to live on once we are gone. The specifics, however, are difficult. For example, what costs should be borne by what generations and what states, and with what compensation for their development?  Can refugee law be widened to environmental displacement? These questions are as much ethical as economic or scientific.

The problems are related: politicians struggle to deal with such questions not only because of electoral concerns, but because there is a lack of a genuine shared ethical framework to hold them to account or to give them the intellectual resources to shape a vision.

This provides a stark and depressing point of comparison to the brief heyday of genuinely effective multilateral internationalism with an ethical vision in the immediate post–war period. Perhaps it takes a true existential crisis like mass destruction and the Holocaust truly to shake up the world order; a sort of Newtonian moral response to what had been wrought before.

The post–war period saw genuine and radical innovation, as states voluntarily sacrificed their sovereignty and the ability to militarize independently for the sake of peace and prosperity, in the early European project. It was the same era that saw international recognition and codification of the concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity; a shared international legal commitment to the idea that some values are so universal and fundamental that they must override even the principle of national sovereignty and distinct legal structures within borders. The 1951 Refugee Convention was an international recognition of the need to protect those whose humanity was at threat from the actions of states.

It’s not a coincidence they came after the war. It is also not a coincidence that they were each in different ways underpinned by universalist ethical models, particularly (though not quite exclusively) Christianity.

The early European project and these other new international models have been called by the academic Scott Thomas “an act of theo–political imagination”. Though not limited to any one religion or tradition, such models all inhabited an ethical scheme shaped and propelled by Christian theology. They provided an intellectual, not merely religious, framework to explain, justify and create a new universalist and multilateral means of politics for a global common good.

The intellectual framework is necessary – but also, more than that, a fundamental courage and belief in the possibility of change. It is interesting to recall Winston Churchill’s view of what would be necessary to rebuild Europe after World War Two:

We must build a United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living. The process is simple. All that is needed is the resolve of hundreds of millions of men and women to do right instead of wrong and gain as their reward blessing instead of cursing… There can be no revival of Europe without a spiritually great France and a spiritually great Germany.

That was a model and a context for a different age, but in many ways we are in the same place. We need a revival – a new global commitment – and to do so will need a spiritually great effort. We don’t just need the vision and ethics, but the belief to propel them into concrete action.

There is a symmetry of sorts in that the Papacy is seeking to provide some of the intellectual framing for this new age. Few Church documents have received as wide or largely positive reception as the encyclical Laudato Si’. There, Pope Francis reminds us that “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

It also calls for a note of hope: “All is not lost. Human beings… are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start… and [embarking] on new paths to authentic freedom.”

In the post–war period, a relatively small but determined group of politicians responded explicitly to the calls of papal encyclicals written decades prior as a model for a new settlement. We need to hope – and to press – that history might repeat itself, even as the chances seem thoroughly unpromising.

If you enjoyed this blog, you can find our COP26 series here.


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 Photo Credit: lev radin / Shutterstock

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan is Home Affairs Adviser at Church of England. He was Head of Research at Theos until late 2019. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) and the author of Theos reports on chaplaincy, the EU, the Catholic charity sector, mental health and ecumenism.

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Posted 3 November 2021

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