Willis Jenkins: Climate change as moral and ethical challenge

By Kurt Karandy ’13 M.A.R.

Willis Jenkins, the Margaret Farley Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at Yale Divinity School, described climate change as a moral and ethical challenge in his Oct. 11 lecture at Convocations and Reunions, urging his audience to respond by creating “reform projects” within their faith communities.

JenkinsJenkins emphasized that the problem of climate change needs to be understood as an issue greater than a mere political or economic one.  It is a moral problem, he told the audience of alumni gathered in Niebuhr Hall, that poses a serious challenge to our contemporary ways of living and even raises questions about the sustainability of “a basic pattern of human life.”

Jenkins cautioned, however, that though climate change should be viewed as a moral and ethical challenge, sinfulness and evil ought not be seen as the root causes of the problem.  That, he said, would limit humanity’s ability to invent responses to the problem.
Instead, Jenkins characterized climate change as a “structurally wicked problem” that is the accidental outcome of years of high-carbon consumption.

Instead of waiting for official, institutional responses, faith communities must address the problem directly through “reform projects,” reconsidering how to address climate change in the context of their traditions.

“The relevance of Christianity to climate change is contingent on the moral creativity of reform projects that pulse with the heartbeat of Christian life,” said Jenkins.  “When following Jesus demands a breaking from high-energy ways of American life, then Christianity begins to matter for a pluralist world looking for ways to live in the time of climate change.”

Such a response, Jenkins said, would be particularly meaningful to contemporary society because of the convergence of factors that deter individuals and institutions from addressing climate change.   Because we lack a common ecological goal, struggle to agree around issues of liability, and do not suffer equally from the effects of climate change, there is a “perfect moral storm” that can deter concrete action, in Jenkins’s view.

The task of reform projects, Jenkins explained, is not to add religious pressure or frame climate change as a moral argument but, rather, to “demonstrate practical possibilities of acting that begin to overcome the features of the problem.”

When Christian communities engage in this sort of work on climate change, “here God is creating a renewed community, reconciling us across those communities of South and North, power and wealth, maybe even with all of humanity,” Jenkins observed at the close of his lecture. “And that reconciliation takes shape through a movement of little projects that attempt to embody, however insufficiently, however incompetently, how God gathers humanity across its alienations into a restored membership with all creation.”

Click here to view video of the lecture.

Posted: 11/06/2011