January 24, 2019

Climate Change is a Humanist Issue

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In a recent post ("What Can We Do About Climate Change?"), I suggested that global climate change might be a humanist issue in the sense that it was something about which most humanists would probably be concerned for reasons that reflected the meaning of humanism (e.g., empathy, compassion). As it turns out, the American Humanist Association would seem to agree. In fact, their Board of Directors adopted a resolution on climate change in 2017 in which they called on all humanists to "take personal and collective action to save our planet."

As humanists, it is crucial that we recognize that the responsibility to create and maintain sustainable methods of living is a collective one. As humanists, we acknowledge the damage done to our environment has been caused by human action and constitutes an existential threat to humanity and many other species that have not already been wiped out. As humanists, we understand that only humans can save ourselves from the climate crises we have created.
The resolution does not go into detail explaining why climate change is a humanist issue, but that is probably unnecessary. The more I think about it, it almost seems self-evident that climate change would be a humanist issue.

Framing this as a humanist issue seems important because it reminds us all that our fate is up to us. We are not going to be saved by "thoughts and prayers," and there aren't any gods that will come to our rescue if we manage to appease them in just the right way (e.g., stripping women of reproductive rights, banning pornography, or persecuting everyone who is afflicted with "teh gay"). We've got ourselves into this mess, and we are going to have to find solutions or suffer the consequences.

Thinking about climate change as a humanist issue does not mean that every humanist must hold the same opinions on it. Just because it is a humanist issue does not mean that it will be every humanist's top priority, that every humanist will agree on the best solutions, or even that every humanist will be willing to make the same personal sacrifices. Humanists are capable of independent thought and are every bit as diverse as any other group of people. Thus, there will be differences of opinion on climate change among humanists. Attempting to use one's opinions on climate change as a metric for judging whether someone is "a real humanist" will be counterproductive.

Where do atheists fit into this, or do they? I do not think that it would make sense to claim that climate change is "an atheist issue." Atheism is far too narrow. Many atheists are humanists; some are not. Some atheists, regardless of whether they are humanists, are worried about climate change; some are not. And just like humanists, one should expect the level of concern, the perceived viability of various solutions, and the degree of willingness to make personal sacrifices to vary among atheists. Again, trying to turn this into some sort of litmus test whereby anyone who is deemed insufficiently concerned about climate change as "not a real atheist" accomplishes little.

If there is one thing about climate change that should be clear, it is that slowing the damage we have already caused is not going to be easy. It will require both personal and collective action. It will require cooperation on a level that is difficult to comprehend. It will require some degree of personal sacrifice from each of us. In many ways, it will require us to overcome some of our worst tendencies.