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Ten Commandments for a Climate-Threatened World: The First Five

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From The 10 Commandments
The 10 Commandments
(image by @jbtaylor)

Although the 10 Commandments expressed in the Hebrew Bible were written for a particular people at a particular time, they contain a universal ethic, which can be summarized in the so-called Silver Rule, namely: Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.[1]

Because of changing circumstances, which bring new problems, the Silver Rule always needs to be reformulated for the most urgent ethical problems of the time. Today, the overriding ethical problems arise from the climate change caused by global warming, which is depriving people around the world from some of their most basic rights.

The Declaration of Independence, which is foundational for the United States, includes the right to life among the basic human rights. This right implies a right to all those things that are essential to life, such as food, water, and clean air. But the fossil-fuel corporations have been robbing people of these rights.

I am suggesting, therefore, Ten Climate Commandments. This essay, the first in a series of two, provides the first five commandments. The second essay will provide the second five.

1. Thou Shalt Not Ruin Civilization's Climate.

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Civilization emerged about 10,000 years ago, after the emergence of the Holocene epoch, which was the "Goldilocks zone" for civilization: not too hot, not too cold. That ideal climate existed because the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere hovered around 275 parts per million (ppm).

However, since the rise of the industrial age, based on fossil-fuel energy, the level of CO2 has been rising steadily, so that now it is above 400 ppm. This increase has already caused the planet's average temperature to rise 0.85 degrees Celsius (1.5 degrees Fahrenheit), and the CO2 in the atmosphere is already fated to push the temperature up further, because there is a lag -- most recently estimated to be about 10 years - between the CO2 emissions and the effect on the temperature. [2]

By "catapulting ourselves way out of the Holocene," as one physicist put it,[3] we have already changed the planet significantly. This catapult is causing many changes that violate climate commandments.

2. Thou Shalt Not Impose Hotter Weather on People.

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One of the changes caused by global warming is the rise of increasingly extreme weather, one of which is worse heat waves. What matters to us is not the average temperature, but the "extremely hot days," meaning ones that are above the 90th percentile for that region.

Over the past 15 years, the number of extremely hot days has soared. [4] In 2003, a European heat wave was so much hotter than previous ones that Great Britain reached 100 degreesF (38.5 degreesC) for the first time ever. [5] In 2013, China had its worst heat wave ever, with 40 cities remaining above 104˚F (40˚C) for 31 days. [6] And in 2014, India experienced its longest heat wave, which was so hot that the streets of Delhi were virtually empty.

Although other kinds of extreme weather may be more dramatic, "Heat is the number one weather-related killer in the United States," claiming "more lives each year than floods, lightning, tornadoes and hurricanes combined."[7]

Worldwide, people have had increasingly deadly heatwaves imposed on them by global warming. For example, an estimated 70,000 people died in the European heat wave of 2003 and 50,000 in Russia's 2010 heat wave. [8]

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David Ray Griffin is emeritus professor of philosophy of religion at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University. He has written 30 books. His most recent book is Unprecedented: Can Civilization Survive the CO2 Crisis? (Clarity (more...)

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