By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

If we all don’t make Steward Leadership a huge priority going forward, I expect God will nevertheless forgive us.

But our grandchildren may not.

And who can blame them – especially in view of the Feb. 28 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning that we must significantly accelerate our efforts to halt climate change if we hope to preserve the Earth’s ability to sustain life?

Here’s part of what that report said:

It is unequivocal that climate change has already disrupted human and natural systems. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.

We can’t tell our grandchildren we weren’t warned.

We are stewards

Quite frankly, when we published The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus – Introducing S3 Leadership: Servant, Steward, Shepherd back in 2009, we weren’t thinking of Steward Leadership primarily in terms of Catholics being good stewards of the earth.

We were thinking of a Gospel teaching even more basic than that: We own nothing, not even our own lives; we are simply stewards acting on God the Creator’s behalf. And since we are not – never – owners, all that we have comes with strings attached. We are to treat other people and all the resources of the world as God tells us to treat them.

But soon after that book was published, it became progressively more clear that a huge part of being a Steward Leader is being a good steward of the gifts of the earth because lacking better practices, the Earth will soon lose its ability to sustain life.

And in the interim, both humans and their environment will suffer greatly -- and at great expense -- as the life-sustaining ability of the planet dissipates.

Scientists agree

Scientists agree – there is a huge, nearly unanimous consensus – that the process is already underway and our options to impede it decline by the day.

Yes, of course there is a tiny handful of credentialed dissenters. There always is. When medical scientists tried to get the word out that smoking contributes – even causes – cancer, a small number dissented. Thankfully, they were eventually exiled to the dustbin of history.

For a variety of reasons -- perhaps occasionally even sincere ones -- some dissent will always persist about virtually everything. But now is not the time to look for, much less listen to, those voices.

The voice of Pope Francis

Better to listen to the voice of Pope Francis, who addressed the matter of environmental deterioration – and what good Christians should do about it – in his encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, published in 2015.

My goodness, that was seven years ago!

We’ve written about climate change and that encyclical several times before. (Click here to see our review of it.) Suffice to say now, if you haven’t read it yet, please do so now. It would be ideal reading both during what’s left of Lent and during the Easter Season that follows.

Pope Francis also shows that this is a concern that pre-dates his own papacy, quoting from earlier popes who saw a connection between authentic discipleship and advocacy for our environment. And it’s clear that simple concern is not enough.

As Pope Francis notes in his encyclical, quoting St. John Paul II: “Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in ‘lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies.”

Are we up to it? Are we willing? Are we able?

As Easter, the great feast of Christian hope, approaches, we owe it to ourselves to grapple with those questions – and one more. What will each of us do in the days and years ahead to defend the earth’s ability to sustain life?

We teach that “everyone is a leader some of the time.” Now is the time for each and every one of us to try to be a leader in the urgent struggle for a sustainable climate.

As we know, some places are more vulnerable than others to the ravages of climate change in the near future. Low-lying islands and coastal areas will be inundated by sea water in the next few decades if we don’t radically change our ways. (Click here to see a world map of projected flooding published by the IPCC.)

The map shows, among other things, that if, in 50 years, my grandchildren try to vacation where my wife and I did in February, they will find the place under water.

Impact in U.S.

In the U.S., according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, if oceans rise at a “high level:”

  • More than 300,000 of today's coastal homes, with a collective market value of about $117.5 billion today, are at risk of chronic flooding by 2045.
  • Approximately 14,000 commercial properties in coastal areas with a current assessed value of roughly $18.5 billion are also at risk during that timeframe.
  • The properties at risk by 2045 currently house 550,000 people and contribute nearly $1.5 billion toward today's property tax base.
  • By 2100 those numbers climb to about 4.7 million people and $12 billion in lost taxes.  
  • By the end of the century, homes and commercial properties currently worth more than $1 trillion could be at risk. This includes as many as 2.4 million homes—the rough equivalent of all the homes in Los Angeles and Houston combined—that are collectively valued today at approximately $912 billion.

States with the most homes at risk by the end of the century are Florida, with about 1 million homes (more than 10% of the state's current residential properties); New Jersey, with 250,000 homes; and New York with 143,000 homes. 

Lives on the line

Even more concerning is the prospect of lost lives as oceans rise.

Especially at risk are low-lying islands in the South Pacific, some of which could disappear before the end of the century. The Marshall Islands, for example, with a population of 60,000 people, could likely vanish within 50 years if nothing is done to combat global warming.

The IPCC report prompted Tina Stege, the Marshall Islands’ climate envoy, to say (as reported in Time magazine): “Failing to adapt to this crisis will cost lives. Failing to provide fair, accessible climate finance will cost lives. Continued dependence on fossil fuels will cost lives. With the consequences of inaction spelled out so clearly … a failure to act is inhuman and unconscionable.”

Is that the legacy we want to leave … here or at the Pearly Gates??

Is that how we want our grandchildren to think of us?