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Theology professor invited to take part in international ecological symposium

Richard Miller, PhD, Department of TheologyAmidst our busy lives, the slowly unfolding consequences of climate change often escape our attention.

But with the possibility that the number of migrants and refugees fleeing the catastrophic effects of drought, sea-level rise and crop failures could reach into the hundreds of millions and possibly 1 billion by 2050, thinkers and scholars in the sciences, humanities, and public policy are facing the stark realities of this crisis.

“When people think of climate change the image that often comes to mind is the polar bear.” Creighton University theology professor Richard Miller, PhD, said. “This is true, but it has the effect of distancing the climate problem as can be seen in slogans like save the planet. I would suggest a more adequate image is the migrant, more precisely, the millions of people who have already been displaced by the effects of climate change and the hundreds of million who will be displaced in the coming decades and centuries. Such migrations of people risk destabilizing civilization. We have to profoundly rethink how we understand the obligations of nation states in relation to these migrating peoples or we likely descend into endless conflict and unspeakable suffering.”

June 5 through 8, Miller will be part of an international contingent of scholars, lawyers, religious leaders, and policy makers invited by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to engage in a symposium, “A Green Attica for a Sustainable Environment: Preserving the Planet and Protecting its People.” The Patriarch himself will be in attendance along with several prominent Roman Catholic Cardinals and the current and former Executive Secretaries of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Bartholomew I was drawn upon in Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’, in which the leader of the Roman Catholic Church quoted the Orthodox leader as saying, “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God.”

“Bartholomew was tuned in very early to the seriousness of environmental degradation,” said Miller, who contributed to and edited the 2011 book God, Creation, and Climate Change: A Catholic Response to the Environmental Crisis, winner of a Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada book award. “He saw, like Pope Francis, that the degradation of the environment really pointed to something deeply problematic within ourselves and our societies. He’s spoken out about the destruction of the environment in arguably the strongest terms of any major leader in the Christian tradition over the past 20 years.”

The Patriarch began sponsoring symposia in the mid-1990s, holding one every few years including events in the Arctic, Amazon, Baltic Sea, and even in the Mississippi River watershed. The symposium this year will be held on a ship sailing among the Saronic Islands, an archipelago just off the coast of the Attic Peninsula in Greece.

In recent years, the Greek islands have seen a large influx of migrants as thousands of people fleeing civil conflict and the effects of climate change have taken a route through the Greek Islands in hopes of reaching mainland Europe.

“It’s a great idea to have a symposium on a ship,” Miller said. “There is nowhere to go and so we will be able to maximize our conversation.” We will be talking about the migrant crisis now and in the future. And we’ll see exactly what we’ve been tracking in the news from Europe about the influx of migrants and refugees.”

The rise in refugees has been a significant contributing factor in the rise of nationalism in Europe bringing about calls in some places for closed borders and quotas on migrants and refugees. In light of this, religious and social justice leaders have been raising pointed questions on the ethical obligations for those countries most responsible for the climate crisis, especially the United States which is responsible for 25 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

“Moral obligations do not require scientific certitude,” Miller said. “In cases that involve serious risks all that is required is credible evidence. In my judgment our moral obligation to reduce emissions began in 1979 with the publishing of the National Academy of Sciences Report, the Charney Report, that showed that there was a consensus that the burning of fossil fuels and the felling of forests would lead to climate change and this posed a serious risk to future societies. Ethical questions, however, have been sidelined for decades. The publishing of Pope Francis’s Encyclical Laudato Si’ in 2015 and the public statements, writings, and symposia of Patriarch Bartholomew challenge leaders and policy makers to consider their moral obligations in making policy decisions.”

Since 1979, carbon dioxide emissions have increased around 70 parts per million — 100 parts per million of carbon dioxide is what separates an ice age and interglacial period — and scientists have registered and continue to predict large scale changes that will lead to the migrations of hundreds of millions of people.

With the growing consensus among glaciologists that the world is committed to 10 to 16 feet of sea level rise, Miller said the migration is just beginning. Such a rise in sea level would eventually destroy nearly all coastal cities and, taking account of current populations in current locations, would produce about 280 million climate refugees.

“The whole history of scapegoating minority populations or migrants and refugees must serve as a warning,” Miller said. “It’s our hope that we can get more religious leaders out ahead of the migrant problem and inform societies of their responsibility to these migrants and refugees.”

Miller said he’s hoping to get a firmer grasp on the situation in Europe to be able to talk more about how theologians, ethicists and religious people, generally, can understand the crisis and commit to helping put that human face on the climate change toll.

“The thinking on this has to happen now,” he said. “We have to be forward-thinking and not wait until the migrant crisis gets out of hand so that we can limit conflict as much as possible and provide humane conditions for those that are going to be displaced by climate impacts.”

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Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.