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Americans are a generous people. According to the National Philanthropic Trust, we gave over $300 billion to charity as individuals in 2020. That’s nearly 2 percent of our nation’s GDP. And we are not just generous with our treasure: Nearly one in three adults also invested our time and talents by volunteering in the community.

Giving as an act of charity is a powerful thing. But sometimes it is not enough. While we take pride in our record of charitable giving, our record of doing justice is not so clean.

With the close of the global climate summit in Glasgow, America is presented with an urgent opportunity — indeed a moral responsibility — to give not just in charity, but also in justice to protect our common home. Our own Christian faith, like other faith traditions, demands nothing less.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, human beings have pumped over 2 trillion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, according to the latest peer-reviewed scientific research. The combustion of coal, oil and gas is directly responsible for raising global temperatures about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900. Carbon concentration in the atmosphere, and the resulting overheating of our planet, are at their highest levels since human life began, according to NASA.

More than 20 percent of global carbon pollution since the Industrial Revolution has come from the United States.

Although we make up just 4 percent of the world’s people, our share of greenhouse gas emissions from CO2 and other sources dwarfs our share of global population by a factor of five. Only China, with four times as many people, has higher total emissions than America today.

The price of this pollution in human terms is staggering. According to the UN High Commission on Refugees, more than 20 million people have been forced to leave their homes since 2010 by floods, storms, wildfires, heat waves and other climate disasters. Thousands more are rendered homeless and jobless each year by more gradual climatic changes, like coastal erosion and droughts. The frequency and severity of these so-called “natural” disasters are definitively tied to greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. In fact, climate scientists have been predicting precisely these kinds of extreme and deadly events for decades as carbon pollution intensified.

But warnings from the UN make clear “we ain’t seen nothing yet.” If current emissions trends continue, an estimated 1.2 billion people will be forced to leave their homes by 2050 due to climate change — a humanitarian crisis the likes of which we have never seen before. The destabilizing impacts of such massive dislocation of people are one reason the Pentagon has termed climate change a top national security threat of the 21st century.

Carbon-fueled natural disasters like fires and floods may be the “breaking news” of climate damage, but they are far from the most deadly. Public health researchers at Harvard have found that over 8 million people died silently from exposure to fine particulate matter caused by burning fossil fuels in 2018. That’s 22,000 innocent people whose lives were cut short per day — equivalent to the entire population of Portsmouth or Keene.

Scientists also have clearly shown how planetary heating from carbon pollution drives droughts and desertification, ocean warming and acidification, which destroy crops and fisheries and a host of ecosystem services in the process. The cost in both lives and livelihoods is staggering.

What can we do? First, we must acknowledge the outsized role our nation has played, and continues to play, in causing the climate crisis, and the harm it has wrought on billions of people and countless other species around the world. Although we as individuals did not choose this destructive path, we have benefited immensely from it as Americans. Now it is in our power to make things right.

Second, we must hold American fossil fuel companies accountable for the damage they have done in the name of profit, while sowing doubts and denial about the climate science. At the same time, we must take responsibility for the part we individually play in accelerating climate damage, and mobilize our families and communities to replace fossil fuels with clean renewable energy.

Finally, our nation must take up the generational challenge of decarbonizing our economy and helping poorer countries do the same to avert a climate catastrophe. Structural change must begin with passing the Build Back Better Act in Congress to unleash American innovation, add millions of good-paying jobs and ensure environmental justice for communities hit first and worst by climate change at home. It also requires that America join other developed nations in finally making good on our stated commitment in 2010 to invest $100 billion annually in helping poor nations weather the climate crisis and decarbonize their economies — not with more high-interest loans that saddle them with debt, but through direct donations made in the name of justice.

Let’s match our charitable spirit this holiday season with a commitment to climate justice at home and abroad. It’s never too late, or too soon, to do the right thing.

Dan Weeks is co-owner and vice president at Re-Vision Energy. Dr. Sindiso Mnisi Weeks is associate professor in the School for Global Inclusion and Social Development at UMass Boston.

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