The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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Je Suis Worried

Ok, so a couple of days ago a group of people variously blew up and shot up Paris in order to make everybody feel exposed and vulnerable. And in that they succeeded.

I always find these events frustrating and worrying, and not for the obvious reasons. No, I don’t get sad. There are too many people for the tragedy to feel real to me–if you want to get me to cry, tell me a story about one person in terrible circumstance, like a boy I saw interviewed some years ago–his family had fled a war-torn somewhere (Syria, I think) and he was in a refugee camp telling a reporter about the bomb that had gone off in the house next door–his neighbor’s head hand landed in the boy’s lap. Just the head. This poor little boy, telling his story, completely calmly. I will not forget that child. But tell me about 129 dead people and I don’t see the people, I see the number, 129. and I don’t get emotional about numbers. I also don’t feel especially vulnerable because it’s not news to me that there are people who want to kill other people and sometimes succeed. The world did not change for me this week.

But I am aware that the world is changing.

Everybody with a political bandwagon is trying to hitch it to Paris this week, including Mr. Trump’s bizarre insistence that more guns would have improved the situation. The governors of a number of states (including, sadly, mine) have tried to block the arrival of Syrian refugees, an act of reflexive xenophobia eerily reminiscent of our country’s reluctance towards Jewish refugees prior to WWII. People die from such policies. And predictably, we have calls for tightened security, increased militarism…I am worried that, as with 9/11, the Paris attacks will become an excuse to suppress dissent as unpatriotic–the thin edge of the wedge of fascism. That is one facet of my worry.

I was pleased to note the reluctance of Bernie Sanders’ campaign let the recent Democratic debates focus on the attacks–it suggests that he, at least, is not interested in public exhibitions of patriotic fear. He even, quite correctly, identified ISIS (or, more properly, Daesh) as a side effect of climate change, something I’ve addressed here before. I was definitely not pleased that climate change did not otherwise come up in the debate (except that one of the other participants stated, correctly, that “we all believe in climate change”).

Last week, just out of curiosity, I decided to research what would happen if we stopped causing greenhouse gas emissions. What I found spooked even me. Basically, there is a large chunk of this problem that we don’t have the power to stop anymore. Seen against this background, the reticence of the debate moderators, the general failure of even many environmentalists to take the problem seriously, all of it is extremely worrying.

Seriously? Terrorism is a serious problem, but no matter how abusive humans get with each other, the future always contains hope–peace and security can always return. Climate change, by contrast, is casting a shadow thousands of years long. The decisions we make today will, for better or worse, shape the options of generations. Why isn’t dealing with this everybody’s top priority?

The pictures making the rounds of Facebook over the last few days have been calling attention to the recent attack on Beirut and the sad fact that American media does not treat the tragedies of brown or non-Christian people as quite real. The point is well taken. I saw a documentary recently on brain function that described an interesting experiment: human subjects were wired to brain sensors and then shown video of hands being stabbed with needles. The participants’ brains registered an empathic response; the pain centers lit up, almost as though they had been stabbed themselves. But when the hands were given labels, like “Christian” or “Muslim,” the empathic responses stopped, unless the label matched the participants’ own identity. In other words, a visceral response, the ability to respond to the pain of others as if it were our own, can be short-circuited by the thought “that is not one of my people.”

Je suis Paris, but je ne suis pas Beirut, apparently. Je ne suis pas Syrian refugee.

The Karmapa Lama, a Buddhist teacher similar in stature to the Dalai Lama has framed climate change as a moral as well as a scientific and technical crisis–specifically that we are seeing a failure of empathy, a refusal to believe that the people being touched by the problem are really real. Such people include those affected by the killer heat waves in Asia, the firefighters lost out west, and the victims of the civil war in Syria and of Daesh. How do you act when a loved one is under clear and immediate threat? What hope might hinge on a single person being willing to stop at nothing? We need to act that way now.

Je suis humanity. Je suis the atmosphere.

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A Letter from the Pope

So, the Pope has come out with an encyclical on climate change.

On the face of it, this should not be a particularly large story. For one thing, Pope Francis hasn’t said anything about climate change that has not been said, at length, before—even by other religious leaders. When I wrote, earlier this year, on climate change and religion, all of the religious groups I covered had pro-environment messages on their websites, with the exception of some Evangelical Christian groups—and even they include some voices for climate sanity.

In any case, because 1) the Catholic Church is no longer in any sense anti-scientific (the Church actually sponsors a great deal of serious research and has for a long time—Galileo’s arrest is rather old news) and 2) scientists repeatedly assure us that climate change is really bad for humans, especially the poor, Catholics really should not need their Pope to tell them that the climate is a moral issue of special concern for Christians.

And yet, American politicians and business leaders have felt compelled to speak out against pontiff, so there must be something very important about his reiteration of the obvious.

What seems to have changed is that Pope Francis is obviously serious. I am not sure that all the previous pro-environment statements by Christian leaders have been—doubtless some are quite genuine, but if every church whose leadership claims to be “green” on its website actually prioritized the environment, the heavily religious United States of America would not have elected so many climate-denier Congresspeople. But the Pope clearly intends to make this a central part of his teaching—to make it something neither his followers nor anyone else can ignore.

Francis is a very popular Pope, even among people who are otherwise hostile to Catholicism—but he is still Catholic. He has not so much changed Church doctrine as brought a more compassionate attitude to it. His refusal to judge gay people, for example, is simply a more humble, Christlike way to treat people he still probably believes to be sinners. But no matter what you or I think of his Church, Pope Francis has something that is otherwise in short supply in our world; moral authority.

At least in the US, we have vocal subcultures who talk publicly about what they think is right and what is wrong, but these words seldom make it into mainstream public discourse except as political noise. When Americans feel guilty (for environmental transgressions, for racial wrongs, etc.), it is considered perfectly acceptable to attack others for making us feel that way. It doesn’t occur to many of us to simply mend our ways.

Jeb Bush, a Catholic, on hearing that the Pope was about to comment on climate change, said “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.”

We can assume the Presidential hopeful did not mean to admit that being a better person has nothing to do with politics, but that may well be what he believes. Certainly, the idea that anyone might be bound to follow a moral code in all areas of their lives is not popular right now.

If it sounds as if I’m talking about a violation of the separation of church and state, I am not. Neither Pope Francis, nor the 17th Karmapa Lama, nor any other religious leader who has called for climate action has worldly authority over US policy. What they can do, what they have done, is to say, unambiguously, that doing something about climate change is right. That is what I’m talking about when I say moral authority.

The Pope has said that wonton environmental destruction is a sin. That means you can’t do it and call yourself a good Catholic at the same time. You just can’t. Maybe climate action is inconvenient. Maybe it’s uncomfortable. Maybe it requires giving up something you’d rather keep (like, for example, funding for your Presidential campaign). But none of that matters within a Christian context because moral good always trumps worldly value.

And there are a lot of Catholics, so even if other religious leaders weren’t joining the Pope on this one, the encyclical is politically very relevant.

That’s assuming, of course, that actual Catholics pay attention to it–and many of them already ignore the Vatican on other issues, notably birth control. The Heartland Institute, for one, has been doing what it can to ensure that the Pope is ignored. But at least some Catholic archdiocese are responding to the encyclical already. More will likely follow. Hispanic Catholics is the US already take climate change quite seriously, and will likely give the movement much-needed momentum.

Meanwhile, there are other reasons, besides climate denial, that some Catholics might resist the Pope’s message; in speaking out on climate only months before the critical climate conference in France, Pope Francis does appear to be trying to influence the UN. And while Catholics as a group might be happy to accept climate change as real and important, the rest of the UN’s apparently very liberal agenda is more of a sticking point.

Do we really want to give these people legitimacy by working with them? some Catholic writers are asking. Environmental activists often support abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriage!

Yeah, well, frankly, a lot of environmental activists are probably asking the same kinds of questions right now. Many may actually be battling the Church on other fronts even as they welcome the encyclical. The movement desperately needs socially conservative leadership so that socially conservative voters stop picking climate-denier candidates as proxies in the culture wars. And anyway, if we all agree to work together on this one issue for now, maybe they’ll be a later in which we can discuss other issues.

There won’t, otherwise.

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“What Are You Obedient to?”

This is going to get to global warming at some people. Please bear with me.

My sister once asked me what I am obedient to. Her question needs to be understood in context, because “obedience” has something of a negative connotation for many people. I’m not fond of the word myself, because it makes me think of having to do what somewhat else tells me to, even though I don’t want to.

But my sister did not ask me whom I am obedient to, but what. She wanted to know what principle I placed higher than my own druthers and impulses–we’d been arguing, and she was having a hard time understanding where I was coming from. It was a good question, though not one I had a ready answer for. I told her I would obey science, although I could not explain how that had anything to do with our discussion of the moment and we let the matter drop.

I’ve thought of that unresolved conversation, off and on, over the years since, and I think I can explain myself better now.

There are several ways to understand the idea that drove my sister’s question in the first place. The simplest to explain starts with an informal Zen Buddhist retreat I stumbled into, more or less by accident, as a teenager. The lay practitioner leading the retreat told a story about passing a deli on her morning jogging route and seeing a sign: FRESH WARM COOKIES. And oh, how she wanted those cookies. But stopping for cookies would completely derail her exercise routine. She realized that stopping for cookies would be giving over her power to that enticing sign. She asked herself “who is the master? Me, or those cookies?” Later, while we were sitting in meditation, if somebody scratched an itch she would say, loudly, “who is the master, you or the itch?”

So, that’s the simplest way to understand what I’m talking about–there is me and there are my various itches. “What am I obedient to?” is another way of asking what is more important that my itches? Or am I only obedient to my itches?

I don’t mean to draw a clear dichotomy between reason and impulse. While there do seem to be multiple brain processes in play–the ancient intuition that each of us is actually multiple, sometimes conflicting selves is at least partially correct, reason cannot actually function alone. People who, through brain damage, lose the capacity to have emotions also lose the ability to make decisions, even decisions that seem emotionally neutral, such as whether to use the blue pen or the black one. And a huge part of our every-day activities are more or less on automatic pilot, directed by impulses outside of conscious control or even, sometimes, awareness. We call these habits and get irritated when we can’t break bad ones, but if we had no automatic pilot and had to think over every little thing we’d never get anything done. I only mean that, by whatever mechanism, there is what we do and feel and think because it’s easy or pleasant, and there are other things.What calls a person to the other things is not necessarily reason–it could be emotional devotion to a person or a cause, some overriding craving (FRESH WARM COOKIES), or literal obedience to a person or a set of rules.

My sister wanted to know what my thing was. I said science.

So, how does science differ from reason, which is the answer my sister would have given? At the time I could not say and the distinction I was making puzzled me. The solution to the puzzle lay in a tomato.

I’m serious, I had an argument the other day with someone over tomatoes. It was one of those tiffs that erupts without warning, where an apparently innocent comment triggers an underlying fault-line between the continental plates of two personalities. I asserted that birds are dinosaurs and he said that was as ridiculous as saying tomatoes are fruit. I pointed out that botanically tomatoes are fruit, something he knows perfectly well, and he proceeded to get really seriously offended by the idea that botanical concepts might have any place anywhere besides the narrow confines of botany. He wanted to stick to “normal ideas that actually relate to how people live.”

Now, I could argue the point about birds, but I won’t because it is both irrelevant and legitimately controversial, but tomatoes are fruit. A fruit is a particular type of botanical structure, the plant equivalent of an egg, and tomatoes fit the definition unambiguously. It may seem strange to think of tomatoes that way, but if you compare a tomato to a watermelon and to a stalk of celery by any standard other than what to put in minestrone soup, the tomato groups more naturally with the watermelon. If you want to grow them, if you want to understand what they mean to the plants that make them, if you want to figure out when they are ready to eat, watermelons are a better guide to tomatoes than celery is–you don’t have to wait for celery to get ripe.

Most of us are most familiar with tomatoes as a taste, we’re not used to thinking of fruits as savory. It’s a bit mind-bending to consider that not only are tomatoes actually fruits, but so are beans, squash, and ears of corn. But here’s the thing–that mind-bending sensation? It’s a good thing. Because there’s more to this world than how to make minestrone. And taking botany seriously is one way to find that out.

In the sense my sister intended, obedience means conceding one has lost an argument even if one really didn’t want to lose. Obedience in this case has an almost physical force. Last night, I walked into a door frame by accident, instead of into the bathroom as intended, because it was dark and I was disoriented. It hurt. I really would have preferred to walk into the bathroom rather than, nose first, into the door fram, but I was obedient to the reality of physical objects and so the collision occurred. In a similar way, even if I wanted to insist that tomatoes are not fruit, I would collide with the inevitable fact of their anatomical resemblance to watermelons, because I am obedient to science. And whatever necessary rearrangement of my opinions of the world would follow from there.

I do not mean I am obedient to scientists or to a list of “truths” that scientists currently espouse. Science is not a collection of truths, but rather a process and a certain type of reasoning. This is why science is reliable even though what scientists say changes over time–it is the way scientific understanding changes, and not the thing that is changing, that constitutes science.

And the heart of the matter, the core of the process, is not just reason, but the insistence that a line of reasoning always begin with observable phenomena that anyone can go check out for themselves. I can say I know a thing to be true if I have observed it myself, if I have reliable documentation that someone else observed it, or if I can construct a logical argument that connects my idea to something I, or someone else observed. If I can’t do that, then I simply don’t know yet. Here is a joke:

Two scientists are driving together to a conference along an isolated, rural road, when their way is impeded by a large flock of sheep. The sheep, collectively, take a very long time to cross the road. While they are waiting, one scientist says to the other “those sheep have been sheared recently.” “Well, at least on this side they have,” concedes the other.

This principled insistence on ignorance is at odds with how most of us usually think–we normally blythely assume that whatever seems like it ought to be true automatically is. Nobody shears a whole flock of sheep on just one side only, chewing gum takes seven years to digest, if you sneeze with your eyes open your eyeballs will pop out, and there is no way human activity could change the climate.

See? I told you I’d get there.

Most people, I’d guess, have heard by now that the vast majority of scientists insist that climate change is real, being caused by humans, and a serious problem. Whether they believe it is another question. Curiously, more education about the facts of the issue does not sway many of the people who disbelieve–it may actually strengthen their denial. Science literacy isn’t the problem. The problem may be, at least in part, that these people are obedient to something other than science.

I mean no disrespect in saying that. The thing that wins the argument for these people may well be something noble or even quite rational, since there are forms of reason that do not begin with empirical evidence. Indeed, there are important questions for which science is no good whatever. You cannot, for example, scientifically verify whether my husband is really as loveable as I say he is–by its nature, that question is not amenable to objective research.

I’m not even convinced that everyone should be obedient to science, even on those questions where science can confidently speak. Certainly, I will not waste time spewing facts act figures at someone who places more stock in some other way of demonstrating an idea. It’s true that at least part of the reason why I am obedient to science is that, from early childhood to graduate school, the people who have taught me about science have always been people I’ve liked and trusted. If that were not true, I might well look at the matter very differently. As per climate change, we have no time to waste on secular evangelism, and if arguing for climate action through religious, cultural, emotional, or economic channels  works, then so be it.

But I’m also going to keep talking about the science, for those who want to listen, because I like science. Frankly, I recommend it. I know of no better way to escape bias and preconceived ideas (which all of us have) than to say “I will construct my understanding of the world from lines of reasoning that begin in the observable world as it actually is, not as I think it should be, even if that reasoning takes me someplace surprising.”


Climate Change and Religion

This is the conclusion of my series on climate and religion, which profiled Catholicism, the evangelical, mainline, and African-American wings of Protestant Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and American Neopaganism. These are hardly the only religions, or even the only ones in the United States, but together they are dominant voices. If anyone wants to see another religion profiled, just let me know.

Throughout writing this series, I was struck by a recurring pattern; America’s religions are mostly pro-climate, and American people are mostly religious, and yet America as a whole is decidedly climate denialist. Meaningful climate legislation won’t pass Congress.


Seriously. Leaders and representatives of every group I researched had published pro-climate statements and only among the evangelical Christians could I find any organized dissent on the issue. On the face of it, that implies that religious people are generally pro-climate, with the exception of some (not all) evangelicals. And yet, there are simply too many religious people in the country, and too few who take climate change seriously, for religion to actually be the pro-climate force that it repeatedly says it is. In polls, only 16% of Americans identify as unaffiliated with any religion. Just over 26% identify as evangelicals. Since some evangelicals are climate activists and climate scientists, as are some unaffiliated people, that means that less than 42% of Americans should be indifferent or hostile to climate. Everybody else belongs to religions whose leaders who have come out in favor of the planet. And yet fully 50% of Americans actually describe themselves as “unconcerned” about climate. Only 5% consider climate change our most important issue. Only seven US states are not currently represented by at least one climate denier in Congress; 11 states have Congressional delegations with a majority of climate deniers.

So what is going on? How and why is there such a disconnect between what American religious leaders say and what American political leaders actually do?

Part of the issue is simply that many religious groups are less interested in climate than their leaders’ public statements suggest; according to polls, only a little over a third of all Americans “often” or “sometimes” hear their clergy discus climate change. Of white Catholics, 40% never hear about climate change in church, despite Pope Francis’ outspoken environmentalism. Of white mainline Protestants, 37% never hear about climate change from their pastors, again despite public pronouncements by church leaders. Those religious people who do hear about the issue from their clergy are significantly more likely to believe in climate change and take it seriously than those who do not.

Are we looking at a case of religious hippocracy, where church leaders say one thing but do another? Possible, but I doubt it. I suspect that most American clergy, of whatever stripe, are not hostile to climate so much as uninterested in it. Those who do care, and who publish statements on global warming, are met, not with controversy but with silence. The result is that, except for evangelicals, the only voices an outsider like me hears on the subject are those of the vocal minority who are climate-concerned.

Another part of the issue is that many people who do accept climate change are happy to vote for political leaders who do not, provided they like the rest of the candidate’s presentation–but climate deniers will not vote for a candidate who does accept climate change. The result is that candidates put together winning coalitions by denying climate change.

Climate deniers are louder, politically speaking, than the climate-accepting majority, in part because many evangelical Christians have, rightly or wrongly, linked climate science (and evolution) to other issues that are also important to them. As political liberals have shown themselves more concerned over climate change, climate has become identified with the “liberal agenda,” such that a vote for climate is, by proxy, a vote for social changes conservative Christians do not want.

In contrast, people who do accept climate change seem not to have made equivalent conceptual links. Just 5% of Americans consider climate change the country’s most pressing issue, while many more consider the gap between rich and poor (18%) or health care (17%) the most important–even though climate change is closely related to both economics and public health. Only 25% say climate change is even the most pressing environmental problem, while 29% say the worst environmental problem is pollution and 23% say it is water shortages and drought–even though climate change is caused by pollution and is an important cause of water shortages and drought. It seems that many people who believe climate change is real still don’t believe that it is important because they do not see the connections between climate and the other issues they care about.

It’s also worth noting that the electoral results relative to climate change do not exactly reflect the will of the American people right now. A huge amount of money is being poured into electoral politics in support of climate denial candidates (and candidates who are otherwise in favor of big business)–and those efforts are succeeding. While liberal candidates raise huge amounts of money, too, and some of their donors are indeed very rich, no one is in the same financial league as Charles and David Koch–who get much of their money through the oil industry. The electoral landscape of the United States is now a direct result of the fact that climate deniers–of whatever religion–have substantially deeper pockets than climate activists do.

So, what is religion good for?

So, if religion in America is not the force for climate sanity that it looks like it should be, what is it good for?

The simple answer is that if religious leaders who do support climate action organize themselves better and do more effective outreach among their colleagues, we could indeed see a major cultural shift on the subject–and we may be heading in that direction. Let’s give those leaders their due.

But mobilizing congregations is only one of the possible roles of religion in climate change, and it may not even be the most important role. Not all religious people take the advice of their clergy to heart, after all, especially in areas of life not considered obviously religious. And non-Christian religions are such small minorities in the United States that mobilizing those congregations on climate will not, by itself, swing the national conversation very much.

What religious leaders can do is give the national conversation more depth of meaning. Religion can host an exploration of why climate matters.

“Religion” means many things, including a dimension of the collective human soul. By this definition, even many atheists are religious, because they wrestle with meaning, priority, and morality. Specific religions are entities dedicated to discovering and spreading particular visions of the meaning of life. Religions are places within the culture set aside for discovering what matters and why, what our ideals are, and what our standards are, just as sciences are zones within the culture set aside for discovering what exists and how it works. Science can tell us that the planet is heating up because of human activity and it can predict the kinds of disasters we face if we don’t stop warping the sky very soon. But science cannot tell us why that’s a problem or why the planet is worth fighting for. That’s what religion can do.

Science can tell you that if you point a loaded gun at somebody’s head and pull the trigger, you’ll probably kill the person, but only religion can tell you that it’s murder.

The religions, collectively, can host a discussion of the moral dimensions of climate change. They can be our conscience, and they can serve that function not just for their own adherents but for all of us. I don’t have to be Buddhist to have my conscience pricked by a Buddhist teacher who calls out climate apathy as a failure of awareness and compassion. You don’t have to be Wiccan to be inspired by a vision of the planet as an entity to whom we owe a debt of care. Neither of us must be Christian to consider that perhaps we only become most fully alive when we dedicate our lives to the service of something larger than ourselves.

Apathy, cowardice, gluttony, denial, and greed have the capacity at this very moment to render our beautiful planet something less than what we were given to care for. Fortunately, there are people who know how to cope with and combat those darker tides of human nature. We should listen to them.

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Climate Change and Jewish People

This is the final installment in my series on climate and religion (except for a concluding post I’ll do at some point). I have already written about Catholicism, mainline, evangelical, and African-American Protestant Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Neopaganism. There are, of course, other religions out there, but as far as I know, these are the ones that have the loudest voices in American culture. There is no particular reason that I’m doing Judaism last. As always, I’m not a religious expert, only an interested writer who does her own research and shares what she learns.


Judaism is different that any other religion I’ve covered in that the word “Jewish” refers to both an ethnicity and a religion. The Jewish religion is the religion of the Jewish people, but not all Jewish people are religious.

It is relatively easy to define ethnic Jewishness; the child of a Jew is also a Jew (technically, Judaism is transmitted from mother to child, but I do not know whether Jewish communities actually exclude people whose fathers only were Jewish). Conversion to Judaism is possible but not encouraged and one cannot simply become Jewish on one’s own personal say-so. A Jew can’t cease being Jewish, either, at least not completely, meaning it is at least possible to be a Jewish Christian–though whether anyone identifies as such I do not know. There are about 6.6 million Jews in the United States, which is 2% of the total American population.

How many of these actually practice the religion of their forefathers is harder to say, since of course there is a wide range. For example, is someone who does not follow any aspect of Jewish religious law but who sometimes attends services on the High Holidays and special occasions, religious?

There are four main Jewish denominations–Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist, with Orthodox communities being the most conservative and Reconstructionist being the least. The most Orthodox, the Hasidic Jews, are essentially separatist and follow a very strict and traditional interpretation of Jewish religious law. The more religiously liberal groups also tend to be more culturally liberal–there is therefore a lot of political and cultural variation among American Jews.

All that being said, because American Jewry is so small, many writers, including me, speak of it as a single group wherever possible.

Judaism and Climate Change

What Jews think about climate change is not something one can simply look up–there is no central authority on correct belief, as there is in Catholic Christianity–the Jewish religion has always focused more on correct behavior than on correct thought. Judaism does have a concept of heresy, but has never had any authoritative body able to define which ideas are heretical and which are not. Instead, there is a generally recognized consensus of basic principles that practicing Jews must uphold. Sometimes two sects regard each other as heretical.  This isn’t a process that can issue clear policy statements on the latest controversies.

As with almost every other major religious group, American Jewish leaders have publicly stated their dedication to climate sanity, complete with theological underpinnings and emission-reductions targets. As of 2012, the only house of worship in America with the LEEDS Platinum certification is a Jewish synagogue. As with Christianity, Judaism includes a concept of religiously grounded stewardship of the Earth. Proper care of the land is also seen as intimately connected to moral rectitude; at several points, the Jewish Bible gives immoral or sinful human behavior as the direct cause of environmental disasters, as though the land were a mirror of the collective human soul. That environmental destruction might itself be a sin is therefore not that far a leap. And there is a religious mandate to “heal” the world–a concept that is not necessarily environmental but can be interpreted that way.

And yet, “the environment” is not a top concern of many American Jewish voters, according to a 2014 survey (climate change as such was not listed as an option). Curiously, the environment did come in as more important than Israel, stereotypes notwithstanding, but the two issues ranked sixth and eighth respectively. The top priorities were the economy and health care. In polls, their level of climate concern is similar to that of Americans as a whole.

It doesn’t look like there is an organized climate-denial movement within the Jewish community yet, though that could change–Orthodox Jews tend to be culturally conservative and therefore often gravitate to the same media outlets that Christian climate deniers favor–Fox News is popular, and many at least have their doubts that climate change is real.  Conservative Jewish groups also sometimes shy away from dealing with climate change because they see such issues as too secular. Environmental outreach among these communities usually works better if focused on less politically fraught issues, such as water conservation, especially if framed in specifically religious terms.

Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, on the other hand, tend to be politically and socially liberal and quite open to science–and they are often politically and socially very engaged. Many Jewish organizations are therefore working in favor of climate sanity, in one way or another, but many are silent or in active support of the KXL pipeline or fracking. It’s not, apparently, that these groups are anti-climate stance per se, but rather they prefer to support other issues, like American energy independence (not like getting off fossil fuel isn’t a better way to secure energy independence, but not everyone seems to realize that). Climate change just isn’t necessarily on everyone’s radar, although there are community leaders working hard to get it there.The picture I’m getting so far is that the Jewish community is not fully engaged yet on climate change, and that different subsets of it could well engage in different directions, depending on who does more outreach more successfully.

All of which might sound like much ado about only 2% of the population, but American Jewry has more political influence than its size alone would suggest–it’s hardly the puppet-master of anti-Semitic fantasy, but many Jewish people are politically active and many provide strong financial support to candidates. The Jewish population is also concentrated in just a few states, so while Jews are a minority everywhere, they are a sizable minority in some states–enough to be an important part of a successful candidate’s coalition. The Jewish vote could decide a close race in New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, California, or Florida. Some of these states have decided the Presidency in the past.

The Jewish vote leans overwhelmingly Democrat, and has, with some variation, for decades. There are now signs that Jewish support of the Democrats may be starting to wane, at least slightly. Since, at present, climate-sane government policy depends upon the election of Democrats, what Jewish people think of climate change has world-wide implications.


Climate Change and Buddhists

This is another installment in my series on climate change and religion in America. I have already covered Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism, African-American Protestantism, mainline Protestantism, Islam, and the Neopagan continuum. I am not a religious scholar, but I look at the publicly available information through the lens of climate change and I share what I find.

It is hard to say for sure how many Buddhists there are in America, in part because many practice independently or in informal groups. Also, many American Buddhists are of Asian ancestry, a group that many demographers largely ignore. Estimates vary from one to six million. Perhaps two-thirds of these are of Asian ancestry. The remaining third is mostly but not entirely white. All told, at most 1% of the US population is Buddhist.

And yet, this one percent has been oddly influential in the American environmental movement. Michael Soulé, the founder of conservation biology (a branch of science specifically applied to environmental conservation) is Buddhist. So is Gary Snyder, a major artistic and philosophical voice for the movement. So was Henry David Thoreau, after a fashion–Thoreau identified with many religions and none, being careful to remember that all religions are human constructs. But that reticence about commitment to any one philosophy is itself a very Buddhist thing. He was heavily influenced by Buddhist writings and occasionally referred to himself as a follower of the Buddha, or was referred to that way by people who knew him. And H.D. Thoreau was not only an influential writer and philosopher, a point of inspiration for many later environmentalists, he also discovered the process of ecological succession.

Some Definitions

One more reason that it is hard to say how many Buddhists there are in America is that no one needs anyone else’s permission to be Buddhist. Although there are certainly initiatory lineages within Buddhism, where certain wisdom is transmitted formally from teacher to student, it is also possible to study and practice alone, without ever identifying as Buddhist to anyone else. Not only are the latter hard to count, but the validity of their practice makes it hard to say who is Buddhist and who is not. Can a person who practices Zen meditation regularly, but ignores the rest of the teaching, properly claim to be Buddhist? What about people who claim no religion at all but, like Thoreau, live in a very Buddhist way? It is reasonable to suppose that the influence of Buddhism on American culture extends far beyond the lives of those few who are definitely Buddhist, in part because of the uncountable people (me among them) who have incorporated some Buddhist element into their lives.

Buddhism is sometimes described as a philosophy and not a religion, in part because it has no gods. The Buddha himself was a man, notable only for having achieved enlightenment first. His name was Siddhartha Gautama, and he lived in India. And yet, some sects do have gods and goddesses, or at least figures that seem analogous to them. Siddhartha Gautama certainly lived in a culture that worshiped gods and goddesses and he did not begin his teaching by attempting to convert others to atheism. Many modern Buddhist traditions are rich with stories of saints and miracles and various types and processes of reincarnation–clearly religious beliefs of a type the Buddhism the philosophy is not supposed to have, either.

Instead, it might be more  accurate to say that gods and goddesses and miracles and heavens and hells are beside the point. A Buddhist teacher might believe in all those things, but not bother to pass them on to the student because the important thing is to wake up to the reality of lived experience. Buddhist teachings and practices are, to some extent, portable, able to be adapted to other belief systems–including atheism.

Buddhism is not a belief or a faith. It is a practice.

As with other religions, Buddhism exists in many different forms. Perhaps surprisingly, not all forms involve meditation at all. Even those that do emphasize meditative practice go beyond it to include a definite moral code and a system of values. The American Buddhist perspective is also complicated by the fact that it flows through and across many different cultures; Buddhists differ not only by sect but also by ethnicity, national origin, and race, things that may be beside the point of religion but are often very much to the point for actual human beings.

Despite the variation among American Buddhism, though, I am going to treat it all as one unless stated otherwise. There are just too few Buddhists in the US for me to address the differences among them in an article this brief.

Buddhism and Climate Change

Buddhism has a reputation for sympathy to the natural world, a recognition that all life in connected. While the reality is a bit more complex, the reputation is not entirely undeserved. Not surprisingly, Buddhist leaders from all over the world have come together to issue a declaration on the importance of doing something about climate change. In some ways, this declaration is no different than those written by any other group of religious leaders I have profiled (whether or not many adherents pay attention). There are a couple of distinctively Buddhist points, of course.

In grounding their concern in specifically Buddhist concepts, the authors describe environmental responsibility as an outgrowth of the principle of non-harm or non-violence–the same principle that leads many (though not all) Buddhists to be vegetarians. In so doing, the authors recognize the inherent moral worth of non-human life. At the end of the document, they write movingly of how neither other life forms nor future generations of humans can speak up on their own behalf. “We must listen to their silence,” they say, and speak and act for them.

But this is not a specifically American Buddhist response, nor does it tell us much about what ordinary Buddhists say or do about climate change. And since polls cannot accurately assess even how many American Buddhists there are, it seems foolish to look to a poll for answers here.

It is not difficult to find people–including Americans–online talking about climate change and Buddhism. Some of these writers express frustration that Buddhists aren’t doing more about the issue. Apparently, the justifications for inaction include a desire to achieve enlightenment first before trying to help the rest of the world and the idea that “all is void” and therefore environmental destruction does not matter. Of course, there are grave philosophical problems with both assertions and either can be easily refuted with other Buddhist ideas. But, most likely, Buddhist inaction is just like Christian inaction in that neither really has much to do with the theological weight of the atmosphere.

But how many Buddhists are complacent verses active on climate change? It’s hard to say–and it may not matter, at least not in the US. There are, after all, very few American Buddhists, and whether the majority do something about the greenhouse effect or not will not swing the political center of gravity very much. What does matter is whether those Buddhists who do care about climate change find something in Buddhism that helps them become more effective in their work–and what Buddhism can offer in the way of perspective to the larger society of Americans who are “sort of” Buddhist, Buddhist-influenced, or even just know somebody who meditates sometimes.

Some time ago, I posted a discussion of an editorial on climate change by the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, a Tibetan spiritual teacher. While he is not American, the journal that published his essay is. He was speaking to Americans, among others. That essay was interesting for its description of the climate crisis as, first, a failure of compassion–and for its framing of the issue in spiritual terms able to transcend divides of religion and culture. Perhaps that is what Buddhism can give.


Climate Change and Pagans

This is another in my series on climate change and religion in the US. I have already written on Catholicism, evangelical Christianity, mainline Protestant Christianity, African-American Protestant Christianity, and Islam.

American paganism is misunderstood, hard to define, and, for many, plain unfamiliar. It is the subject of active discrimination in some circles, to the extent that many pagans hide their religion for their own safety–a measure of how different the pagan continuum is from the religious experience of most Americans.

Related to that discrimination is the fact that it’s possible to discredit someone by accusing them of paganism (or witchcraft, or anything related). Sometimes environmentalists are accused of being pagan in this sense. The implied–and much more problematic–accusation is that environmentalism is pagan.

Some pagan environmentalists would, of course, agree that environmentalism is pagan, in much the same way that a Christian might say that ministering to the poor and the sick is Christian. But imagine a country in which Christians are suspect and the problem becomes clearer to see; perhaps some Roman aristocrat, on the way home from the Colosseum, decided that if charity is Christian than he certainly wasn’t going to give any of his money away….

So, to be clear, environmentalism is not pagan, any more than individualism, compassion, or creativity are. Probably, most American environmentalists are Christians.

Defining Paganism

Technically, “pagan” just means “not Christian,” or sometimes “non-Judeo-Christian.” In the US and in some other places, the word usually replies to the neopagan movement, a large group of religions and religious sects that generally attempt to revive or re-imagine the pre-Christian traditions from Europe. The most well-known of these religions is Wicca. Some pagans call themselves witches (a male witch is also a witch), but others do not.

Most of what most people know about these religions is wrong.

The neopagan religions are not, as a group, organized. Most are not organized in any sense. There is no one with the authority to tell pagans what to believe or do, and no one with the authority to say who is pagan and who is not. Even consulting polls is problematic, because pagans are not always willing to identify themselves to pollsters. And there aren’t very many of us, so pollsters don’t always bother to ask. Probably, around 0.2% of the American population is neopagan in one way or another.

Fortunately, I am pagan, and therefore know something about it already.

It is important to reiterate that there is more than one neopagan religion and that their edges are fluid and fuzzy. For example, is an agnostic who celebrates the winter solstice pagan? What about a witch who casts spells but doesn’t believe in the gods? Or a New Age practitioner who worships Jesus and his wife, Mary Magdalene? Are people who follow traditional Native American practices or African Diaspora religions, like Santeria or Voudou, pagans in this sense of the word, or is there some important difference to be respected there? There are many answers to these questions–probably as many answers as there are pagans.  It is important to approach any study of the movement with this fluidity and fuzziness in mind.

I’m not going to describe the neopagan movement in any detail here. There are plenty of books and websites on the subject already. As a broad generalization, neopagan religions tend to be polytheistic, egalitarian, and individualistic. Most have no concept of the devil, and may lack a conception of evil. Neopagans tend to be both feminist and socially liberal. Many (though not all) are “Earth-centered,” meaning that they recognize the Earth as inherently sacred or even divine.

Pagans as Climate Activists

Earth-centered religions have obvious doctrinal support for environmental action; the Earth is sacred. And perhaps because most of these religions are only a few decades old, there is no conflict between ancient cosmology and modern science–neopagans might question, or even abandon mainstream science (many believe in magic), but that is an expression of resistance to having a set cosmology, a kind of radical open-mindedness. There is no reason for a neopagan to doubt climate science and I know of none who do.

But do pagans actually act on that support to do something about climate change?

Well, this one does–I write this blog. But this blog is not religious in nature and, before today, there was nothing in it to suggest its author’s religion. The same is probably true of most other pagan environmentalists, people going about acting on their conscience without ever discussing their religious lives publicly–either because it isn’t safe or because it just isn’t relevant.

Many neopagans are either unaffiliated with any religious organization, or they practice in small, private groups. Organized groups of pagans exist, but they under-represent the whole. Lacking anything analogous to a church, most pagans cannot engage in climate action in anything except a personal or secular capacity–they may be motivated by an underlying religious conviction, but it is hard to know that without asking. That makes it hard to find out what the impact of paganism on climate action really is.

Here, again, the “fuzziness” of neopaganism is relevant, for while a climate activist might be pagan without showing it, he or she might also show paganism without being it. For example, at my graduate school, the environmental studies department (that is, the department actively training people to do something about climate change) had a tradition of beginning each semester (and occasionally marking other significant events) by ceremonially reenacting this history of the universe in mythic terms–the stage right before the Big Bang was the Cosmic Egg, for example. That ceremony was non-denominational Neopagan in both flavor and structure, to the point that at least one Christian student chose not to attend. Nor was that ceremony the only pagan element of the school’s traditions. Yet the only member of the department’s faculty to identify his religion publicly was Christian. Generally, no one, faculty or student, talked about religion one way or the other. My guess is that most were agnostic or atheist and that they participated in the school’s traditions as a form of play, or out of a vague sense that it resonated with aspects of their private spirituality. The school could not be said to be religious.

And yet, public play that resonates with private, unspoken, spirituality is very pagan.  The neopagan movement takes much of its inspiration from a form of religion that was based in community tradition and in those cultures’ equivalent of scientific knowledge–their understanding of how the world worked and why. The original European pagans probably conducted their ceremonies in exactly the same spirit that my grad school did. We may have been what a neopagan community acting on climate change looks like.

Bringing It All Together

There are neopagans writing or speak publicly about climate change in a religious context. I have not done a rigorous study of such work, but most of what I have encountered consists of pagans exploring how pagan ideas map onto what science tells us about climate change. They are not calling for other pagans to get involved, nor are they wrestling with whether climate change is real or important, possibly because they regard both as forgone conclusions. Rather, the underlying question seems to be whether neopagan practice has anything of its own to add to the conversation.

It is possible that looking for self-declared pagan climate activists is beside the point.

Perhaps paganism as a group of religions is hard to define because it is and always  has been a default category applied by other people–pagans are those who are not Christian, not Jewish, not Muslim, and so forth. Perhaps our society as a whole is growing towards a realization that the Earth is sacred–that is, that it is of central and existential importance to us as humans. Each religion expresses that realization in a different way, and the growing popularity of Earth-centered religions among what might be called ceremonially inclined religious individualists is just another expression of that movement.

In other words, neopagans do not lead, drive, define, or even exemplify caring about the planet. But the societal shift that made that caring possible made us possible as well.