The Climate in Emergency

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

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Black, White, and Green

I’ve been on a Star Wars kick lately.

I know, I’ll bring it around to climate change eventually, just gimme a minute.

I’ve never been a rabid fan–I don’t have any action figures, I’ve never read the fan fic, and I don’t know the engine specifications of the Millennium Falcon–but in the past few weeks, I’ve seen all seven of the extant Star Wars movies and I had seen all but the newest one before. And it got me thinking about morality and ethics.

(I’m assuming that readers already know at least the basic outlines and major characters of these movies, whether you’ve seen all of them personally or not. I’m also avoiding plot spoilers).

The first three movies–those released in the 1970’s and 1980’s, are striking in their cartoonish depiction of evil, with both goodguys and badguys killing quite casually and the most obvious difference between them being that badguys mostly wear black. There are subtler differences–the protagonists don’t torture or terrorize–but moral philosophy does not appear to be among the movies’ strong points.

And yet the fulcrum between the dark and light sides of “the Force” is a major theme of the series. Particularly striking is the sequence in “The Empire Strikes Back” when Luke sets out to rescue his friends and his teacher, Yoda, warns him bluntly that he is acting on an impulse that could lead irreversibly to the Dark Side. What could be evil about trying to save a friend?

In the third of the prequels we finally get an answer; the Sith (those who have embraced the Dark Side) are fueled by their personal passions, whereas Jedi school themselves to be impersonal and dispassionate. Jedi kill, but never in anger. Jedi love, but never one person above all others. The difference then is not how they behave so much as how they are oriented spiritually; Sith look inward while Jedi look outward.

So what is wrong with looking inward? What is wrong with the Dark Side, besides its tautological darkness?

Most obviously, the Dark Side is self-defeating. Anikin Skywalker follows his personal passions–most of which are themselves both understandable and admirable, he starts out as a genuinely loving person–and ultimately loses everything and everyone he ever cared about as a result. We learn there are only ever two Sith, a master and an apprentice, no more and no less, because as the apprentice reaches mastery he either kills his master or is killed by him (and replaced by a new apprentice to kill or be killed by in turn). They don’t, in other words, even care about each other. One wonders why the Sith bother, as their lives sound ultimately hollow.

The reason I like the prequels, though most fans don’t, is how subtly and how believably Anikin slowly becomes Darth Vader, something everyone who has seen the first three movies knows he is going to do. He does not succumb to greed, nor even to vanity, though vanity does help. He ultimately sells his soul for a chance to save someone he cares about–the very same protective, loving impulse that almost caught Luke. In Anikin’s case, the very chance he sought was a lie meant to manipulate him and he was easy to manipulate because he never learned to see beyond his own fears and desires. He never learned that his own feelings and perceptions might be different than reality.

The ultimate moral of the story is the absolute importance of learning to rise above and beyond the personal, to not be blinded by fear and desire nor jerked around by impulse. Because even if the impulses themselves are innocent,it is impossible to act wisely or lovingly if one is unwilling or unable to face and accept reality.

The Jedi never try to impose their code on ordinary people–for example, it seems as though Jedi are supposed to be celibate, but none of them ever expresses disapproval of anyone else’s sexual or romantic lives. They seem to live by their own rules, rules that apply to no one else. Perhaps they recognize that once you plug into the Force, actions have consequences that people without that power just don’t have to worry about.

Which is where we get back to climate change (told you I’d do that)

Fossil fuel is not a spiritual power, but it is a power great enough to change the rules we have to live by. Like Anikin Skywalker, we got here by wanting things that every sane person wants–to live well and to be safe. There is nothing evil in wanting to eat a banana in Maryland in February, but to actually get that banana requires the creation of a food distribution system that requires fossil fuel, which in turn inevitably destroys the world and will ultimately cost us the very good life we sold so much to achieve. The problem, and again it is also Anikin’s problem, is not what we want or what we care about but rather our human difficulty in seeing beyond our wants and our cares to the actual choices we have at our disposal–and the terrible momentum that a couple of successive bad choices can acquire. Not all steps toward the Dark Side can be undone.

Environmentalists avoid calling other people “evil.” We fear, quite understandably, alienating fence-sitters, and the reality is that most of us sit on one fence or another at least some of the time. Also, many of us have philosophical problems with the concept of evil–I myself am not sure the word is anything more than a short-cut around more nuanced moral reasoning. And, of course, dismissing other people as evil is a clear example of absolutist, dualistic thinking, something all Jedi avoid. So, don’t call other people evil–but perhaps a little introspection is in order.

I’m not saying the Star Wars series should be taken as gospel; the movies are fundamentally entertainment and while I enjoy watching them every few years, much of the material does not bear rational scrutiny (spice mines? Giant animals that live in the freezing vacuum of space apparently hoping to eat space ships? Making the Kessel run in 12 parsecs?). Nevertheless, it’s an interesting proposition to try out–that a valid way to think about morality might be where one falls on a continuum between personal passion and universal concern.



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.


Climate Change and Catholics

I’m planning to do a series on how different religious organizations are responding to climate change. Because the Pope is about to issue a major statement on the subject, I’m starting with Catholicism.

In the United States, at least, climate sanity has become a solidly liberal issue; Democrats occasionally run on an emissions-reduction platform, but Republicans often run against even acknowledging the existence of climate change, while simultaneously espousing culturally conservative views, such as opposing same-sex marriage and abortion. There is no obvious reason why climate denial should have become allied with traditional gender roles, but that is how the historical chips have fallen. Because the Catholic Church is also culturally conservative on key points, someone who didn’t know better might assume that Church doctrine includes climate denial.

That someone would be wrong.

Catholic teaching on the subject of climate change goes back to January 1st, 1990, when Pope John Paul II delivered an address that framed environmental problems as an important threat to world peace. Although he did not use the words global warming or climate change, he specifically cited fossil fuels and unrestricted deforestation among factors harming the “atmosphere and the environment,” and went on to say “the resulting meteorological and atmospheric changes range from damage to health to the possible future submersion of low-lying lands.”

That’s pretty unambiguous, and the Pope’s address even came out before the First Assessment Report by the IPCCC.

The Pope’s address precipitated other statements by Church officials, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in support of climate sanity and environmental action. Pope Benedict the XVI continued the tradition by speaking and writing on climate change extensively and by urging climate conference delegates to make progress in Rio in 2011.

The Church is not an anti-science body, its famously bad treatment of Galileo notwithstanding (the Church has since apologized for that, and hostilities could never have been as serious as one might suppose–Galileo’s older daughter, a nun, seems to have felt no conflict between her religion and her admiration of her father). The Vatican actually sponsors unfettered scientific inquiry, and the current Pope has made clear that there is no contradiction between Church teachings and foundational scientific theories, such as the big bang theory.

Perhaps more importantly, the Catholic Church has a deep and persistent commitment to the world’s poor. Pope Francis has now explicitly described climate change as a moral issue because of its impact on poor and otherwise disadvantaged humans. And he has given his considerable moral and political weight towards the success of the climate negotiations in Paris later this year.

American Catholics generally agree with the Pope about climate change and appreciate his leadership on the subject, according to polls. Individual churches are already getting involved in a variety of ways. A body called the Catholic Climate Covenant is working to educate Catholics on the subject and to get them involved. The pro-climate stance is not universal among Catholics–Rick Santorum is both a Catholic and a vocal climate denier, for example–but for better or worse, the Church is not a democracy. To a much greater degree than the other religions familiar to Americans, Catholic Christianity is proscriptive rather than descriptive; Catholic beliefs are what the Pope says they are, even if there are individual Catholics who believe something else. From what I have read about the Church and the current Pope, I do not think that belief in climate change itself has become a Catholic precept. Church leadership generally differentiates between matters of science and matters of religion, and they are probably aware that climate science is not a matter of belief anyway. Rather, the church acknowledges that disbelief in climate change (and the Big Bang, and evolution by natural selection) are not precepts of the Church. In any case, the meat of Catholic teaching on climate change is not that it is real but that it is a moral issue.

One hopes that, on this subject at least, the Church proves an able and powerful teacher.

Science and religion have long been estranged, with large pockets of suspicion on both sides. It is not difficult to find people who believe–incorrectly–that one cannot be both a Christian and a scientist (whether the same perception exists for other religions I do not know), and that scientific ideas and religious ideas are mutually exclusive. While there are, indeed, Christian denominations that do define themselves in these terms, and while there are a few vociferously atheistic scientists (notably Richard Dawkins), as a general rule, science and religion are not actually in conflict.

Religion and science do not conflict with each other because they do not operate in the same plane–they are different sides of a coin, different hands of a person, whatever metaphor you like. The job of science is to answer what? and the job of religion is to answer why? Functioning societies need some way to answer both types of question and neither question can stand in for the other. For example, if you don’t know whether a dog can suffer, then all the moral philosophizing in the world will not tell you whether it is ok to kick dogs. On the other hand, if you discover that dogs can suffer and you go ahead and kick them anyway, science can’t tell you to stop–although a scientist might, because scientists, being human, can think about morality as well. Religion is, among other things, a social structure for moral reasoning and instruction.

Science has informed us that human-caused climate change is real and that it hurts poor and persecuted people disproportionately. Pope Francis has joined his predecessors and colleagues in asserting that humans therefor have a moral obligation to stop changing the climate and to help the disadvantaged adapt to the change we have already committed ourselves to.

There are 75 million Catholics in the United States listening to him, and 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.