The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change

On Sunday, September 27th, I participated in a panel on “Local Solutions to the Climate Crisis,” hosted by 350 Brooklyn, and spoke on the moral dimensions of climate change. Also speaking were Kim Fraczek of Sane Energy Project, Mark Dunlea of Green Legal Fund and NYC Councilmember Brad Lander. After the panel, attendees (a room full of them!) broke into action groups to work on various campaigns. Below are my remarks.

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For many of us here right now in this room, climate change is not really affecting us yet, other than being a very scary existential threat that will someday jeopardize our children and our children’s children. But climate change has arrived for millions of people on our planet.

Hurricane Sandy gave us a taste of what is to come, but especially in the way that, like Hurricane Katrina seven years before, it showed us how climate change goes easier on the rich than the poor. For the affluent of New York City, Hurricane Sandy was an annoyance, a small setback, or just an excuse to stay home from work. But for many of New York’s poor, it was a life-threatening disaster. People in low-income buildings were stranded for days without food, water or medicine, and only received assistance when Occupy volunteers went door to door to check on them. In New Orleans, people are still living in toxic FEMA trailers ten years later.

Disasters on the scale of Hurricane Sandy are happening over and over again, and, like Sandy, it is the poor who are being affected. Many of the worst humanitarian crises occurring right now have been partially caused by or are being exacerbated by climate change. Take the Syrian war and refugee crisis. Between the years of 2006 and 2011, Syria experienced the longest drought in millennia, leaving one third of the nation starving and setting the stage for unrest. Researchers have stated that the drought was most likely due to climate change.

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This past Thursday I was at the National Mall at 7am in the morning. Over the next few hours thousands of people arrived, carrying signs that said Protect Our Common Home.” A stage was flanked by huge banners that read, Hear the Cry of the Earth. Hear the Cry of the Poor.” Speaker after speaker took to the stage to speak not only about climate change, but about the many social justice issues to which it is inextricably linked, such as immigration, income inequality and racism. We were there to support Pope Francis, whose moral message to the affluent of the world has given voice to the voiceless, and hope to those who thirst for justice. Pope Francis has put out an unequivocal call to act on climate change not because we fear for ourselves or our own children, but because we have compassion for the poor of the earth, including all children. Now here he was addressing Congress, speaking Truth to Power.

When the Pope started to speak, we sat down on the grass to listen. He spoke not just about the environment, but about immigration, the death penalty, and the refugee crisis. Of the refugees he said, We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories. To respond in a way which is humane, just and fraternal. Let us remember the Golden Rule.”

Do we all know the Golden Rule? Well, after mentioning the Golden Rule, there was a well-timed pause, in which Congress, which was very nervous by now, had the opportunity to stand. Some did right away, some did eventually, and some never did. In their discomfort with the overall message of justice, many would not stand for an ideal that we all nominally agree with.

Unfortunately, there are many who share that discomfort, even Democrats, even Liberals, even those who believe in climate change and think we should do something about it. There is a callous tendency for many of us in developed nations, who have a comfortable economic upper-hand, to look at climate change as though it were some economic puzzle to solve over the long-term, and to dismiss the massive portion of the world’s population which is in crisis now. They want to solve climate change, but not right now—that would be too fast, too radical. They want to solve climate change, but not if it makes them uncomfortable.

This tendency has to be called out whenever and wherever it pops up, particularly in institutions that lay any sort of claim to moral authority. I see this in the fossil fuel divestment movement—which by the way is now the fastest growing divestment movement ever with over 2.6 trillion dollars divested. Leaders of educational and religious institutions will say that divestment is too fast, too radical, but that attitude comes with the assumption that it is not yet an emergency. Really? Climate change is not an emergency for the global poor? Or do they just not matter.

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Calling people out on this can be very effective. I’ve been working with Fossil Free UMC, a group that is asking the United Methodist Church to divest from fossil fuels. We won support from the General Board of Global Ministries, a huge mission branch of the UMC, because we brought it to their attention that climate change is directly and currently worsening the malaria crisis. Malaria is the General Board of Global Ministries’ single largest campaign. It makes no sense to be paying missionaries with money derived from an industry that is worsening the very problems the missionaries are trying to address. When this was pointed out to them, they had to agree.

But we need to call ourselves out too. None of us should be fighting for climate justice from a place of comfort. Does the idea of joining a protest make you uncomfortable? Maybe you should do it. Does the idea of asking your school or church to divest make you uncomfortable? Maybe you should do it. Does connecting with neighbors who don’t look like you or think like you make you uncomfortable? Maybe you should do that because fighting climate change is all about building community.

There is a famous passage in the New Testament of the Bible—I’m fresh of my first three weeks of seminary now, so bear with me—in which Jesus explains who will gain entry to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

            Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, but forget about Heaven. If we do not care for the ‘least of these’ – the poor, those suffering from the effects of climate change right now—will we even have a home on earth? I don’t think so. A solution to climate change does not happen outside of the framework of social justice.

That is why I am calling for action that takes us outside of our comfort zones. But this is also action that brings with it great joy. I am continually heartened and strengthened to work along others who have heard the cry of the earth, and the cry of the poor, and who are answering it for real. This is a great time to join the climate justice movement—there is momentum and much of the groundwork has been laid. This is the first time in a while that many are feeling hopeful. This isn’t the time to be passive or apathetic, but to channel our respond to compassion and get to work.

I’ll leave you with the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who said:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”