Ethics is simply about right and wrong and as a field of thought, it is most powerful when a widely held, deep sense of right and wrong is out of step with both laws and social norms. That is the case with the climate crisis today and we need to point it out clearly. The stunning truth of our situation is that the main drivers of global ecological destruction are perfectly legal—and even socially encouraged. We know that half of the global warming emissions in the atmosphere now have been put up there in the past 20 years, the time we have known the most about this and had the most viable alternatives. Data and science and technology and common sense are not enough. The urgent work to be done is changing the laws and the way to do so is to appeal to our deepest shared values. We need an ethical call to legislative advocacy.
Most Americans sense and express that it is wrong to turn a blind eye to this trajectory that we are on, passing on the burdens of climate impacts to the poor and vulnerable and to all future generations, allowing the mass extinctions and extreme weather events to unfold, with the consequence of certain and massive suffering and death. To confront the truth of it naturally causes moral indignation. And this is a force we need to be very mindful of. We cannot count on it doing the work on its own. It causes such discomfort, particularly in a situation in which most of us feel implicated in the systems that are a part and parcel of all this, that it can be easily inverted into denial, despair, grief, inaction, and projection. We also live in a time that is so saturated with outrage that an effort to convey it is sometimes put into a funhouse mirror and turned back on itself. So this is all reason to take the discourse of ethics and morals very seriously in legislative advocacy— it is essential, and it is most powerful if used with intention and care.
Religion can and does play an important role, as it has in other major movements for change around the world throughout history. One is to call people to a sense of belonging that is deeper than political or partisan affiliations. Bishop Desmond Tutu said that the scriptural teaching that all human beings are made in the image of God was key to ending apartheid in South Africa. Spiritual teachings and practices can also galvanize, inspire, and bring people together to act with courage and conviction. Mahatma Gandhi’s notions of satyagraha (truth-force) and ahimsa (nonviolence) helped bring down British imperial rule in India. And finally, there is organizational reach and power in faith communities. In the United States, we saw all of this in the Civil Rights movement, whose most powerful leader was a Baptist preacher who invoked scripture and practiced nonviolence and packed churches throughout the South with people who were ready to march, vote, speak out and fight for legislation.
We have seen this some of this in the climate movement already and there is much more potential. In fact, I would argue that some of what is causing the current excitement and traction around climate legislation—the emphasis on justice—has been voiced by faith-based climate leaders for some time.
In August of 2013, Rev Gerald Durley, currently the chairman of Interfaith Power and Light, wrote a piece titled Climate Change is Civil Rights Issue in which he laid it out. And there are many other examples, one place to find them is in the many faith based statement on climate change that are online.
We just had the 5 year anniversary of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home and it is important to acknowledge that this great effort was one of the driving forces behind the agreement in Paris. I was in Paris as a representative of the Climate Task Force of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Pope Francis’ message was powerful in the international community and it was also part of the leading edge of thought that has gotten us to widespread realization that social and ecological issues are intertwined.
In the wake of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris treaty (not in effect officially until the day after the next election), the We are Still In movement has kept it alive. There are 100s of Faith signatories and there have been eloquent statements from faith leaders on this matter.
There has also been a tremendous push on divestment in faith communities, internationally and nationally, and I want to acknowledge the work of GreenFaith and 350 and others on this front. This can influence legislative advocacy because it pulls together political force and will and crystallizes values.
I have had the honor of witnessing and supporting some of the faith-based organizing work that has gone on in the US around climate, including by some people who are on this call, and I want to say that this is going on as we speak, with some the bills being presented today, and merits respect, support and expansion. In addition to the specific interfaith climate organizations I have already mentioned, there are faith-based groups from distinct religious traditions. (I won’t name them now due to time and my worry I will get in trouble for leaving some out). The work of Indigenous peoples and organizations and First Nations themselves is also important in this sphere—it has spiritual power and it is important for many deep reasons that coalitions of faith groups act in solidarity with Indigenous peoples in legislative advocacy.
There are also some Green groups that have staffers designated to work on faith outreach. And perhaps most interesting in terms of immediate potential for legislative advocacy, there is a lot of energy and expertise in faith-based organizations and groups that had been focused on other advocacy efforts but can laser focus their attention on climate in the sessions ahead, drawing the connections to the issues of race, poverty, refugees that they already know so well. Coalitions such as the Washington Interfaith Service Coalition, Church World Service, and others are doing this and also there is tremendous work being done in specific denominations. And of course, there is the power of activating the grassroots network of congregations and communities throughout the land.
This work is powerful not just to reach across the ideological spectrum but also to bring people off the sidelines and breathe life into our body politic. Now is the time to step up that ethical call to Legislative Advocacy, thank you to those who already are.
Watch the complete webinar – Karenna Gore’s remarks begin at 38:46.