There’s a new threat on the climate change front, and it’s a big one. The recent midterm elections not only put Republicans in charge of the Congress, but the party of science deniers made dramatic gains at the state and local levels. This impressive victory was made possible by huge infusions of cash from oil, coal, and natural gas interests.
The problem is these interests do not donate money. They invest it. With victory in hand, they are already seeking a return on their investment. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, fossil fuel industry lobbyists are looking for ways to delay implementation of the Obama administration’s plan to place limits on coal-fired power plant emissions. Their hope is that with a Republican president in the White House in 2017 they can then reverse the policy. They are also demonizing the EPA as an out of control government agency in an attempt to weaken its authority.
How do you fight these people? Environmental groups are well aware of this new threat and will do everything in their power to combat it. But these groups need our help. The best way to defeat narrow vested interests is in the arena of public opinion. This is a difficult task, however, because public opinion is often uninformed and not much interested in national political issues.
Sadly, this dynamic defines the current climate change debate. According to recent Pew Research data, the American public ranks global warming as a low priority for government action. Fewer Americans (only 34 percent) cite global climate change as a major threat when compared to other countries in the world. Poll numbers such as these guarantee vested interests win.
But the task is not impossible. Public support for environmental initiatives is closely correlated to the health of the economy. When Americans feel good about their economic well being, they support policies to protect the environment. Recent polls indicate that a significant majority of Americans believe human economic activity is contributing to the climate change problem. Sixty-five percent of Americans favor stricter emissions on coal-fired power plants. Americans also support by large majorities the need for increased reliance on solar and wind power to generate electricity.
What the general public does not seem to understand is the urgency of the threat. Many see it as a long-term problem, which won’t significantly impact them during their lifetime. They need to understand that the negative consequences of climate change are already here. They also need to understand the economic costs of trying to safely manage the climate change challenge are far less than the costs of repairing the damage from runaway carbon dioxide emissions. Finally, they need to know that significant steps now to move away from fossil fuel powered energy is necessary if we are to have any chance of managing this challenge safely.
Make no mistake. This is a Christian issue. The Bible calls on us to take care of the earth. This issue is about serving neighbors now and those who will follow us in the future. It’s about where the heart is. It’s about individuals standing up and acting in terms of their higher interests.
Churches have an important role to play in this effort. Grassroots movements need moral energy which sermons can provide. Churches can also offer their facilities for educational meetings featuring local scientists and economists who are well versed on the different threats posed by climate change. Christians need to become convinced that every person has a moral responsibility to make a difference on this issue.
The World Council of Churches has taken a strong stand in defense of the climate since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted in 1992. They have called on all Christians to speak out and act in ways that support the health of the planet. In addition, many religious communities have issued statements in defense of the climate – the United Church of Christ, Union Theological Seminary, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the Vatican. Denominations of all stripes have followed suit including many Evangelical congregations, although the issue remains divisive within their community.
The point, however, is that the current political situation demands that much more be done. I often think church leaders underestimate the potential of church members to respond positively to political direction. Most Christians I know attend a church because Christianity represents for them all that is beautiful, good, and loving in the world. They are both looking for and open to these general impulses being defined. Because of the imminent nature of the climate change threat, churches have a crucial role to play linking the spiritual values of their members to this issue.
There are many important issues of concern to spiritual progressives. Recent grand jury decisions involving white police officers shooting unarmed black men have pointed out very significant problems in the criminal justice system. The global economic system has been punishing to middle class Americans. And then there are always the issues of global military spending and military violence. What makes climate change different is that the carbon we emit into the atmosphere today will be with us for 1,000 years. There is no forgiveness on this issue. There is no second chance. We must band together now to stop the fossil fuel interests from ruining the world our children and grandchildren will inherit. Unless the general public becomes involved in a massive and sustained way, the oil and coal interests will win.
Rick Herrick’s most recent book is a novel entitled A Man Called Jesus.