A remarkable alliance of concern about climate change has emerged among the nation’s clergy. Major ecclesiastical leaders in the world, including Pope Benedict, the Patriarch Bartholomew, the Dalai Lama, and many others, have expressed public concern about the moral responsibility of civilization to act on behalf of the planet’s weakening capacity to regulate our climate. One national organization, Interfaith Power & Light, has been leading the way to formulate a religious response to climate change. As the Chair of the Board of the Utah chapter (see http://www.utahipl.org/), I recently spent three days in Washington, D.C. where the national conference for IPL took place, involving two representatives, most of them clergy from various churches and religions, from 39 states as well as the national leadership, including IPL’s founder, Rev. Sally Bingham. You can read more about IPL here: http://interfaithpowerandlight.org/. The conference included speeches by the Deputy Director of the EPA, Bob Perciasepe, and the award-winning journalist, Eric Pooley, author of Climate War.
Those who see climate change as a partisan issue will feel that this is an unfortunate politicization of religion, but to those who see this as a moral, rather than a political issue, will understand this as an appropriate, even needed, response to the crisis. Of course, there are those too who simply deny that climate change is happening, so to them such efforts by IPL and others might seem even worse: a waste of otherwise good energy spent on a cause that doesn’t exist. Perhaps there are others still who know it is happening, sense it is a serious issue, but they tend to look at someone who cares about it enough to be an activist as, well, an activist, which around here is a synonym for an annoying, single-issue prig. I am well aware how often people see the moralizing of others as politics as usual. It is no simple matter to separate the political from the moral dimensions of any issue. But I was encouraged by the motivations of the clergy present at the conference to move their congregations toward a way of life that leaves a more gentle impact on the environment, that demonstrates more self-restraint, ingenuity and innovation, and concern for the well-being of others and of the Creation. This seemed like merely asking people to put their religion to work. I felt it an honor to be among such fine and good people. Meeting them and others in my home state of Utah of other faith traditions has been one of the most rewarding and spiritually fulfilling experiences of my life.
I live in a state where a higher percentage of the population denies climate change is real or human-caused than occurs nationally (national denial hovers at around 10%–see http://environment.yale.edu/climate/files/SixAmericasMay2011.pdffor more information) and where the LDS church has never issued a statement of concern about climate change. It is, perhaps, the default attitude here, then, that it is either not happening, or if it is, it is not our fault. Moreover, if it is human-caused, the assumption is perhaps that until the church says otherwise, we might as well assume it is God’s will. Clergy from around the country run into this kind of resistance and skepticism all the time, so this is certainly not unique to Mormonism. However, given exceptional LDS doctrines about the spiritual creation, about plants and animals as “living souls,” about the law of consecration and our concern for the world’s poor and for equitable distribution of natural resources, and given our principles of self-reliance, modest consumption of material wealth, and resourcefulness, it is at least disappointing that we LDS have not done more to declare our collective commitment to reducing our carbon footprint.
Clergy at the conference were especially eager to ask me about Utah and Mormons. What principles and values in Mormonism are especially well suited to formulate a religious response to climate change and environmental degradation more generally? What are the prevailing attitudes among church members or at official levels of church leadership? Does the church ever discourage members from worrying about climate change? What is motivating the church’s move toward green architecture? How can non-LDS clergy reach out to Mormons in their home states and encourage them to be involved? Could Mitt Romney be a good environmental president? Would this have anything to do with his Mormonism? Who and where are the leaders in Mormonism on the environment? What are the Mormons already doing to be good stewards?
These are not easy questions to answer, but they are, I think, the right questions to ask. I have tried answering some of these in my writings, particularly in my essays “The Environmental Ethics of Mormon Belief” and “Faith and the Ethics of Climate Change,” in an co-edited book, Stewardship and the Creation (http://rsc.byu.edu/%5Bfield_status-raw%5D/stewardship-and-creation-lds-perspectives-environment), and in my book, Home Waters.
While spending a day at the end of the conference lobbying on Capitol Hill, Susan Soleil (the Executive Director of Utah IPL) and I visited the offices of Senator Mike Lee, Senator Orrin Hatch, and Representative Jim Matheson. The highlight was a discussion with Orrin Hatch’s top environmental aide who gave us more than an hour of his time. Among the topics we discussed was his view of the divisiveness of the word “climate” and the words “global warming.” He advised us not to talk about these things, that we could get a lot more done just by focusing on fundamentals like energy efficiency, economic self-reliance, and good stewardship. I tried to explain to him that it seems hard to properly treat an illness when you aren’t allowed to mention the illness by name and can’t therefore offer a comprehensive diagnosis. Moreover, it seemed petty to imagine that somehow divisiveness over the issue is the fault of those who wish to use the proper name for what is happening and not of those who cannot accept even the remote possibility that climate change is real and human-caused. I am all for finding common ground. This might sound overly cynical, but the truth is, it is rare to meet a skeptic who is at least willing to meet me half way, who is willing to say, “This is a serious issue. I have my doubts and questions about it, but I can see why it is of moral concern, and I am committed to working to find viable solutions that are at least consistent with my values, in case it is real. It is simply too serious of a possibility to take lightly.” I agreed with Hatch’s aide in principle. We can get a lot done to reduce carbon if we work together on policies and practices calculated to lessen our dependency on fossil fuels, to increase access to clean and renewable energy, and to increase energy efficiency. We could, as I have often said, if we cared more about doing good than being right. Two such bills stand before the Senate and the House at this very moment. Unfortunately, as we all know, the chances of this Congress getting any legislation done right now are slim to none.
Today is connect-the-dots day, sponsored by 350.org, to help remind people of the impacts of climate change in neighborhoods and homes across the globe. I am having a hard time connecting the dots. I see the problem, and I see the solution, but I see a morass of bureaucracy, indifference, ignorance, and ideology that stands in the way of common sense. I offer entry this as my own personal “dot” in the hope that it finds connection.