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A Change in the Climate of Climate Change?




More Americans believe in angels than in climate change. Still, a poll released earlier this year indicated that more Americans than ever now think that climate change is happening, that it is caused by human activity and that world leaders have a moral obligation to do something about it.

So why are we getting so little action? If a large majority of people actually thinks our only home, the Earth, suffers from human behavior, then shouldn’t our personal and public actions reflect that reality? Oh, sure, lots of people drive electric cars, but lots more drive SUVs. I know that California has implemented a “cap-and-trade” program that will limit the future growth of carbon in the air, but the state has not banned fracking, which wastes water and hurts our air quality. And I know that the federal government has been setting higher goals for vehicle mileage — although it also leases the Artic seas to Shell for further oil exploration. We can’t have it both ways.

Changing our personal behavior doesn’t seem like an imperative either, or it feels useless. Driving a low-emission, high mileage small car while dodging the SUVs on Ventura Boulevard doesn’t make my efforts feel very important.

Many religious people think that it is all in God’s hands anyway. God created it, God can take it away. It’s all in the Big Plan. If you’re not religious, there’s another attitude that also keeps many people from focusing on the health of the planet. These people believe that science will provide a solution to this problem. In an age of science, they are certain that there must be a technological fix and that some researcher somewhere will stumble across it in the nick of time. Maybe we will colonize another planet or even another solar system.

As activists – people who believe in justice and who think we are responsible to make it happen – so many urgent and immediate issues demand our attention that ensuring the survival of the Earth becomes only one among many. Immigration rights, low-wage working families, blue-on-black violence, incarceration, sexual diversity, women’s control over their health, the list goes on. These issues feel important, and they are. Involvement with them also makes us feel as if our individual actions make a difference, and they do.

But behind these important matters, human-caused climate change looms as a threat that jeopardizes everything. If the only home of human life in the cosmos is our mother the Earth, then all our efforts for justice live or die with her fate. How she fares will measure the ultimate success of our work. Her survival is the frame – the big picture – that we must consider in all our individual and collective actions. Every issue must reference and complement the effort to save Earth.

In the meantime, the corporations with the largest financial stake in the status quo and its current direction raise doubts about the very premise of climate change. Through corporate-funded think tanks and research institutes, they challenge the “human-caused” part of the climate change formula. They encourage people to distrust environmental researchers, causing just enough hesitation to shift the argument from the realm of science to the arena of politics and the economy.

For the huge stakeholders like Exxon or Shell, the strategy is to befuddle and block. Curtail the extraction of fossil fuels, they challenge, and the economy will shrink – and our quality of life with it. They argue that it is the responsibility of elected officials to ensure that does not happen. By challenging science, they shift the action from moral obligation in the face of certain calamity, to a political process bogged down by endless debate in legislative bodies they can control.

Perhaps the just-released encyclical by Pope Francis will give us the moral shove we need to make this matter urgent.  The bits and pieces that leaked from the Vatican quickly upset the powers of energy extraction, just as they encouraged the advocates seeking to secure a safe future for the Earth.  If we are lucky, and the angels are on our side, it will push us to do nothing less.  Our lives and the lives of our children and their children depend on it.

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