In the Sept. 19 McClendon Scholar webinar, A Spiritual and Moral Response to the Climate Crisis, Karenna Gore spoke with Rev. Heather Shortlidge from a wide variety of perspectives: scripture, science, grief, and communication.
Gore, who directs the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, answered questions from Rev. Shortlidge, Megan Janicki, a member of the McClendon Scholar in Residence Council, and the audience. In her answers, Gore combined statements about the stark reality of climate change with suggestions for action and with hope.
“The Earth is the Lord’s”
Her conversation with Rev. Shortlidge began with a quote from Psalm 24: “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” While we often look to Genesis for scriptural affirmation about care of the earth, Gore noted that Genesis creation stories have frequently been distorted to support property ownership and domination.
“I like Psalm 24 as a reminder that we are not God, the earth does not belong to us, we are of the earth,” she said. “This notion of separation is illusion.” In addition, she often looks to portions of scripture that address truth, power, and the idolatry of money when she addresses climate change.
Allowing Others to Join You
In one question, Rev. Shortlidge quoted Ruth Bader Ginsberg: “’Fight for the things you care about, but do so in a way that will allow others to join you.’ How do we do that?” she asked.
In response, Gore emphasized pastoral care. The climate crisis provokes fear, anxiety and grief, even shame, which can cause people to freeze up, project, be angry or go into denial, she said. Instead of pointing to data and experts and science, she recommended we talk about observing the world around us. “If you are a person of faith … if you believe in creator and creation, what better way to be close to the creator than to observe those processes?”
She referenced Katherine Hayhoe, an evangelical Christian and scientist who warns of communications that include an “underlying disdain” for others. Instead of emphasizing data, we can go to common sense language, value systems and our human ability to make change, she said. There is resistance and resentment of “experts,” who are perceived as acting “better” than others. There’s “a genuinely righteous indignation about that,” Gore noted, adding, “technology without wisdom can do terrible things.”
“I don’t have the key to brilliant communication,” she added, but everyone has a role. We can try to avoid the culture war lens. We all have to take responsibility for it. Some of the lessons we learn in our personal lives also apply in the civic space. We need to dial back the anger and have compassion for people who are not yet there.
However, Gore drew a sharp distinction between having compassion and “caving to really wealthy and powerful interests that have a stranglehold on our government.”
“Despite everything we know now, there still are people in power who want to go explore, dig, and burn more fossil fuels, including the arctic. … We need to be clear we are in this situation because of a lavishly funded lobbying and misinformation campaign.”
Learning from History and Looking Ahead
Some of the greatest moral clarity is coming from those most affected by climate change, said Gore. Union Seminary’s Center for Earth Ethics, which she founded, has included indigenous peoples in their discussions about environmental issues. One revelation for Gore has been understanding “the history of colonization as intertwined with environmental destruction,” she said, pointing to the 15th Century papal bulls that called on colonizers to “conquer, vanquish and subdue” all the flora and fauna. And “non-Christian people were part of the flora and fauna,” she said. Out of this comes white privilege, manifest destiny, property law and how we relate to nature.
Looking forward, Gore noted that the United Nations has estimated there could be as many as 200 million climate “refugees,” around the world, including in our own nation, where some have projected a migration double that of the Great Migration of the mid-20th century.
To respond, Gore called on people of faith to be ready by returning to first principles, to the “values we hold most dear: Love your neighbor. The golden rule. Aspects of morality that are central to religious traditions. Welcome the Stranger.”
“We need to … teach these ethics and morals and the thinking behind them. … We’ve ceded a lot of our values to market-oriented things, to viewing ourselves as consumers.” Gore said. “How we behave as consumers is important, but we are more than consumers.”
Surviving the Grief
How do we keep going in the midst of so much loss? “On the other side of grief is usually love,” she said. Our grief leads us to think about what it is we cherish so much. We’re living in a time when there has been a more enforced sense of separation [from the earth] as we spend 90% of our time inside.” This has mental and physical health impacts. “So this is a chance to have a kind of awakening and renaissance.”
In addition, grief is a feeling of empathy, she added. We feel it as subjects interwoven with the earth, she said, quoting William Blake, who said “Grief and joy are woven.”
The Moral and the Practical
The fundamental question, said Gore, “is what moral obligations we owe to others across time and space and to species.” We think of what monetary resources we will leave to future generations; “Why would you not take care of the ocean for your children and grandchildren.”
This is not work we can expect of people who are struggling to make ends meet, she said, noting that another lesson the pandemic has taught is exactly who are our essential workers. But working toward eliminating carbon emissions will actually lead to new jobs, she said, citing statistics about job growth in renewable energy. Five years ago, she said, renewable energy was cheaper in only 5% of the world. Today, it is cheaper in two-thirds of the world.
What Individuals and Congregations Can Do
Gore urged the audience to use our voices. She noted that because the topic of climate change has become politicized and because it invokes feelings of anxiety, it’s become “taboo.”
She also noted that we need systemic change to move the needle. Still, she said, individual changes can make us more aware of the crisis, and this consciousness can affect the larger systems, and increase the likelihood of collective action. In addition, voting and fighting voter suppression are also key to the possibility of systemic change.
She encouraged congregations to look beyond solar panels and recycling programs, even though those are good things to do. She pointed to opportunities for spiritual communities to practice humility and look for opportunities for spiritual growth. She suggested that churches find out what watershed they are in, and look for ways to connect to the natural environment in a spiritually meaningful way, asking questions like: “Who are the communities near us who bear the burden of the waste of our society?” and “Who were the indigenous people here?” What were their practices?
The pandemic has shown us that it is possible to do things differently – while no one would ever call the pandemic positive, it has shifted some perceptions and led to some lifestyle changes, showing how change is possible.
Gore concluded with this advice from one of her friends in the climate movement.
Let us leave three empty chairs in every meeting we have about the climate crisis: one for people who do not usually have a voice, one for future generations, and one for our fellow creatures.