State of the Climate: How Far We’ve Come

By Liz Schmitt 1-21-2015
Cracked earth in the shape of the United States. Image courtesy Steve Cukrov/shu
Cracked earth in the shape of the United States. Image courtesy Steve Cukrov/shutterstock.com

Last night I watched the State of the Union, because I live in D.C., and this is our Super Bowl. My roommate, who works on women’s rights, was listening for any mention of her "issues." And I’m no different: I tuned in to the president’s address to hear what he would have to say about climate change.

And he did have a lot to say! This is what he said:

"And no challenge  —  no challenge   — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.

"2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does  —  14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.

"I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it."

What struck me was that it’s now totally normal for the president of the United States to speak firmly and at length about the clear and present danger of climate change.

Look at how far we’ve come! Each year that Obama mentions climate change in the State of the Union, it’s a little bright spot in the sea of discouraging news on climate change. When I was a kid, I never would have expected the president to bring up the issues I cared about most during SOTU — the environment was just never that big of a priority in national politics. But now, climate change is a mainstream issue. Republican politicians have moved from declaring it a hoax — well, except for Senator Inhofe, the new chair of the Senate’s environment committee — to saying that it’s real, but we don’t know who’s causing it, or doing some sort of science version of pleading the fifth ("I’m not a scientist").

This is real progress — this is a cultural shift. This is a victory.

But this Monday, I marked Martin Luther King Day by reading the Letter from a Birmingham Jail with members of a neighborhood church. And I heard Dr. King admonishing me for my celebration:

"I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."

Am I a white moderate? Am I satisfied that the president will talk about climate change, that it has become popular in the current political culture? Am I resting easy in the knowledge that we’ve come so far since the days of another Democratic president who stifled his running mate’s passionate outrage about the inconvenient truth of global warming?

Dr. King’s words convict me of complacency, and remind me that while it’s exhausting, I should strive for the days where I go home frustrated that not enough is being done. I am ashamed of the days when I clap because of symbolic words in a speech.

Beyond symbolism, there is some real progress to celebrate, of course. This has been a big year for climate change — we have the upcoming Clean Power Plan, which will limit carbon emissions from power plants, and the president has just announced a methane rule to limit the even more toxic methane emissions from natural gas production. We met with China and the whole world seems to be jumping into the U.N. climate treaty sandbox. Solar and wind power are up in America. So many things are moving in the right direction. But as I was reminded during the movie "Selma," for the justice leaders I want to emulate, one victory did not call for a vacation. It called for moving on to the next brick.

It’s so important that we never rest easy with lip service from our leaders. Climate change is an urgent matter of justice, and so we need to think big as we work to respond to it and prevent the worst pollution scenario. The "just give it time" statements from "white moderates" — the people who argue that we’re in a long term trajectory, and we should be proud of what we’ve done so far — are so easy to listen to. But we can’t afford to slow down. We need to challenge the fossil fuel corporations by divesting our money, and calling them out on human rights abuses on Native American lands and in Nigeria. We need to pressure the governor of every state to implement a strong, robust version of the Clean Power Plan, not to look for loopholes. We need to bring people of color to the decision making table in the environmental movement. We need to tell our legislators that Christians care about climate change, too.

This is the whole point of spiritual leaders — to make us uncomfortable. I hope that whatever your current level of engagement on climate change might be — whether you’re teaching your friends and family about the problem, or calling your Senators to say you oppose Keystone, or if you haven’t yet done more than recycling — you’ll join me in feeling deeply uncomfortable at Dr. King’s words. And maybe, with God’s help, those words will change us.

Liz Schmitt is Creation Care Campaign Associate for Sojourners.

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