Lauren R. Stevens: Moral leadership is needed on climate change


WILLIAMSTOWN — For most Americans, climate change is real, caused by human activities, but not high on the list of priorities. That is to say, it hasn't injured them yet or, more likely, they don't realize that it has injured them. What entities have the potential to motivate them to action, then.

The arts often play that role, but seem not to have figured out how to portray the crisis upon us in a serious way.

Religion, then, as the traditional custodian of morality? In the absence of a likely, immediate, direct, personal benefit, we rely on our moral judgment to decide what to do. Should we add a dollar to our total at the supermarket to feed the hungry? We won't benefit, but we may decide, influenced by our faith perhaps, it's the moral move.

For what we're really talking about is empathy, the ability to feel someone else's pain. Empathy requires training. Arts do it, subtly and sometimes even entertainingly. Religion can or should challenge us directly.

Not to say that religion is the default setting for all moral answers. We've seen far too much overly literal reading of the texts, too much immorality from religious leaders, too many wars fought over faith differences, too much religious hypocrisy to believe that.

Still, if we're looking for institutions in a position to exert moral suasion, religious ones have long been the choice.

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And in fact the religious leaders of our time, from Pope Francis to Bartholomew 1; others Jewish and Protestant, have addressed the climate crisis eloquently. It's just that their voices seem not to have made enough difference.

Have we passed into so secular an age or have various religions so dirtied themselves that their words no longer matter? Or could it be that, in this country at least, the new religion is party politics, trumping religious affiliation?

Has the diminution of religion in 21st century America, more than any political figure, sabotaged our climate future? Has the apparent irrelevance of religion taken morality down with it?

I don't think so. People hunger for moral guidance, some more than others, to be sure. Still, it is a human need, like food, drink and exercise. The great religions of the world must continue to speak, to call on their communities to act in the face of a warming world.

Leadership from faiths will seep down to find receptive soil or souls. It may be that the required acts are ultimately political but the preliminary one is conversion. Those so motivated will move our governments. The question, then, will that happen in time?

At least that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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