I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:1)
This week, in what will most probably be the 332nd consecutive month with global temperatures above the twentieth century average, another record of sorts was broken: for the first presidential election cycle since 1988, climate change resulting from global warming was not mentioned in any of the presidential or vice-presidential debates. With climate change already affecting the lives of people all over the world, talking about economic issues, military and geo-political issues, health, or any other topic concerning our future without taking into account the impacts of climate change – and the need to do something about it – is foolish at best.
On one level, this silence seems to be a purely political phenomenon. Even though the majority of Americans believe climate change is real and that we need to pay attention to the issue, politicians know that addressing climate change in any meaningful way will be politically difficult. Bringing down the levels of greenhouse gas emissions to a level that minimizes the climate change feedback loops we have already entered would require some hard choices. As Bill McKibben points out in his book Eaarth – and as many others have pointed out in other discussions – the changes we need to make won’t necessarily make our lives worse. In fact, our quality of life in some areas might very well become better. But the changes we need to make will be changes. Asking people to change the way we live takes political courage, a willingness to risk losing political power by doing something that needs to be done but that might not be popular.
When we start asking what all is involved here, though, the silence reveals itself as something deeper than a political phenomenon. The silence about climate change is rooted in traditional spiritual issues.
The old Simon and Garfunkel song The Sound of Silence included this line: “And the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they’d made”, and it helps us name one of these spiritual issues. Our national failure to speak or to act in a timely manner to mitigate climate change is rooted at least in part in idolatry. We know that God created the earth and its living things, and we know that God made humans stewards of the earth, and we know that God cares very much about the people who face hardship because of global climate change. But despite knowing that and saying we worship God, a way of life that includes habits of convenience and consumerism seems to be more important to us than what matters to God. If we cannot let go of something to do what God calls us to do, that thing is an idol that has replaced God in our lives. As is often the case with idolatry, greed and fear and sloth prop up the false god.
As Christians, we are empowered to recognize and challenge false gods. We can and must break the silence around climate change. We can imagine that new ways of living might not only be bearable, but might in fact bring us closer to God and to one another. The agreed upon national political conversation does not dictate our conversation.