Do Unto Exxon as You Would Do Unto Yourself
Last week’s resolution on climate change by the General Synod of the United Church of Christ has garnered mostly admiring attention from the news media. But I must admit to a degree of perplexity and sorrow over the document, which seems to place the blame for our heavy use of fossil fuels on the companies that produce them -- not the consumers who demand them.
The resolution is intended to create a path toward divestment of church funds, including pension money, from “fossil fuel companies” unless they meet certain benchmarks. The text never defines “fossil fuel companies,” but it’s a good bet that the target is oil and mining enterprises.
The resolution also calls upon church members to “make shareholder engagement on climate change an immediate, top priority for the next five years” and to “demand action from legislators and advocate for the creation and enforcement of carbon-reducing laws.”
The trouble is that the resolution -- like the general idea of divesting fossil fuel investments -- seems to confuse supply and demand. It’s as if the reason for greenhouse gases is that the oil companies force their wretched products on a helpless public. Our own preferences, expressed through our purchases in the market, have nothing to do with the problem. The recognition that demand rather than supply drives carbon emissions is all but absent from the resolution.
True, there is a general exhortation to the UCC’s members to “make lifestyle changes to reduce the use of fossil fuels in our lives, our homes, our businesses and our churches.” These changes, like the divestment, are intended “to reduce the use of fossil fuels, our carbon footprint, and our complicity with the fossil fuel industry.”
“Complicity” is a strong word, suggesting nefarious evildoers out there with whom we oughtn’t be entangled. “Lifestyle changes,” on the other hand, carries the implicit assurance that there’s nothing wrong with us -- we, the good non-fossil-fuel-employed folks -- that a healthy weatherproofing of the windows won’t cure.
But the villain to be controlled is demand not supply. If we are generating too much of our energy from fossil fuel, the fault doesn’t lie with the companies that produce the cheap energy we want. The fault lies with our wants. In other words, if the UCC is serious about the reduction of “our” carbon footprint, its toughest measures should be aimed at its members.
For example, a brief consideration of economics might lead the UCC begin charging parishioners to use the parking lots at their churches, or perhaps eliminating the lots entirely. This would force members to arrange car pools or use public transportation to attend Sunday services as well as midweek activities: splendid methods for reducing the demand for fossil fuels. (For more on the parking debate among academics, you might want to click here.)
If the UCC really wants to get serious about climate change, it might urge its members to reduce their use of digital media, whose steadily growing carbon footprint contributes to the rise in greenhouse gases.
But the UCC resolution counsels none of these measures. The admirable conviction to fight climate change is on display. The willingness to witness -- to make models of what life should be -- is painfully absent. This is the part I find perplexing: that a church should take the view that it’s perfectly fine to demand regulation that might hurt working-class coal-mining families in West Virginia, but wrong to inconvenience its own members even slightly.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am no climate-change skeptic. But it is irritating when activists -- particularly those who claim to be doing God’s work -- indulge in what the novelist John le Carre has referred to as the “the selfless and devoted way in which we sacrifice other people.”
I am put in mind of the General Convention of my own Episcopal church, which adopted a resolution a few years back condemning the use of public money to provide vouchers for poor children to attend private schools, and then rejected a resolution encouraging Episcopalians to send their own children to public schools. The breathtaking hypocrisy of the decision was evidently lost on the delegates, who saw nothing peculiar in placing the cost of their own enthusiasm for public education on the shoulders of those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. (Later on, the Episcopalians allowed that perhaps a study of the issue was appropriate, but nothing has come of it.)
Today’s religious left is repeating two central errors of the religious right of the 1980s and 1990s: mistaking the New Testament for a political tract, and then asking its members not what sacrifices they are prepared to make, but what sacrifices they are prepared to demand of others.
Christian social activism is at its best when it entails sacrifice by activists. The civil-rights movement certainly called for change in the nation’s laws, but the power of its witness came from the willingness of leaders and followers alike to sacrifice for what they believed. The words and petitions mattered, but the images of nonviolent protesters being beaten by police and attacked by dogs mattered more. An unadorned demand places nothing of our own at stake. Causes for which we are unwilling to risk anything are causes that others are perfectly justified in suspecting that we don’t take seriously.
The irony is that the UCC resolution ends with a call to put in place climate-change regulation in a way that spares “those least responsible for the emissions of greenhouse gases,” listing, among others, children, the elderly and the poor, particular outside the developed world. But once we get supply and demand straight, the coal miner is a lot less “responsible” for greenhouse gases than the suburban family that crowds into the SUV to attend Sunday services.
(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” Follow him on Twitter at @StepCarter.)
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