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Let’s Make Climate Change the New ‘Third Rail’ of American Politics

Will 2014 be the year in which climate change becomes a “third rail”?

Never before has there been an issue of such moral clarity. We have known for 25 years that the earth is warming more rapidly now than at any other time in history. We have begun to see the effects, in the form of massive die-offs (bees, frogs) and increased severe weather events. Coastal cities (like New York) are beginning to be affected.

Climate change should not be a political issue, let alone a partisan one. Rather, it is a profoundly moral issue, threatening the stability of life on Earth. And yet, even the existence of climate change as a phenomenon has become partisan in nature. Only 50% of self-identified conservative Republicans believe that the earth is getting warmer at all — a simple factual matter, like whether Earth is round. Only 30% of Republicans accept what 99.5% of climatologists know: that human actions are causing the change.

Compare that to 90% of Democrats who “believe” the facts of climate change, and 60% who accept the theory.

Why this difference?First and foremost, lies. Thanks to rigorous investigative journalism by Naomi Oreskes, James Hoggan, the DeSmog Blog and many others, we now know why the United States has done so little to combat it: because of massive spending on propaganda by the fossil-fuel industry, which has established a legion of phony think tanks to create the impression of scientific uncertainty.This tactic has worked spectacularly well. Conservative media continues to insist that there is scientific uncertainty where there is none. To choose one of hundreds of examples, consider an oft-cited 2012 article in Forbes by Peter Ferrara, which notes that from 1998 to 2012, average mean temperature went down rather than up.What Ferrara doesn’t note is that 1998 was an anomaly, due to El Nino. When you measure from 1980, or from 1950, or from 1900, the sharp upward trend is unmistakable.

Ferrara also didn’t disclose that he and organizations he founded have received millions of dollars from ExxonMobil, the Koch Brothers and the conservative Scaife family foundations – to name a few. DeSmogBlog did, ??? and also noted that Ferrara has admitted to writing client-subsidized op-eds in the past.

In short, Ferrara is a paid lackey who twists the numbers to make a case for his clients. But that hasn’t stopped him from getting cited over and over again as some kind of expert. Multiply Ferrara by 1,000 times, add billions of lobbying dollars, and junk science becomes public (and congressional) opinion.

Now there are some good conservative reasons to be ideologically opposed to climate change action. It will require government intervention, restrictions on private industry and other things conservatives tend to dislike.

But these objections are easily overcome. Seat belts, too, require government intervention and restrictions on private industry — and they, too, were opposed by conservatives at first. But even Rand Paul now admits that some government regulation is sometimes necessary.

If a change in values is necessary, though, the best arguments will come not from political sloganeering, but from ethics, culture and religion.

For example, evangelicals in the “creation care” movement have begun to wake up to what they perceive as threats to God’s creation, posed by human greed and avarice. Climate scientist and evangelical Christian Katharine Hayhoe, for example, has argued that conservation is conservative, that biblical values demand preservation of the earth, and that caring for the environment is caring for people.

These are conservative values — deliberately unlike the Gaia-centric, touchy-feely, we’re-all-one rhetoric that one finds in most environmental circles. And they are exactly the kinds of arguments that need to be made if the partisan divide on climate change is to be transcended.

Indeed, creation care evangelicals are now taking on the corporate wing of the Republican Party, in an interesting, greener version of the Tea Party vs. Establishment — or Christian Right vs. Establishment —divide. It’s too soon to predict the results of this schism, but it is taking place.

In this regard, September 21’s People’s Climate March, and the significant Jewish participation in it, is a mixed blessing.

On the one hand: Thank God! Thank God so many people, and so many religious people, have signed up for the march and have committed to raising the urgency of this issue.

On the other hand, oy vey. The very name “People’s Climate March” alienates the very people we greens need to be persuading: the moderates or conservatives who are the “movable middle” on the climate change issue. I might agree with the intersectional nature of this issue, and big business’s responsibility for it — but must I march under a Maoist-sounding banner?

Likewise the “dark green” views of many of its sponsoring organizations. I worry that potential allies will be scared away by anti-capitalist rhetoric and that they will miss the nuanced difference between the opinions of some participants and opinions of the overall march.

And what about the Jewish participants?

Happily, a raft of organizations has signed on as sponsors. The Jewish Climate Campaign lists more than 90, ranging from recognized names like Hazon, BBYO, Institute for Jewish Spirituality, Jewish Theological Seminary, Moishe House, Union for Reform Judaism, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and Uri L’Tzedek to a number of synagogues and Jewish community centers and several smaller organizations as well.

As is often the case with progressive-branded causes, however, more right-leaning and Orthodox organizations — the Orthodox Union, Yeshiva University, Agudath Israel, Chabad — are not participating. Somehow I doubt many members of the Jewish Republican Coalition will show up either.

This is a shame. True, the Jewish community remains steadfastly liberal; maybe we shouldn’t worry about the reactionary 25%. But we should be doing a better job of making the conservative, moderate and moral cases for climate change action.

For example?

As I reported in these pages previously, climate change will be a disaster for Israel, threatening its food security and water supply, and potentially requiring billions in mitigation efforts.

Not to mention our current subsidization of Arab petro-oligarchies deeply hostile to the Jewish state. And imagine how the “startup nation” could benefit from a real investment in solar power here in the United States.

Climate change also disproportionately impacts large, less affluent families — and in the Jewish community, disproportionately Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. These families are already paying higher prices for food, and whatever mitigation efforts we will have to undertake in the coming decades will cost trillions of dollars, money that could be used to invest in our economy, repair the social safety net and help keep people out of poverty.

And then there are the moral issues. Even apart from the terrible human costs, it is hardly “stewardship,” as commanded by Genesis 1:28, to cause massive extinctions, worldwide habitat destruction and despoiling of a creation that God described as “good.”

These days, it’s fair, at best.

I’m worried that our Jewish environmental rhetoric — like much of the People’s Climate March — is basically preaching to the converted. We need to take lessons from successful social movements of the past — most recently, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality movement — and marry our progressive ideals to pragmatic tactics.

That includes learning and authentically utilizing the language of moderates and conservatives (there’s a reason LGBT activists stopped talking about “gay rights” and started talking about marriage and love). It includes reaching out to people who ridicule us rather than remaining comfortable in like-minded echo chambers. And it means being unafraid of seizing the moral high ground, taking conservative ethics seriously and challenging people to live up to them.

I will be marching in the People’s Climate March — on, of all things, an ark, together with faith leaders from a variety of religious traditions. I hope to be inspired by the crowds. I am also mindful of who won’t be there.


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