Shadows of the Civil Rights Era, as Faith Groups Call Out Climate Denial

December 12, 2014

Selma is a new movie about the civil rights movement, and Dr. Martin Luther King’s leadership role.
It’s relevant to a climate change blog, because the movement to free black people, first from slavery, then from segregation, is a close parallel to the movement against the climate crisis.  Both movements had important leaders from the faith community, and both movements faced bitter opposition from  powerful interests, many of them based in the US South, the old confederacy.  And like the struggle against slavery, those powerful interests are being told they must relinquish a primary source of their wealth – in this case, enormous stores of carbon fuels, energy “slaves” that must stay in the ground for humanity to survive.

Pundits today still ask the question “What Happened to Kansas?” – the conundrum of how poor and middle class white people can be consistently motivated to vote against their own interests. But this is, of course, the oldest game in the political playbook – resentment politics.

A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain.
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin,” they explain.
And the Negro’s name
Is used it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game

Bob Dylan, Only a Pawn in Their Game

In this case, the Strom Thurmonds and Lester Maddox’s of the fossil fuel interests attempt to frame the issue as a battle of good, normal, white Americans against “UN scientists” (“UN” is always a dog whistle, meaning, those brown skinned furriners who want to tell you what to do – pay attention and you’ll see how often this card is played), “Hollywood elitists” – see Senator James Inhofe’s recent rant against Barbara Streisand, and of course, pot-smoking, tree-hugging hippies.

Polls show that people of color consistently register more concern about the climate than whites in America.  As in the civil rights movement, the climate movement is reaching a number of middle class whites, as their churches point to the moral dimension of the struggle.


Catholic bishops from around the world are calling for an end to fossil fuel use and increased efforts to secure a global climate treaty.

Catholics, they say, should engage with the process leading to a proposed new deal to be signed in Paris next year.

The statement is the first time that senior church figures from every continent have issued such a call.

The bishops say this is necessary “in order to protect frontline communities suffering from the impacts of climate change, such as those in the Pacific Islands and in the coastal regions.”

As well as calling for the phasing in of 100% renewable energy, there is a strong focus on finance for adaptation in the statement.

MN: Why is it important for the clergy to have a voice in this discussion?
JMM: The African American church has historically served as a moral leader on the most pressing issues of our time—from voting rights to gun violence. The church isn’t going to now sit aside and watch as polluters jeopardize the health and safety of our children and grandchildren.

Climate change not only imperils the most marvelous natural features of God’s creation, it threatens to cause human suffering of a magnitude that we cannot tolerate. Worldwide, we are facing severe drought, famine, disease, and disasters as a result of our climate crisis.

MN: What are some next steps?
JMM: One action on the near horizon that we’re asking folks to take is to send a comment to the Environmental Protection Agency letting them know they support strong carbon pollution safeguards. These carbon safeguards would go a long way to fighting climate change and protecting our communities. You can find out more at

MN: What impact do these church leaders see the environment (particularly environmental degradation) having on their congregations and communities?
JMM: Many of these churches are already working on environmental issues just as part of the day-to-day job of the church to make sure congregants are healthy and not being poisoned. Those struggles are related to the industries that are driving climate change and they understand that connection.

We had representation from a church in Richmond, CA that has struggled with pollution from the Chevron oil refinery. We had a pastor from a church in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, which has a number of Superfund sites from the old navy shipyards. There have been a number of environmental justice issues there for years. While climate change and carbon pollution hurt everyone, the communities that many of these churches serve shoulder the greatest burden. Seventy-eight percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. Black children have an 80 percent higher rate of asthma than their White peers, and are more than three times more likely to die of the disease.


It’s probably the closest thing the coal industry will ever get to actually receiving the word of a god – or rather, a note from several gods as well as other various prophets, spiritual leaders and the like.

Last month religious leaders representing Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and a couple of Christian denominations published an open letter calling for world leaders to “commit to a rapid transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy” to avoid “climate-related disasters”.

Some of those religious leaders turned up at the Canberra offices of the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), the peak lobbying group for the coal industry, to hand them the letter in person before holding a “multi-faith prayer vigil” outside.

For the purposes of a nice snappy headline, it’s sort of like a fight between Gods and coal (except Buddhists don’t really have gods… but if the Buddhists will forgive me?).

But the response hasn’t been limited to prayers and firm but polite letters. Some religious leaders have also been turning up at coal mining sites. There has been civil disobedience, an arrest and, it seems, there might be more to come.

The Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) is a “multi-faith” group that’s been helping organise this spiritual fight against coal.

Australian Religious Response to Climate Change:

As religious leaders drawn from diverse religious traditions, we see the earth as sacred and it is our human responsibility to protect it. When the earth is respected and cared for, human life can flourish.

We acknowledge that the best science is clear that the burning of fossil fuels is driving global warming, thus threatening the long-term viability of life on earth. At the G20 Summit meetings, we therefore urge national leaders to put climate change on the agenda.

Meanwhile, a  coalition is building among the usual suspects aiming to overturn the entrenched interests of the science denial industry.


Republicans who don’t take climate change seriously risk losing support from women and young people, said former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican who headed the Environmental Protection Agency during George W. Bush’s first term. “The American people are beginning to make connections to the things that are happening around them.”

Some polls back up the warnings. A recent one issued by the League of Conservation Voters found that 73 percent of young voters — including 52 percent of young Republicans — would be less likely to support candidates who don’t want to address climate change. Asked to describe climate skeptics, respondents used terms like “ignorant,” “out of touch” and “crazy.”

Climate skepticism also threatens to hurt Republicans among Latinos, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. He said Hispanics care more about climate change than any other group in the U.S.

Disputing climate science is “a successful individual strategy” for some Republicans in conservative districts, but “it’s a losing national strategy,” Leiserowitz said. “I think chances are they will pay a political price, increasingly so in the future.”


2 Responses to “Shadows of the Civil Rights Era, as Faith Groups Call Out Climate Denial”

  1. ubrew12 Says:

    Whenever I think of the freedom marchers and riders, I’m reminded of this Eric Anderson song, written in 1966, written from the point of view of those who didn’t march, but aided those who did along their way. I think many churches were part of this effort (4min video):

    maybe we are there again. The current situation is an outrage.

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    Another post on Crock that mentions Civil Rights and Slavery early on and then just disappears from Crocker’s’ consciences and consciousness. Why is that? Why does no one here want to pursue this line of thought?

    On the one hand, Peter has perhaps overreached a small bit here and there, but he has at the same time drawn some rather compelling parallels between the civil rights movement and today’s movement against the climate change crisis and the moral issues they both present.

    We now face the modern day equivalent of the old plantation system that required slavery to function. It is mankind’s enslavement to fossil fuels that have allowed industrialization, capitalism, and the plutocracy to flourish and form self-reinforcing feedback loops.

    Just because there are no overseers literally flogging us does NOT mean that we are really free from this modern form of slavery. Our “flogging” will come when the biosphere, the world economic system, and modern civilization all collapse, and it will be fatal for the majority.

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