Three things the Pope and Martin Luther King can teach the climate movement

By Rich Gower and Sue Willsher

Today the Pope officially released his much anticipated message on climate change – an ‘Encyclical’ to his Bishops around the world. Much fuss has been made of the Pope ‘wading’ into an issue that’s seen as being about economics and politics rather than faith, for example US Presidential candidate Jeb Bush: “I don’t get my economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.”

However, this shows exactly why it is so important for the Pope to speak out: as long as climate change is seen as a political or economic issue – rather than a moral one – we are unlikely to make the changes necessary to address it. The climate movement needs to learn the lessons of previous movements, such as US civil rights movement, and do more to make the moral case for action.

Here are three things that the Pope and Martin Luther King seem to have in common:

1. Making the moral case

Martin Luther King – and the Pope – both know that people act when something touches their sense of right and wrong.

For example, today, it seems obvious that policies such as segregation were immoral.  When children read about it in their schoolbooks, its abolition is portrayed as a great triumph of freedom over injustice.  However, people didn’t always see it like this.

Many Americans initially viewed the Civil Rights Movement through the lens of national security.  As tensions with the USSR rose, opponents worked hard to cast Civil Rights leaders as communist sympathisers, or at least argued that now was not the time for social upheaval.

It was only when campaigners such as King succeeded in defining segregation as immoral that they were able to trump other concerns and see it abolished: “And if we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong… If we are wrong, justice is a lie, love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The Pope gets that the science is clear on the problem – that climate change is widely viewed as man-made, that there are clear and evidence-based solutions – including a global agreement at the crucial Climate talks in Paris in December. But what we now need is persuading people that the problem is worth addressing – now. We need stronger motivations and a winning of hearts and minds.

The pope is “aiming at a change of heart. What will save us is not technology or science. What will save us is the ethical transformation of our society.”

As a society and as a planet, we need to realise that addressing climate change has as much to do with justice, love, duty, and honour as it does with economics.

2. Having a resonant story

Facts on their own rarely move people to change, it also requires stories that help, as we set out in Tearfund’s new thought piece the Restorative Economy  “people and societies make sense of where they are, how they got there, where they are trying to get to and how to achieve change. Stories that define our worldview and have the potential to create our reality as much as they describe it, such as Jesus’ parables or the ones that Churchill told Britain in 1940”.

Civil Rights activist Andrew Young remembers, “when Martin would talk about leaving the slavery of Egypt and wandering into the promised land… that made sense to folks.” (Rochon, 1998, Culture Moves. p56)  Similarly, the Pope sets the issue of climate change within the larger story of humankind’s God-given role of stewarding our home – earth.

We need stories that “help us think in terms of a larger us – one that moves from ‘people like us’ to simply ‘people – like us’.  A longer future – beyond the next news cycle, financial quarter or election – looking out instead for generations to come.  And a better ‘good life’ – an understanding that security, consumption and well-being are not three words that all mean the same thing”.

3. Patience in speaking truth to power

Finally, we need to recognise that we need to be in it for the long game. King worked tirelessly on civil rights for many years until his assassination in 1968. Previous Popes have written on creation, but Pope Francis is the first to link the issues of environment, economy and poverty – and speak directly on climate change.

As we make clear in the Restorative Economy report, “political and social change doesn’t unfold in a steady, linear fashion: instead it is complex, unpredictable and takes time. There is often a long period when our efforts seem to yield few results. But then comes a tipping point, after which events snowball and things suddenly start to fall into place. The Jubilee 2000 campaign is a great example: comprehensive debt cancellation was an idea that was first put forward in the 1980s, but it took nearly two decades for it to come to fruition.”
Already, increasing numbers of people are starting to see climate change and the policies that support it as immoral, and the Pope’s encyclical should help ‘move the needle’ even further. Recent ComRes polling commissioned by Tearfund shows Christians recognise that the environment and climate change problems are the main issues facing the world over the next ten years. So, the Pope’s ‘wading in’ is exactly what the climate movement needs – and many in the movement realise this. In and of itself it won’t change behaviour, but it does provide a great invitation and indeed, a strong urging, for all people to take these issues seriously.

Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Breathe and commented:

    It’s been quite an incredible week with both the Climate #MassLobby on Wednesday and the release of the Papal Encyclical on Thursday
    http://fortheloveof.org.uk/the-best-of-speak-up/
    http://rhythms.org/article/pope-francis-if-we-destroy-creation-creation-will-destroy-us/

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