Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Beyond Timidity on Climate Justice

Benjamin G. Lee


June 17, 2011
by Benjamin G. Lee

“We cannot afford more of the same timid politics, when the future of our planet is at stake.  Global warming is not a someday problem, it is now.” Those were Barack Obama’s words back in 2007, as a candidate campaigning in New Hampshire. Indeed the problem of global warming is happening now.  Temperatures measured around the globe continue to rise, glaciers that have existed since the last ice age have melted, and habitats of many plants and animals are shifting to higher latitudes.  Amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher than in the past 650,000 years and have dramatically risen by 40% since the start of the Industrial Revolution.  These are just a few of the facts that have convinced the vast majority of climate scientists that global warming is a serious, man-made problem.

Now in office, how has the President fared in tackling climate change?  In his first year there was a flurry of activity on climate and environment-related initiatives, including funding for clean energy, energy efficiency and public transportation from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  The House Democrats passed a “cap and trade” bill, which limits carbon emissions, mandates a shift towards renewable energy, and subsidizes new clean energy technologies.  Then Obama went to Copenhagen and seemingly cobbled together an agreement among the key carbon-emitting countries recognizing the seriousness of climate change, committing countries to reducing emissions to limit the global average rise in temperature to less than 2 °C, and establishing a Green Climate Fund to mitigate impacts in developing countries.

Yet if Copenhagen was a high point, it was also the President’s last signature achievement on climate change.  As the ink was drying on the accord, many observers pointed out that it was weak and non-binding.  Much work remains before we will arrive at a new global climate change treaty.  The cap-and-trade legislation floundered in the Senate and has been relegated to the back burner.  And long-term US funding for clean energy and energy efficiency is elusive in the face of mounting government deficits.

Here at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), we were initially excited to hear about the Administration’s SunShot Initiative to make solar energy cost-competitive with fossil fuels.  SunShot was deliberately framed as our generation’s equivalent of the Apollo program, which shot a man to the moon.  However, our excitement quickly turned to disappointment and cynicism, as we scientists realized that any funding increases were marginal at best.  The rhetoric might be eloquent and uplifting, but tangible results have been few.

So it would seem that Obama is losing his nerve in the climate-change fight.  But can we really blame him?  Especially after the mid-term elections, many in Congress are inactive on the issue or even climate change skeptics.  Indeed, by and large, climate change has disappeared as an issue for the American public.  How can we bring our nation’s focus back to combating climate change?

Can people of faith play an important role?  Certainly, we are called by Christian principles to care about the earth and the climate.  One would imagine that people of faith would earnestly seek the facts about climate science, and seek wisdom to be good stewards of God’s creation.  One would imagine that we would take to heart the negative consequences of climate change on future generations—especially on the poor in developing countries, who are already the most vulnerable to climate disasters like drought, desertification, storms and flooding.  One would imagine that we would find it easy to make sacrifices in our own lives, to conserve and live more simply.  One would imagine that we would pray fervently for our leaders to act on climate change and step forward to call for climate justice.

But, to be blunt, Christians in America have largely ignored the issue or have been in the camp of climate skeptics.  So perhaps, just perhaps, it is time for more of us to wake up, open our eyes and take a stand.  To echo Obama, “we cannot afford more of the same timid faith, when the future of our planet is at stake.”

Benjamin G. Lee is a young scientist at the National Renewable Energy Lab, where he does research on solar cells.  He has a PhD in Applied Physics from Harvard University. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the National Renewable Energy Lab.


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