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Climate Change is the Slavery Issue of the Twenty-first Century

January 18, 2011

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was adopted during the Civil War, abolished slavery. Riding on the Metro this morning, I learned a startling historical factoid from an ad for the National Archives. Congress considered two very different versions of the famous slavery amendment: one would have prohibited the federal government from interfering with slavery in any way; the other abolished slavery. The second was adopted by two-thirds of the Senate, two-thirds of the House of Representatives and three-quarters of the states, before the states of the Confederacy rejoined the Union.

On Martin Luther King’s birthday in 2011, it seems incomprehensible that Congress once thought that our country could reasonably choose between supporting and abolishing slavery. It is unnerving to realize that slavery was abolished only because slave states were not voting. It is difficult to believe that this country could have prospered if it had not abolished slavery, the moral contradiction that was at the heart of our democracy.

Climate Change is the central moral issue of the twenty-first century. It is a peace and social justice issue of global proportions. It is a life and death issue for nations like the Maldives and Bangladesh, which are literally at risk of disappearing beneath the waves. It is a question of whether the poorest people in the world will have food and fresh water to drink.

There are eerie similarities to the debate about the Thirteenth Amendment. At the current moment, Congress thinks it is entirely reasonable to consider prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from doing anything about climate change. HR 97, which has 95 cosponsors in the House, would do exactly that. There are tamer bills – HR 153 which would deny EPA funding and HR 199 which would require EPA to stop work on climate change for two years – but there are no proposals to require EPA to regulate vigorously. Nor is Congress moving forward on proposals like the CLEAR Act that would move our economy to a low carbon future.

Last summer Russia suffered catastrophic fires that devastated its agriculture. While the world literally burns, we are debating the cost to industry of reducing its pollution and the assertions of climate deniers, whose positions are grounded in political rhetoric not science. The echoes from the nineteenth century are disturbing.  Then, some asserted that Africans were inferior, as though it were scientific fact, and wealthy slave owners fought to preserve their comfortable life style.  Now, false climate “science” is rampant and wealthy countries expect to maintain their traditional level of comfort, which depends on unsustainable consumption of resources, especially fossil fuels. Congress is considering proposals that prohibit our nation from addressing the crisis and many consider the proposals  reasonable.

Climate Change is a profoundly moral issue, but the press defines it as anything but; it is an environmental issue, a scientific issue, an economic issue. FCNL and other faith groups have an essential role to play. We must assert loudly and often that climate change is a moral issue. It is a global issue of peace and social justice; it is about saving lives and God’s creation. Until the moral issue is heard, it will seem reasonable for wealthy countries to remain comfortable while the poor of the world starve, die in floods, droughts and famines and are driven from their homes.

One hundred and fifty years ago, some considered it reasonable to keep four million people in slavery so that a handful of wealthy people could remain comfortable. In this century, maintaining our comfort at the expense of the rest of the world is just as morally reprehensible.

  1. Roberta Badger-Cain permalink
    January 19, 2011 3:39 am

    Yes, this IS the moral issue of our time, and for the very reasons you articulated so well.

    It will also be important to address two other moral arguments with respect to climate change, and to offer a rebuttal to each.

    One is well known. The view is that God is in control, that He alone is responsible forHis creation, and that He would never allow His creation to be destroyed by any of His creatures (humans) because He is omnipotent and all-powerful and we are not. This argument does not take into consideration that God made humans with free will or that God is both transcendent (omnipotent and separate from His creation) and also immanent (omnipresent within His creation). Humans can and must access God’s spirit to seek divine guidance and inspiration. Humans have also been entrusted to care for God’s creation.

    The other moral argument that needs to be addressed is the belief that calamaties, natural disasters, diseases such as AIDS, and a host of other bad things happen because societies and/or individuals have sinned against God and it is God’s punishment. Therefore, the argument goes, the effects of climate change, especially on developing countries in the Global South, must be deserved, even if it isn’t obvious what sins were responsibile. This view presupposes that God is vengeful. If our climate is being destroyed, we deserve it, and trying to mitigate it will ultimately fail because God is omnipotent. This view neglects to factor in the rest of God’s creation – the air, seas, rivers and streams, soil, mammals, reptiles, fish, birds, plants, insects, sea creatures of all kinds, etc. etc. How are they to blame? They, too are being destroyed by what humans must be doing against God. If this view is viable, it means God is NOT omnipotent in protecting His creation against humans, nor is God just, either by destroying His creation to punish all humans including those who are blameless, or by destroying His creation in the process.

    A sound theological argument – better than my crude attempt – must be made to counteract these and other nefarious moral arguments that prevent all people of faith from taking action. People from the faith community can and must play a major role.

    There are those from the scientific community who provide sound scientific data and evidence and convince many. There are those from the economic community who provide scenarios of economic ruin, those who have interests in keeping corporate power, and they convince many. There are also those from the economic community who provide enlightened information about sustainability and long-term cost savings who convinced many.

    Yet, it is the moral argument, clearly stated and clearly explained, that has the power to touch hearts and change minds. Thank you for a brilliant beginning.

  2. Marcia Cleveland permalink
    January 19, 2011 10:43 am

    Roberta –

    Thank you so much for your comment. What a wonderful way to start my day. This is why I work for FCNL. I wrote that blog very quickly. It just bubbled to the surface, prompted by the ad in the Metro. It was the expression of beliefs and feelings I have had for a very long time.

    I have been doing environmental work for a very long time, including a five year stint at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and I have never been comfortable with economic arguments and the endless scientific debate. Both are necessary but never sufficient. We need to stand up and say this is wrong.

    Do you mind if I share your thoughts with the coalition of faith groups with which FCNL works? They are becoming more engaged, but need to speak louder and more clearly.

    Thank you.


    Marcia J. Cleveland Legislative Representative, Sustainable Environment Program Friends Committee on National Legislation 245 Second Street, NE Washington, DC 20002-5761

    tel: (202) 547-6000, ext. 2520 email:

  3. Jeff Kisling permalink
    January 19, 2011 11:02 am

    I really appreciate and agree with this. It echoes some of the things we’ve been discussing in our Earthcare subcommittee at Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative).

    Part of our mission statement:
    The purpose of the Earthcare Committee of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) is to provide a focus for Friends’ desire to discern a spiritual approach to preserving the bounty of God’s creation, and promote the just and equal distribution of resources we all need for our daily lives, work, and recreation.

    The following is from our report to the Yearly Meeting this year:
    The bottom line, however, is this: we have already used far, far, far more than our share of fossil fuels, and every drop we continue to use is gone forever, cannot be replaced, and is stolen from future generations.

  4. Marcia Cleveland permalink
    January 19, 2011 11:09 am

    Jeff –

    Thank you for your comment. I am so grateful to work at FCNL where I can express the connections I have always seen among peace, social justice and the environment.


    Marcia J. Cleveland Legislative Representative, Sustainable Environment Program Friends Committee on National Legislation 245 Second Street, NE Washington, DC 20002-5761

    tel: (202) 547-6000, ext. 2520 email:

  5. Jane Stowe permalink
    January 19, 2011 7:05 pm

    I completely agree with climate change being a moral issue and your comparing it to slavery. Thanks for your message. I will do what I can to make this point to others, including giving giving feedback to the media and making this point in a letter to the editor.


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