It happened. President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, removing any illusion that we can depend on the U.S. government to protect us from the impact of climate change. It is convenient yet mistaken to blame Trump for pulling the U.S. out of the climate accord and to believe that the man in the White House is responsible for inaction on climate change. It is far more honest to acknowledge our own role in the unfolding climate crisis.
Americans like big cars and trucks, plane travel, high consumption of meat, dairy products and imported food, and large homes filled with the biggest, newest, and latest in everything. Rapid climate change is happening because of a human lifestyle that is out of balance with the planet. Trump’s decision is a symptom of what most of us are doing.
If we lived on a more human, sustainable, and modest scale, utilizing efficient public transportation, plant-based diets, local food and travel, for starters, we would not be generating climate change in the way that we are doing. Climate change has grown out of our industrial, technological, consumerist society.
Let’s take cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks as an example. Americans bought over 130 million new cars and trucks over the past eight years, a record. There are over 250 million registered passenger vehicles in America, a number that has steadily increased in the past century. As U.S. News and World Report wrote, based on data from Autodata Corp and IHS Markit:
- “U.S. consumers bought a record number of new cars and trucks in 2016.
- U.S. vehicle sales totaled 17.5 million—a new record—with 63 percent of them SUVs and trucks.
- 2016 was the seventh consecutive year of year-over-year sales gains, an unprecedented string.
- Customers scratched small cars off their shopping lists in favor of SUVs.
These sales occurred during the Obama administration, showing the dissonance between his vision for addressing climate change and American consumer choices. Why do Americans buy such large vehicles? Part of it has to do with cheap gas. Industrial technology has enabled extracting oil and gas from ever more remote places in the world. And the price we pay in air pollution and climate change is not incorporated into the price we pay at the pump. In Europe, where governments tax gas much more and raise its price, transportation via bicycle, train, bus, small cars and hybrids are the norm.
These cars and trucks are the main reason why the transportation sector in the U.S. accounted for 26% of overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. While the U.S. accounts for just 4 percent of the world’s population, it has been responsible for releasing almost one third of the excess carbon dioxide that is heating the planet. To commit to curbing climate change while consuming cars and trucks with reckless abandon is like signing on to Weight Watchers while continuing to devour a diet of donuts, deli meat, and Haagen Daas. We cannot simultaneously curb climate change and expand consumer society. Sooner or later we will need to choose between our current consumption and our collective future.
What will it take to get Americans to change how they consume? It’s not enough for politicians, scientists, or business leaders to talk about what we need to do. Chinese medicine distinguishes between superficial and deep illnesses. Today’s news underscores how climate change is a deep illness that requires inner and spiritual change to address it. Changing behavior on a mass scale will require the mobilization of religious leaders. We need clergy to help us think long-term, moderate consumption, and reign in greed.
In Jewish wisdom, the Ethics of the Fathers teaches, “Who is the wise person? The person who can see the effect of their actions and what is to come.” We are called upon today—individually and collectively ― to look into what is likely to be, and to try change the way we are living now.
Yet personal automobile use, and use of large vehicles, is so ingrained in American society that most clergy have been unwilling to challenge this sacred cow. A 2014 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the American Academy of Religion found that about 90% of clergy in America do not speak frequently about climate change, and 62% rarely or never speak about it. And a 2016 report by my organization, The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, found that the vast majority seminaries and theological schools in the U.S. do not make ecology a central part of the religious training of emerging priests, pastors, and rabbis.
So congratulations, Donald, on withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Accord and giving humanity a big wake up call. Most U.S. politicians, clergy, journalists, businesspeople, and philanthropists have never responded to climate change with the urgency it demands . A core group of Americans know that to curb climate change would mean that Americans would need to change. Indeed at the first UN climate change conference 25 years ago, the lead U.S. negotiator said that the U.S. would participate as long as the U.S. way of life was not negotiable.
We want to have it all—big cars and trucks, carbon-intensive diets, frequent plane travel, and large homes, as well as a stable climate for ourselves and future generations. But God’s creation is showing us that the earth—and the human being—need to live in balance, with modesty and humility. As the angel said to the Prophet Daniel, “you have humbled yourself before your God.” (Daniel 10:12)
Our present situation is analogous to the Titanic, which was not just a ship, but a mentality of excess and arrogance. Our lifestyle is on a collision course with the planet on which we live. It is more important that we summon our energies to ensuring that we and our children can simply live, than fight at all costs to maintain our current unsustainable standard of living.
Trump can be our biggest asset because his intransigence constantly reminds us that we can’t rely on the ship’s misguided co-captain to save us. As the tick tick tick of our collective climate clock continues, I join others in sounding the alarm. I pray. I cry. I try. In pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, Trump is showing us that we ALL need to make radical changes in all sectors of society in order to change course and avert collision with the iceberg.
As Bill McKibben wrote today, “As the federal government reneges on its commitments, the rest of us will double down on ours.” Most of the change that we can make is being the most righteous and virtuous people we can be. In our times, a key part of that involves living as ecological an existence as we can. Let’s do it together.