THE BLOG
09/08/2014 11:36 am ET Updated Nov 08, 2014

Where Climate Change and Real Conservatives Meet

Hollandluchtfoto via Getty Images

In a few weeks, world leaders will converge in New York City for the UN climate summit called by Ban Ki-Moon to prepare a foundation for the 2015 Paris climate accords. Civilization must be set on a sustainable path with the Earth. On September 21st, thousands upon thousands will walk in the People's Climate March to show UN leaders that the time has come to change for good. Yet while across the globe leaders in government, business, science, health and faith traditions are already taking action, the U.S. political system is gridlocked. This dangerous paralysis is largely caused by a confusion of climate change denial with so-called "conservative" values.

From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to the 1960s, "conservatives" were those who regarded with deep skepticism humans' powers to do good. Their religiously inflected worldview saw all institutions as prone to error, so conservatives naturally sought to limit the power of governments. But they were consistent. They knew that all unruly desires needed to be regulated -- a factory owner's as much as a government's. Teddy Roosevelt, the trust-busting conservationist, was this sort of conservative.

Political conservatives today are not at all conservative. They are radical utopians who treat corporations and their owners as if greed had been bred out of them. Government regulation only hinders the good they can accomplish. As for evil, only others -- foreign or political -- are prone to it. Our wars are benign, others' malign. If people suffer from market forces, well, that is how the strong guide the weak.

By embracing this radical worldview, today's conservatives have abandoned the moral heritage of the West. They do not heed its warnings about the arrogance of the self-made man. The last verse of the Bible's Book of Judges tolls a bell for this hellish distortion of freedom: "And every man did what was right in his own eyes." Yes. And as every man in industrial societies does what is right in his own eyes, the climate is being changed.

"Ruin," concludes Garrett Hardin in his 1968 essay The Tragedy of the Commons, "is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons." The ruin Hardin's generation foresaw did not yet encompass climate change, but now we realize that Earth's atmosphere is "the commons" without parallel -- that ultimate shared space into which billions of people and the polluters they patronize are pouring fossil fuel carbon wastes, assuming someone else will pay the piper.

The fact of climate change makes real conservatives of all who are not blind. Like thoughtless children, we stormed downstairs and, in a single century, burst open all the packages of the sun's energy so compactly wrapped and stored beneath the forests for three billion years. No wonder it's getting hot as hell! True, we had no idea what we were doing -- but that is the thing so basic to human nature of which the old conservatives were so sensible: our will is blind and cannot be trusted lightly. Now, as we pull our heads out of the sand of self-interest and look squarely at what we have done, we consider the whole Earth -- how everything is connected to everything.

That means liberal and conservative, too. We share one reality, one earth, each touching a core truth, a core beauty, and God knows, the eagle needs two wings to fly. Wendell Berry has long been sounding this voice of coherence in values at once conservative and liberal. He writes: "Along with all the rest of the world's people, we have inherited ancient instructions for the stewardship and good husbandry of the earth, with clear warnings, now scientifically verified, that disasters will attend our failure." This is the spirit of so many younger Americans, ready to drop the old divisions in order to preserve the Earth as the sacred ground of all that is worthy of love and honor. It is a wisdom without labels able to join a real conservatism with a will for transforming self and society. They may not know it, but Psalm 24 is already inscribed on their heart: "The Earth is the Lord's, and all that is in it." Ancient inherited instructions like these are the precious treasure which real conservatives have given their lives to pass on to the children.

Each Sunday, the old conservatives confessed to"sins of commission and omission." On Sunday, September 21st, we'll confess to "sins of emission" and complete the connection to the old conservative concern, because now, unregulated desire (which Buddha called ignorance and the Ten Commandments, sin) is disrupting the whole Earth. To avert the global tragedy of the commons, the commoners need to make leaders make laws that cause us all to regulate our desires as we put the common wealth of Earth to use, and not abuse. This is a moral imperative without parallel. Americans red or blue could grasp it, if any leader gave it utterance.

We must be that leader. Ruled not by the belly but by a vision for all that inhabit the Earth, facing facts, ready to act, we will speak with our feet so any who have ears can hear and understand. Climate change deniers, who are trying to save their old life, will lose it anyway. To love them, and not just leave them behind, we must by no means be led by them. This is why we are walking in the People's Climate March on September 21st.

Follow Rev. Stephen H. Phelps, Former Interim Sr. Minister at The Riverside Church of New York City, on the Web and on Facebook.