Karenna Gore

A Climate Ethic

Air Date: December 19, 2015

Center for Earth Ethics director Karenna Gore talks about forging a moral view of the planet.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Today we continue the conversation about the future of our planet, from An Inconvenient Truth to the ecological crisis that is climate change. The Pope’s recent visit to the US could be a watershed moment for constructive action forward, or not.

The road to a vibrant eco-ministry continues with our guest today. Karenna Gore is director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary. The daughter of former Vice President Al Gore, Karenna furthers her family’s commitment to environmental stewardship.

Gore joins us when news that the air pollution-plagued Chinese are working to adopt a carbon tax system to control emissions. Will Americans suffer a similar epidemic of respiratory illness? We sure hope it can be averted. And so let me ask Karenna to begin with, what we would do proactively in practice to model what Pope Francis championed in his speech before Congress, The Golden Rule as it applies to our environment. And welcome, Karenna.

GORE: Thank you, thank you so much Alexander, it’s really nice to be here. Well, I, there are um, some changes that need to be made to policy and there are some changes that need to be made culturally. And I think that first of all we need to put a price on carbon and start to recognize that uh, the carbon emissions that are going into the thin shell of the atmosphere um, are harming the entire planet and that has to do with Paris and getting a strong agreement in Paris, uh, in, very shortly. And um, then also we need to examine our culture and our values and through leadership on individual community, state, nation, uh, and global levels, start to uh, to think about values, um, other than just short-term profit, which is really driving a lot of, a lot of things in organizations now, and instead we need to be thinking about well-being and more long-term including future generations.

HEFFNER: How do you define Earth ethics?

GORE: Well, Earth ethics uh, is a value system, it’s not its own system but it’s really a framework for discussion about what values we want to have drive our economies and our cultures and our uh, civic decisions. And right now, we find I, I find just in terms of the conventional and sort of mainstream dialogue, there’s a lot of weight given to um, to growth, economic growth, and Earth ethics asks the question at what cost and what kind of growth and who benefits from the growth? Um, and that has to do with issues that are values-based about right and wrong, about um, what kind of society we want to shape and not just a kind of expansion for the sake of it.

HEFFNER: You mention the word well-being which seems to strike a chord for the community of evangelicals who you are rallying along with the secular community, the academic community. What have you found thus far is the output of the volunteerism and the grassroots organization that collectively thus far engage the Center at Union?

GORE: Well we’re engaged in um, on several fronts. One thing that we do is actually our cornerstone program is called our original caretakers program. And that is to really engage and honor, uh, and learn from indigenous traditions, so um, there’s a long history of uh, ecumenism at Union and, and many other places, schools of religion. Uh, but indigenous traditions have not always been a part of that conversation as much, so the original caretakers learns from um, that traditional wisdom and that’s a very exciting front. Uh, we also are doing eco, eco-ministry, which is really vocational and service opportunities that we can provide through education, through workshops and classes and public programming. And then we also do work with a lot of partner organizations, including evangelicals and people from all faith backgrounds and in that I include humanists, atheists, all different belief systems, and work together to try to put forward a voice for change, uh, that will be for a healthier planet and uh, and society.

HEFFNER: How do these disparate faiths intersect insofar as a carbon tax is concerned, for example?

GORE: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: It seems like a very biblical idea that descends from Inconvenient Truth on that collectively, um, you could look at Islam, the Five Pillars, you could look at Judeo-Christian conviction and say having a tax to preserve the quality of our environment is, is a, a sound, virtuous tenet.

GORE: Well, it occurs to me, um, to refer to something that William Barber, Reverend William Barber who’s uh, the head of the NAACP of North Carolina and a really um, eloquent minister – says which is the prophet doesn’t ask is it eco—is it practical, is it feasible? Is this uh, is the political climate ripe for this solution? That’s not what a prophetic role is. It’s to have a vision and to move towards it, and I think that you have moral voices from religious communities and other sort of values-based communities and ethicists as well that just start with what is right? What, what is, who do we want to be as a people? What sort of world do we want to see? What’s, what’s the purpose here, um, on Earth? And you get to a different place including that we don’t, it’s not an open sewer, the air is not an open sewer, so start from there. Um, instead of from what kind of congress do we have and where, you know, where can we get to a place with the right kind of policy changes? So I just want to mention that so that, not to fixate on necessarily carbon tax, there are other, there are different ways of doing it and um, and I think that just putting a price is a more market-based solution but that’s not the point, the point is the change we must be and see.

And the other thing I wanted to say in response is that we have seen just this year, in addition to Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si, we’ve seen uh, an Islamic declaration on climate change, a rabbinical letter, um, there have of course been statements from the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, from the Dalai Lama, um, and, and from many others, Desmond Tutu, so across the board we’re seeing a really ramped-up priority on immediately ending fossil fuels, so whatever you think about the specific solutions of how we have to stop this system and era, it’s, it’s harming, it’s harming us and most of all harming those who are most vulnerable.

HEFFNER: And do you think that the pockets of communities affected by fracking for example that are starting to speak out, you can see the film Gasland for instance to see the effect on human health as well as kind of the suffering of the environment, do you think that that’s resonating more, especially as people travel to China and they can’t breathe?

GORE: Mm-hmm. Absolutely, I mean we’re seeing the impacts, um, of air pollution and uh, a lot of communities have been seeing it for a long time, and I mentioned the original caretakers program, if you’re walking just in the Navajo reservation, you have people living who themselves don’t have electricity, but they’re living in a place where uh, fossil fuel extractions industries are coming and just ripping up the landscape and it affects the air and the water, um, obviously terribly. So um, we’ve been seeing these effects for a while, it’s getting more attention, um, there are really important you know, books, Wen Stephenson, uh, What We’re Fighting For Now is Each Other, um, obviously Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, there are a lot of people that are speaking out who are really drawing attention down to the ground where people are, are fighting this um, daily.

HEFFNER: I was gonna ask you if there was gonna be a sequel to An Inconvenient Truth but I hope not because it would probably be pretty damning and uh, but we might need, we might need more evidence in order to elicit the public consciousness that you’re describing.

I asked this question of Naomi Oreskes, the climatologist at Harvard University, in fairness I want to ask it of you, affiliated with Columbia or indirectly through the Union Theological Seminary. How is this issue of divestment playing out on campus as far as you’re concerned?

GORE: Well it, Union Theological Seminary, uh, our Board did vote to divest from all fossil fuels and, and that was something we were very proud of last year.

HEFFNER: Separate from Columbia.

GORE: It’s, we are separate from Columbia, we’re, we’re affiliated, um…


GORE: You know, as is Jewish Theological Seminary and others in that neighborhood, we have, we have a really strong affiliation. Um, but uh, I can’t actually speak to the conversation at Columbia ‘cause truthfully I don’t really know where that stands right now. I know that they um, said that they have divested from uh, private prisons and that is a very important discussion that I followed a little bit and, and I was in some meetings in the coalition um, of Columbia, uh, people affiliated with Columbia who were discussing that, but I don’t quite know where they stand on the fossil fuel thing right now.

HEFFNER: It’s very difficult to do that kind of self-audit of your environmental impact when the focus is so much on the dollars and cents.

GORE: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: You know, you’d like to imagine an auditor to come into an organization and say well you know, beyond your carbon footprint, how are you impacting the wellbeing not only of a, of a paycheck but of a society? What’s your vision for how um, faith leaders are gonna practice that, what they preach in their individual institutions? Obviously the Vatican has not divest from fossil fuels or any kind of dirty energy, what’s the, what’s the step forward there?

GORE: Well we want to see divestment, um, and that, that is a very interesting conversation because not everybody has seen the connection to your pocketbook, to the market, um, in terms of what values you want to see in the world and, and it’s important that we do that.

Um, also of course we can live in ways as communities as well as as individuals that are more conscious of uh, the ecosystems that we’re in, of the waste that we generate, and that’s something that I find one, one thing, one barrier to that can be that people don’t want to feel ashamed, they don’t want to be shamed, they don’t want to be in a conversation where you know, if you happen to have a plastic bottle of water then you’re gonna um, sort of get dirty looks for it.

Um, we’re really interested in moving beyond that and trying to have the kinds of systemic changes on community levels as well that um, that, that can make a difference in the aggregate, so I think that there are lots of changes that can happen on different levels.

HEFFNER: Naomi Oreskes and I talked about the Pope’s concern about fundamentalism. In a religious context, we can appreciate that because of how fanatics have hijacked religions to enact real human suffering.

GORE: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: At the same time, the people who are so-called skeptics or deniers, they gravitate to this idea that you are fundamentalist in your conviction of this fact and therefore I am gonna hold a different position, and if your position threatens my livelihood in some way, I’m not gonna give you any ground.

GORE: Right. It’s really interesting to see, I think one thing that’s been useful, um, is to just think about the framework that is promoted by the people who want the fossil fuel era to continue. And they are very um, aggressive in this idea that um, you’re a hypocrite if you are speaking out for change and, and yet, you know, you still drive a car and you still use electricity. That is a tactic, that, that’s not something that we should just kind of absorb and let it paralyze us, you know? It’s a tactic and also you can already see the fallacy in some of these um, efforts to sort of say that well, being anti-um, uh, global warming or anticarbon or anti-climate change is not good for the poor, it’s actually going to hurt the poor. That fighting poverty necessitates more extraction of fossil fuels. That’s currently the framework that they’re handing us and yet you can see through uh, some of the books I just mentioned before about how the poor are leading a movement against the extractions industries and against the harm that they’re doing. And you can also see countries that are, that are engaged in the Paris talks where you know, we were told that no, you know, the developing nations, so-called developing nations are not going to want to make any sacrifices in extracting energy but yet the Philippines, Mexico, these are cultures that are recognizing that this is not good and it’s, it’s not, um, in line with core human values to, to go ahead, and so they’re stepping up, trying to get a good agreement in Paris.

So all of that, um, is just to say that I’m, I’m glad you, you sort of flag that, it’s complicated but I just want to say it’s not, to have a healthier food choice be more expensive than a processed, packaged food choice, it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s because of policies. The same way that you know, to say that, that solar panels and windmills are too expensive, more expensive than fossil fuels. That’s, if that’s true in certain places, it’s because of policy. You know, we need to change it and not just accept it at face value.

HEFFNER: Are you referring to loopholes that favor corporations that are environmentally unfriendly?

GORE: I mean that and I mean subsidies as well. Um, it’s shocking the amount that that still goes on. Uh, at the same time governments are saying we need to, to stop that form of energy, they’re subsidizing it and…

HEFFNER: Unpack that accusation or paradox of hypocrisy for us because that is a strong thrust of what you’re calling an unsound, fundamentally, argument and it, and you know, it’s uh, I remember seeing the incriminating tweets about any number of world summits or forums in which yes, people were traveling on the, on the airlines to get to X or Y location.

GORE: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. I understand, I, I do understand that, I don’t think that we need to gloss over and say you know, there is no complexity here, I think there, there is some, and we do live in a world in which um, we are, we are using uh, all kinds of products and mechanisms that rely on fossil fuels right now. But that doesn’t mean we don’t see a vision for what’s better and we can work towards that and that it’s a process and I think that, that that’s important to remember.

HEFFNER: I would imagine an answer could be just as you have LEED-certified buildings, there should be the equivalent for airlines. Or something to that effect, right?

GORE: Yes, yes.

HEFFNER: If you, if you can turn around and say well I was flying emission-free air.

GORE: Mm-hmm. I think that’s really hopeful to start to have more market-based solutions. I mean a few things, um, are helpful to me to think about this. One is you know, I don’t have a total faith the market is gonna save us. Some people, I hear this kind of argument a lot and I, it worries me a little bit ‘cause I worry about the inequities involved in that and um, and but I do think that um, that it’s important to see for instance that it seems to be moving so that there are more choices food-wise where uh, it’s marketed on the basis of the fact that clearly people want to have it free from all these chemicals and, and, and the, you know, cruelty factor and all these things, and I think that that could certainly start to happen more with fossil fuels, the more that people are aware of the real harm. ‘Cause they, still it’s not a vast awareness of that, I find. Um, but also I think it’s useful to look back on the civil rights movement for some of this and to think about how um, changes were framed in different ways, so uh, to fight segregation then was framed as sort of like you know, a federal-state issue as, as you know, involving the complexities of hypocrisy and all of these things that were in, in systemic kind of interdependencies but really it came down to right and wrong.


GORE: And that, that, that changed it a lot to look at it in a different way. And I think that’s where um, moral voices and, and religious and spiritual leaders can make a difference.

HEFFNER: Come back to the ethics. So in, in that spirit, what is the ethical blueprint that, going back to The Golden Rule, what is the ethical blueprint that you espouse in the way that religious leaders should confront this?

GORE: Well, I wouldn’t say that I have a clear blueprint that’s very detailed so, so much as that uh, I, I would love to see a facilitation of people feeling some control over how their communities um, are shaped and what values they run on, and because a lot of people experience their moral obligations to others, their sense of living out their values through their religious faith, then that is a place to think about that and to start that change. Um, and, and so even in, in the sense of sort of democratic processes, small D, um, whereby people can look at development policies, so one of the things that we’re able to do at the Center for Earth ethics is we do these sort of immersion workshop courses and go to um, to places where we have allies and talk to them about their concerns and bring in things like Bible study and uh, consultation with the um, indigenous wisdom, uh, maybe from Native American leaders from that area, which is, which is exciting and different and so um, we did that in Alabama recently, we went to Baltimore and um, did a study of Laudato Si, um, that included a Bible study and, and one of the things that we’re seeing is that development when it happens, economic growth doesn’t take into account, it’s short-term profit-driven. And a lot of times, you know, just corporate actors come in and take a tax write-off and, and, and sort of impose on the landscape, I mean you see it everywhere, big box stores and, and it might mean jobs and lower prices for a little while, but it doesn’t always mean that long-term, and it’s not always something that benefits the community, certainly not when it’s fossil fuel companies that are coming in and doing that as happens a lot, um, in the states around the Gulf. So I think in terms of you know, faith leadership can and, and I don’t mean to say only faith leadership, it’s also community leaders, anyone who’s not beholden, I mean the problem is our political system, so many elected officials are taking so much money from um, these industries that it’s not really working how it should, so when you talk to people they say you know, the problem is you know, we don’t have people representing us. They just take orders directly from um, these big corporations that are donating. So, I think that faith leaders can provide community-based leadership spaces for reflection, discussion of values, like I was saying for not just political feasibility and short-term financial gain, so I’m sorry to go on a bit in that answer but um, that, that’s a little bit what occurs to me.

HEFFNER: I was gonna ask you why, and you explained, because there’s this unstoppable flow of uh, solicitation from the corporate community, um, but the question really is what, what to do about it and, and you know, so you explained why it’s such a challenging political issue. Now we have to get to the how.

GORE: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: How do you fix it, we, we talked about divestment but beyond that, you enter this fray as a lawyer and your father entered this fray as a lawyer,

GORE: Well, mm.

HEFFNER: Well with some legislative know-how.

GORE: With some legal training, and as a lawmaker, as a former lawmaker.

HEFFNER: Right, some legalese. As a former lawmaker,

GORE: Uh huh.

HEFFNER: Um, and you’re a former lawyer and in order to change the game…

GORE: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: You need new laws.

GORE: Mm-hmm.


GORE: Yes. We need new laws and there are laws at lots of different levels obviously, um, and, and all of them are important. I, I talk a little bit about the justice-based culture work, that’s not my phrase, it’s a colleague, Jackie Patterson, I heard her say that, of the NAACP, um, environmental and climate defense initiative. And that work is important too but the laws are very important and the problem of money in politics is really central so since Citizens United, and I’m not a fount of statistics and numbers on this. They are out there and they’re very um, they’re very startling and it’s, it’s worth consulting them and it’s worth more transparency to see exactly who takes money from these industries, who’s voting on them, I mean it’s un—it’s, it’s, it’s just le—just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s not corruption. It’s complete corruption of our process and so I think you know, since Citizens United, we see more uh, of a problem with the amounts of money, with the legal rights being claimed by corporations, um, and also they’re just a set of campaign finance laws that are really rigged in a, in a, in a bad way for this. Um, so we need to change them. I think we should have a Constitutional Amendment to overturn Citizens United, um, there’s efforts underway for that. Uh, there are also uh, efforts underway for campaign finance reform which are very important, but um, just to kind of get communities in states where they have the power to do things like I mean New York State banned fracking. That was a big win, those are the kinds of things that make a difference too.

HEFFNER: Well, as we conclude here, it’s clear that your mission is for the laws of ethics or morality to assume uh, a role in shaping the laws of our legislative bodies.

GORE: Working at Union Theological Seminary, there’s a great history of that. We’ve had social ethicists based there like Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, um, who spoke out on issues going back to um, intervention in Nazi Germany so uh, and also in the nuclear age really spoke about, about ethics being a part of those discussions, so it’s, it’s certainly part of the mission to, to have the field of Earth ethics make a difference.

HEFFNER: I just think about the difficulty again of civil disobedience on this kind of issue. Essentially, you have to not function in order to in so many instances, um, be disobedient.

GORE: I think that we, you cannot let yourself go into paralysis by the many, many ways in which we’re implicated. I mean including we all wear clothing, we have to figure out where it’s made, we have the food that we eat, we, there are so many ways in which our global economy has implicated us that it can feel paralyzing but I think the goal of Earth ethics is to, is to sort that out and say you know, there are some cases where we’re actually called to accountability in, in very specific hands-on, on the ground way. And that can come where we’re discussing and law changes, chances to change the system that we’re all living in.

HEFFNER: Hmm. And the first step is to go to the pew and acknowledge the problem, right?

GORE: Well, it’s not just for people who are churchgoing, um, but uh, I think in terms of, churches have been communit—bases for communities for a long time in this country, so in that sense I think go to the, the, the centers of, of your community. This is how, I mean this is a country that was based on a beautiful vision of democracy that, that, that really needs to function again.

HEFFNER: I mean that in the broadest sense of a confessional.

GORE: Oh yeah, yeah.

HEFFNER: Not specific, not specific to one religion, but really I think there is a population of our country that has refused to accept that it has to participate in that confessional.

GORE: It’s true, um, there is no denying that when you look at polls and numbers of people who want to talk about this or think about this as a, as a major problem that we all need to confront, it’s all, it can be a bit disheartening but I think that can change, um, that can change because there are a lot of people who actually, I, I think do feel a certain discontent with a culture that’s just an engine of consumerism, um, without, without thinking about values and that is really what we’re talking about here, let’s think, let’s stop and think about what’s really important in life and how we can conserve it.

HEFFNER: Karenna, thanks so much for joining me today.

GORE: Thank you so much, Alexander, pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit the The Open Mind website at thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @Open MindTV for updates on future programming.