Facing Climate Change
Date Published: January 24, 2020
Environmentalist Karenna Gore goes beyond carbon emissions to the root causes of climate change and talks about how framing the crisis as a moral issue can help us adapt to and mitigate its worst effects. Ms. Gore is Director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.
You're listening to Road to Resilience. I'm Jon Earle. Today on the podcast my guest is Karenna Gore. She is Director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary here in New York City. And like her dad, former Vice President Al Gore, she's an environmentalist. But what I find really interesting about her is her focus. It's not so much on the specific policy solutions to climate change, but on what she says is the deep mindset that explains how and why we find ourselves in the climate crisis we're in. She also talks about the change that needs to take place in order for us to be resilient in the face of climate change. So we're going to talk about all of that and we're going to talk about her journey from being passive to now active. And lastly, we're going to talk about hope because there's a lot of reasons to be despairing right now, and she has some really good reasons to be hopeful. So here's Karenna Gore. Hope you enjoy the conversation. Karenna, thanks so much for joining us.
Karenna Gore: 00:52
So your path to environmental activism is not a straight one. You trained as a lawyer, you worked on your father Al Gore's presidential campaign, you wrote a book about women reformers in history, you had three children. How did you come to discover that climate activism was your calling?
Karenna Gore: 01:11
Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me on the podcast. It's really wonderful to be here. And in answer to your question, there were certain things that predisposed me to being interested in climate and environmental activism. I did grow up around talk about what was called "global warming" and then "climate change" now "climate crisis," "climate emergency." But I myself didn't take that on as something that was my mission or my work until I was at Union [Theological Seminary]. And we had the opportunity to convene religious leaders from around the world to reframe climate change as a moral issue and galvanize faith-based activism around it. And I made a lot of the connections for myself personally that made it obvious that this was the work that I should go into.
Were there specific moments? Whether in your travels or in your encounters with other people, where it hit you, maybe for the first time, that this is so serious that I need to be spending my professional life on it?
Karenna Gore: 02:19
I think what really enabled me to kind of get it, that moment of really understanding, was really an analysis of how in so many ways the destructive systems that have also enabled racial injustice and poverty are in fact so ingrained in belief systems, in ways of thinking. Things like measurements—understanding that when we measure and evaluate the health of our society from metrics such as GDP, it's perversely related to ecological destruction. So it doesn't measure pollution, doesn't measure depletion of resources, doesn't measure inequality. So once I understood that and then listening to the political discourse where it's all about economic growth and those things are not mentioned, it clicked in a new way that no wonder we're in this mess! If this is how we're measuring things. It makes sense. And then that kind of explained to me why the trust that I had that the systems would somehow solve this was very misplaced and that something really more radical needed to happen if we were going to actually be able to get beyond it.
So in other words it goes way beyond the technocratic solutions of a carbon tax or not, how much, et cetera. What you're trying to do is get to the bedrock of this. How do we live on this earth?
Karenna Gore: 03:49
You mentioned GDP. If you were in charge of all the major cable networks, what is the index or the number by which you would judge the success of our country?
Karenna Gore: 04:04
First of all, I think we should look not just at human beings. I do think we should look at biodiversity and the health of our forests, of our populations of insects. These are companions in a life system with interdependency in ways that we don't even totally understand. I also think that we should look at rates of anxiety, depression, suicide and life expectancy because it seems as if we have had a rise in these things at the same time that maybe there's been more products sold. After all, people do turn to all kinds of products and things in the marketplace in order to try to fill that need to feel better when there's a fundamental imbalance going on emotionally and mentally. So I think looking to those rates would be important. Of course there have been countries like Bhutan who've tried Gross National Happiness—
What do you think of that?
Karenna Gore: 05:05
I won't go into it in depth in part because I'm really not an expert. But I think it's the right idea. I think some way in which we can talk about and measure well-being is important. There are—and this is another benefit of having been in dialogue with some indigenous communities who are questioning the development paradigm—
Well, how do they measure their well-being?
Karenna Gore: 05:35
Well, there is having clean air, clean water, having food, having community and culture intact.
Let's get in a time machine and go to 20 years in the future, 30 years in the future. And let's say best-case scenario that we've changed, mindsets are changing, we're adopting more of a quality-of-life metric for the success of our civilization. How is it going to be tangibly different?
Karenna Gore: 06:05
think for one thing we will be seeing that the basic human needs—they have been called original instructions by some indigenous peoples, have to do with taking care of children and family and community and culture. So time spent doing that, although it might not be monetized and commodified and paid, will be valued. So that people will be spending more time with their families and their communities in that way. There would be less waste. I mean, we live in what Pope Francis in his encyclical "Laudato Si," calls the "throwaway culture." And this is really recent, actually. I mean, it's in the past decades when it's become so common, and particularly in an urban lifestyle as we're here in New York City, to just throw things out all day long. We would have reusable containers. People would sit and have food together and cups of coffee or whatever together with sitting down, taking the time instead of just taking everything to go and throwing it out quickly while you're on your phone, distracted by something else. There would be more of a sense of presence and less that kind of loop of just production, consumption, production, consumption, which of course powers the economy, but it doesn't make people happy in the end.
I want to go back to sort of what we started touching on, which was politics. You've worked in politics, you've spent a lot of time around politics. And I'm struck by the failure of politics, not only in the United States, but in other countries around the world. It seems like nobody has taken up this challenge. Nobody has, for example, reduced carbon by the amount that we all have to, scientists say. How do you explain the failure of politics? And what are your thoughts on what to do next?
Karenna Gore: 08:05
I would point to a couple of things. One is the role of money in politics. There is just a cycle and a system whereby people who are running for office and in office as incumbents are taking donations for their political campaigns that influence what they prioritize. Then I think it's also perceptions that come from communications. We live in a communications ecosystem in which a few things have happened. For one thing, there's been that kind of blending of news and entertainment, and oftentimes what is reported on—and particularly in the 24-hour news cycle—isn't actually the issues to do with the policies and laws that are going to make a difference to people. So those are a couple of things that I've noticed, and I do believe that there's going to be a big change because it does seem as if younger generations are intolerant of some of the nonsense. And even where climate change reporting is concerned, for so long this has been not covered in part because they say it's too scary, it's too depressing.
Do you see the generational change in your kids? You have three kids.
Karenna Gore: 09:17
I do. I have three kids. They are 20, 18 and 13. I do see the generational change in my children. But I think like most parents, I don't really look at them and go, "You're a representative of your generation!" [laughs] They're all three so different. And so there's that going on as well. And I think that it's also important in parenting to understand the role that we play in not just preparing them for the losses and stresses that their world will experience, but also really preparing them to lead in a different and live in a different—
I want to linger on that first point, the losses and stresses. Because there's a resilience component in that.
Karenna Gore: 10:08
How do you prepare them? What does that look like, preparing them for that?
Karenna Gore: 10:13
Well, first of all, we must acknowledge that there's an element of privilege and inequity with regard to climate impacts. And so when you educate your kids about values, I think to connect to more vulnerable communities and to make sure that that point of contact is understood to be an important connection, is part of it. The other thing is to prepare for the fact that the way that many people are living now is a kind of make-believe that's not going last. There is not going to be endless—for those in a more high consuming privileged sector—flights all around to vacations—
Yeah, this is a party that is going to end.
Karenna Gore: 11:00
Yeah. I often will bring up my grandparents because we are connected to a time that was quite different. They didn't live this way no matter what socioeconomic sector you were in. And so, to sort of be that bridge also, that you can remember what it was like for your grandparents and transmit it to your own children I think is important. But there's something that a friend of mine said from his value system, which is, "It's not just the earth that we're leaving to our children. It's what children are we leaving to our earth." And so, I think that's also important, which is to say connect to your watershed, pay attention to the sunrise and the moon. Just reconnect because there's actually a lot of strength in that. To try to sync back up with our natural systems that we live in instead of actually ignoring this beautiful planet. Try to use those opportunities. So even in New York City you can pay attention to the sunrise. You can go greet the Hudson River and think about water if you want. It's a choice and it can affect your consciousness if you do it.
What does resilience look like in the context of climate change?
Karenna Gore: 12:25
Sometimes people talk about climate change in terms of a two-pronged approach. We have to have adaptation and mitigation. How do you mitigate the problems? Stop it at its source. And how do we adapt to it? And because of the politics around it, some people are much more comfortable saying, "Oh, we just have to adapt. It doesn't matter exactly what's causing it. This is the new reality and we need to adapt to it." Okay. So we can't do it that way because there's nothing to adapt to if we don't deal at the level of cause. In some ways this is a crisis of cause and effect and us not seeing the relationship correctly or not wanting to. So we have to understand, with resilience, that if we don't deal at the level of cause and stop what is happening with the climate pollution, there is no end point to adapt to. There is no resilience standard that can meet what is coming. We have to do both. So resiliency is of course important for any communities that are going to go through stronger storms, heat waves, droughts, influx of migrants. We also have to obviously prepare so that we have buildings that can withstand these things, so that we have storm surge precautions and the like. And so that we're ready emotionally and psychologically in these communities to anticipate and absorb what's going to happen. However, that shouldn't take focus off of mitigating and stopping the trajectory we're on.
I sometimes think about telling my kids about the Amazon rainforest. There was once this thing that you wouldn't believe.
Karenna Gore: 14:05
How old are your kids?
I don't actually have kids. I'm just thinking of some day.
Karenna Gore: 14:08
Yeah, it's sad.
There's no recovering from the loss of something like that.
Karenna Gore: 14:14
I think that dealing with grief and loss is part of this. People need to go through that. Obviously in communities where they've been devastated firsthand even more so. But everyone, as we share this planet, the Great Barrier Reef is another one. Corals dying off. All of this beauty and wonder that can't be recreated. I think we do have to allow ourselves to feel that and channel whatever grief and anger also comes up, because there's energy in it, and we need that energy to press back against it. And if you think about the people that were fighting for the abolition of slavery and what was going on then and the horrors that were happening. It was not fuel to give up, it was fuel to fight back. And I think we have to have some faith that if we align ourselves with our values and we do everything we can, that there will be, of course, a better result than if we don't. And maybe that is all we can hope for.
So you wrote this book in 2006.
Karenna Gore: 15:28
Called—remind me of the name?
Karenna Gore: 15:30
"Lighting the Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America."
So you have studied reformers of the past. And I'm wondering what lessons you learned from that book, and even if there are specific lessons and tactics in mentality, or if there are moments from those biographies that you think back to in your everyday life that inspire you.
Karenna Gore: 15:54
I am very inspired still reading about stories of people who were in movements, whether it's civil rights or some of the early public health movements, who were very much against all odds of power and money on the other side. And nonetheless were perseverant and brave in terms of being comfortable with dissent from the system the way that it was, putting themselves on the line, and especially for those that weren't driven by ego or fame or money to build movements from the ground up to change things. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was the first woman that I wrote about in my book, and she was working against lynching as a black woman in the South. And of course her life was threatened all the time. And she said, "The way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth upon them." And was just very much devoted to truth. She did the research, did the publication of the facts around lynching and spoke out and just bravely traveled and also was back in her home community to shine that light, and her work made a big difference.
Don't you read those stories and you're like, "Aw, geez, could I do that?" Like, that sounds really scary. What is your comfort zone like and how do you push yourself to go outside of it?
Karenna Gore: 17:23
Well, that's an interesting question. I don't consider myself a paragon example of an activist. There are many others who I admire and am in awe of. I will say that I think there are things that you can feel particularly called to participate in. It's not that it's better or worse than anything else, but for some reason it matches who you are and what you have to contribute. And I think in a time where there is so much going on, there's rising movements of dissent, and appropriately confrontational in many cases. There are times in which it's difficult for people to participate in everything. And so, just to be able to be abreast of what's happening and to support those who match with the moment in a way that they put themselves on the line. And just whether it's signing a petition or even just saying something around your dinner party or at a cocktail reception where you are voicing why this is great is actually a mode of movement building. Using your own voice in those situations, because many people just aren't talking about this.
You said a moment ago that even mentioning it at a dinner party, just talking about climate change is an important positive step. And I completely agree with you, but it seems like there's a four-alarm fire and we should be banging down the doors of Congress or wherever.
Karenna Gore: 18:56
Is it five alarms or four?
Whatever the maximum number of alarms are, we are at that level. And I'm struck—and I completely include myself in this category—of the relative inaction of well-meaning people. I'm curious about your thoughts on that and on how someone goes from passive to active?
Karenna Gore: 19:20
First of all, I think in every situation obviously, I mean, people will harken back to Nazi Germany or abolitionism or what the South was like during Jim Crow, in every one of these situations—. I can't remember the quote, "What evil needs to triumph is good people doing nothing," is the case. And we're social creatures. It's very natural that people tend to want to stay in the fold of their flock of people and not be disruptive. However, what it takes for social change is to do that. So in the case of the climate situation, there is another factor, which is this fear of hypocrisy. You know, "If you're going to speak out against this, how come you're still driving a car with gasoline?" And that is something that there's been progress on people saying, "Look, we have to do both. We have to have individual changes and we have to have systemic changes." But systemic changes are more important. I mean, that's what it's ultimately going to take. So first, I think we do have to deal with that issue and make people understand that there doesn't need to be a lot of finger-pointing and blaming around individual behavior, that's a very good thing to do. But we need to be able to speak out about the system without attacking each other on that level. And I think in terms of, I mean, your question is about the inertia?
It's both about the inertia but also the journey to activism. Like, how does that take place?
Karenna Gore: 21:02
I think the first step is talking to people who are already there.
Karenna Gore: 21:08
Either people who are — I mean, okay, what's driving the climate crisis is pollution that also, at its source level, in terms of where these coal mines and oil pipelines are and the like natural gas compressor stations are, it creates ambient pollution that affects people's health right around them. There's this notion of "sacrifice zones" because so often these toxic facilities are placed in low-income communities and communities of color. And one very powerful part of this movement is that if you connect with the people in these places who are resisting that because of the immediate impact on their water and air and health, it gets you to another level of urgency, human connection, and you can stand with those people. I was able to go join the prayer camp in Standing Rock when there was that standoff conflict between the native, the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies and the Dakota Access Pipeline. And of course that pipeline was built. However, the movement of people, the way they came together galvanized the climate movement in a really big way. One way is even language and how we talk and think about it. For example, the native people there were saying, "We're not protestors, we're protectors. We're water protectors." And now you will hear that a lot in other cases where we're water protectors and it takes away what often people try to set up as this kind of culture war. "Oh, they're just angry protesters." Because, in fact, that is what we are. So there are ways that this accrues and builds positive momentum even when you have those temporary losses.
I have to ask you about your dad. So your dad, Al Gore, is probably the best known environmentalist—another term I think we should retire—in America. But if I understand correctly, your focus is a little bit more on spirituality and morality than his. First, is that accurate? And secondly, when the two of you sit down, let us be a fly on the wall. What does that conversation sound like? What do you talk about when you talk about environmental issues or what needs to be done?
Karenna Gore: 23:32
Well, first of all, I have a lot of respect as well as love for my father and gratitude to him for the work that he's done and for being a good father. His first book that he wrote on this topic, "Earth in the Balance," the subtitle was "Ecology and the Human Spirit." And he does talk about belief systems and spirituality in that book. So he has thought about that and expressed it. He now works some in the private sector. He's very interested in creating investments in a whole robust economic sector for renewable clean energy for regenerative agriculture. That's something that he has a lot of hope for and puts energy behind. So, I think if there's a disagreement it's probably around how important market-based approaches are. And I would say that I have some reservations because the marketplace seems to have so much waste and so much inequity, and there seem to be so many things that if it doesn't get to the root of the problem, it just repeats it in a different form. Whereas I think he feels a lot of optimism about the ability of the markets to respond quickly, even quicker than a government mandate could. And he often uses the example of cell phones, that nobody had any idea how quickly that would explode.
Right. Are you hopeful?
Karenna Gore: 25:15
Well, I know there's—I want to say there's the difference between hope and optimism. So I am hopeful in the sense that, and I would say there's an element of faith in that, because I do believe that where you align yourself and what you hold on to has power itself. So to go to a negative place would be to drag us further in the wrong direction. And we all have a responsibility, I think, to try to align with what's possible and not dwell.
It's almost like hope is necessary.
Karenna Gore: 25:53
Hope is necessary. I'm alarmed, for sure. And I think it's interesting hearing and speaking with medical professionals because so often people use analogies from health, from doctors, from "Do you tell a patient they have a terminal illness?" I mean, obviously you do, right? That's what we should probably be doing now, right, for planetary health. But if so, does that inspire behavior change more quickly? Or would somebody say, "Oh, you know what, we'll just forget about it then I'm just going to pedal to the metal." I think the insights from the medical professionals are much-needed in this. Not just for what the exact impacts of heat stress and disease vectors are, but for how we talk about it and confront it. Because there is a mental health component to this at the level of cause. If we have to do an autopsy on the planet, whoever would do that, they would have to say, "How did people not stop? How did human society not figure this out and stop?" And look at the exact nature of our perceptions right now and why we couldn't [unclear]. And addiction is another factor—
I'm hearing addiction. I'm hearing denial. Delusion thinking.
Karenna Gore: 27:12
Yes. And so in the field of addiction, where many people have experienced help through AA, which does include spirituality, we can't ignore these components of the human experience when we're dealing with a problem this great. So I really look forward to learning more from the insights of the medical and health community about how to deal with this and how to make hope a reasonable thing to have.
Karenna, thank you so much for being with us.
Karenna Gore: 27:47
It's been a pleasure.
Karenna Gore: 27:48
Thanks so much.
That's all for this episode of Road to Resilience. The podcast is a production of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. It's produced by me, Jon Earle, Katie Ullman, and Nicci Hudson. Our executive producers are Dorie Klissas and Lucia Lee. From all of us here, thank you so much for listening and we'll see you in a couple of weeks!