Steven A. Leibo: On indifference to global warming

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Dr. Steven A. Leibo directs the Sage Colleges Program in International & Globalization Studies.]

Boy, how predictable! Just when we we’re feeling good about this emerging environment of greater toleration. Just when a leader like President Obama could emerge and appoint a judge like Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court a last century wack job like the killer who showed up at the Holocaust Museum reminds of us of how many of the hatreds of the last century, the century some have called the century of genocide remain with us.

Of course it’s easy to hate people like the killer who went into the Holocaust Museum ready to murder – easy to hate those folks who despise the 21st century with its improving attitudes on race and its scientific conclusions that dash ancient wisdoms.

I myself met an incredibly angry fellow a few days ago who vehemently denounced me for believing the world’s scientific community’s findings that humanity’s aggressive burning of fossil fuel is pushing the world’s climatic system toward a new global climate. Pushing it toward a future that may well provoke a vicious competition for food and water that could easily dwarf the genocides of the last century.

But frankly, its seems to this commentator that moving us more smoothly into the 21st century has less to do with the moving past the racial hatreds of the last century, than confronting the seemingly more benign indifference that fed so many of the last century’s genocides. The indifference that inspired the great German theologian German theologian Pastor Martin Niemöller to famously write:

“In Germany, they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;

And then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;

And then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;

And then… they came for me… And by that time there was no one left to speak up.”

But today we have a different challenge – a challenge not born from the stupid racial theories of earlier generations. But a physical threat born from among earlier generations’ great accomplishments –the capture of fossil fuels as a source of unimaginably great new energy. And the climate bill for that accomplishment that has come due in our own time.

And today’s enemy not the Nazis or the demons who drove our 88 year old killer to the door of the Holocaust Museum. But Niebuhr’s evil of indifference that remains deeply within us making it harder to take on the 21st century’s greatest challenge to the world’s health– the indifference that causes so many of us to ignore the emerging traumas of climate change.

And perhaps might someday inspire a Niebuhr like apology:

First the waters came for the Pacific Islanders those who lived so close to sea leve.l

The very people who just last month begged the UN security council to recognize the threat climate change is making to their low lying islands

But I was not from Kiribati or the Indian Ocean’s Maldives.

And then drought came for the people of Darfur.

Whose suffering the secretary general of the UN has directly linked to the struggle over food and water caused by climate change.

And then the fires came for the people of Southern California & Australia

Whose drought parched lands saw flames destroy homes across their land.

But I wasn’t from Sidney or Santa Barbara.

And then they came for the Alaskan communities for whom the United States government is already spending millions to relocate their displaced communities -themselves victims of global warming.

But it does not have to be that way. After all we live in a democracy that is at this very moment working to enact a new energy future –a new energy structure that has the potential to avoid the worst horrors of dramatic climate change. Even as it offers work to unemployed Americans eager to build that new energy future .

But that is not going to happen unless we take Niebuhr’s denunciation of indifference to heart and insist that our leaders support the new energy legislation currently moving through Congress

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Steven A. Leibo - 6/23/2009

yes, in case anyone notices.. I had the wrong Theologian! It was Martin Niemöller who made the famous comment I quoted. Thanks to Professor Rolf Ahlers for pointing this out.