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A Faith Frame on Climate Disruption

Jose Aguto
On Needs (May 2015)

An interview with Jose Aguto

Jose Aguto is the Legislative Secretary for Sustainable Energy and the Environment with Friends Committee on National Legislation. He spoke with Western Friend by phone on April 20, 2015. The following text was excerpted from an edited transcript of that conversation. To read a much longer version of the transcript, see:

Western Friend: Would you start by sharing how you came to your current position with FCNL?

Jose Aguto:  Sure. My second day of law school, I realized I really didn’t like it. But I wanted to make use of it. So I asked myself the question, “Which peoples have been most abused by the rule of law or the lack of application of the rule of law?” Although there are many worthy answers to that question, my answer was Native Americans. So I focused on serving Native Americans, and my summer law school internships were on tribal reservations. Through that work, I came to appreciate how some tribal peoples don’t make distinctions between the human world and the natural world. As one elder said to me, “They are not natural resources, they are our relatives.” A few years later, I worked for EPA’s American Indian Environmental Office and the National Congress of American Indians. Then a friend told me about a position opening at FCNL. I applied and was blessed to be accepted, which by God’s grace seems to be a natural progression in both my professional development and my spiritual development as a Catholic.

WF: What is your current legislative agenda right now, and your public awareness agenda?

JA: There currently is no legislation in Congress that is both meaningful and politically viable to address climate change. Because of the current level of partisanship around this issue, some advocates actually avoid mentioning the phrase, “climate change.” But as Joe Volk says, “There’s no elegant solution to an ill-defined problem.” So FCNL’s primary focus now is on the “Call to Conscience on Climate Disruption,” which is a moral call to Congress to acknowledge in a bipartisan fashion the science and human causality of climate change – and a call to commit to action on that basis. The faith community needs to be a bridge to bring people together. This work has to be a grass roots effort, not a Hill game. Just like other social movements, like the Civil Rights Movement, the Climate Change Movement requires a moral foundation. An environmentalist once told me, “I really wish the faith community would stop acting like policy wonks and start speaking instead from the moral and faith frame – from where they are.” And so FCNL started to embrace that. We also realized that we need Republicans to be a part of this conversation. Most Republican legislators privately acknowledge the science and reality of climate change, but they feel they don’t have the political cover or moral backing to speak publicly about it. The faith community’s support would, if you will, help them come out of the closet.

We initially faced a lot of skepticism about this strategy. Some of our allies said, “What? Just talk to our representatives about acknowledging climate change? That’s just a resolution, not even a bill. How can we lobby on that?” I respect that. Trying to issue a moral call when real-life battles and impacts are happening – the Keystone pipeline, EPA’s Clean Power Plan, desertification – it’s a huge challenge. But for this Call to be effective, we have to hold back from talking about policy prescriptions, because a policy conversation immediately steers a legislator away from the fundamental acknowledgement about the reality of climate change. And that’s the first essential step: you cannot solve a problem until you first admit to it. As things stand now, well-meaning people on both sides of the aisle are having really tortured conversations, trying to draft legislation that tries to address climate change without talking about it. These kinds of tortured intellectual exercises will get us some modest pieces of legislation, but they will never get us kind of legislation we really need to prevent the catastrophes that we are creating.

WF: Can you talk about what happened in 2009 around climate change legislation? I know there was a progressive bill that failed, but I didn’t track what happened that closely. 

JA: In 2007, Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich sat on a couch together for a public service announcement, saying climate change is the greatest threat facing humanity today. With bipartisan recognition of the dangers of climate change, many pieces of legislation were proposed. The bill that passed the House was called the Waxman Markey Bill or the American Clean Energy and Security Act. Its goal was an 80% reduction in national green house gas emissions by the year 2050. But the fossil fuel industry woke up and realized this was a threat to their very existence. So they came in heavy and strong in 2009, and near the end of the negotiations in the House, many compromises were made, and the bill barely passed. Once it got to the Senate, it was pretty much dead on arrival. By that time, the fossil fuel industry was out-lobbying the climate community something like 8 to 1.

WF: When you imagine a way forward that seems plausible in regard to the influence of the petroleum industry and international capital, how do you think about that? 

JA: As Bill Moyers says, “The only antidote to organized money is organized people.” The U.S. is still potentially the greatest democracy in the world, should people choose to exercise our democratic power. We have the ability to talk to our legislators face-to-face and express our opinions, without fear of the kind of retribution that happens in many countries across the world; this motivates us at FCNL to engage more people more deeply in this process. If constituents are not in the halls of Congress, those halls will continue to be filled by other interests. This is how we can recover our democracy. A survey of 260 congressional staffers found that the most effective way to persuade a legislator who is on the fence on an issue is for a constituent to meet with the legislator face-to-face – by far, the number-one, most effective strategy.

WF: So assuming we can take back our democracy, how hopeful are you that humanity can achieve a livable balance with the natural world? What is possible?

JA: I am fearful for our future. A prominent environmentalist told me privately, “I think we’re done,” in terms of our ability to prevent some of the predicted impacts. What the indigenous people have been saying to mainstream society since First Contact still remains true: We’re not in right relationship with our relatives, with our Earth, and there is going to be hell to pay. Often it seems to me, our purpose now is to stop things from being more horrific than they might be. Some of the people I admire most are ones who endured horrors like the Holocaust – with indomitable God-sourced spirit – like Maximilian Kolbe. The utter madness of climate denial in the context of past, present, and future impacts, to have that in your face all of the time, is slow-motion trauma. Seeking to live the divine ideal in the face of difficult circumstances remains one of the greatest of human endeavors. To seek that grace, that of the divine in God and all, and to help and inspire others: I don’t pretend to be living in that state, but I am seeking to live in that way, and it gives me purpose.

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