Karenna Gore on the Intersection of Faith, Climate Change, and Social Justice

by |September 25, 2019

By Jeff Berardelli

For the past five years Karenna Gore, age 46, the eldest daughter of former Vice President Al Gore and Tipper Gore, has been working in the family business of climate change. While that may seem an obvious course, given her father’s prominence in the space, the path that led her there, and the methods she is employing to tackle the challenge of climate change, make up her own unique story.

After attending Harvard College, Columbia Law School and working for many years in child justice organizations, Karenna Gore went back to school in 2011, attending Union Theological Seminary.

Affiliated with Columbia University, Union is a historic-looking complex in Morningside Heights, Manhattan. Founded in 1836 by Presbyterian ministers, the vision was to respond to the growing urban social needs of the day with a mix of academics and faith. Today, Union is a training ground for progressive Christian academics, whose community embraces other faith traditions and works on inter-religious engagement and social justice.

Karenna Gore speaks at a rally protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline

Karenna Gore speaks at a rally protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Gore is the director of the Center for Earth Ethics, which works to support the well-being of all people and the planet. Photo courtesy Karenna Gore

Gore received her M.A. in Social Ethics in 2013 and stayed, founding the Center for Earth Ethics that same year, on the Union Campus. That is where I met her, at her office space located on the top floor of a majestic Gothic tower.

Gore informally greeted me at the office door, dressed business casual with none of the pomp and circumstance one may envision from such a high-profile figure. She seemed enthusiastic to take me for a short tour of the center she built. It was promptly followed by our interview, wherein she explained why climate change is a moral issue, how her group is galvanizing faith-based activism, and more.

I’m curious, what it’s like getting into the family business? How did you find your own your own voice within that?

I didn’t intend to go into doing climate change work, in part because I just didn’t want to be tagging along with my dad or riding his coat tails.

However, when I got my degree here at Union I just was in a time and a place when I was literally called into this work by the fact that I was here. I felt like I was called to the work. I can say that I did not plan it.

I respect my father a lot and in many ways it’s wonderful to be able to work with him. I would have resisted doing that more if it weren’t for the fact that this is such a compelling issue and I felt like I was in the place and the time to do something about it. And I honestly think that if we are going to confront this in a way that makes a significant difference in the trajectory that we are on now, I think everyone has to give whatever they can.

What was your goal in starting the Center for Earth Ethics?

As we were exploring reframing climate change as a moral issue in galvanizing faith-based activism about it, we also explored deeply the root causes, as we saw them, of the crisis that we’re in and we discovered that it’s really two root causes. One is this illusion that we are separate and superior to the whole rest of nature. The other root cause is the development paradigm/ economic growth paradigm — the way that we measure successful societies.

“I honestly think that if we are going to confront this in a way that makes a significant difference … everyone has to give whatever they can.”

Right now we have a value system reflected in economics, reflected in political dialogue that is very short-term, that doesn’t pay attention to the externalities of pollution and destruction of nature, nor does it pay attention to inequality, and so what we have is a result of that.

The Center for Earth Ethics was founded to make the changes in policy and culture that are necessary to change to a value system based on long-term well-being of all life.

How do you go about accomplishing the mission of the center? What would a typical day or a typical event look like?

During the academic year, the center works with Union students (seminarians), so during a typical weekday, I might meet with one of our Field Education students about their ongoing projects, co-teach a class like: Indigenous Voices on Colonization; Ecology and Spirituality; Beyond GDP; Religion and Climate Change; and Plant Wisdom and Interreligious Dialogue or plan curriculum for an upcoming course offering.

Sometimes I speak in public venues such as local churches or schools. Recently I spoke at the United Nations and moderated a panel at the Council on Foreign Relations.

I also often participate in organizing work to plan events or actions, such as those involving resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure projects.

What do you view as the fundamental problem that’s causing Earth’s destruction?

I think it’s a problem of value systems. I think that we’re living with the illusion that the things like the stock market reflect reality when in fact they don’t reflect anything about the value of the natural world… and it takes absolutely no account of whether we have completely depleted our natural resources or whether we’ve pumped all this pollution into the air.

There’s been a philosophy that has really risen up known as neoliberalism, which is really about elevating public-private partnerships and making a business model the kind of ideal for the government…. It’s not actually working out that well because government is different than business, you know, it’s not all about efficiency. It’s about taking care of people who are vulnerable. So as long as we have people who want our government to be run more like a business … then we’re going to be even more in this situation.

I listened to an interview you did and I’m going to paraphrase here… You said, “This [climate change] is a moment we were chosen for or that chose us — nothing happens by accident. So, I’m curious what you believe about the way the universe works?

I do believe in a greater intelligence — that there are forces greater than ourselves and that there is an intelligence in the universe that, if you are open to it, will open some doors and guide and show you a way.

karenna gore with chief ninawa

Gore with Chief Ninawa of the Huni Kui people of the Brazilian Amazon. Photo courtesy Karenna Gore

It’s a matter of personal experience, it’s not even so much belief, but when you have a few of those personal experiences where you just think, “Ah what are the chances that this would happen?” And it usually happens in the cases of being more open-hearted, more open-minded and being deeply grounded in a purpose that is greater than yourself.

When I say nothing happens by accident and that we’re called to these times, I think that’s really a statement of faith — that we have what it takes, that people are called together, that we can feel an element of grace in it or opportunity. It doesn’t have to feel just tragic.

I think people may be interested in how you practice religion? If you are comfortable can you elaborate? 

I do not really feel comfortable talking about my personal spiritual/religious life in detail but I definitely have one and it is very important to me. I was raised Baptist, going to church every Sunday. I am happy to have had that foundation and also happy to have experienced and studied other traditions that have opened my perception and renewed my faith.

What is your opinion of Evangelical pushback on climate change?

I think it is important to be careful how we use the term “Evangelical” because it has come to denote a group that is more defined by their political affiliation than their theology. There is a long tradition of interpreting scripture in order to validate domination over nature and non-white peoples and I think the group of white evangelicals that deny the climate crisis is within that tradition. It is entirely irrational as well as immoral but it has deep roots and can be disguised as a kind of mandate to mankind to master and control the Earth by digging and burning the carbon stored in the ground.

It would be great if they came around and there is powerful work being done to facilitate that.

Do you have hope that we’re going to solve this?

Um … That’s such a hard question … [Deep breath and extended contemplation] … I have hope that we are going to make it less horrific then it could be. And I have hope that we might become better as a people and a species in the process, in ways that are really uplifting and kind of what life is all about. Those are the two things I can say about my hope. I do think that hope is different than optimism in an important way, that even if there’s a tiny sliver of light, you know, it doesn’t mean you think things are going great or you’re sure it’ll work out. It means there’s a chance. And you’re going to cling to that — you’re going to hold on to it.

Jeff Berardelli is a long-time TV meteorologist and climate contributor for CBS News in New York City. His work on at CBS News ranges from on-air weather to contributing to broadcast climate stories to writing articles for CBSNews.com. He is currently finishing up an MA in Climate and Society at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. He is most interested in communicating climate change challenges to a broad audience with the hopes of educating the public and improving awareness.

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Martha Otten

Brava Karenna this juxtaposition of faith, hope and earth matters is most profound. We can learn alot from First nations people who live in harmony with nature and unlearn traditional religious beliefs rooted in a paternalistic worldview that crushing Gaea to evangelize and follow the leader…