Rubio was talking about boosting drilling and mining for oil and gas as a way to stop importing Russian oil and gas and, thus, stop financing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. But it was more than that. Rubio’s tweet is an unintentionally revealing expression of the lizard brain of fossil fuel boosters, aligning America’s fight for freedom and democracy with the muscle and profit of the oil and gas industry and the power and glory of God. For a Republican senator like Rubio, who loves to think of himself as a shrewd international player, this a perfect tweet.
But the remark was weird and alarming for precisely the same reasons: it fused freedom and democracy with fossil fuels, while suggesting that the Big Guy in The Sky has been looking out for us by stashing great reservoirs of black goop and fossilized algae for America to use in our quest to save the world from evil dictators like Putin. Russia, of course, also has lots of oil and gas. But presumably Putin’s fossil fuels were provided by the devil.
Rubio is not the only one who is scaling up this sort of rhetoric. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin has been on a media blitz talking about the need to drill and mine more fossil fuels to fight Putin. “We have God-given energy,” he said , implying, like Rubio, that not to use it is an affront to God. To others, the call for more U.S. oil and gas came from above: “We’re ready to meet this God-given opportunity with expertise and a critical natural resource we’ve got plenty of,” Dave Noerr, the mayor of Taft, CA, and a veteran oilman, told The Los Angeles Times. And if burning all that extra coal and gas and oil heats up the climate? Don’t worry, God will “give us time” to fix it, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice reassured West Virginians last week.
These are not just expressions of faith in a higher power. They are also expressions of faith as climate suicide.
Just to be clear: Oil and gas are the remains of tiny marine plants that have been heated and compressed over hundreds of millions of years by movements of the Earth’s crust. Coal is the compressed carbon skeletons of trees buried in ancient swamps. The idea that fossil fuels were “given” to us by anyone, whether it was God or aliens or the ghost of JFK Jr., is a fantasy that only a QAnon conspiracist could love.
As everyone knows, burning fossil fuels is the primary way we have generated electricity and forged steel and powered cars and airplanes since the beginning of the Industrial Age. But burning fossil fuels also releases CO2, an invisible gas that accumulates in the atmosphere and acts like a blanket over the Earth, heating up the planet.
For forty years, scientists have been warning us of the dangers of a rapidly warming planet. And for forty years, the leaders of rich industrial nations have more or less ignored them.
Now the sirens are wailing. “Nearly half of humanity is living in the danger zone — now,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said a few weeks ago when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest, and most urgent, report on the dangers we face from a rapidly-warming planet. Guterres called the evidence in the report an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”
The report itself concluded with equally blunt language about the urgency of taking action now: “Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.”
The marriage of God and fossil fuels circumvents science by giving coal, gas, and oil a divine purpose. More than a decade ago, I debated a coal company executive in a theater at the University of Kentucky who said, point blank, “Coal was created by God. Not to use it is a sacrilege against the Almighty.” In 1998, the Oregon Petition, a document signed by 31,000 so-called “scientists” (few of them actually were) denounced “the theology of global warming.” The document, which was widely covered in the media, went so far as to argue that it was our moral duty to burn fossil fuels and a failure to do so would cause millions of poor people to “slip backward into the dim twilight in which they suffer silently amid poverty, disease, and death.”
In the last few years, the God-talk has dissipated. Maybe fossil fuel friendly politicians and executives have had a crisis of faith. Maybe the rapidly declining cost of clean energy made crediting God with fossil fuels makes Him (in the fossil fuel world, god is always a white guy) sound like a loser. Or maybe the God/fossil fuel boosters got tired of answering questions like: Did God put uranium on Earth so we would build nuclear weapons? Did He put lithium on Earth so car manufacturers would build electric vehicles and make Joe Manchin’s Maserati an instant antique?
It’s curious that this link between God and fossil fuels has re-emerged at the same moment that Putin has used Russia’s fossil fuel money to wage war on Ukraine. Perhaps there’s some collective guilt among fossil fuel boosters? After all, by financing the war, which has caused so much suffering and death to Ukrainian people, a person of faith could argue that oil and gas are the lubricants of the devil and should be shunned by all God-fearing citizens of Earth.
But the link between fossil fuels and God has never been about morality. It has always been about money. As Katharine Hayhoe, a highly respected climate scientist who is also deeply religious, puts it, the link between God and fossil fuels “has everything to do with US conservative ideology and fossil fuel money. Religious-y sounding objections are just a palatable smokescreen for that cold hard fact.” Case in point: Manchin makes $500,000 or so year in a shady coal-brokerage company that he owns. He is also by far the biggest recipient in the Senate of campaign donations from fossil fuel companies. Rubio, despite the fact that Florida has zero fossil fuel deposits itself, is in the top ten recipients of fossil fuel cash, has taken over $100,000 in campaign contributions so far in the 2022 election cycle.
In the last few years, a more enlightened link between religion and fossil fuels has gained momentum. It focuses on stewardship, not exploitation. Last year, Rolling Stone Senior Writer Alex Morris wrote a powerful piece about young evangelicals taking action on climate. She focused on the struggles of a 25 year-old white evangelical Baptist in California whose faith was transformed by a month he spent doing volunteer work with a Christian conservation organization in Kenya, where he cataloged rare bird species and mapped mangrove forests. “He marveled at how their faith was not only integrated into their environmental pursuits but was in fact integral to them,” Morris wrote.
[He] also began to see this holistic view all over scripture: in Genesis, where the mandate to have dominion over creation did not seem to imply callous exploitation but rather a call to wise stewardship, and throughout the Gospels, where Jesus didn’t assuage people’s suffering with promises of the afterlife but actually tended to their physical needs in the here and now. So, [he] pondered, wouldn’t loving one’s neighbor mean protecting their habitat? Making sure they could grow food, have clean air and water, not be subjected to forced migration or the “threat multiplier” that he knew climate change to be?
It’s hard to think about stewardship during a war. And it seems pretty clear to me that Rubio, Manchin, and all the other fossil fuel boosters are using this moment to ignite a fossil fuel arms race with Putin, arguing that freedom and democracy depend on drilling and mining ever more oil, gas and coal. That is not true. Freedom and democracy depend now more than ever on getting off fossil fuels entirely and throwing carbon-fueled thugs like Putin into the oil slick of history.
This moment of crisis in history brings to mind a few lines by Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury who was known for his courage in speaking out on issues like gay rights and women’s role in the church. In remarks prior to the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, William said: “In the doomsday scenarios we are so often invited to contemplate, the ultimate tragedy is that a material world capable of being a manifestation in human hands of divine love is left to itself, as humanity is gradually choked, drowned, or starved by its own stupidity.”
Rubio and Manchin entirely miss the point that by backing fossil fuels, they are really declaring that they are on the same side as Putin and his murdering soldiers and the decadent oligarchs, as well as the rest of the fossil fuel mafia, including the Koch Brothers, the Saudis, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. By pushing fossil fuels, they are siding with the bad guys, not the good guys, while pretending to hold the moral high ground. And given the state of the world right now, and the brutal carnage of the war in Ukraine, it is not just hypocritical and stupid — it is downright evil.