Nathan Hultman is founder and director of the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland, held senior posts in the Obama administration, and was the Senior Advisor of Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry. Until July 2022 he was president of the board of trustees at Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
What’s the biggest obstacle to addressing climate change in a serious way?
We are no longer in a world where it’s the obvious case that addressing climate change is going to be very costly or deeply burdensome. Right now, there are a lot of actual good opportunities to take advantage of.
What we do need to think about is how we ensure that those opportunities provide benefits broadly shared. That’s the really key question we’re now struggling against.
Political will has a lot to do with a feeling of shared benefit and a feeling of shared decision about the importance and possibility of acting on climate.
It has to be rooted in a bottom-up process. That’s not just sort of saying, “Okay, the federal government needs to fix everything,” but rooted in actions that are taken at organization levels—even in congregations, in cities, municipalities, counties, states, businesses. And don’t get me wrong, Congress does need to step up and take some action on climate, like, this year. But support for that action is also rooted in what’s happening around the country.
You are suggesting that different areas of society, different constituencies, have different roles to play in creating solutions. How can congregations best spend their time and resources to help in that effort?
It’s a both/and strategy. We need to do something about our own congregations’ use of electricity, energy, sustainability, and we need to look at our own personal behavior. But we can’t stop at the boundaries of the congregation or the individual.
This problem will not be solved without real policy impetus. And so decisions have to be taken that will accelerate these transitions in different sectors that rely on governments. That includes city governments, county governments, state governments, and our federal government. So, both Congress and the Executive Branch. All of those pieces matter.
Find an area where maybe you’re a little out of your comfort zone but can take a step to support a broader political lever of change in some of these other broader policy contexts.
Hans-Otto Pörtner of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently said humanity has “a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.” How do you stay hopeful doing this work?
It’s a tough business to be in. There is deep fear that is logical. That said, though, two things give me hope.
One is just my process. I don’t know that I’m any more hopeful than anybody else, but I think the way I can stay focused is just really to be working on it.
The second is that, while we’ve been right about the science—in fact, the science is clustered around the more worrisome end of things—experts have often been very wrong about how difficult it would be to address the problem.
In the early days, it was like: I don’t know how we’re going to do this; it’s excruciatingly costly. What we’ve seen happen is repeated, rapid reductions in the costs of the technologies that we need to address climate change.
It didn’t happen by accident. It’s happened because of policy, largely.
If we can continue to do as rapid actions as possible, rooted in all these bottom-up actions that people are taking, but also using our political engagement to get leverage from policies, then we can potentially do it.
How has your involvement with Unitarian Universalism contributed to your work on climate change?
Ultimately, we know enough today about the science, technologies, economics, and policies relating to climate change to understand that success is within our reach. Whether we, as a global community, successfully choose that better path depends fundamentally on our values and how those inform our choices.
That is where Unitarian Universalist practice—and, in fact, religious practices, communities, and faiths of all kinds—can support us.
Our deeper sources of guidance and inspiration are a reminder of the importance of showing up in the world today. Focusing on our values and larger shared goals gives us strength. We can hold hope more tenaciously when we hold it together.