Oklahoma: A Climate of Denial and a Climate of Silence on Climate Change

Rev. Dr. Mark Davies | August 4, 2015

Oklahoma is one of the most overtly religious states in the United States, and Oklahoma may be more culpable than any other state in its responsibility for the practices and policies that contribute to human induced global climate change. Being critical of oil and gas company practices is the “third rail” that very few dare to touch in a state where a fifth of the jobs and a large percentage of the state’s tax income are connected to the industry. Faith in God is sometimes used as an excuse to do nothing about climate change rather than being a source of inspiration and motivation to address it. In Oklahoma, speaking out against the oil and gas industry and its role in contributing to climate change has consequences, but in a state that is so religious and so Christian in its identity, perhaps Oklahomans can be reminded that the way of Jesus is a way of sacrificial love for other persons and for the whole creation. Those of us who seek to follow Jesus are a part of a way that loves others and works for justice and a new creation in spite of the consequences.

Oklahomans are overwhelmingly favorable of the fossil fuel industry, and Oklahoma politicians on the state and national level receive significant financial support from oil and gas companies. We even have an oil derrick on the state capitol grounds. We are home to the most vocal of all climate change deniers in the U.S. Senate – Senator James Inhofe, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Our sitting governor and attorney general use talking points from fossil fuel companies for their advocacy concerning the industry. Universities in Oklahoma receive significant financial support from the fossil fuel industry, and university presidents at three of the top four ranked universities in Oklahoma have been highly paid members of fossil fuel company boards of directors while serving as a university president. Fossil fuel companies give millions of dollars to the arts, community economic development projects, charity and sports franchises. The most widely distributed newspaper in the state, The Oklahoman, is owned by Philip Anschutz, whose fortune includes a significant portion made from oil and gas. In rural areas, many farmers and ranchers receive royalties from the industry. Church and community organization budgets across the state are buoyed by fossil fuel industry funds. Very few people are openly critical of oil and gas in Oklahoma, and if they are, they face consequences.

Oklahoma’s dependence on the fossil fuel industry contributes to a climate of denial and a climate of silence about climate change and the other negative “externalities” of oil and gas production and use. Oklahomans remember the last oil bust of the 1980’s and do not want to go there again. It is considered almost “un-Oklahoman” to do anything that might hurt oil and gas, and addressing climate change is seen as a threat to the industry that sustains our state. The majority of Oklahomans are in denial, and those who are not in denial are pressured to keep silent. The well documented pressure by the oil and gas industry on politicians, state agencies and universities to keep silent about the connection between a massive increase in Oklahoma earthquakes and waste water injection wells is a case in point of the power and influence that the industry has in Oklahoma.

One may be tempted to say that what we as human beings can do to stop climate change will have to be done without Oklahoma, but there are signs of hope. In the last year, it has become clear to many Oklahomans that the oil and gas industry has been misleading us about the cause of our earthquakes. The industry has used politicians, state agencies, the media and universities to help misinform the public about our earthquakes, and people from across the political, religious and economic spectra of Oklahoma have begun to fight back. Oklahomans are beginning to realize that the same industry that misinformed us about our earthquakes is the industry that encourages us to deny the reality and consequences of climate change. Farmers and ranchers may get royalties from oil and gas, but they also feel the ground shake beneath them and they also depend on a stable climate for their livelihood. Oklahomans are beginning to wake up from the fossil fuel induced denial, and many are silent no more about climate change. These are courageous people in a state where there are consequences for speaking up. Many Oklahomans have been shaken and are moving from a climate of denial and silence to a climate of systemic transformation for all life on earth. They are working for love and justice for all creation in spite of the consequences, and this is the way of Jesus in our world and in Oklahoma.

Rev. Dr. Mark Davies, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, is the Wimberly Professor of Social and Ecological Ethics and Founding Director of the World House Institute for Social and Ecological Responsibility at Oklahoma City University. He has published in the areas of Boston personalism, process philosophy and ethics, and ecological ethics. Dr. Davies serves on the United Methodist University Senate, which is “an elected body of professionals in higher education created by the General Conference to determine which schools, colleges, universities, and theological schools meet the criteria for listing as institutions affiliated with The United Methodist Church.”