Quiz: Which of these things happened yesterday?

  1. A famous football coach was convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys.
  2. A Roman Catholic official was convicted of endangering children by covering up priest sexual abuse under his watch.
  3. A summit of global leaders failed to agree on meaningful action to stop corporations and governments from continuing to abuse the earth.
  4. All of the above.

I won’t hold you in suspense; it’s d, all of the above, but a and b got all the news coverage in the United States because sexual abuse by individuals gets better ratings than environmental abuse by large institutions.

We just can’t help it—human beings like a good scandal, and the news media has been giving us plenty of headlines lately. As the cases of Penn State Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky and Msgr. William Lynn have moved through the courts, we’ve heard about powerful men abusing their positions, tearful victims, and sordid details. We’ve seen the accused shuffling in and out of court, stony faced. There is something cathartic about being the audience to these proceedings. We can rejoice that victims were vindicated and justice was served, if belatedly. We can praise the courage of those who came forward, for without them these powerful men would never have been tried.

What do we learn from these two cases? The age-old lessons: Power corrupts; and ordinary people find it hard to speak truth to power, even when they know what they are witnessing is wrong.

Which brings us to what might have been the biggest news story in the world, but wasn’t, the UN summit on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro where negotiators from 193 countries couldn’t agree on anything stronger than affirming some of the things they agreed on 20 years ago at the first Rio summit.

Activists from all over the world insist that the stakes are too high and too urgent for more stalling. As Bill McKibben put it at a protest outside the summit, “The real news today is that sea ice in the Arctic is at a record low for the date and that every state in the United States, except for North Dakota, has temperatures above 90 degrees.” But even the weather didn’t trump Sandusky and Lynn yesterday, and certainly not McKibben’s point that local weather events add up to a global pattern with catastrophic consequences. A gradually developing problem like climate change, which is denied by institutions with very deep pockets and large vested interests, isn’t as salacious as the other kinds of abuse, though the truth is that the world is getting fucked and our governments are looking the other way. Our president, I’m sorry to say, is like the monsignor who ought to have known better.

Watching the sex abuse cases on TV, it is easy to assume that we would have reported our suspicions right away, we would have protected that kid in the shower. But what are we doing to look out for the people of the Maldives or many parts of Africa where scientists predict that tens of millions of people will die from the effects of climate change? For that matter, what are we doing to protect our own children’s future? Remember that Msgr Lynn didn’t have to abuse anyone himself to get convicted of endangering children.

In the end, the powerful men who made news this week were stopped by ordinary people whose consciences overcame their fears. If we want to stop companies that engage in mountaintop removal, fracking, deforestation, or the host of other devastating practices that are contributing to global devastation, we need to be the ones to speak up and hold the powerful accountable. It’s the only way abuse ever stops.