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Can Faith Slow Climate Change?

As the moral implications of climate change become more apparent, faith communities around the world are taking action, both personal and political



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Give us all a reverence for the Earth as your own creation, that we may use its resources rightly in the service of others and to your honor and glory.

The prayer was recited regularly by a young Sally Bingham growing up in San Francisco.

Only years later, as an ordained Episcopal Church priest, did Bingham realize something was amiss with the childhood supplication.

"There was this terrible hypocrisy," she said. "This disconnect between what we said we believed in and how we behaved."

This bothered her for years until 1998 when, in her 50s, she finally took action.

Bingham founded what today is Interfaith Power and Light, a national campaign promoting "a religious response to global warming" that works with 10,000 congregations in 38 states.

"Climate change is one of the most challenging moral issues of our time," she said in an Earth Day sermon at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral where she is now Reverend Canon for the Environment.

Faith communities around the world are taking action - both personal and political - as the moral implications of climate change become more apparent.

While politics is split on climate change and governments worldwide have failed to pass meaningful climate legislation, faith communities are becoming a powerful force in the transition to green energy. By focusing on values rather than politics, they are transcending partisan pigeonholes and taking care of what they see as God's creation, and the people - particularly the poor - who depend on it.

"If you are called to love your neighbor, you don't pollute your neighbor's air," Bingham said.

More than 300 evangelical leaders have signed the Evangelical Environmental Network's climate call to action, including mega-church leaders like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels. A 2007 poll commissioned by the group found that 84 percent of evangelicals support legislation to reduce carbon emissions.

While mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics and Reformed Jews may have a stronger environmental presence, according to religious political scholar John C. Green, evangelicals - 26 percent of the U.S. population - are the most influential religious environmental faction.

"As evangelicals become more vocal on climate change, they have the potential to alter the position of the Republican party," said Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics for Religious Studies at the University of Akron and senior fellow at Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

But it's not there yet.

Religious political sway wasn't enough to push climate legislation through Congress this year. And a Pew Research Center Poll of 3,000 respondents found that most religious environmentalists do not derive their green leanings from their faith. Solid majorities of all major religious traditions favor strong environmental laws and regulations, according to the poll, and just under half of those who attend worship services regularly say their clergy speaks out on the topic. Yet the poll found that only six percent said their environmental views were primarily influenced by religion. Education and the media were more influential.

The poll, conducted over the summer, had a margin of error of 2.5 percent.

Still, Dan Lashof, Climate Center director for the National Resources Defense Council, sees results from political action in faith communities.

"It has a significant impact," said Lashof. "Faith communities put a high priority on ensuring that the United States makes a fair contribution to global efforts to address the impacts of climate change in developing countries."

President Obama's 2011 budget reflects the religious influence, Lashof said, with $1.9 billion requested for international climate adaptation. The U.S. Senate this summer released 2011 budget recommendations for over $1.2 billion in "fast start" investments for developing countries to address the impacts of climate change, speed a shift to clean energy and reduce tropical deforestation - part of the U.S. commitment to the Copenhagen Accord.

"All of these [religious] voices have had considerable impact on climate change because they have been able to mobilize many of their followers to favor regulation or other efforts to ameliorate climate change," said Green.

The movement eclipses religious divides. In 2008, the Vatican erected 2,700 solar panels and expects to have a 100-megawatt solar power plant running by 2014, making it the first nation state powered solely by the sun. New York City's controversial Ground Zero Islamic cultural center intends to be LEED certified.

The Interfaith network, a campaign of the Regeneration Project that seeks to "deepen the connection between ecology and faith," has churches with solar, synagogues with geothermal systems and a completely green mosque in Washington, D.C., said Bingham.

The religious community also harbors its share of climate deniers. In the recent election, these voices gained clout, among them Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), a hopeful for the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairmanship who stands by his 2009 congressional testimony citing God's promise to Noah not to destroy the Earth as reason to not worry about climate change.

That argument doesn't hold theological water and doesn't represent the view of the majority in the evangelical community, said the Rev. Jim Ball, director the Pennsylvania-based Evangelical Environmental Network.

"God's not going to be destroying the Earth," said Ball, who runs the networks' Creation Care campaign, rallying evangelicals to climate action. "We are going to be destroying the Earth."
Like the evangelical network, Interfaith Power and Light also crosses into the political realm. Bingham lobbied Congress for this year's failed climate bill and encourages religious leaders to talk about climate change "as a matter of faith, not as a matter of Republican or Democrat," she said.

"Because we are deeply rooted in theology that says we are the stewards of creation, we need to be the people who lead this movement," Bingham said.

Part of the success of religious climate action is made possible by reframing the climate issue in religious, value-based terms rather than political or scientific, Bingham explained. That recasting, she added, prompts action on such basic tenets as universal love, charity, and aiding the poor.

"If we can take a values-based message to our legislators," Bingham said, "we have a better shot of getting climate legislation than an environmental community or, quite frankly, even a scientist."

Green agrees. Religious leaders, he said, "can cast environmental issues in religious language... rather than couching it in scientific language which appeals to scientists but might not necessarily appeal to religious people."

Outside the political sphere, faith communities are also taking local action on the ground.
Through a program called Cool Congregations, Interfaith families compete against each other to reduce their carbon footprint by making faith-based pledges to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent, the amount of a traditional church tithe.

In April, Unity Church in Boulder, Colo. took the solar leap. The non-denominational congregation raised $130,000 in six months to surround its steeple with solar panels.

"We are all part of this great creation," said the Rev. Jack Groverland, Unity Church's minister. "It is our inspiration and our ideal to do whatever we can on behalf of the environment that gives us life and breath and opportunity."

In sermons and Sunday school, Groverland also asks his congregation to address climate change in their personal lives by driving less, saving water and using energy-efficient light bulbs.

Andy Lenec, 57 and a member of Unity Church, saw the light and followed his spiritual and environmental ideals "down the pay scale." He once worked for an electric utility. Today he consults for various non-profit environmental groups, and recently directed Boulder's Clean Energy Action.

"A lot of mainstream religion misses the point," said Lenec. "It's one Earth. It's God's Earth. It's our Earth and we have an obligation. Dominion doesn't mean domination. It literally means to take care of that which has been entrusted to us."

Unity Church isn't afraid to dig into local politics, either.

In last year's 350 Day of Climate Action in Boulder, Groverland and much of the Unity Church congregation rode their bikes to the nearby Valmont coal plant to rally for clean energy.

This election, Unity backed a local proposition to ditch a franchise with local utility Xcel Energy and allow Boulder to purchase more green energy. The measure passed with 68 percent of the vote, according to official results. But the church stops short of endorsing particular candidates. "We ask people to just vote from conscience," said Groverland.

Behind the politics, the faith-driven environmental movement offers a plain mandate for the complex problem of climate change - as only religion can. 

"If you love your neighbors, you don't pollute their air," Bingham said. "And you certainly don't destroy the basic stability of poor nations around the world to even live."

As for the legislators who failed to pass the federal climate bill, Bingham reserves harsher words.

"They are committing crimes against humanity."

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