If action is the goal for religious communities on energy issues, then belief is not enough, writes the executive director of GreenFaith in an excerpt from 'Sacred Acts,' a new book on the church and climate change.
May 1, 2012 | Editor’s Note: In “Sacred Acts: How Churches Are Working to Protect Earth’s Climate,” a variety of Christian writers address the role that churches can play in tackling climate change through stewardship, advocacy, spirituality and justice. In this excerpt from the chapter, “Beyond Belief,” the Rev. Fletcher Harper writes about the substantial monetary savings that churches can achieve through energy conservation and efficiency and the leadership traits of congregations that reduce their energy use.
"Every morning, millions of Hindus say a prayer to Mother Earth when they get out of bed, apologizing for any pain they may cause her by walking on her during the day."
-- Writer and scholar Pankaj Jain
When he arrived in the United States from India, the first thing Pankaj Jain noticed was the cars. “I’d never seen so many of them in India,” he said. “The cost of running them all, the air pollution -- I couldn’t imagine how it was possible.” Over time, he was inspired to change his career from software engineering to studying the link between Hinduism, Jainism and the Earth. Now he’s an author, a professor at the University of North Texas and a rising Hindu environmental scholar.
In my own work during the past decade with the organization GreenFaith, I have met Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu leaders like Pankaj who are highlighting these connections between their faith traditions, energy use and climate change. Based in New Jersey, GreenFaith is an interfaith environmental coalition that works with faith communities nationwide to help them integrate the environment into their ministries. Among our many programs, we have conducted dozens of energy-conservation workshops for religious audiences and carried out more than 100 energy audits at religious facilities. I have watched hundreds of congregations address issues related to climate change, from installing solar panels on churches to improving energy efficiency at synagogues. This level of activity is a welcome and marked change from past decades, when energy conservation and environmental advocacy were low priorities in religious circles.
But in the midst of this increased activity, I have witnessed many missed opportunities -- opportunities for savings, for involving a wider range of congregants in energy issues, and for making energy leadership within the church more than a rhetorical exercise.
Let the Preaching Begin
The past decade has brought increased religious discourse on the moral and spiritual dimensions of energy use. Christian groups including liberal Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Southern Baptist leaders have denounced our current patterns of energy use as sinful and called for repentance in the form of individual and national commitments to energy conservation and renewable energy. Energy and climate change have made it onto the educational and advocacy agendas of more houses of worship than ever before.
From the election of President Barack Obama through 2009, momentum grew in support of federal legislation that would commit the United States to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. In 2009, the US House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), with support from many religious groups. Legislative victory seemed to be a real possibility.
In December 2009, however, the United Nations Climate Change Conference at Copenhagen failed to reach any binding commitments. And in 2010 the political climate in the United States shifted. It soon became clear that the US Senate would not take up climate legislation, eliminating the possibility of any legislative action on climate change before 2013.
This legislative defeat has important implications for church-based efforts on climate change. Through much of 2010, most religious action on energy issues lay in the area of education and advocacy on climate change. But the legislative defeats, coupled with efforts to defeat or roll back climate legislation at the state level, have made it clear that the battle for comprehensive climate legislation requires cultural support that is both broader and deeper than currently exists. I believe that churches, along with other faith-based institutions, have an opportunity to help create this cultural change by implementing efforts on a wide scale to cut energy use, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save money and engage new members in their congregations.
A modest number of religious institutions have done exactly this and have offered an important public witness. They have invested in energy conservation and efficiency and have seen substantial financial benefits. These houses of worship have created cultures among their members in which smart energy use becomes a point of pride and a congregational norm. The challenge now lies in replicating the success of these pioneers and making responsible energy management and advocacy a priority across denominations. The logic behind this is simple and the self-interest of congregations powerful.
Hidden in Plain Sight
The potential for energy savings at church is substantial. This is especially critical when church budgets are under pressure from the economic recession or from static or declining membership and pledges. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that if the estimated 370,000 houses of worship in the United States cut their energy use by ten percent, the savings would amount to more than $300 million. The money saved could support outreach to those who are hungry, homeless or out of work; it could fund education, evangelism and mission-related work; it could be reinvested in retrofitting buildings in ways that would lower the energy use of religious institutions even more.