The Common Good

Testimony: The Word Demands the Renewal of Creation

This week began in song and prayer outside the Environmental Protection Agency.

The government employees walking past our prayer circle definitely thought we were unusual; for Sojourners, though, publicly witnessing to our calling as Christians in care for creation is just another day on the job. We gathered with interfaith partners for a morning blessing to kick off the EPA’s hearings on the Clean Power Plan – an ambitious plan to curb carbon emissions from our largest source, power plants. Our goal was to show EPA and the nation that people of faith care deeply about what human sin has done to creation, and how all of God’s creation – including people – are suffering and will continue to suffer from climate change.

The next day, I was back at the EPA, this time to offer my testimony during their second day of hearings. (You can read my testimony at the end of this post.) I told them that many, many people of faith support the EPA taking action on climate change. I didn’t even need to say it, really – there were more than two dozen other people of faith testifying just in this city on that day, not to mention the EPA hearings in Denver, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh. So I told them about the people I’ve met during the last year with Sojourners. I talked about the environmental justice activists I work with, and how EPA needs to promote not just low-carbon energy sources, but environmentally sustainable and socially just sources – ones that won’t place an even bigger burden on the poor and communities of color.

I talked about Lil’ Lou, who I met when I led 100 people from the Christian Community Development Association on a tour of the Louisiana bayou — about how Lil’ Lou’s community has been overlooked as hurricanes and oil spills repeatedly pummel their town. And most importantly, I told them what they can’t hear from the environmental groups and industry lobbyists who also came to testify: that the Word demands renewal of creation. I quoted the Beatitudes – the meek shall inherit the earth.

My favorite part of being here at Sojourners is the people we connect with based on common Christian values. I’m blessed that I can speak out for God’s creation in a diverse community, singing and praying together for climate justice. And I’m honored to have the support of so many people of faith. Our witness is needed right now, as the EPA hears from the public on their plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants – the largest source in the U.S. – to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

So far, more than 3,400 people of faith have submitted public comments to the EPA alongside ours. We still have another two months to gather as many comments as we can. Will you add yours, so that our leaders can see how people of faith are not only praying for the creation, but acting on its behalf?

Liz Schmitt is Creation Care Campaign Associate at Sojourners.

My testimony to the Environmental Protection Agency, given Wednesday, July 30:

My name is Liz Schmitt, and I am the creation care campaign associate for Sojourners. Sojourners is a Christian organization, and we have been around more than 40 years articulating the biblical call to social justice. We are responding to the reality of climate change not just because of what the science says, not just because we know ethically we need to, but first and foremost because the Word tells us to. The creation speaks to us of God's steadfast love for us. And the Bible speaks to us of our first responsibility, the task God gives to humanity in Genesis - to steward the creation.

I'm here today on behalf of thousands of people of faith who submitted public comments to EPA, urging for the Clean Power Plan to come to fruition so that we can finally take major action as a nation to curb our sinful climate pollution. Sojourners’ comment has 3,450 signatures on it, and they are all supporting EPA in moving forward with the Clean Power Plan. People of faith care deeply about what is happening to the creation, which includes people, and we know it’s long past time for the United States to actively curb our carbon pollution.

I know that you are hearing from both sides on the Clean Power Plan – from industry that wants you to cancel the standards, and from environmentally conscious Americans who are applauding your efforts or asking you to go even further. I’m here to voice my support, but because I connect with so many Christians across the country, and our primary concern is social justice, I want to also ask for careful application of the rule. Each state can decide for itself how to implement the Clean Power Plan and meet its goals, and this flexibility is, in general, a good thing. Because the desirability of each potential source of energy is weighed based on its carbon intensity, however, I would like to suggest a more comprehensive approach to how you value each type of energy production. Truly renewable sources like wind and solar are ideal, because they produce no carbon emissions and rely on abundant natural energy. Other sources of energy, such as nuclear, natural gas and biomass, may be low-carbon options, but are not as environmentally beneficial. Our nation uses a lot of energy, and retiring coal plants means we will need a lot of new sources of production on the grid. But I ask EPA to incorporate life cycle costs into how you incentivize each type of energy production.

I’ve also heard concerns from the Environmental Justice activists we work with, and they are worried about how poor communities and communities of color might bear a disproportionate burden from more incinerators, as they always have in the past. Climate change is threatening God’s creation, including people, at a global scale, and we must act now to slow its course. But please be mindful of the tradeoffs. Your duty as the EPA is to protect the environment and human health, and you cannot ask the poor and the people of color in the United States to pay the price for overall carbon emissions reductions. Likewise, the co-benefits of carbon reduction steps should happen where the costs happen. Local or state carbon trading schemes, where offsets happen nearby, are preferable to national or international schemes – where a plant might continue to burn coal or natural gas in a poor community in Los Angeles because a forest in Michigan has been saved. Climate change and environmental degradation are not abstract concepts – they are affecting real people everywhere in this country, and your job is to protect all of those people, ensuring equal protection for those who are so often left out of the conversation and asked to bear the burden.

In Jesus’ speech that we call the Beatitudes, he says “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Nowhere is this more clearly visible than in poor and vulnerable communities in the United States and around the world. Last year, I led a tour of 100 Christian community development workers on a trip on the Louisiana bayou. Our guide, who goes by Lil’ Lou, told us about how his community in Jean Lafitte Swamp saw 7 hurricanes and one oil spill in 8 years. For him, this was just part of life, although climate change is making it a much more frequent part of life. That community, which sticks together and rebuilds after each storm, gets almost no attention from our politicians. After Hurricane Katrina, we all saw the people of the city of New Orleans, and how they were left behind. Also left behind were the bayou towns. When the government built a levee, the community of Jean Lafitte found themselves just on the other side. The government was doing a good thing – building a new levee to protect the people of New Orleans – but they were willing to do so at the expense of the small town of Jean Lafitte. This is the kind of injustice that we risk committing when we leave the nuance out of our policies. I urge you to incorporate Environmental Justice assessments and lifecycle costs in assigning value to the details of state implementation plans, and to work with Environmental Justice experts to protect the vulnerable people on the front lines of the problem – and sometimes the solutions – of climate change.

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