The Common Good
July 2006

Taking Global Warming to Church

by David Batstone | July 2006

The archbishop is making global warming a personal challenge.

Global warming is not an abstract, future crisis. Human beings generate ever increasing amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, producing carbon dioxide and other gases that trap heat and keep it from escaping into space.

Our earth has arrived at a tipping point, and our own generation bears witness to the impact.

That point is worth emphasizing. A Time/ABC News poll shows that only 44 percent of the U.S. public understands global warming as “a serious problem” today. About 54 percent identify it as “a problem for the future.”

To some degree, the mitigation of the crisis among the general public can be traced to a concerted campaign to sow doubt regarding the scientific validation of climate change. Lobby groups from the energy sector fund pseudo-research and ancillary public relations campaigns to promote the view that climate change is a “theory” that is highly contested in scientific circles. The journal Science, however, published in 2004 a survey of serious scientific studies addressing global warming. Of the 928 research studies that have been published on the subject in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals, “none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position” that our atmosphere is getting warmer, and the phenomenon is a consequence of human activity.

This past April Paul Krugman published in his New York Times column a leaked memo that emerged from a 1998 meeting of the American Petroleum Institute. Those assembled—major oil companies and their industry lobbyists—laid out a strategy to offer “logistical and moral support” to individuals and groups that raise doubts about global warming, “thereby raising questions and undercutting the ‘prevailing scientific’ wisdom.”

The religious community is not in the media business, but it can do a tremendous amount to provide leadership and effective action to stem the rise of global warming. Local congregations could model new behaviors and make concrete a moral mandate to be good stewards of God’s creation.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, proclaimed on BBC radio that the Christian church must do some serious soul-searching on the matter. “I think it’s a profoundly immoral policy and lifestyle that doesn’t consider those people who don’t happen to share the present moment with us,” said Williams.

The archbishop is making global warming a personal challenge. He drives a Honda Civic petrol-electric hybrid and has set up an environmental task force in the Anglican Church to review the carbon footprint that his national office and individual congregations are emitting.

“We are trying to walk the walk as well as talk the talk,” Claire Foster, the Anglican Church’s environmental officer, told The Times of London. “By 2008 we need to show a measurable reduction in consumption by church buildings themselves,” she added.

A number of new tools can help religious communities to make global warming both personal and congregational. First off, it is helpful to realize how any one person contributes to carbon emissions. A California-based company, TerraPass, helps consumers measure the carbon footprint of the cars they drive. The company then offers for purchase a “green tag,” which is an investment in a clean energy product like wind power—in equal amount to the amount of carbons emitted by an individual’s vehicle.

Organizations can in like manner make every effort to cut their own carbon emissions, then offset the remaining pollutants with clean energy certificates. The grocery chain Whole Foods decided earlier this year to offset 100 percent of its energy consumption with alternative energy. Starbucks also has been on the forefront of the “green tag” movement. For 2006 the coffee company has promised to purchase 20 percent of its power from renewable sources. Of course, no single wind farm has the capacity to supply even a quarter of the 8,400 Starbucks shops across the U.S. But Starbucks does invest in a wind power company the equivalent of 20 percent of its energy consumption, and the wind power company uses that subsidy to offer competitive rates to local energy users. In effect, that is the model of “offset” investments.

Imagine if every religious community in developed nations made it a target to be carbon-neutral. The cumulative effect for alternative and renewable energy would be dramatic. Those efforts also would go a long way to illustrating to Jane and Joe in the pew that global warming is a present threat to our globe that demands immediate action.

David Batstone is executive editor at Sojourners.

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