Environmental Stewardship

Why Pope Francis' Encyclical Gives Me Hope

Pope Francis, giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

Pope Francis, giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

By choosing to focus on the plight of the poor and the groaning of the earth itself, Francis is tapping into something much deeper than denominational squabbles and political maneuvering. He is seeking to make an end-run around the tedious shouting matches of privileged contenders in pitched ideological battles. This is a pope, not of the pundits but of the people – and of the planet.

We’re all connected. Just as the body of Christ is one – despite all of our institutional and ideological boundaries – all of humanity, all life is one. We’re rooted together in the soil that feeds us, in the natural ecosystems that sustain our very existence.

The Earth Is Becoming a ‘Garbage Dump,’ and Other Unofficial Quotes from Pope's Encyclical

Image via RNS/REUTERS/Tony Gentile.

Image via RNS/REUTERS/Tony Gentile.

Pope Francis is throwing the full weight of Catholic teaching, and his considerable moral standing, behind the fight against climate change in an unprecedented papal document on the environment that immediately makes the Catholic Church a major player in one of the most important and contentious debates of the next generation.

A draft version of the 192-page encyclical, which will be officially published on June 18, indicated that Francis wastes little time with climate-change deniers or his critics on the right — many of them within the church.

Will the Papal Encyclical Bring the 'Francis Effect' to the Climate Debates?

Pope Francis portrait, DeepGreen / Shutterstock.com

Pope Francis portrait, DeepGreen / Shutterstock.com

Next week, Pope Francis is scheduled to release “Laudato Sii” (“Praised be You”), his eagerly anticipated encyclical (authoritative teaching document) on the environment.

I have never seen such excitement – and controversy – surrounding an encyclical. It speaks to the extraordinary global presence Francis has achieved in a relatively short period of time. This feels to me like one of those rare moments when the Message and the Messenger can combine to change the world in a very significant way.

If We Love Jesus, We Should Take Care of His Stuff

Image via Mopic/shutterstock.com

Image via Mopic/shutterstock.com

Why does caring about Jesus mean we should care for the earth? There are plenty of Old Testament passages about the lordship of God over all creation, but let’s limit ourselves, for the sake of evangelical argument, to Jesus. He cares about ecology because of his incarnation into creation, his miracles restoring creation, and his lordship over creation.

Empowering the World

ONE OF THE most destabilizing facts of the last five years is this: The price of a solar panel has fallen 75 percent. The engineers have done their job, and that offers many possibilities.

We usually look at what the developed countries are doing with renewable energy, such as the fact that there were days during summer 2014 when Germany was generating three quarters of its power from solar panels (Germany!). But the most amazing miracles—and it doesn’t really stretch the word “miracle”—are happening in the poorest places, where for the very first time lights are blazing on.

Take rural Bangladesh, where fossil fuel has barely penetrated  in the 200 years of its ascendancy in the West. There’s no grid—at night it just goes dark. Until the last few years, when low-cost solar panels and innovative financing arranged by groups such as the Grameen Bank have allowed the very rapid spread of solar panels. How rapid? As many as 80,000 new connections a month, which is far more than in the United States. Fifteen million Bangladeshis live in solar-powered houses already, and the government is hoping to have the entire nation hooked up by 2020.

That means that kids can study at night. It also means that families don’t have to waste as much as 30 percent of their income on kerosene. It also means that they don’t have to breathe those kerosene fumes, and that the black soot the lamps throw off won’t be melting glaciers. It also means that everyone can charge their cell phones, which are ubiquitous in Bangladesh. In fact, places like Bangladesh leapfrogged the whole telephone pole thing and went straight to mobile; now they’re leapfrogging coal and gas and going straight to solar.

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Pope Francis' Climate Change Encyclical Inspires Rabbinic Call to Action

 Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square, giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square, giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

More than 300 rabbis — inspired by the climate crisis, the Torah’s call for a Sabbatical Year of releasing the Earth from overwork, and the impending Papal Encyclical on the climate crisis — have joined their voices in the Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis: a call to action to prevent further climate-fuelled disasters and work toward eco-social justice.

Rabbis from across the denominational spectrum, at this writing 333 in all, signed in support of the call in less than two weeks, and their signatures continue to grow.

Divest from Fossil Fuels: Money Talks

LAST SPRING, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an architect of the South African freedom movement, called for “an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet.” Tutu—along with millions of people of faith and conscience—understands not only that it is morally right to address climate change, but that money talks. “People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change,” said Tutu.

The fossil-fuel divestment movement has its roots in grassroots mobilizing, churches, local governments, and student campaigns. The movement has grown exponentially in the U.S. since Maine’s Unity College became the first campus to divest (in 2012) and the United Church of Christ became the first denomination to formally divest (in 2013). Today, divestment from fossil fuels is gaining momentum, with increasing numbers of asset owners committing to moving their money.

In fact, this campaign has grown faster than any other previous divestment movements, including those against apartheid in South Africa and tobacco. A number of factors indicate that we are at a tipping point. Here are four: 1) last year was the hottest year on record, 2) expenses related to climate change are skyrocketing, 3) significant financial risks are now associated with fossil-fuel investments and the divestment movement is growing, 4) and the economics of renewable energy products is improving, so investments in these products is growing.

Despite unmistakable signs that climate change is spiraling out of control—from unprecedented droughts to sea-level rises—20 years of global negotiations have not slowed the emissions of heat-trapping gasses. A new, effective lever of change is clearly needed.

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Who Owns the Sun?

FOR SOMETHING as simple as sunlight, the solar energy industry can be a bit complicated. But that never stopped pastor Brian Flory from trying to see the light.

“Putting solar panels on the roof of our congregation was important to us,” said Flory, who runs the Beacon Heights Church of Brethren in Fort Wayne, Ind. “For us it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to live out the values that our faith was leading us toward.”

To live out one of the core values of his faith—being good stewards of God’s creation—Flory began the process of installing panels on his church’s roof in 2014. He’d barely raised the needed $20,000 to support the project when a bill in the Indiana state legislature nearly stopped him in his tracks.

House Bill 1320, introduced in January 2015 by Republican Rep. Eric Koch was intended to severely disincentivize individuals in Indiana from installing solar panels on their homes, businesses, and churches. If it was signed into law, Flory said, his whole project would be doomed.

The Indiana bill is not the only one of its kind. It is part of an ongoing effort across the country by a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, the influential right-wing group has pushed bills like this in multiple states: Utah, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Arizona, to name a few. Their goal, ultimately, is to make sure the rapid growth of rooftop solar does not cut into electrical utilities’ profits, in which many of ALEC’s members are heavily invested.

These bills all run on a variation of what the Indiana bill sought to do. Under it, solar customers who want to sell the excess power they generate back to the electrical grid would receive substantially less money than before—as much as 60 to 70 percent less. In addition, power utilities would be allowed to add a fixed monthly charge to solar users’ bills, as well as added interconnection fees.

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4 Ways to Help Your Community Talk About Environmental Ethics

Photo courtesy Timothy King

Photo courtesy Timothy King

In a world of highly charged political rhetoric, the essay provides language and a framework for a community discussion on environmental ethics that takes a step back from immediate policy debate. This work doesn’t diminish the importance of these other discussions; rather it provides a context in which that work might be more readily possible.

Our ability to make meaningful collective moral decision requires us to be able to first have enough common moral language to have a conversation. This might be a good place to start.

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