Faith community stepping up on climate change
By Guest Columnist SUSAN VARLAMOFF, coauthor of ‘Laudato Si Action Plan’ and author of ‘Sustainable Gardening for the Southeast’
Nature abhors a vacuum. With the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accord, there is a void in global leadership on climate change that others are willing and able to fill it. Countries like China, Germany and France are stepping up. In the U.S., states, cities, universities, corporations, and even churches are voluntarily reducing greenhouse emissions in the spirit of the Paris climate accord.
Inspired by the Pope’s environmental encyclical Laudato Si – a plea to humanity to care for creation – an interdisciplinary group of University of Georgia scientists of various faiths created a Laudato Si Action Plan in November 2015.
As men and women of science and faith, they feel a moral and scientific imperative to sustain the earth for future generations. They believe in the “power of the pulpit” to transmit the Pope’s call to action in churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues. With the millions and even billions of people attending faith services, they expect their collective action can make a difference.
The Action Plan contains specific actions – ranging from the easy to the difficult – for houses of worship and their members to implement. Everyone can turn off the lights and the water when they are not using them. Most of us can install programmable thermostats to reduce our electric bill, and plant native trees, shrubs and flowers in our landscapes to capture carbon dioxide and attract wildlife. Although not everyone can afford to invest in solar panels for their roofs, those who can are encouraged to do so.
Caring for creation is not faith specific. All major religious denominations are grounded in environmental stewardship. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops states, “Care for the earth is not just an Earth Day slogan, it is a requirement of our faith. We are called to protect the people and the planet, living our faith in relationship with all of God’s creation.” In the Jewish tradition, there is a prayer called Aleinu in which Jews ask that the world be soon perfected under the sovereignty of God. Tikkun ‘olam, the perfecting or the repairing of the world, has become a major theme in modern Jewish social justice theology. The guidance laid out in the Qur’an reminds Muslims that they will be held accountable for their use of the environment. In Hinduism, the earth, Devi, is a goddess and our mother, deserving our devotion and protection.
Atlanta Roman Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory, a past president of the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, supports and promotes the Action Plan statewide and nationally. The Pope and all the nation’s Catholic bishops have received a bilingual (English/Spanish) copy of the Action Plan. Catholic Churches in Boston, Washington D.C., New Jersey, New Orleans and even Australia have wholehearted adopted it. Archbishop Gregory is reaching out to leaders of other faiths to engage them. Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. once preached and called home, is now using the Action Plan. Our faith partners in the Jewish community in metro Atlanta are doing the same.
A pilot project funded by Rutherford Seydel and his wife, Laura, provides a grant for energy and water audits at nine low-income Catholic churches and three schools. The goal is to reduce the cost of maintaining the churches, thereby saving natural resources and money, which can be better spent assisting those in need. Energy and water data is submitted to the EPA’s Portfolio Manager software, which allows the collective use and reductions to be monitored statewide and nationally. Other organizations – U.S. Green Building Council, Southface Energy Institute, Trees Atlanta and Georgia Interfaith Power and Light – are lending their expertise to the project.
At the recent People’s Climate March in Washington D.C., more than 200,000 people walked down Pennsylvania Ave to capture the world’s attention on the need to act on climate change now. All major faiths were represented. From the Franciscans in their brown robes to the Muslim women covered in pastel-colored veils, to the Buddhists wearing saffron robes and to the Jews donning skull caps, there was a sense of solidarity and urgency.
While Washington has abdicated its leadership on climate change, the faith community is helping to fill some of the vacuum by educating its members on the moral imperative to preserve creation for succeeding generations and by encouraging behavioral change using science based practices. Roman Catholics, led by the Pope and Atlanta Archbishop Gregory, are playing an important leadership role in the transformation to a sustainable future.
In the words of the elders of the Arizona Hopi Nation, “We are the ones we are waiting for.”
Note to readers: Susan Varlamoff is an environmental scientist, the retired director of the University of Georgia’s Office of Environmental Sciences in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and lifetime Master Gardener.