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Faith Communities Stress Moral Dimension of Carbon Pollution at EPA

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What drove me and more than fifteen representatives of other faith communities to deliver compelling testimonies at a hearing of the Environmental Protection Agency last week? The need for robust carbon standards for new power plants in the United States. Our interest was not so much in the technical aspects of the EPA's proposed rules, although they are important. We were there to shine a light on the moral and ethical dimensions of our carbon emissions and the need to dramatically change how we produce energy in order to avoid the many catastrophic impacts of carbon pollution.

Early in the day, I was particularly moved by the testimony of Tricia Bruckbauer, representing Creation Justice Ministries, the "creation care" voice of 37 Christian denominations. She quoted from President Obama's State of the Union speech in which he said, "when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did."

As a recent college graduate, Bruckbauer is a member of that rising generation; in her words, "... a child who inherited a changing climate." So while she is driven by her faith and called to care for the earth, she is also, "compelled to speak out because this is my future... It is a sad and frightening reality when it has become normal to vilify the EPA, and radical to ask for clean air and water."

Expressing empathy for those who may lose profits or jobs with the required shift away from fossil fuels, she stated, "Jobs and profits are tangible benefits that I can understand and value. Climate change and health impacts for future generations seem abstract, but I cannot believe that earning profits will mean anything if my brothers and sisters do not have a safe and healthy planet to live on." This was a point mostly overlooked by those few testifying against applying the proposed standards for emissions from U.S. power plants.

Reverend M. Dele, a pastor in the United Church of Christ and a steering committee member of Virginia Interfaith Power and Light echoed Tricia's comments with these words: "Our economy can never be so desperate that we sell off our children's right to fresh air."

She highlighted some dramatic statistics on the impact of carbon emissions on the African American community: 75 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal fired power plant; an African-American family making $50,000/year is more likely to live near a toxic facility than a European-American family making $15,000/year; and African Americans suffer from increased rates of respiratory illnesses, despite having lower rates of smoking than many other groups.

In addition, African American children are "5 times more likely to die of asthma and 3 times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for an asthma attack," she continued. "This is directly related to unbridled carbon pollution in the air."

Barbara Weinstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which advocates on behalf of 900 Reform Jewish congregations across North America (1.3 million Jews) and more than 2,000 Reform rabbis, cited Hebrew scripture. God says to Adam, "See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you." Jews are called to be stewards of the Earth, she said, "not just for our own benefit and the well-being of those with whom we share this planet today, but because of responsibility to the generations that will succeed us." She noted that with only 5 percent of the world's population, the U.S. produces about 19 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (40 percent of which come from power plants). "We have a responsibility to the people of our own country and to our global community to address this climate crisis," she concluded, echoing the support of the vast majority of those testifying for setting strong pollution standards.

John Elwood is a Sunday school teacher. His farm in Andover, New Jersey provides food for 700 families. Speaking from an Evangelical and Reformed Christian perspective, he noted, "It's clearly wrong for a buyer and a seller to enjoy all the benefits of a transaction, and then leave a substantial part of the cost for someone else to pick up - the external costs." Citing a report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, The Hidden Cost of Energy, he said, "Its findings were shocking. Coal burned in a single year by U.S. power plants costs everyone else on the planet another $200 to $300 billion in unpriced external costs."

Voicing support for protection of those who stand to lose jobs or profits when fossil fuels are phased out, he noted, "Christians of all traditions take their plight seriously, and our society must find ways to help affected communities recover. But... consider the plight of totally innocent communities -- both in our country and around the world -- which have never had an ounce of benefit from the burning of coal."

Elwood traveled last year with a church delegation to Kenya to hear firsthand from those being affected by climate change. He said, "We met with hundreds of small farmers and community leaders. Everywhere, the story was the same. Two reliable growing seasons in years past have shrunk to a single season. And even that single season is now unreliable. Crop yields have plummeted. Water is more scarce than ever."

In my own remarks to the EPA, I pointed to the central principle of the Baha'i Faith -- the oneness of humankind -- and its deep policy implications in many arenas. When applied to energy policy, for instance, this principle would guide us to find solutions that are equitable and just, treating all people as members of one human family. In light of the impact of our carbon pollution on African American communities, Kenyan farmers and many others in vulnerable situations, it would require that we substantially reduce our carbon emissions. EPA's proposed carbon standards for new power plants are one small way that this principle can be put into action. But we need much more. We must act with deep moral conviction and a sense of urgency, to move toward solutions.

With that in mind, on Valentine's Day weekend, February 14-16, people of all faiths, including Baha'is, will take part in the national Preach-in on Climate Change organized by Interfaith Power and Light. In churches, mosques, synagogues and Baha'i Centers around the country, we will discuss climate change from a faith perspective, commit to action to reduce our own emissions, and send messages to members of Congress asking them to do their part in moving us toward a low-carbon energy future.

I am grateful to my colleagues who so eloquently raised a moral voice last week and to all those who stood up in support of setting strong carbon standards. It's time to move forward as one on energy policy so that we will be able to say "Yes, we did," when our children's children ask.

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