CREDIT: Emily Atkin
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Speaking to three administrators for the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday, David Kepley, an elder and deacon at the Providence Presbyterian Church, quoted Leviticus.
“God said ‘the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants,’” he said. “‘Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.’”
The verses, Kepley said, allude to several themes. For one, God has encouraged us not just to draw sustenance from the land, but to replenish it — to act as stewards of Creation. For another, the verses compare humans to “renters” in God’s house, meaning we can’t just trash God’s house with unmitigated pollution.
“To me this means that to be wasteful of the land’s bounty or to despoil it with substances that are harmful to people or other life forms is not just unproductive, but is an affront to God,” Kepley said. “In my view, the EPA has identified one of those areas where we humans have ignored our role as good stewards of the Creation.”
Kepley was just one of at least 28 religious leaders who urged the EPA at two D.C. hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday not to weaken — and at times to strengthen — its proposed regulations on carbon emissions from coal plants. The proposed rule represents the Obama Administration’s most ambitious move yet to combat one of the main drivers behind climate change.
The rule has drawn strong criticism from Republicans, the party that religious groups — particularly Christians — have often been associated with. But on Tuesday and Wednesday, leaders from Presbyterian, Episcopal, Evangelical, Lutheran, Methodist, Quaker, and Baptist congregations spoke out in strong support of the rule, with most speakers calling it a moral obligation to God. Leaders from Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Baha’i groups also testified in support of the rule.
“In the religious communities with which I work, people are heart-sick about the role of fossil fuels in producing the heat-trapping gases that are causing climate change,” said Joelle Novey, the director of Interfaith Power & Light, a non-profit that engages religious communities on climate issues. “They are working to reduce their electricity use in their sanctuaries and at home. They are climbing up on ladders to change to more efficient lightbulbs. They are working together to support clean energy through their energy bills.”
Despite their own personal efforts, though, some religious leaders recognize that a large portion of greenhouse gases emitted in the United States come from coal plants, representing 24.5 percent of total U.S. emissions. And to them, being part of such a large contribution to climate change — the adverse effects of which primary impact low-income communities and third world countries — is morally unacceptable.
“Climate change disproportionately impacts the very people who we are called to serve,” said Patricia Bruckbauer, an eco-justice fellow at Creation Justice Ministries. “Those who have consistently contributed the least to our changing climate are generally the ones who suffer the most … low-income communities, communities of color, the elderly and children.”
Every religious group that testified on Wednesday afternoon in Washington D.C. spoke out in support of the EPA rule regulating coal. But at similar hearings in Alabama on Tuesday, state government officials argued the opposite — saying that the regulations “flouted the Almighty’s will by regulating a God-given resource,” according to a Huffington Post report.
“Who has the right to take what God’s given a state?” Alabama Public Service Commission member-elect Chip Beeker reportedly said.
But Christians who testified Wednesday in support of the rules widely cited the second chapter of Genesis, in which the first thing that God asks man to do is care for and maintain the earth.
“Before man was asked to love his neighbor, love God, or care for the least of these, he was asked to love the earth,” said Rev. Marjani Dele, the minister of missions at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ. “You could say that it was a type of first commandment.”
It may be surprising for some to see religious groups — particularly Christians who are often politically associated with conservatives — come out in support of what have sometimes been seen as liberal environmental initiatives. But the EPA hearings were far from the first time that religious groups have rallied to fight global warming. Earlier this month, The World Council of Churches — a large umbrella group of churches representing more than half a billion Christians worldwide — announced that it would pull all of its investments in fossil fuels, saying it had determined the investments were no longer ethical.
Pope Francis has also spoken widely about his concern for the environment, most recently telling a group of fellow Catholics that rainforest destruction is a “sin.” The Pope has also made the religious case for tackling climate change, warning a massive crowd in Rome that “if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us.”
At the hearing on Wednesday, Bruckbauer agreed, expressing hope that the coal industry could one day get on board with policies that reduce carbon pollution.
“We view clean air as a gift from god,” she said. “Responding to the injustices of pollution is important to people of faith, and should be important to industry leaders as well.”