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The New Religious Activism to Save the Environment

With the passion of a convert, former oil-executive George W. Bush kicked off a multi-state tour on President's Day 2006, barnstorming from Wisconsin to Michigan and Colorado to stump for his new "Advanced Energy Initiative." The blitz followed the President's State of the Union address, in which he said, "Here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world."

Bush went on to promise a 22 percent boost in research at the Department of Energy and other measures to advance clean energy technology, including long-lasting batteries for hybrid vehicles, and biofuel systems.

While the initiative targeted public concern about record-high gasoline prices and instabilities in the Middle East, the President may also have been positioning himself for a long-anticipated jolt from his political base. Just a week after his speech, the Christian right took aim at Bush's long-standing refusal to impose limits on U.S. sources of carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary culprit in global warming.

Replacing dire warnings about fire and brimstone after death with a call for immediate action on Earth, 85 evangelical leaders proclaimed, "This is God's world, and any damage that we do to God's world is an offense against God himself." The signers included a long list of right-leaning religious advocates, including Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life; Rich Stearns, president of World Vision; and Todd Bassett, national commander of the Salvation Army. Reverend Peter Borgdorff, head of the Christian Reformed Church, said, "As signatories, we are committing ourselves to use our influence as evangelical leaders to focusattention and prompt action of Christian believers to work to limit the emissions that are contributing to disastrous climate change."

Since the Bush administration took office six years ago, natural disasters of biblical proportion linked to climate change have aroused this sleeping giant. Concerns among scientists about the rate of melting of the polar ice cap escalated with the 2002 collapse of a massive glacial shelf in Antarctica the size of Rhode Island. The 2004 extreme heat waves in Europe cost some 20,000 deaths. As global surface temperatures reached the highest levels on record in 2005, the devastation caused by Katrina appeared to verify experts' predictions of increasingly intense hurricane activities due to warming coastal areas.

Immediately upon issuing their call to action, the religious leaders descended on Capitol Hill to lobby for federal mandates for economy-wide reductions in CO2 emissions. They unleashed a blitz of television, radio and print advertisements, including a full-page ad in the New York Times.

Both supporters of the global warming action agenda and an evangelical contingent who signed a letter to the National Association of Evangelicals opposing the initiative invoked the church's traditional responsibility to help the poor as the basis for their positions. The statement issued by supporters of the carbon reduction strategy said, "Millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors."

But Stuart Shepard, spokesperson for Focus on the Family, whose founder and chairperson Dr. James C. Dobson opposed the call for CO2 reductions, noted that "draconian measures would increase the cost of everything, from heating oil to socks, diapers and food." He said, "Reasonable steps should be taken to protect the environment. But as we care for creation, we should be concerned about the impact on people, especially the poorest among us."

Adds Dr. Calvin Beisner, a professor at Knox Theological Seminary and a spokesperson for the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, "We would argue that mandatory emissions reductions to reduce future global warmingwill cause more harm than good to humanity, especially to the poor. By driving up energy prices and by reducing the agricultural benefits associated with moderately increased temperature resulting from increased CO2, the [mandatory emissions reductions] will increase the prices on those things upon which the poor are especially dependent."

Notwithstanding this fracture within the evangelical right, the increasingly devastating impacts of global climate change seem to be the galvanizing force inspiring members of the clergy across the ideological spectrum to move to concrete action to save creation. The Reverend Sally Bingham, founder of Interfaith Power and Light in California, noted dramatic progress in her energy conservation initiatives over the past four years. The program she launched, which encourages parishes in California to reduce their demand for electricity and heating fuel, has grown from 140 participating congregations in 2002 to 400 in 2006. On a parallel track, it has spread to 16 other states and the District of Columbia.

"Our goal is to have an educated clergy, preaching from the pulpit so that every person of faith who claims to love God [is] committed to protecting creation," explains Bingham. With evangelical zeal, she noted that more than 1,000 congregations around the country have pledged to conduct energy audits and follow through with conservation measures. Last year, she publicly committed to double that number by the end of 2006.

Maine Interfaith Power and Light (MIPL) has gone a step further, according to Erika Morgan, a founder and board member of the not-for-profit group. In addition to encouraging parishes to conserve energy, MIPL has become a "licensed aggregator," playing matchmaker between electricity purchasers (both individuals and organizations) and sources of renewable energy.

Since its founding in 2000, the group has spurred 1,500 parishes and other participants to purchase 12 million kilowatt-hours of renewable electricity generated by Maine hydropower and biomass plants and 804,000 kilowatt-hours of wind and solar electricity. The bottom-line impact of the sale of wind and solar energy is 1.1 million pounds of CO2 kept out of the atmosphere.

While President Bush's energy initiative has been cheered by some clean fuels advocates, those concerned about global warming in both clerical and secular ranks are calling for stronger leadership. Environmental Defense is among the green groups that blasted Bush for inadequate action, complaining he didn't even mention the words "global warming" in his State of the Union address.

Reverend Peter Borgdorff was more charitable in his assessment, saying, "Any initiative or statement promoting the use of clean fuel is encouraging and gratefully noted. Did the President say enough, is he doing enough? I would like to see more and will advocate for our society taking major initiatives to deal with a growing concern."

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