Saturday, April 7, 2001 |
Bush Turn on Treaty Galvanizes New Green Coalition
Leaders across wide spectrum of faiths urge him to reconsider withdrawal
from international climate-change pact. Environmental issues are
increasingly seen as having religious significance.
By LARRY B. STAMMER, Times Religion Writer
* * *
Larry Stammer's e-mail address is
President Bush's decision to withdraw from an international climate-change
treaty has galvanized an emerging green movement within the nation's
churches and synagogues.
From West Virginia to Southern California, grass-roots believers in
the pews are joining national religious leaders urging Bush to
reconsider, serving notice that the Earth's environment is "of paramount
They are also pointedly reminding Bush, without saying so, that his
actions risk alienating the people of faith he has assiduously courted.
In the past two weeks, protest letters have been sent to the White
House by the National Council of Churches signed by leaders of mainline
Protestant and historic black churches and the chancellor of the Jewish
Theological Seminary. Other letters were dispatched by scientists with
the Evangelical Environmental Network, the Coalition on the Environment
and Jewish Life and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, which
represents 13 national and 122 local Jewish public affairs agencies.
At the same time:
* The nation's Roman Catholic bishops have been
studying the climate-change issue and may take a stand at their June
meeting in Atlanta.
* Faith-based climate-change coalitions in 22 states, including Bush's
home state of Texas and coal-producing West Virginia, are stepping up
* In Los Angeles, Jewish activists plan a petition drive June 3 when
an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people are expected to attend the largest
Jewish gathering west of Chicago, the Valley Jewish Festival at Cal State
Northridge. Its social action theme this year is the environment.
In addition to announcing that the United States would withdraw from
the Kyoto climate-change treaty--which requires the largest
industrialized nations to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other
gases that many scientists believe contribute to global warming--the Bush
administration has angered environmentalists by overturning a Clinton
administration ruling that would have lowered the amount of arsenic
allowed in drinking water.
From Science Labs to 'Pulpits and Pews'
Climate change is an issue fast moving from science labs and the halls
of diplomacy to the "pulpits and pews of the American heartland," said
Paul Gorman, head of the National Religious Partnership for the
Environment, which helped organize the state climate-change campaigns.
"This may be the first example of a new stage of maturity, demonstrating
the capacity to react strongly and comprehensively and visibly in the
middle of a tough policy issue," he said.
It is a point not lost on Bush's Environmental Protection Agency
administrator, Christie Whitman. In a private memo to Bush that was later
leaked, she wrote, "For the first time, the world's religious communities
have started to engage in the issue. Their solutions vary widely, but the
fervor of the focus was clear."
Religious leaders describe their disappointment as a feeling that Bush
is "failing in his moral leadership that he ran on," said David
Rosenstein, director of the Southern California chapter of the Coalition
on the Environment and Jewish Life.
The White House said it had received the letter from the National
Council of Churches. "They're asking to have a dialogue with us. We
welcome their comments. We believe global warming is a serious issue and
that's why the administration is currently reviewing innovative ways to
address it through new technologies, market-based incentives and working
closely with our friends and allies," deputy White House Press Secretary
Scott McClellan said Thursday.
In the past, environmental activism has been essentially a secular
endeavor, led by such groups as the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources
Defense Council and the Wilderness Society. But over the past decade, the
green movement has slowly been taking root in the nation's mainline
Protestant, evangelical, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Jewish
denominations. There has also been a good deal of reflection by
Buddhists, Hindus, Bahai and other Eastern religions.
"Our Scriptures are plain about the religious dimension of this
challenge," said the letter to Bush from mainline Christian and Jewish
leaders. "When it is all creation on Earth that is being affected, we
freshly appreciate the principle that 'The Earth is the Lord's.' (Psalms
24:1). Our climate and season are God's handicraft."
The religious greens say the deterioration of the environment also
raises traditional religious concerns about social and economic justice.
The greatest impacts are likely to be felt by poor people and developing
nations who are least able to cope with the kinds of global warming
scenarios that scientists say are possible.
Recently, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,
a United Nations body, said global mean temperature may rise between 2.5
degrees and 10.4 degrees in the next 100 years. Such a temperature swing
could have dramatic and unpredictable effects on sea levels, storms,
droughts and flooding. Plants and animals, including humans, would not
escape these effects.
Carbon dioxide, produced by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal
and oil and released by plant life when it dies, is the principal
heat-trapping gas believed to be contributing to global warming. The
United States, with less than 5% of the world's population, is
responsible for nearly 25% of man-made carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.
Congregations Taking Specific Steps at Home
Increasingly, local congregations are doing more than releasing
statements or writing to the president. Many Episcopal parishes are
buying electricity from power companies that generate electricity from
wind and solar resources.
In Oregon, Unitarian churches and others have implemented a
"one-two-three" lifestyle change strategy to reduce carbon dioxide
emissions. They turn down their home thermostats one degree, drive two
miles per hour slower than usual, and replace three incandescent
lightbulbs with energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs.
Even in West Virginia, where coal mining is an important industry,
churchgoers have been more receptive to listening to climate-change
issues than might have been guessed, according to Father Christopher
Bender, a priest at the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Morgantown.
"We see it as a moral question that has to do with justice for all
God's creatures," he said.
Van Reitmann, a wheat farmer in eastern Oregon, may be an example of
the mainstreaming of environmental concern among churchgoers.
Since 1948, he has gazed across his wheat fields knowing that his crop
depends on elemental forces beyond his control. Earth revolves in its
orbit. The sun rises. Clouds release life-giving water. The soil
nurtures. Sowing and harvesting to the cadence of the seasons has been
But things are not as idyllic as they may seem in rural Condon, Ore.
(pop. 750), 155 miles southeast of Portland. In the last 20 years, the
winters haven't seemed as cold or as long as they used to be--and
Reitmann has lived through 76 of them. Is this global warming? He says
his observations are only anecdotal. Like many farmers, he's
independent-minded: He's a Republican, but "very disloyal." He goes to
church every Sunday but wouldn't describe himself as fervent.
Yet when Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol, signed by the United States
and more than 100 other nations in 1997, the confluence of Reitmann's
belief and common sense was too much to ignore. "I was appalled," he said
in a telephone interview.
"We have a great responsibility--a moral responsibility--to keep the
planet functioning for feeding the teeming millions that are increasing.
I guess God put us here partly for that purpose, not to desecrate his or
her handiwork," he said. "We need to improve it, if anything."
Not all religious bodies agree with their counterparts in the green
movement. The conservative Acton Institute, which has ties to business
interests and conservative religious figures, has warned against what it
calls an unqualified embrace of environmental ideology by Christians.
Joseph Klesney, a policy analyst for Acton, said the institute was
"actually somewhat pleased" that Bush abandoned the Kyoto Protocol.
©Copyright 2001, Los Angeles Times