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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

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 religious significance."
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 their campaigns.
* 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 Reitmann's life.
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.

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Larry Stammer's e-mail address is

©Copyright 2001, Los Angeles Times

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