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for people who care about the West

Religious leaders shouldn't duck their responsibility


On a Sunday morning last fall, leaders from Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other faiths led the third annual "blessing of the waves" in Huntington Beach, Calif. The event celebrated the ocean's spiritual value and also protested marine pollution, including the rapid acidification of the world's oceans associated with climate change. Over 3,000 people participated, and at its conclusion, priests and rabbis were among the throng diving into the ocean with their surfboards.

Earlier in the year, Buddhists, Hindus and other people of faith met at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral in Los Angeles for an "evening of interfaith environmental solidarity." A cardinal concern was resisting the attacks of oil companies on California's landmark climate bill.

Meanwhile, the Mormon Church is building LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) chapels in Utah, Arizona and Nevada, reflecting a trend among churches to curb energy use. One Seattle-area church recently installed a charging station for electric cars. "Driving electric cars is a great way to better care for our planet," read the pastor's press release.

So do these examples point to an awakening among the West's people of faith about climate change? Certainly there is movement, but it's short of a great awakening. Not just in the West, but across the country, too many prominent religious organizations still either resist the scientific consensus on climate change -- that burning fossil fuels is driving a dangerous global warming -- or support politicians who ridicule the threat.

A high-profile example is the 1,500-member Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, which calls itself "America's leading voice of faith on stewardship issues." Founded and headed by E. Calvin Beisner, it equips churches nationwide with a "biblical approach to climate change." This amounts to decrying the science and slamming proposals like wind energy projects that can decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, Chuck Colson's Center for Christian Worldview, and other leading conservative religious organizations support the group's recent mini-series, which directs followers to "resist the Green Dragon" of environmentalism -- especially about climate change.

Meanwhile, in 2010, many of America's most outspoken religious organizations worked hard for the Republican gains that shifted the balance of power in the West and across the country, throwing their support behind a political party (and its more strident Tea Party faction) in lockstep opposition to addressing climate change.

Many religious leaders vocally reject climate science, but the more widespread reaction is silence. This is troubling, because tens of millions of Americans, including many Westerners, look to their religious leaders for moral guidance. And at their core, climate change and the associated ocean acidification are deeply moral problems.

Putting aside the ecological catastrophes under way -- including a climate-related extinction rate scientists warn matches the one that wiped out the dinosaurs -- the human costs of climate change are becoming more severe and harder to ignore.

Consider our neighbors in coastal Alaska, where melting sea ice is dramatically increasing floods and erosion. Like the victims of an incremental Katrina, people are losing property, livelihoods, even their history. The Yup'ik village of Newtok, for example, recently decided to relocate, which will cost taxpayers millions.

Farther from home, rising heat and aridity in Africa are wiping out critical water sources such as Lake Turkana on the border of Ethiopia and Kenya, increasing conflict within an already stressed human population. Meanwhile, rising seas contaminate water supplies in Pacific Island nations, prompting Oxfam to predict that 75 million people will flee over the next 40 years.

In each example, the victims are generally poor people who've made little contribution to climate change. Their plight is driven by energy consumption in industrial countries, mainly China and the United States, which emit a combined 40 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA.

But even as climate change threatens millions of people, polls reveal less than half of Americans believe it is related to fossil fuels. Whatever the leaders of the major faiths may say in their annual addresses, the message of dangerous climate change has failed to percolate down to the pews. And newly empowered Republicans promise to block mandated reductions of U.S. greenhouse pollution at both the regulatory and legislative levels, even though this assures that our nation will continue to contribute to the problem.

All Americans bear the weight of our nation's major contribution to the momentous changes happening to our world. Still, religious leaders have an important role to play in this moral dilemma. Priests, rabbis, imams and others provide a moral compass for millions of Americans, an influence that carries with it responsibility as well. And those in the West are especially well positioned to raise their voices, as melting glaciers, beetle epidemics and other climate-related maladies become plainly visible across our region.

In 2010, some religious leaders set strong examples as they met at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, but with climate dangers increasing, it's time for others to speak up.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a wilderness ranger in Alaska.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].