Tag Archives: environmental justice

The Prophet Nathan and the EPA Carbon Limits

“The Lord sent Nathan to David.”

That’s how the story begins – the familiar Bible account of royal corruption, conspiracy, sexual abuse and murder. The prophet began by telling the king a simple story of two neighbors: one rich, and one poor; one with vast herds of sheep and cattle, and one with nothing but a beloved pet lamb who slept in his arms.

We remember the storyline, don’t we? The rich man entertained a visitor, but was unwilling to use any of his abundant livestock to feed his houseguest. Instead, he seized his poor neighbor’s pet to be slaughtered for dinner. King David seethed with anger over such pitiless injustice, and pronounced the death penalty without even asking the rich villain’s identity.

Nathan didn’t waste a moment: “You are the man!” he declared (2 Samuel 12).

That was then. Three thousand years later, the poor still suffer abuse at the hands of the powerful, just like in King David’s time. The themes of speaking prophetic truth to power are also timeless. But neighbors with cattle, sheep and pet lambs are not, are they? So how does Nathan’s story translate into the struggles for justice in the 21st Century?

At its core, Nathan’s story is about a transaction – enjoyed by one party, but paid for by another. There is a rich man, and he has a houseguest. Maybe they’re both rich; maybe they’re relatives; maybe they’re together for a business deal – the prophet doesn’t say. But cultural norms require hospitality, and part of the deal is a good dinner. Whatever their business, they need meat for the traveler and his host. They could bear those costs themselves; in fact, any thinking person would demand it. But instead, they impose the costs on a neighbor. What’s worse, they dump them on someone who is already dirt-poor. If you’re at all like King David, you’re hot under the collar just thinking about it.

Lisa Sharon Harper, of New York Faith & Justice, praying with religious leaders at the EPA hearings.

Lisa Sharon Harper, of New York Faith & Justice, praying with religious leaders at the EPA hearings.

And this brings us to a debate that’s been raging in major American cities this week. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed standards under the Clean Air Act, to cut carbon pollution from electric power plants. It’s sparked an intense debate, with pastors and conservationists among the supporters, and coal and utility executives arguing against it. Twelve coal-mining states even filed suit  yesterday to block the EPA from issuing its carbon standards.

Whatever you’ve heard about the debate, a bit of background on the Clean Air Act would be helpful. With overwhelming bipartisan support, Congress passed the Clean Air Act under President Richard Nixon in 1970, and expanded it under George H.W. Bush in 1990. The Act required the EPA to establish air quality standards to protect public health and welfare, and to regulate emissions of hazardous substances. Over the years, the EPA has responded by setting standards for harmful pollution contaminating the country’s atmosphere. Forty years later, few of us can remember the days when cities like Pittsburgh were shrouded in a permanent toxic fog, when rivers like the Cuyahoga in Cleveland actually caught fire, or when less than half of Americans were served by wastewater treatment facilities.

In recent years, the EPA’s duty to also regulate climate-warming gases under the Clean Air Act has been confirmed by landmark legal cases beginning in 2007 and culminating with a Supreme Court ruling in 2014. And in response, the agency has proposed regulations designed to cut carbon emissions from electric power plants – the largest single source of greenhouse gases – to levels 30% below current levels by the year 2030.

Rivers aren't supposed to burn: the Cuyahoga in 1969

Rivers aren’t supposed to burn: the Cuyahoga in 1969

This week marks the end of a lengthy period of public comment on the EPA’s proposals. In Washington, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Denver, hundreds of stakeholders came out to speak their minds on the proposals, including coal industry lobbyists, politicians and conservationists. In Washington on Wednesday, about two dozen religious leaders took to the podium to add their voices in support of the EPA’s proposed plan.

“We are responding to the reality of climate change,” said Sojourners’ Liz Schmitt, “not just because of what the science says, not just because we know ethically we need to, but first and foremost because the Word tells us to.”

Schmitt was joined by Evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Protestants and Jewish leaders, among others, in invoking biblical faith as the basis for fighting climate pollution. “The creation speaks to us of God’s steadfast love for us,’ said Schmitt. “And the Bible speaks to us of our first responsibility, the task God gives to humanity in Genesis – to steward the creation.”

Two days later, evangelical environmental leader Rev. Mitch Hescox told the EPA delegates in Pittsburgh: “For years, we have subsidized the cost of coal-generated electricity in the brains, lungs, and bodies of our children, and privatized the profits. Asthma, cancers, autism, birth defects, and brain damage have a direct link to the use of fossil fuels and petrochemicals.”

For Rev. Hescox, the coal companies make the profits, and the children bear the costs of diseases and climate disruption.

And that brings us back to the prophet Nathan, and his story about little a lamb and a rich man. Who should bear the cost of dinner? Not the poor neighbor, of course! In our day, who should bear the costs of electric power production? When those plants burn coal, oil and gas, who should bear the costs – the external costs – of the pollutants that find their way into the air, water and land? Not the poor, of course! Right?

But that’s the way external costs almost always work. Buyers and sellers get all the advantages of the fossil fuel production. But people downwind pay the price in asthma and elevated mercury levels, and in droughts, floods and crop failures that have become the routine calling card of climate disruption. And study after study  shows that the poor are much more likely than the rich to be found among the victims.

Although they would never come out and say it that way, that’s just the way the coal companies and their backers want it to remain. Every state attorney general filing suit against the EPA, and every coal executive has the same message: “We can’t afford it.”

However, they seldom complete the argument with much candor. “We can’t afford it – unless people like you continue to subsidize our profits by paying for the external costs of our pollutants” – that’s the actual heart of the argument. It’s a startling admission that the fossil-fuel business model is essentially bankrupt, unless our neighbors bear the external costs for us.

Until recently, we didn’t really know the scale of the external costs of coal burning. But in 2010, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences quantified these costs in their study titled The Hidden Cost of Energy. Its findings were shocking. Coal burned in a single year by U.S. power plants costs everyone else on the planet another $200 to 300 billion in unpriced external costs – the costs of respiratory diseases, ecosystem damages, and climate impacts like drought, flooding and rising food costs.  That’s a tax of about $40 levied on every single human on Earth. Only for U.S. coal. Only for one single year. Borne by men and women, by adults and children. Borne by the rich. And borne by the roughly one billion humans earning less than $1 per day.

So maybe it’s time to “remix” the story of the prophet Nathan for our day. If we’re among those who benefit from “the right” to freely pollute the world’s air, forcing the world’s billions to subsidize our use of cheap energy, maybe Nathan is speaking to us: “Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? … Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house….”

Yes, perhaps the sword. Or perhaps the chaos from disrupted climate systems, rising sea levels, drought and wildfires, flooding and hunger. This planet is the only one God has provided for its seven billion human souls. Can we continue to abuse it without incurring the judgment of its Creator?

Tar Sands: When it’s Hard to Pray in Jesus’ Name

How do you proclaim your faith, when that faith is culturally aligned with injustice?

American Christians who are actively seeking to care for the creation routinely face this conundrum, as our religious heritage is so often used to provide moral cover for systems of power that despoil the earth and harm the poor. We know, of course, that our own scriptures tell us to “subdue the earth;” we are granted “dominion” over the works of God’s hand; and the gospel confers almost infinite value on the individual person. Taken together, these notions can be used to provide the ideological underpinnings of the exploitative economy and the hyper-individualism that often prevents us from acting for the common good.

Nothing really new here. Thoughtful Christians can rebut the errors that flow from these notions, of course. But the last two months have confronted me with another arena of injustice where we Americans – and our dominant cultural faith – are generally on the wrong side of God’s justice. I’ve seen it because I’ve been invited twice to participate with indigenous North Americans in their struggle for the most basic elements of justice. In this brief span, I’ve been confronted with two wonders: the amazing level of hospitality and inclusion extended to Christians like me by these communities; and the extent of my religion’s historical participation in oppression and genocide, together with our ongoing disregard for its still-surviving victims.

Native elders led the Healing Walk through the tar sands pollution

Native elders led the Healing Walk through the tar sands pollution

Last month, I was among a group of Evangelicals invited to participate with the Cowboy Indian Alliance in their Reject & Protect action in Washington. They were there to demand a voice in the decision whether to permit a Canadian pipeline company to seize indigenous and rancher lands in the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas for the Keystone XL pipeline. And today, I’m on my way home from the Healing Walk in Alberta, Canada, where native peoples are struggling for their very survival in the face of rampant oil-industry pollution of their supposedly treaty-protected lands and waters.

In each case, I came to pray, intending to bring with me the gracious name of the Lord Jesus Christ. I recalled the story of Peter and John speaking to the lame beggar at Jerusalem’s gate: “Silver and gold have I none. But what I have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk.” It’s a pretty triumphant story, isn’t it? Continue reading

A Message to America from Kenya’s Church Leaders

Friends with A Rocha and World Renew (both excellent Christian NGOs) managed to get us an extensive meeting yesterday with top leaders of the Kenyan National Council of Churches. It’s hard to say what a privilege it is to meet with Peter Karanja, General Secretary, and Chris Kamau, Sr. Officer for Social Services. These men are top leaders representing the biggest church denominations in Kenya.

At the end of a wide-ranging discussion about creation care and environmental challenges, one of our fellow North Americans asked our Kenyan hosts: “We want you to be totally candid with us. Please don’t pull any punches. What should we tell our churches back in North America?”

They paused for a brief moment. I had the sense that they were torn between Christian hospitality and the Christian honesty we were asking for. But they chose – I think – the route of candor. I wasn’t taping their narrative, but scribbled in my notebook like mad. Here’s a smattering of what they said:  Continue reading

Climate Change in Kenya: It Didn’t Used to Be This Way

We enjoyed generous hospitality this morning from the staff of World Renew in Nairobi, an NGO affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church. At their offices this morning, we listened to leading authorities on agriculture, forest management, food security, development and disaster relief tell us the new reality of life in Kenya: Things are changing, and mostly not for the better.

I’m traveling with new friends from Canada, the U.S. and Uganda who share a deep commitment to caring for God’s creation. Some of us focus our efforts on the ravages of human-induced climate change. But our Kenyan friends are dealing with the facts on the ground, serving the victims of drought, flooding and soil degradation. They’re not fighting for a cause; they’re fighting for people.
The stories they tell all have a common theme: The systems people once relied upon to sustain their communities are increasingly unreliable. Droughts are increasing in frequency; so are floods, such as the ones ravaging Kenyan crops at present; and increasingly degraded soils are undermining the ability of farmers to rebound after severe weather shocks.  The result is increasing hunger, poverty and insecurity.
“Climate events are forcing us to fundamentally rethink how we work,” said Jacqueline Koster, World Renew’s director of disaster response for large swaths of the African continent.
For my part, I’m looking for the data: Prove to me that extreme weather is worse now than it once was; show me the data beyond any dispute. It happens that there is good data, but it only goes back a few decades – not long enough to persuade the most skeptical observers. But skeptics should have heard what we heard today from these experts on the ground. Here are some examples:
  • World Renew program consultant Stephan Lutz traced the trajectory of East African drought over the last forty years. There was one major drought in the mid-1970s that captured the world’s attention. Another came along a decade later. In the 90’s the pace increased to two. Two more hit in the 2000’s. And already, there have been two more crippling droughts since 2010, only 3 years into the new decade. Today, Lutz speaks of nearly “perpetual drought” conditions. It didn’t used to be this way.
  • World Renew formerly viewed its development work in terms of periodic interventions to help communities recover from occasional setbacks on the road to greater stability. But Koster doesn’t talk that way anymore. Climate shocks come so frequently that she speaks instead of helping communities to “build resiliency” in light of the inevitably frequent climate shocks. It didn’t used to be this way.
  • Disaster Response Manager Chris Shiundu told us that farm planning has become much more difficult. Kenyans recall that in the past, on Christmas, they would feast; the following day, they would eat the leftovers; and the next day they would plant crops. You could count on the rains within a day or two. Now, no one knows when the rains will come, and planters must watch and wait for erratic rains.
  • Team leader Davis Omanyo put the routine planting date at February 15 in another region, now abandoned because of erratic rains. And he reported that many farmers must purchase twice the normal amount of seed, so that the crop can be replanted after erratic rains cause the first planting to fail. You used to be able to plan your farming calendar. No more.
  • And while drought conditions have taken their toll on food production, Shiundu told us that excess moisture from erratic rains has also caused maize (field corn) to rot on the stalk, resulting in the total loss of crops in some regions.
  • Project Manager Geoffrey manages disaster relief in Mbeere district, where the maize and cowpea harvests have been reduced by 70% this year due to flooding from extremely heavy rains, and the arrival of a pest caterpillar never known before in that region. “People who are 70 years old tell us that this never happened before in their lives,” said Geoffrey, “nor in the prior generation.”
For those of us from carbon-heavy North America, these accounts prompt some serious soul-searching. We know what our greenhouse gases are doing to the climate in general, global terms. We know it’s driving extreme weather, melting ice caps, raising sea levels and acidifying the oceans. Now we’re listening to our fellow Christians tell us of the impact on God’s beloved in Kenya.
Thank you for your accounts Chris, Davis and Geoffrey. Thank you Jacqueline, Stephan and your many co-workers. We will do our best in the coming weeks to tell your story to our fellow North Americans, and especially those in our churches. At a minimum, we are one body with those who suffer in the harsh new world faced by many Kenyans today. And if our life patterns back home are responsible for suffering in this distant land, we will do everything we can to bring about the changes you deserve.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood

Toxic Air: One More Burden for the Poor

Monday night, Barbara and I had the privilege of listening to Peter Harris, founder of the Christian environmental conservation group A Rocha. Peter was speaking at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, challenging the crowded auditorium of New Yorkers to rediscover the widely-ignored gospel call to care for everything God has made: his earth, its creatures and its people.
Brimming with excitement from an evening of insight and challenge, we headed west to our home at Good Hand Farm.  We crossed the GW Bridge in the fresh spring air, with the city’s skyline gleaming across the Hudson to the south. We flew along I-80 through Fort Lee, Englewood and Teaneck. A great end to a good day!
But suddenly, our perfect evening was rudely interrupted. A sickly-sweet odor assaulted our senses as we sped along the interstate. Something awful in the air! Where are we, anyway? Oh, of course: Paterson and Elmwood Park, industrial towns along New Jersey’s Passaic River. All those stacks billowing fumes night and day. Yuck.
I wonder what it’s like to actually live here! Those poor people!
Well, looking into it, I discovered that nothing could be more true.  Poor people.
It turns out that the privilege of breathing that perfect evening air was reserved largely for people who are rich like us: Fort Lee, Englewood and Teaneck enjoy average per capita incomes in the range of $32,000 to $38,000. But the rancid chemical cloud hanging over Paterson and Elmwood Park burns its way into the lungs of people earning on average about half of that: $13,000 to $23,000. In my little sample, you need money to fill your lungs with clean air.
Paterson chemical plants foul the air for NJ’s poor
I wondered, is this true in other places? Is it the poor who bear the burden of our world’s pollution? Well, in a word, yes.  It turns out that this is the rule everywhere you look.  We think of caring for the creation as a matter of aesthetics, or stewardship. But – true as those impulses may be – creation care is also a matter of justice for the poor, and for racial and ethnic minorities.  Consider:
  • The United Church of Christ has conducted studies over more than 20 years showing that racial minorities comprise the majority of populations living near hazardous waste facilities in the U.S. And these toxic communities have 50% more poor people than clean communities. Whatever the intent, people of color and the poor end up living with our hazardous toxins.
  • The University of Pennsylvania has published research showing that, for communities with nearby toxic waste facilities, those with predominantly African-American populations are nearly twice as likely to suffer accidents involving toxins, compared with similar non-minority communities. The inescapable conclusion: Facility operators adhere to varying safety standards in different communities, and race matters.
  • The Journal of Urban Affairs published a UCLA study which found that low-income and minority children in California are disproportionately exposed to hazardous vehicle exhausts, resulting in much higher rates of respiratory ailments and mortality. Poor kids and children of color – these are the ones who get the asthma and emphysema.
  • The Climate Risk Index, which annually ranks countries around the world based on their vulnerability to climate change, puts impoverished Bangladesh, Burma and Honduras at the very top.  In fact, the ten most vulnerable countries generate almost no greenhouse gases, and in their poverty, they generate average per capita incomes of only $2,500. But the ten highest emitting countries (including the U.S.) enjoy average incomes of more than $43,000, with per capita carbon emissions 25 times as high. We generate the pollution; they suffer the consequences.
  • Researchers at Harvard and Duke universities have published findings that developing nations will be affected far more severely by climate change than developed nations, and that this unequal impact will persist throughout the twenty-first century. This means that the very countries which have largely missed the benefits of the Industrial Revolution will bear the brunt of its hazardous consequences.
  • The Christian Reformed Church, through its Creation Stewardship Task Force, has stated that climate change will impact the poor more negatively than the rich. Limited financial resources provide them  little buffer in adapting; they cannot move to a more benign climate; they are more susceptible to social unrest and resource conflicts; and they have little access to technology for adaptation.
  • The National Association of Evangelicals has reported that the world’s poor are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In a report titled “Loving the Least of These,” the NEA states: “There are millions of suffering people in the world…. Unfortunately, the realities of climate change mean that those suffering millions may become billions. All of us who follow Jesus will need to respond.”
Since most of our readers are sincerely looking for ways to practice environmental justice, these findings may give us a whole new motivation for action.  Many of us hope for the day when the Son of Man welcomes his own with the words: “I was hungry, and you gave me food….” Of course, we will not understand, until he reminds us: “As you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:31-40).
As we repent of our abuse of the creation, and work toward a world which can sustain the world’s poor, perhaps we are beginning to learn what it might mean to care for “the least” of the brothers of God.
This is, after all, his world.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood
More Climate Risk Index Data