Tag Archives: greenhouse gas emissions

Who Owns the Air?

In 1960, my father stopped in Paris on his way home to Washington, DC, and for less than $1,000, bought himself a shiny new Renault Dauphine compact car. A few weeks later, it rolled onto a dock in New York harbor, on its way to our suburban Virginia driveway.

In an age of tail fins and chrome baubles, the Dauphine must have been the strangest sight in the neighborhood. Never a thing of beauty, the cartoonish little Dauphine was about half the size of everyone else’s car. And by the standards of JFK’s America, this car was about as ugly as they came.

Renault Dauphine 1960: An oddity in my childhood driveway

Renault Dauphine 1960: An oddity in my childhood driveway

But for this American first-grader, the memory of my dad’s Dauphine brings back an entirely different memory. I can still virtually taste it – the suffocating, acrid smell of my father’s cigarette smoke and ash tray. It permeated everything about the car. It coated the vinyl seats, and hung heavy in the air we breathed. Before the advent of seat belts and car seats, I would sometimes ride with my head out the window to escape the nauseating fumes. But it never occurred to either my father or me that something fundamentally wrong was going on.

This was America in 1960. It would be another four years before the Surgeon General would release his report on the health consequences of smoking, and three decades before the EPA would issue its findings on the hazards of second-hand smoke. The tobacco industry had already ramped up its disinformation campaign, which would go on for decades. To me, my dad was the embodiment of integrity and reason, but somehow it never occurred to any of us that he was making us sick.

Today, this would be unthinkable for most families. We recognize this simple truth: the cigarette may be yours, but the air is OURS. We all have to breathe – and the car, or the house, or the restaurant is not big enough to absorb your smoke without harming all of us. A revolution has occurred, whether or not we’ve noticed. We think differently now. The air is not yours or mine; it’s ours.

Last week, the revolution took two more big steps forward. First, the leader of the world’s largest religious group – the 1.3 billion-strong Roman Catholic Church – cast planet-warming greenhouse gases in the same light as my father’s cigarette smoke: harmful to all of us. And second, a sovereign state, the Netherlands, was ordered by one of its highest courts to make deep cuts in emissions of those same gases for the same reason.

This looks to me like the start of something big.

Pope Francis’ Ecological Encyclical

Of course, you haven’t missed Pope Francis’ authoritative encyclical, titled “Laudato Si” after St. Francis’ prayer beginning with the words: “Praise be to you, my Lord.” From the outset, Pope Francis linked his letter to our common reliance on the blessings of the created world. “Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone,” he wrote. “For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone.”

As a child in the backseat of the smoky Dauphine, I would have grasped this truth intuitively – you can’t burn all those cigarettes – or all those fossil fuels – without someone else bearing the cost from pollution – of water, land and atmosphere.

At 180 pages in length, Laudato Si can’t be realistically summarized here. But Pope Francis warned of a global ecological crisis that summons Christians and all people to nothing less than a profound conversion.

“It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism,” he wrote, “tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an ‘ecological conversion’, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”

And because the injured ecological systems were created by God as gifts to us all, the gospel calls us to protect every “common good” – including the earth’s climate system. “The climate is a common good,” Francis wrote, “belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.”150618115850-pope-encyclical-1-exlarge-169

Christianity is by far the largest religion on earth today, and the Roman Catholic Church is by far the largest among us. You’d think that such an appeal would have a meaningful impact on the way our seven billion humans begin to deal with the ecological crisis, wouldn’t you?

(Note: The Pope is not remotely the first Christian to blaze this trail: in 2010, the worldwide evangelical Lausanne Movement declared that care for the creation is “a core element of the gospel,” and warned of the impact of manmade climate change on the poor. And the Christian Reformed Church in 2012 adopted an exhaustive report finding that “human-induced climate change is an ethical, social justice, and religious issue,” and that climate pollution “poses a significant threat to future generations, the poor, and the vulnerable.” Scores of other Christian declarations have echoed these messages; see a partial list here.)

But last week’s news featured something revolutionary in the secular world as well.

Dutch Court Orders Emissions Cuts

With their exposure to rising sea levels and progressive attitudes, I thought that the Netherlands would be a virtual poster child for climate protection, but I was mistaken. On average, the Dutch emit 10.2 tons of CO2 per person every year, a little more than half of the 17.2 tons emitted by Americans, but much worse than fellow Europeans in Germany, France and Britain. Leading up to the global climate negotiations in Paris this December, the Dutch government has announced plans to reduce emissions by 14-17% from 1990 levels by 2020. But last week, a Dutch judicial panel ruled that that wasn’t enough – because of the scale of the global threat from climate change.

Like the Pope, the judges recognized that the global ecosystem belongs to us all, and any state’s actions affect everyone, for better or worse. The Netherlands recognizes principles forbidding states from polluting to the extent that they damage other states, and the EU’s ‘precautionary principle’ which prohibits actions that carry unknown but potentially severe risks.

“The state should not hide behind the argument that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend solely on Dutch efforts,” the judges’ ruling said. “Any reduction of emissions contributes to the prevention of dangerous climate change and as a developed country the Netherlands should take the lead in this.”

Could the Netherlands’ ruling impact other countries as well? I think so. There is a parallel case working its way through Belgian courts right now. So, what if Germany, France or the UK were next? At some point, might jurists in Brazil, India, Australia and Japan begin to mandate action as well? And Canada? And – just imagine! – the US?

The world is changing. Only fifty years ago, a good, loving father may have unquestioningly polluted the air his family breathed with cigarette smoke. Today, we pollute the atmosphere that governs climate systems in Bangladesh, Malawi and the Philippines – as well as here at home. But maybe it’s beginning to dawn on us that the air belongs to everyone.

The world’s largest church has recognized it. Christians all over the world have gone on record. Now, European courts are doing the same. Is it possible that carbon pollution is now headed the way of indoor tobacco smoke?

With hope that this has begun in earnest, we join St. Francis in his prayer Laudato Si – “Praise be to you, my Lord!” Amen!

J. Elwood

EPA Carbon Rules in Supreme Court’s Hands: Pray for Justice & Sense

“Confronting climate change should be an issue that unites rather than divides us. And that includes the Supreme Court. Here’s hoping the justices make the right call.” Christine Todd Whitman, former GOP Governor of New Jersey

As we all know, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed rules to regulate the amount of greenhouse gas pollution that new electric power plants can emit. Not surprisingly, the coal and oil industries have pulled out all stops to make sure they don’t succeed. They’ve lobbied hard against the effort, but their efforts have been overwhelmed by a flood of normal citizens demanding climate action.

So they’ve looked to the courts to protect the status quo of cost-free polluting. So far, they haven’t had much success. They’ve sued – and lost – right up the judicial chain. Last stop was the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, where a panel of judges appointed by presidents of both parties found that the EPA’s plan to limit power-plant greenhouse gas emissions was “unambiguously correct” and “statutorily compelled.”

So now it’s inthe hands of the Supreme Court. You’d think that this would be a simple matter for them. But it’s not. That’s because the industry plaintiffs have focused on an arcane, technical argument that makes this a risky matter in the hands of Justice Roberts’ court. Granted, the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to regulate pollutants. And the Supreme Court has ruled that greenhouse gases like CO2 emissions are clearly pollutants. No one questions that.

But here’s the catch: Back when the Clean Air Act was written, Congress had to establish a threshold for action: Who’s big and bad enough to focus on, and who is so small that regulation would be impossible or intrusive? How to distinguish between major and minor emitters?

Back then, before we – as a country and world – understood the peril of carbon pollution, we thought of pollutants as things like mercury, sulfur and industrial chemicals like HFCs – all emitted in comparatively small amounts. So the threshold for being a major emitter was set at the low level of 100 to 250 tons of pollutants per year. That worked. We got the big guys, and the little ones came along on their own.

Electric plants like this Ohio coal-fired plant emit 38% of U.S. CO2

Electric plants like this Ohio coal-fired plant emit 38% of U.S. CO2.

But then came climate chaos and global-warming emissions. Carbon emissions became the world’s biggest environmental threat. But carbon is different. With the average American individual responsible for 17 tons of CO2 per year, any corner grocery store or elementary school would be a “major emitter” when it comes to climate-changing pollutants under the law as written. So the EPA did the sensible thing, focusing only on those emitting 100,000 tons or more of CO2.

“Foul play!” cried the industry. If you want to regulate us, then you have to show up at every 7-Eleven or Dunkin’ Donuts! It’s there in the law: 100 to 250 tons per year! Who are you to rewrite the rules to focus only on us?

It’s a time-tested strategy for polluters: Set the bar for regulation so low that no agency could ever hope to get started with any regulation whatsoever.

And to hear reports from yesterday’s Supreme Court arguments, it sounds like they’ve got some converts on the bench. The issue isn’t whether climate change is real and caused by manmade carbon emissions. It isn’t whether it’s harmful to human health. It isn’t whether the EPA is required to act. The Court crossed those bridges back in 2007. It’s whether the EPA has the discretion to develop action plans and regulatory thresholds based on unfolding science since the law was passed.

I suspect that the justices would do well to look to America’s faith communities for some guidance here. Christians, Jews and others have long wrestled with today’s application of scriptures written in antiquity. And we’re seldom troubled by rigid literalism.

Consider the prophet Isaiah, revered by Christians, Jews, Muslims and Baha’is. Almost three thousand years ago, he foresaw the reign of peace ushered in by God’s kingdom on earth:  “[God] shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people,” he wrote; “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation….”

Sword into plowshares. We’ve all heard those verses, haven’t we? But let’s think for a minute: When was the last time we held a sword, let alone used one in anger? And what’s a plowshare, anyway? Is this even relevant today?

Of course, we People of the Book have long since gotten over this sort of problem. We’re prepared to think of God’s kingdom laying down its assault rifles and nuclear arms, in favor of farm equipment and medical supplies. The language of God-breathed scripture is always spoken within a cultural context, but its truth endures to all generations. We don’t rest our oxen on the Sabbath, but we rest our modern means of production. We honor the God who causes the Earth to rotate faithfully every 24 hours, even if our scriptures tell us that the setting sun “hurries back to where it rises.” We take up our crosses, even if crucifixion has mercifully been banned for many centuries.

Perhaps the Supreme Court has a little something to learn from us in this. The Clean Air Act was enacted in a historical context. It demanded that the EPA act limit harmful pollutants. And it permitted it to focus on major emitters, rather than every Tom, Dick and Harry.

Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican governor who ran the Bush Administration’s EPA gets it just about right in an editorial today:

“Climate change is the defining environmental challenge of our time, and there are huge consequences for inaction — whether measured in human lives or economic disruption…. Today, gridlock and partisanship make common-sense action all but impossible…. Far from ‘rewriting’ the statute or bending the law to fit its climate change agenda, the Obama administration simply interpreted the law in the same way as its predecessors — this time to cover greenhouse gas emissions.”

We pray that God gives the Supreme Court the wisdom to understand what’s at stake, and to rule with common sense and justice.