Rev. Sally Bingham's Message to Austin's Interfaith Community

This message was delivered by Rev. Canon Sally Bingham to an interfaith gathering in Austin on Saturday, October 22, 2011.

We are living at a difficult time in history, but at the same time, it is an exciting moment to be alive.  Things around us are changing very fast. There have been uprises in the Middle East, but I am not referring to the death of Osama Bin Laden, or Qaddafi or the trouble in Syria and Afghanistan, but rather the revolutions in both Tunisia and Egypt and now taking place on Wall Street and around this country. None of these events would be so successful without the aid of social networks. They have changed our lives. We are having to create “new norms for a new reality.” In the meantime, we are dealing with economic recession, terrorism, severe environmental degradation all over the world and along with that, the increasingly scary signs of runaway global climate change which is what I am here to talk about.

Climate change is a complicated issue that often evokes feelings of loss, hardship, unfairness and certainly confusion. I cannot leave out anger and frustration as well. Those feelings are real just as the climate crisis is real. Sounds scary, but we are also at a moment in time of rare opportunity.  There is something bigger than the feelings of fear and the climate crisis.  We have the chance to come together with a shared purpose—something few generations have had the chance to do. While crisis means danger, it also is an opportunity to work together. This is a chance to redefine the human purpose: Why did God put us here in the first place? What is the human purpose? We might consider coming together with the purpose of healing the earth so that we and the next generations may live in good health and safety. Could that be our shared purpose?

One of the most important things we need is a cultural shift in the way we think about, create, and use energy. But the challenges we face in making the necessary changes are huge. We have had serious coal mine disasters where many people have lost their lives. Coal is the most dangerous and dirty of the fuels we are using. Besides mining through tunnels, coal is extracted by blowing the tops off mountains. Not only does that destroy the entire ecosystem in the vicinity, I think it is a sin against creation and an insult to God. There are other less harmful ways of extracting coal.

Many men have lost their lives in mining accidents and recently as a result of a major oilrig explosion—events that didn’t have to happen. The worst oil disaster in the history of this country in the Gulf of Mexico happened a little over a year ago.

NASA just came out with a report saying that 2000-2009 was the warmest decade on record since 1880 and multi-year winter sea ice area decreased by 42 percent between 2005 and 2008. And still, our elected officials in Washington have utterly failed to pass any energy, climate change, or even oil spill response legislation and at the same time, they voted to preserve subsidies to the oil industry.  This is what we are up against.  They have rejected climate science, calling global warming a hoax and stood behind a well-funded misinformation campaign paid for by the oil, coal and gas industry.

It makes you wonder, “where is the moral integrity of our elected officials?” And how can they put re-election ahead of what is best for their country, for the American people and best for the poor and vulnerable around the world—not to mention the preservation of the planet?

There is no doubt that every form of energy has risks, but we do not and should not take the kind of risk that BP oil company, Halliburton and Deepwater Horizon did with the Southern Coast of the US and the men aboard an oilrig.  Another risk is on the horizon with the Keystone XL Pipeline which will carry dirty tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Until we are 100% sure of the safety, we have no viable reason to take that kind of risk. This is risking the heartland of our country and its water supply. We can save energy though conservation and efficiency. We don’t need to do this. I am told that 1/3 of all energy created is lost en route from the source to the project that needs it. We need to tighten up the grid and conserve before we build more dirty plants, run pipes right through aquifers or dig deeper and deeper into the ocean for oil.

Now I know we aren’t supposed to make connections between weather and global climate change, but… twenty to thirty years ago, scientists said we would have more and longer periods of hot weather due to global warming. Scientists said droughts would be longer and more forest fires would happen. Scientists said that storms will be more severe and we would experience much heavier rain and more serve flooding. Listen to what was in the June issue of Newsweek:

In the U.S. alone, nearly 1,000 tornadoes have ripped across the heartland, killing more than 500 people and inflicting $9 billion in damage. The Midwest suffered the wettest April in 116 years, forcing the Mississippi to flood thousands of square miles, even as drought-plagued Texas suffered the driest month in a century. Worldwide, the litany of weather’s extremes has reached biblical proportions. The 2010 heat wave in Russia killed an estimated 15,000 people. Floods in Australia and Pakistan killed 20,000 and left large areas of each country under water. A year-long drought in China has devastated millions of acres of farmland.  2010 was the hottest year on earth since weather records began.

Texas and New Mexico are suffering from unprecedented drought that will cost the states more than four billion dollars in agricultural losses; Russia lost 40% of its grain crop last year. Climate change is causing economic losses and food shortages. Many insurance companies no longer provide insurance for homes on the coasts in some parts of the world. What to do? 

If the government won’t protect us and oil and coal companies continue to gush carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for increased profit, who and what is going to motivate the change we need?

YOU WILL! People of faith, people of faith who see climate change and environmental degradation as a moral issue. We are the foundation of a fast-growing movement.

For people of faith this challenge is probably our greatest one.  It is a moral challenge that will decide our relationship with God, each other and the natural world. And the choices we make will decide the future for our children. If we love God and love what God created and loves, aren’t we the ones to protect and cherish our world? If God so loved the world that He gave his only son, aren’t we obligated to take care of it? 

It is in direct disobedience to the commandment to love one another, that wealthy nations have, through their pollution, destroyed the very basic physical stability on which poor nations and communities depend. It is the people who contribute the least to the problem who will suffer the most. That is a justice issue if there ever was one.

The poor, both here in the U.S. and around the world, are paying for mistakes made without their knowledge or contribution. This is an issue of human rights. It is one where one group of people has prospered at the expense of another. We must restore a shared sense of purpose. We all—rich and poor and everyone in between—share this fragile planet and we all need to share the responsibility for keeping it safe and healthy for every living thing, human and non-human and for future generations.

There are solutions on the horizon and our grass roots Interfaith Power & Light (IPL) campaign is promoting many of them. People of faith can and are beginning to lead the way in energy efficiency, conservation and education—and we hope, too, that our campaign will have political influence with a values-based message. We have 14,000 congregations participating with programs in 38 states. Religious involvement will be the moral influence that this movement needs. We are the hope in the dark times.

Our generation has the opportunity to engage in a cultural revolution similar to the industrial one 200 years ago, but this time, a clean one.  The Gulf oil disaster is an example of humans taking great risk with nature and it certainly makes a clear and powerful case for using less oil and getting ourselves onto clean, renewable energy. Prevention of that kind of disaster is paramount. There has never been a solar spill.

The United States, more than any other country in the world, is divided over this issue, but whether or not you think our warming global climate is human-induced, most people agree that the solutions addressing climate change line up with the solutions that will save a broken economy, it will encourage investments, create jobs and increase national security.  You cannot argue with those goals.

When it has been made clear that renewable energy sources like solar and wind power generate four to six times as many jobs as coal plants, you cannot help but wonder why don’t we make the switch. Switching to carbon-free energy helps—rather than hurts—the nation’s economy. It is safer and cleaner, too. This is a message the climate skeptics don’t want you to hear, but it is a message we need to all emphasize in these times of economic uncertainty. Whether you believe in global warming or not, switching to a low-carbon economy is something we should do anyway.

The faith community has an important role. Major social changes in America do not happen without the moral voice of religion. That voice is needed now and I believe it will be the voice that pushes and creates real change. It will be the voice that brings the world together with a shared purpose.

The U.S. has long held a clear separation between church and state. Yet our democracy is best when all voices are heard in the political process.

The moral responsibility to be good stewards of the earth fits side by side with our human desires to provide a safe and healthy world for our children. Those are shared values.

You don’t have to believe that humans are warming the climate to recognize that reducing energy consumption and boosting renewable energy supplies is the single best prescription for lifting the U.S. economy. We can propel a global economic recovery not based on the exploitation and degradation of the environment, but rather, based on a smart and sustainable approach that will democratize energy supply and enrich regional communities and economies. Jobs in the U.S. solar sector have doubled since 2009, even without climate or energy legislation. One hundred thousand people are working in solar-related jobs now.

I see the climate crisis as one of the most, if not the most, important moral issues of our time, and when moral and economic priorities align as they do now, there is no justification for inaction. Inaction now will only cost more later on.  

The best hope for all of civilization right now is that people of faith stand up and voice the moral responsibility of a nation to protect its people from potential catastrophic disasters.  And it is happening! Religious people are not waiting for international treaties or government regulation—they are putting faith into action.

Clergy preaching from the pulpit about the moral basis behind environmental stewardship may have far more impact than that of a politician or scientist alone.

As far as I am concerned, this is the most exciting and hopeful thing.

Here in the U.S., our 14,000+ IPL congregations are doing things like putting solar panels on our roofs, putting in geothermal systems, installing energy-efficient appliances, and developing creative liturgy to help change both hearts and minds. Churches, mosques and synagogues are serving as examples to the community. Clergy are walking the halls of legislative buildings and talking to lawmakers. This is what they did during the civil rights movement, and many credit the faith community with playing a decisive role in that successful effort to convince politicians to do the moral and right thing that supports the common good.

IPL has engaged individual congregations in a program called, Cool Congregations.  This program invites congregations to cut their own carbon footprints. We have videos and tools available and a contest going on right now that will give a financial prize to the congregation that is “the biggest loser”—loser of CO2 emissions, that is.

Modeled after Cool Congregations is our Cool Harvest program linking food, faith and climate.  Nearly all faiths have rituals that focus on meals.  We have seen tremendous enthusiasm around this program with congregations having sustainable meals or all locally-grown, organic potluck events that introduce congregants to how one’s food is grown, transported, prepared and consumed, and how that process affects the climate.

Carbon Covenant is our international program that connects congregations here in the U.S. with communities of faith in the developing world who are reforesting, including monks in Cambodia, Presbyterians in Cameroon, Lutherans in Tanzania, and Evangelical Presbyterians in Ghana. These four projects need help in planting trees and our program is providing much-needed funding to assist in recreating healthy forests that not only serve as carbon sinks, but also hold water and soil, preventing erosion.

In the increasingly polarized arena of politics, we are staging a strong resistance to the Keystone XL Pipeline, doing our moral best to defend the Clean Air Act, and holding the “frackers” to ethical standards that will require regulated transparency, disclosure of chemicals used and 100% proof that wells don’t leak methane. These are contentious issues that need values-based arguments that speak to both sides of the aisle if we are going to be successful. We are working to find the effective messages and the most influential people to deliver those messages.

This is not about sacrifice. It is about stewardship. Doing the right thing is not always the easiest, but for people of conscience, it is the only thing to do.

I am not a scientist, but for the last ten years, I have worked almost exclusively on a religious response to global warming. I have read and studied it. I have met and sat down with climate scientists. I believe them.  They are the modern day prophets. 

One of my strongest arguments in response to climate skeptics and deniers is, “what if the denier is wrong?” If I am wrong, we have cleaned up the air, cut down on lots of pollution, created jobs, and boosted the economy. If the deniers are wrong, they will have condemned our children to an unhealthy and miserable future. 

Think of this: if the abolitionists had backed down because plantation owners in the South didn’t like the message, we might still have slaves. For those of us who recognize the climate crisis, this is our time to speak out.  And for religious leaders, we have an obligation to speak out.

Science tells us that we have but a scant few years to turn the trend around in order to avoid catastrophic weather conditions and unprecedented sea rise, putting entire nations in the developing world at risk. Some say we are already too late. We, therefore, all have to work together to curb our energy use in order to slash greenhouse gas emissions that have been linked to climate change. To limit carbon dioxide—which is the most serious and prevalent greenhouse gas—we need everyone working together. No one segment of society can do it alone. This is our shared purpose and we have a shared responsibility to turn things around.

While moral obligation should compel the U.S. to act, the message we need to share to convince the rest of society that action is paramount is the economic benefits that will flow to society. If we consume less energy and shift to more sustainable and non-polluting renewable fuels and supplies, we will be safer and healthier, too. We will put people back to work and bring manufacturing home.

It is time to look for solutions to save the entire community of life, not one species, one disease or one problem. This is about the well being of the entire communion of life. 

What does it say about our elected officials when they continue to avoid doing anything about this immense challenge? Isn’t it a crime not to even try to protect us?  And….. the U.S. government is letting China take over world leadership in renewable energy. Our politicians care more about their personal power than the power of America in the world.

The decisions made today will affect neighbors near and far, and most importantly, our future neighbors: our children and their children. We have a responsibility to the next generation—and to today’s calls for greater economic opportunity. 

Isn’t it strange that we spend an entire lifetime trying to leave wealth and other forms of inheritance to our children, yet we don’t seem to care about leaving them clean air, clean water and an atmosphere that supports life as we know it? How are the children going to survive? Some people just think that somebody somewhere will figure it all out. I think this is irresponsible! 

I refuse to believe that we are so lacking in moral integrity that we don’t care. If I thought we couldn’t do something or didn’t care about the climate problem, I wouldn’t have dedicated my ministry and life to this effort and I wouldn’t have HOPE. Without hope I wouldn’t be here. 

My reasons for hope were growing thin until earlier this year when I visited a high school in Massachusetts. Now I have a new full tank of energy moving towards a “We Can Do This” just from being with a group of young smart students. Their teachers get it and they get it. One class had an assignment to find a climate denier and do some research. Well, they found out a lot by doing that. Two weeks later, I was with college students in Indiana and it was the same. The hope is with youth, college students and young adults.

I think we are reaching a threshold where enough people are aware of the daunting issues we face with climate change. 85% of people polled say they care. It isn’t always the top priority, but they care. And 65% of Americans attend a house of worship on a regular basis. We have an audience and a lot of influence. We don’t need a majority. We need a critical mass.

Clergy preaching from the pulpit about the moral basis behind environmental stewardship may have far more impact than that of a politician or scientist alone.

This is the moment when we must take responsibility for the destruction that humans have caused to Creation. This is the moment when we need to pledge to take an unwavering stand to preserve and protect the creation over which we have been given dominion—not domination. If we choose life then we choose to live in harmony with one another and all creation. This is the time to make better choices. This is the time to redefine what it means to be human and to seek justice on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. This is the time for a generational shared purpose, one that can bring us out of recession and start healing the abused earth.

Faith and hope are crucial to celebrating a shared purpose, and I sense hope in the form of new technologies, efficiency, investments in renewable energy and in the students I have visited. But most of all, the recognition by people of faith who believe in the power of the human spirit and hope is here with you.

I hope that we will commit to finding and holding joy as we move forward in a peaceful campaign—one that can bring healing to this fragile Earth our island home, a campaign that will boost the economy, clean our air, and cut pollution.

We have a great opportunity now.  While the climate situation is a major crisis, and crisis is usually associated with danger, crisis always brings opportunity. We cannot waste this opportunity. We can run from the danger or we can face it and move forward together, unified, with a shared purpose.  There is unlimited and sustainable economic growth beckoning on the horizon with new technologies to be researched and developed, creating millions of new clean energy jobs. 

We have the tools and, I pray, the will to make things right. It is time to put our faith into action toward a shared purpose with a healthy future.

Let’s all commit to a regeneration of spirit—both inwardly and outwardly. Commit to being an example to others and show our love for Creation in all our behaviors. Choose resurrection and life over death and destruction. We are all in this together, one family with one shared purpose and one hope for all.

We are here, and the time is now! Thank you for your attention.

-The Reverend Canon Sally Bingham, October 22, 2011