Mom, 14th century scholars, and 21st century religious leaders: do right with or without “everyone else”

Joelle Novey is the director of Greater Washington IPL.  She submitted the following comments to the EPA, and has shared them with PA IPL in anticipation of being a workshop leader and keynote panelist at Climate Justice: Faith in Action, PA IPL’s 2014 annual conference. 

joellenoveyThrough Interfaith Power & Light, hundreds of local congregations of all religious traditions work together on energy and climate issues.

This morning, I’m only one of over two dozen religious voices you will hear speaking out in support of strong safeguards on carbon pollution from power plants. These voices come from nine Christian denominations and six other faith traditions: Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Unitarian Universalist.

I’m speaking with a stack of postcards that good folks signed in support of the Clean Power Plan on card tables after services in their congregations throughout our region. And we are joined by religious voices around the country who’re participating in the EPA’s other hearings.

The teaching from my own tradition that informs my thoughts on carbon pollution comes from Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet, a 14th Century scholar of Jewish law. He wrote: “One is forbidden from gaining a livelihood at the expense of another’s health” (Responsa 196). Simple, ethical wisdom. Not bad for the Middle Ages.

For too long — here — now — those who operate our power plants have been permitted to gain their livelihoods at the expense of people’s health. There have been limits on other kinds of pollutants, but there have been no limits at all on carbon pollution.

Here in DC, we have one of the nation’s highest asthma rates, particularly among children. Nearly 14,000 children in our nation’s capital city sometimes struggle to breathe because of our dirty air.[1] Someone is making their living at the expense of these kids’ health!

We’ll be hearing from polluters at these hearings, saying that any limits on carbon pollution will interfere with their jobs. They have every right to make an honorable living, but: it should be forbidden in this country for anyone to make their livelihood at the expense of people’s health.

In the religious communities with which I work, people are heart-sick about the role of fossil fuels in producing the heat-trapping gases that are causing climate change. They are working to reduce their electricity use in their sanctuaries and at home. They are climbing up on ladders to change to more efficient lightbulbs. They are working together to support clean energy through their energy bills. They fought hard to bring offshore wind power to Maryland’s coast, and they are willing to spend many hours in committee meetings, figuring out how to finance solar panels for their roofs.

So often, we are told that the change we are trying to make is unrealistic because clean energy is so expensive, while dirty energy is cheap.

But who pays for dirty energy?

Who bears the cost of bad air quality, the cost of kids with asthma, and seniors having heart attacks, and pregnant mothers with mercury in their bodies? Who bears the cost of stronger storms, extreme drought, devastating floods, and other scary weather caused by climate change?

Any energy we pay for through the permanent destruction of our climate, any energy people pay for with their health, isn’t cheap energy. It is intolerably expensive.

Another idea I heard expressed in these hearing rooms yesterday was that so long as other nations in the world are still producing so much carbon pollution with *their* power plants, there’s no point for us in the U.S. to bother to do anything about our carbon pollution from *our* power plants.

In my religious community, it would never occur to me to make this line of moral argument in my own life. I know I can’t explain to my rabbi that I am not going to stop stealing until absolutely everyone else in Washington DC has stopped stealing.

And you can check with them, but I don’t think any one of the 26 other religious leaders who’re speaking at these hearings would be impressed to hear a member of their own congregations explain that he or she is not responsible for harming others because “everyone else is doing it.”

We in this country produce a quarter of the heat-trapping climate pollution that is warming our Earth and causing suffering for our neighbors, close to home and around the world.

If our religious voices add only one thing to these hearings, let it be the clarity that we in this nation are called to do right on this issue regardless of what anyone else in the world is doing.

On this historic morning, the EPA stands poised to set national limits on our nation’s single largest source of carbon pollution. Please proceed to swiftly approve and implement the Clean Power Plan.

1. Mark your calendar and register for Climate Justice: Faith in Action, PA IPL’s 2014 annual conference.
2.  Sign up for affordable clean electricity to start doing better right away.
3. Take a quick mental inventory of your congregation’s next gathering or celebration.  Could you shrink your footprint and still gather in beloved community?