Responding to lumps of coal

On New Year’s Day 2014 the Centre Daily Times ran a pro-coal, pro-fossil fuel opinion piece titled “Drilling, Mining Boom Does Not Spell Environmental Doom.”

image source
image source

Our response (reprinted below) was published on January 6, 2014.  If you see articles or opinions that are skewed on climate change or fossil fuels, don’t just mutter into your morning coffee.  Respond respectfully with comments online, letters to the editor, or a responsive Opinion piece.  Feel free to call us for help, or crib widely from this piece.  We’ve added internet links to useful sources.  

Author Dave Schellberg is right that we are not currently ready to move completely away from fossil fuels.  He’s wrong to suggest that we should not move as far as we can right now.   The more energy we generate from sustainable sources, the more we support that economy, and push innovation in a positive direction.

Worse that suggesting that inaction should be the choice we make in the face of imperfection, Mr. Schellberg moves from supporting fossil fuels to touting coal.  Coal may currently provide “cheap” fuel, but coal is a menace from beginning to end.  Mine tailings are toxic to waterways, plants, and fish, none of which does the humans nearby any good, either.  A study by the West Virginia University Institute for Health Policy Research shows that living in a coal mining community is dangerous to the health of non-miners, too:  Mining town residents have a 70 percent increased risk for developing kidney disease, a 64 percent increased risk for developing lung diseases (COPD) such as emphysema, and are 30 percent more likely to report high blood pressure.   As for jobs, mining companies have been favoring machines over human employees for decades.   The difference in people needed is immediately evident to anyone who looks at mountaintop removal (also called MTR) equipment*, but it’s also true in underground longwall mining.  The jobs are only there until there is a cheaper way.

Burning coal is better than it used to be thanks to smokestack scrubbers, but it still releases mercury and a slew of lesser-known toxins into the air when it’s burned.   Guess who lives downwind?   Not company executives or trust fund babies.   Babies with much higher rates of lung problems live there.   Asthma, cardiovascular disease are increased for children and adults all higher in these communities.  Cancer rates are higher, too.

Once the coal is burned to create the “cheap” electricity, we’re still not done.  Coal ash is the second largest waste stream in the United States.  Arsenic is one component.  It’s stored in a variety of ways, including unlined waste pits, containment areas with impoundment dams that do not always hold.  The cocktail of substances in coal ash is so toxic that exposure to it increases cancer risk 9 times MORE than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, and 900 times more than the “acceptable risk” guidelines.  The better the air pollution gets, the worse the ash gets, because all the heavy metals and toxics that are “scrubbed” out of the smoke end up in the solid waste.   We cannot make both better.

Clearly, we’ve got to get off coal, but our power challenge is not just a coal problem.  We must move aggressively away from all fossil fuels.  Climate change threatens both people and planet in so many ways.  This is about public health, about hunger, about disease, about conflict and security, about disaster relief, and, yes, Mr. Schellberg, it is about caring for Creation, for the “clean air and pure water” that the Pennsylvania Constitution says are a right of future Pennsylvanians, and for the very mountains that shout for joy and the rivers that clap their hands in praise.

We can’t do everything today, but we must move as fast and as far as we can, as soon as we can.  We must do so as an act of hope.  Insulate, unplug, walk, and switch to clean power.  Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light can help faith communities, schools, and small businesses do so within-budget.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.  (Psalm 24:1)


* See MTR trucks here.  Be sure to compare to the regular-sized bulldozer to the left of the picture for scale.   Also note: we have the DVD Renewal to loan to members.  One of its 10-15 min segments is about a group of faith leaders visiting an MTR site for the first time.

A Simple Wish

This letter from PA IPL member and former intern Barb Donnini was published in the Good Steward Campaign newsletter, as well as in the Centre Daily Times here.

A Simple Wish
I wish for an excellent quality of life for every human being, for biodiversity and for a great outdoors to exist for my children.

It is for these reasons, and my desire to follow moral guidelines, that I am deeply disturbed to learn of people who think climate change is not real, but is instead an elaborate scam to raise taxes.

The World Health Organization estimates that 150,000 deaths are directly attributable to climate change.

In a sick ironic twist, the people hurt the most by climate change aren’t emitting the most (or even a lot). The most affected nations are the poorest. Their citizens are barely able to subsist day to day, let alone pay to cope with the new effects of climate change on their communities (extreme drought in Africa, for example).

What’s being asked of all of us is small: Conserve energy in your home and encourage clean energy projects. This doesn’t mean changing your political party. It means signing an online petition, helping a nonprofit or supporting national policy that increases renewable energy usage.

Even if you still aren’t convinced, we can all agree that conserving energy is a good thing, if just for financial reasons.

I’d like to believe that most can identify with right versus wrong, fair versus unfair. It isn’t fair that we use much more energy than needed while so many others feel the consequences.

We have one chance at preserving the planet – the risk is too great to do nothing.

Climate Cliff

This letter from PA IPL board president Rev. Bill Thwing was published on 12/10/2012 in the Johnstown Tribune Democrat

Nation facing more ‘cliffs’ than fiscal

Three recent news stories have caught my attention.

While headlines scream that a “fiscal cliff” looms and that Republicans and Democrats can’t reach agreement, another, smaller story whispers that China and the United States have traded places as world economic powers.

Apparently, as recently as 2006, the United States was the largest trading partner around the world, with 127 countries versus China’s 70.

By 2011, that ratio had reversed, with China now serving as the largest trading partner for 124 countries and the United States serving 76.

Wow! That’s a really big “fiscal cliff.”

A second article catching my attention was “Study: CO2 emissions increase by 3 percent.”

Apparently, China and the United States have now also switched places as the world’s biggest polluter. The amount of heat-trapping pollution the world spewed rose last year by 3 percent with China being the world’s biggest carbon dioxide polluter. The United States and Germany reduced their emissions.

Worldwide, we’ve added nearly 9 ppm of CO2 emissions in only one year! That’s a huge change.

In 2006, CO2 was advancing by only 1 ppm per year. It looks to me like we humans are heading for a “carbon cliff.”

Which cliff is worse: The domestic fiscal cliff that leads to another recession, the balance of trade cliff that leads to the loss of world economic dominance for the United States, or the carbon cliff that leads to climate chaos, failing nations, mass extinctions and the potential collapse of human civilization?

All these cliffs can be avoided simply by agreeing to work together on solutions for the common good.

Rev. William C. Thwing


The link to the letter online is here: Rev. Thwing’s is the second letter.

PA IPL in the papers!

From the June 17, 2012 Williamsport Sun-Gazette: 
Like many people, I struggle to reconcile the idealism of my moral beliefs and the practical demands of daily life. While I grew up in Montoursville, I’ve spent the last two years studying theology in Claremont, California. In order to apply this education at the practical level, I’ve returned home to serve as an AmeriCorps member with Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light (PA IPL), a religious response to climate change.

With two other members of PA IPL, I recently took a four-day bicycle trip from State College to Washington, D.C. Throughout, I often found myself lingering behind my friends, at times overwhelmed by the beauty (and mystery) of my native state. I’ve been familiar with these kinds of scenes all my life, but I’m used to racing past them in a car. At a meager 10 miles per hour, though, the glory of Pennsylvania’s forests and mountains is unavoidable.

During one of these reflective moments, I asked myself: How many people in this world feel this sort of connection to their homes, their surroundings? How many are fortunate enough to witness what is given to us? Of course, this is a loaded question. We know that the world’s climate is undergoing dramatic changes. With our millions of vehicles and our coal-fired power plants, Pennsylvanians are responsible for one percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions (more than 101 countries combined). We cannot deny that our daily actions have a detrimental influence on the lives of others throughout the world, including both present and future generations.

While the scientific community attests to the certainty of this information, they don’t tell us how we should react to these claims. Science only gives us information. Religion, on the other hand, teaches us that we have a duty to those whom are touched by our actions. This sentiment is expressed in the following two commandments: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Matthew 22:37-40). We should notice that loving our neighbors is similar to loving God. In a global economy, though, we must admit that our neighbors are spread throughout the world.

I understand that some may see these religious values as hopeless idealism. From a practical perspective, I recognize that, taken seriously, religious duties of caring for our neighbors may require limitations on industry. For me, this hits home. During recent visits with my family, I’ve witnessed the thriving economy of the Williamsport area due to investments by the natural gas industry. My friends and family have benefited a great deal, whether through employment, gas leases, or increased business activity.

While I offer thanks for the success of my friends and family, I also want to work for a future in which Pennsylvanians (including my nieces and nephews) will enjoy an economy that can thrive beyond the lifespan of non-renewable resources. A Pennsylvania with jobs and clean air, with economic success in the present and the possibility of the same in the future. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive.

This is not to ignore the fact that difficult choices have to be made. The transition from an economy based on non-renewable resources (whether coal or natural gas) to one based on sustainable resources would require sacrifice. The mere thought of such a transition can be daunting, even overwhelming. However, we can meet this challenge with incremental changes in the way we produce and consume energy. The EPA’s new rules to limit carbon pollution from any new power plant are a good example of this kind of change. We can also make immediate and simple changes in our daily lives: Drive less, use compact fluorescent light bulbs, turn off the air conditioner.

From a practical perspective, these changes are an important step in the right direction, but ultimately I look at this problem from a religious point of view. From this perspective, I recognize that what I have called a “sacrifice” is, in fact, a religious duty. According to this duty, our goal must be to ensure the best possible future for our neighbors and future generations.

Klotz is a Montoursville High School graduate who has returned to the area and works as an AmeriCorps member for Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light.

Help Reduce Industrial Carbon Pollution
Published on Patch on June 14, 2012 
 On Tuesday, June 19th, a hearing will be held in the Philadelphia City Council Chambers from 5-8 pm, regarding a proposed EPA rule that, if allowed to be implemented, could save jobs, lives, and avoid painful, long-term debilitating breathing issues for millions of people in our state and across the nation.

This rule would do one simple thing. It would establish a standard for new (only plants built after the rule goes into effect – “fair play”) power plants for their industrial carbon emissions. Many of the other pollutants emitted by power plants have long been regulated but carbon pollution has not.

In Delaware and Montgomery Counties over 300,000 people are at higher risk of developing asthma for a variety of environmental reasons.

Fossil-fuel burning power plants currently emit more than two billion tons of carbon pollution and other toxic pollutants into the air each year. This pollution fuels global warming and increases the number of unhealthy air days, resulting in more respiratory ailments, heart attacks, heat-related deaths, and other harmful health effects. Power plants are the largest source of global warming pollution in the country, and there are currently no limits on the amount of greenhouse gases like the industrial carbon they can emit.

As a member of the clergy, someone at risk for asthma, someone with a wife and friends who suffer with asthma, and someone who, along with you, will face the need to adapt to increasing climate change, I urge you to:

— Take part in the hearing in the Philadelphia City Council Chambers from 5 to 8 next Tuesday

— go to and send a comment directly to Lisa Jackson at the EPA

Your voice is needed now to support the proposed protections and to counter big polluters who are spending millions to get Congress to block the EPA’s action.

Thanks, Rev. Douglas B. Hunt
Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light  –

From the Centre Daily Times on June 2, 2012
(Here is what it looked like in the physical paper, pictures and all.)
We were nervous about our first meeting with a congressional staffer. Why should they listen to regular folks like us?

But Sarah Wolf was welcoming, and we had a good conversation about climate change, energy efficiency and the EPA.

As we were saying goodbye she asked, “Aren’t you the people who rode your bicycles down here from Pennsylvania?”

Yes, we said. Three of us had ridden our bikes more than 200 miles in four days. Along the way we spoke at colleges and churches, and we stayed overnight in homes and community centers.
In the jaded world of Washington, that action — and the conviction that drove us to do it — impressed Rep. Thomas Marino’s staffer more than anything we had to say.

This is why our organization, Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, believes that people of faith must take the lead in responding to the threat of climate change.

Throughout our four-day bike trip, we often found ourselves lingering, at times overwhelmed by the beauty (and mystery) of the Tussey Ridge, Shade Gap and Wolfsburg Mountain. Of course, we’ve seen these kinds of scenes all our lives, but usually when racing past them in a car. At a meager 10 miles per hour, though, the glory of Pennsylvania’s forests and mountains is undeniable.

People everywhere feel similarly about their homes and their surroundings. We are creatures of the land, bound intimately to the fate of our environment. Yet we know that the Earth’s climate is undergoing dramatic changes, that our daily actions have a detrimental influence on the lives of others throughout the world.

Scientific experts attest to the certainty of this information. They tell us that Pennsylvanians, for example, are responsible for 1 percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions (more than 101 countries combined). But science cannot tell us how we should react to these claims.

Religion, on the other hand, teaches us to look beyond our self-centered actions, to see the broader implications of our acts and to sacrifice present pleasure for future gain.

In ancient Judaism, the people took sacrifices from the harvest to the Temple. Christianity sees Jesus’ actions as the ultimate sacrifice to redeem the whole creation. When Muslims fast during Ramadan, they sacrifice daily food and drink to focus on ultimate dependence upon God.

Transitioning away from our current wasteful practices, getting out of our cars and onto our bikes for example, is a kind of sacrifice. It is a sacred act that transforms daily actions into a means of ensuring the best possible future for our neighbors and for future generations.

At PA IPL our primary task is to help congregations and individuals see energy efficiency and the purchase of alternative energy as sacred acts. We know sacrifices now — doing without air conditioning, driving less, biking more — can help stave off the worst effects of a warming world.
These individual actions are important, but as we said to our congressional representatives, we need our government to make changes, too.

Legislation in Congress right now can lead the way in making government buildings more energy efficient, and new rules from the EPA can ensure that future power plants are held to high standards in reducing dangerous carbon pollution.

Climate change is a civilization-challenging crisis; scientists have been warning us for decades. It is time to follow what our faiths have taught us: a little sacrifice now can mean a better future for everyone.

Kris Klotz is an Americorps volunteer and Jonathan Brockopp is a board member of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light. Both are from State College and can be reached at

Read more here:

Changing Our Climate: an Op-Ed by Rabbi Daniel Swartz

Our climate is changing – both literally and figuratively.  The list of weather events that may be linked to changes in the global climate is already long, and it keeps growing longer with each passing season.  Droughts, floods, record-breaking heat waves, fires, even monster snow storms are all signs that climate change is part of our present, not just our future.

But the “climate” is changing in other ways as well. Many have been focusing on negative changes – the climate of acrimony and vitriol in political discourse, or the still sour economic climate.  But there are some positive “climactic” changes as well.  For me, one of the most significant is the growing involvement of faith communities around the globe in addressing environmental concerns, including global climate change.
How is something that seems intensely scientific, like the changing composition of our atmosphere, or intensely political, like global treaties dealing with use of fossil fuels, a faith issue?  Prayers don’t yield scientific data – but once science tells us what IS happening, our faith traditions can help us figure out what we OUGHT to do about it.  And while even a close reading of such traditions won’t reveal a detailed energy policy, certain basic guiding principles are shared by many faith communities.
For example, our world is good – one might even say “very good” – and we are supposed to help tend it and protect it.  It is simple wrong to think selfishly only of ourselves and to ignore the needs of generations to come.  Making money should not be the ultimate goal of humanity – we are meant to look after each other, particularly those who need the most protection – the “widow, the orphan and the stranger” or the “least of these.” Finally, one can find even in quite ancient sources an understanding that it is better to prevent harm than to try to repair damage after it has occurred. 
Taken together, such principles do at the least suggest a course of action to address climate change.  Solutions that especially benefit the poor, like increasing energy efficiency and thus reducing the disproportionate burden from high energy costs that those in economic straights face, should be a top priority.  Even in the present political climate, it should be possible to forge tax incentives and the like to make our homes and businesses more energy efficient.
We also should take the needs of future generations into account by promoting clean and sustainable energy sources – which, as was noted in the State of the Union, also can be a wise investment in the future of our economy.  Last but certainly not least, attempts to strip EPA of its power to address CO2 emissions and thus protect public health and the environment from the various ravages of climate change is not only short-sighted, but could be viewed as immoral.
But does thinking of climate change from a faith and moral perspective actually make a difference?  After all, you don’t have to be religious to think that fairness is a good thing.  A faith perspective, however, brings not only a sense of moral authority to an issue – it also can move us beyond paralysis.  Looking at the scientific and political difficulties facing any attempts to address global climate change, one can feel downright depressed and overwhelmed – and so there is a natural tendency to want to ignore or deny the whole thing, to remain stuck with our head in the sand.  But understanding that we can bring our faith to bear on this issue first of all fills us with the added strength of knowing we are doing the right thing.  And because faith has so often triumphed against great odds – worse odds by far than those facing a lasting and just solution to climate change – we can begin to replace depression with hope, paralysis with sustained action for the good. 
That is why this weekend (February 11-13th) Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light is joining with IPL affiliates across the country in sponsoring a “preach-in” on climate change.  I’ll be addressing these concerns from a Jewish standpoint at Temple Hesed this Friday, and others across the state and nation will be doing so from a wide variety of other faith traditions.  Because we already know that the climate is changing – and we know what type of solutions are needed. The only question that remains is – do we have enough faith to make it into a change for the better?

And the children shall lead us…

Alana, a fifth grader in Scranton, PA, and an active member of dad Rabbi Daniel’s congregation, wrote the following essay for the 2010 national writing contest sponsored by the PTA.  This year’s theme for the “Reflections” contest was “Together We Can.”  I’ll let her challenge you to think about how you can reach out with others so that… together we can survive.

If you’re interested in learning more about global warming and the impact of warmer, more acidic waters on reefs and fisheries, you can start with the National Wildlife Federation or Science Daily.  Please also consider asking your faith leaders to join others in Pennsylvania and across the country to speak about global warming during the national Preach-in.  Faith- and denomination-specific resources are available on the website, but please be aware that Pennsylvania has its own letter.

Hi – I’m a coral reef.  I’d like to tell you some information about the reef and the animals that surround and live in me.  Many people don’t know that a coral reef and its animals work together.  I’m going to tell you how in coral reefs, different species benefit each other almost all the time.  Without the plants and animals working together, I can’t survive, nor can they survive either. Coral reefs do many important things.

The reef even helps you too.  Without me, the population of people would be smaller.  You ask me how this is possible? I help you find medicines for people that are ill.  In fact, hundreds and hundreds of cures come from me! Another way that I help humankind is that I give you fish.  Over a billion people get some or even all their food (seafood) from reefs like me.  Also coral reefs protect almost all tropical coasts from dangerous waves and storms at sea. Coral reefs also give people happiness and jewels. Coral reefs make people wonder what the world was like long ago, and I give them some answers. Scientists visit me to find clues of the past, like fossils bones or shipwrecks.

Did you know that coral reefs have been going strong for over 60 million years?  That’s because of our cooperation together. Slowly the coral grows. Each of the thousands of little coral animals that make up the reef build a bit more of their hard coral home. Then more fish come.  Layers and layers of coral, animals and plants build up and finally together, we can all become a beautiful, giant healthy reef! That’s how I’m formed, though that’s not all of the cooperation that goes on around here.

A reef is not a reef without all the other animals and plants. Did you know that I give homes to most of the fish and animals, and in return, they protect me from harm? One example of how reefs work together with the animals is when I work with fish called convict tangs, which are vegetarians.  They nibble away seaweeds that will hurt me.  They get tasty food and I get protected. My most important partners are microscopic algae, tiny plants that live inside the tissues of each little coral animal. The algae use sunlight to produce sugar, and that sugar is one of my main food sources.

Now I’ll tell you how the other animals and fish work together. Did you know that gobies often share their coral reef homes with bulldozer shrimp? The shrimps are nearly blind, so whenever the bulldozer shrimp ventures out of its burrow, it keeps at least one antennae on the goby. The goby helps the bulldozer shrimp with just a wave of its tail. The goby alerts the shrimp of approaching predators.  Because of this warning, the shrimp can hide in time, before it gets eaten.  In a way, the shrimp gets a bodyguard, and in return, the goby gets a neat, hygienic home without lifting a fin.

Another way that fish work together is when it’s time for a dentist appointment. I know what you’re thinking – fish don’t get dentist appointments!  But in this case, they do.  A cleaner wrasse swims right into the customers (fish’s) mouth to feed on the parasites stuck on the fish’s teeth or gums. The “customer” gets rids of the parasites, and the cleaner wrasse gets a delicious meal, at least in the cleaner wrasse’s opinion. Stuff like this takes a lot of trust!  When was the last time you swam into another person’s mouth to get food?

You know how earlier I was talking about the convict tangs?  If too many are fished out, I can’t survive.  That’s why it’s very important not to overfish.  Almost all the time, you can’t tell which animals you truly need until it is too late. Same thing with the algae – without it, I would not be able to survive.  And without me, the fish that live in and around me would also not be able to live.  It’s like life in the reef is a big chain, all connected together.  All the time someone depends on someone else’s help.  Break the chain, and many species won’t be able to survive.

Many reefs around the world are dying from ocean warming and pollution.  When the ocean gets too warm, the algae in me dies, and if it doesn’t come back quickly, I will starve to death.  I will become a ghostly white. Oceans are getting warmer because people are burning fossil fuels, producing carbon dioxide, which warms the whole planet.  Some reefs are being choked by plastic trash that collects in ocean currents. Did you know that if people don’t stop polluting the world so much that in about in 30 years there will be barely any reefs left? That means that many species in the whole world will be extinct. Some people will lose their jobs and then a whole depression could start all over again. Another problem that could happen is some of the birds that eat the reef’s fish may not survive either. It would disrupt the whole ecosystem.

  But there are many things you and your friends can do together to help make me healthier again – like not wasting energy and making sure to use less plastic and to recycle it more. Together we can make a difference — the information I told you, together with your actions, could stop all these problems — and the other reefs and I can be restored.

This is the end of my small essay of information on the coral reef.  These were just a few of the many examples of how a coral reef works together.  Because together we can survive.