In a stunning development the Presbyterian Church USA, (PCUSA) one of the more conservative of the mainstream US Protestant denominations, has asked its 2.3 million members each to “make a bold witness by aspiring to carbon neutral lives. (Carbon neutrality requires our energy consumption that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere be reduced and carbon offsets purchased to compensate for those carbon emissions that could not be eliminated.)” This resolution was passed by the PCUSA’s biennial General Assembly meeting in Birmingham, Alabama in late June. During a meeting marked by some contentious discussions and debates concerning such social issues as roles of gays in the clergy and abortion the resolution sailed through on the Floor of the General Assembly on the consent calendar after being endorsed by the Social Justice Committee by a 55-3 margin with three abstentions.
The resolution advanced by two General Assembly Commissioners, Bob Crabtree of Florida and Dale Francis of Lake Erie, endorsed the key recommendation of a ten member PCUSA Energy Resolution Task Force led by Pamela McVety of Tallahassee, Florida. Set up in 2004 by the PCUSA to carry out the first comprehensive assessment of Church energy policy in a quarter century, the volunteer Task Force of laypeople conducted meetings in Washington, DC, San Francisco and Louisville in which they met with energy experts and Presbyterian and other Church members.
The Task Force had strong bipartisan representation including two former senior environmental officials in Republican administrations - Jananne (Jan) Sharpless, of Sacramento, California and John Topping of Washington, DC. Sharpless served as Secretary of the Environment of California and Chair of the California Air Resources Board and later as a Member of the California Energy Commission. Topping served as Staff Director of the Office of Air and Radiation of the US Environmental Protection Agency during the Reagan Administration immediately before setting up the Climate Institute. McVety, the Task Force Moderator or leader, had been a Deputy Administrator of the Florida Department of the Environment under Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles before her retirement. The other seven members included Dr. Frank Gilliam, a biology professor at Marshall University in Indiana; Dr. Richard Shore, a zoology professor at St. Catherine’s College and industrial engineer and environmental lecturer from Kentucky; two attorneys from Arizona, Donna Bradley and Paige Murphy – Brown, also a biologist; Douglas Hooker, a transportation engineer from Georgia; Sarah Kinney, a graduate student in conservation biology from Wyoming who had studied extensively the PCUSA’s social justice activities; and Claudia Brown, a writer and active Church laywoman from Pennsylvania.
Convinced that the Presbyterian Church and numerous other denominations have issued reams of pronouncements on energy and world affairs, often with little effect other than the carbon sequestration involved if the resolutions ended up in a file cabinet, the McVety-led Task Force decided to take a very different tack. They reasoned that the one thing that Churches could do that would make a difference was to bear witness to their commitment to “preserving God’s Creation” by reducing their own emissions and asking their members to do the same. In its Background Paper the Task Force discussed the Role of the Churches in the Anti- Slavery and Civil Rights Movements, stepping forward to set a moral example while political leaders hesitated. The proposed Energy Resolution had a remarkably nonpartisan tone, avoiding the Bush- bashing or extensive discussions of Middle East politics that have characterized some energy discussions.
Generally the Presbyterian Church USA has a laity that tends to the right of center in US politics. Church surveys of PCUSA laity’s political self identification have tended to show that about half of Church members identify themselves as Republicans, about a quarter as Democrats and about a quarter as Independents. Ironically the stumbling block to this dramatic call for all Presbyterians to bear witness to their faith by becoming Carbon Neutral did not come from conservative members. Instead the Church’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) to which the Energy Resolution Task Force was referred did not agree with its moderate tone. ACSWP has developed a strong left of center political leaning, thrusting the PCUSA into such political thickets as resolutions calling for divestment of PCUSA funds from firms involved in some activities in Israel. The Energy Resolution Task Force’s emphasis on personal responsibility rather than geopolitical issues such as the war in the Middle East was enough for ACSWP to vote not to release the work of the Task Force and delay consideration of Presbyterian action on energy or climate until the General Assembly meeting in 2008.
McVety and others were stunned by this decision and felt that Presbyterians needed to act now to address climate change given its overwhelming urgency. McVety contacted top officials in the Church and found that they shared this view that the climate crisis was something that the Presbyterian Church could not wait to aggressively address. She learned that the General Assembly, the church’s rulemaking body that meets biennially, could bypass intermediary bodies such as the ACSWP through a resolution by its commissioners. Working with colleagues in Florida and on the Task Force, she located two Commissioners to the General Assembly who were willing to champion a call for Presbyterians to become Carbon Neutral. McVety also garnered the active support of Presbyterians for Restoring Creation, a body that has pressed the Church to take a lead on environmental protection challenges. She designed a fan making the case for Carbon Neutrality and providing a web site of Climate Care, an Oxford, UK- based group that pioneered in carbon offsets. McVety, other members of the Energy Resolution Task Force, and some other Florida Presbyterians provided the $500 to finance the manufacture of 500 fans that helped to create a bandwagon for the Carbon Neutrality proposal among the assembled PCUSA Commissioners.
The enacted Church Resolution embraces the core recommendation of McVety’s Task Force, asking all PCUSA members to bear a “bold witness“ by taking steps to become Carbon Neutral while ACSWP completes a report by 2008 that addresses its concerns about international implications of energy. Despite its having received minimal media attention the implications of the General Assembly action, however, are revolutionary. This appears to be the first time that a major religious denomination in any nation has called on each of its members to bear witness to their faith by becoming Carbon Neutral. In advocating this action, the PCUSA Energy Task Force was careful to point out that through intelligent action most Presbyterian families could become Carbon Neutral in household energy related emissions and transportation related emissions by intelligent energy decisions. Purchase of compact fluorescent bulbs in bulk on the Internet and installing them in most light fixtures would often save as much as $100 annually in lighting costs. Purchase of Energy Star rated appliances and equipment would together with the lighting savings often save more than the cost of buying offsets for any remaining emissions, enabling moderate income Presbyterian families to become Carbon Neutral and still be ahead financially of where they were before addressing their energy use.
Dramatic as is the breakthrough at the Birmingham meeting of Presbyterians, its test will be one of implementation. If the resolution is seriously implemented and a significant proportion of American Presbyterians take steps to become Carbon Neutral this could have effects on several levels. Presbyterians, while less than one per cent of the current US populace, have played a huge role in America’s political history. About a fifth of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were Presbyterians or Dutch Reformed, also a Calvinist group. Eight American Presidents were Presbyterian for much of their lives -Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, James Buchanan, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan. Two were Dutch Reformed- Martin Van Buren and Theodore Roosevelt. Although Presbyterian political influence may have waned slightly in recent years with diminishing Church membership, it is still significant both in Congress and in corporate suites. More important, however, than such calculations is the likelihood that other denominations may also step forward with their own expressions of the need for members to take responsibility for their own impact on the earth’s environment. Each of these denominations will undoubtedly see the climate change challenge through its own faith perspective- the Roman Catholic Church likely focusing on social justice aspects of climatic disruption and Protestant Evangelical groups on what they call Creation Care. The movement to individual Carbon Neutrality creates a new standard that may soon become central not only to Christian groups, but others such as the Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu faiths. At a time when much of the world is undergoing sectarian violence this confluence of faiths on the urgency of acting to achieve environmental preservation may be a hopeful sign both for solving the climate challenge and bridging sectarian divisions.
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