News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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June 8, 2014

Faith groups hear higher calling in climate change fight

INDIANAPOLIS — A federal program to reduce carbon emissions has found fierce opposition among business and political leaders but is garnering support from a surprising source — faith leaders who praise its eternal value.

A coalition of believers wants the state to embrace new rules that require deep cuts in carbon emissions and reverse Indiana’s dependence on coal-fueled electricity.

The Rev. Lyle McKee, chairman of Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light, said the Obama administration’s proposed rules would help address the man-made climate change that is threatening creation.

“We must resolve as a state and nation to move with all deliberate speed away from those practices that degrade the viability of God’s good gifts,” said McKee, a Lutheran pastor whose group has spent more than $200,000 helping Indiana churches convert to solar power to reduce their carbon footprints.

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the new restrictions on carbon pollution, targeting a 30 percent overall reduction by 2030.

Because of progress already made in Indiana, including the retirement of some aging coal-fired plants, the state would have to cut 20 percent of its carbon pollution. Still, that’s a leap for a state that ranks fourth for carbon dioxide emissions and is home to two of the nation’s top-polluting power plants.

And, 80 percent of the state’s electricity is generated by coal.

Luke Gascho, a founder of Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light, said it was critical for religious leaders to weigh in on the issue.

“More people are recognizing this is a responsibility for us in the faith community to pay attention to,” said Gascho, who is director of the Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center at Goshen College.

The Indiana organization is part of the national Interfaith Power and Light network of about 15,000 congregations in 40 states. The groups are pressing for tougher standards to reduce carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. And they reflect just one segment of a growing movement of religious communities that are focusing on climate change.

Gascho, a Mennonite, was a signatory on the 2006 Evangelical Climate Initiative, signed by more than 80 Christian leaders calling for federal legislation to force reduced carbon emissions. Their statement said "millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors."

In 2011, the Vatican issued a report that called man-made climate change "serious and potentially irreversible" and advocated for aggressive action to curb emissions.

But not all people of faith agree. A number of high-profile evangelical leaders have said global warming is not a consensus issue.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian, has questioned whether climate change is man-made. He argues that the EPA’s new rules will hurt Hoosiers as Indiana pushes to attract high-paying manufacturing jobs that depend on low energy costs.

“[The proposed regulations] will cost us in higher electricity rates, in lost jobs, and in lost business growth due to a lack of affordable, reliable electricity,” Pence said in a statement. “Indiana will oppose these regulations using every means available.”

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce and Indiana Manufacturers Association also vow to stop the regulations. While the EPA estimates the cost to utilities and their customers will be $8.8 billion in 2030, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce puts it closer to $28 billion.

The new rules call upon each state to reduce emissions but stop short of setting specific caps for power plants. Instead the rules give states until June 2016 to decide how to cut pollution.

The Obama administration says the reductions are possible if states like Indiana increase use of renewable fuels, reduce energy consumption, and take other measures to curb their reliance on coal. Indiana now generates about 3 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.

Earlier this year the Republican-controlled Legislature killed a conservation program that was designed to reduce statewide consumption by 2 percent a year through 2019, after the state’s utilities complained it was too costly.  

Faith leaders who support such programs are calling on lawmakers to do more but they’re not waiting. With money from settlements paid by Indiana utilities to the EPA, Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light has taught congregations to conserve energy and given grants to install solar panels on churches.

McKee’s church in Bloomington, for example, dropped its monthly utility bill by about $4,000.

Patricia Tull, who’s retired from teaching the Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, lives in Jeffersonville and is working with her congregation to reduce their dependence on the coal-fired power plants along the Ohio River.

“This problem is big enough that there’s room for everybody to play a role,” said Tull, who’s written a Bible study on climate change called “Inhabiting Eden.” “All of our skills are needed to tackle this issue.”

In February, Tull helped lead a “preach-in” on climate change that took place in scores of Indiana churches.

“Faith leaders are among the very few people who can get on a soapbox and talk to different people from different backgrounds and work to bring them to a collective point of view,” she said. “That what’s they’re called to do.”

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