Faith on the Front Lines of Climate Protection

An Interview with Joelle Novey

Sally Steenland speaks with Joelle Novey, executive director of Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, about her work at the intersection of faith and environmentalism.

SOURCE: Joelle Novey

Listen to the interview here (mp3)

Joelle Novey is the executive director of Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, a faith-based group that works with hundreds of congregations of all faiths in the D.C. area to save energy, go green, and respond to climate change. GWIPL is part of a network of Interfaith Power and Light groups across the country, building a national religious response to the climate crisis.

Sally Steenland, Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress, sat down with Novey on December 7 to discuss faith communities organizing against the Keystone XL Pipeline, greening their local congregations, and tackling the climate crisis.

Sally Steenland: Let’s start with the conference on climate change in Durban, South Africa. Hundreds of scientists, political leaders, and advocates are attending, and faith groups are there, too. What value do faith groups bring to these discussions?

Joelle Novey: The first is that our humanity is more important that what country we’re from. Many faith communities extend beyond national boundaries and have international connections, congregations, and missions all over the world. The message that we’re human beings first is a valuable reminder for the negotiators at Durban.

The second value the faith community brings to the international climate sphere is about responsibility. We talk a little in the United States about developing countries on the front lines of the climate crisis where people are suffering, and how we should help them. But that conversation in the political sphere is almost entirely about humanitarian aid as if they were victims of a natural disaster. As if this were like the Haiti earthquake or something that was just bad luck for a country, and we should help them out because we’re nice.

I’ve gone to churches and synagogues and in every one of those communities people are teaching their children that if you do something that hurts someone else, you have the responsibility to apologize and make it right. That’s the simple message we should be bringing to international climate negotiations. The United States has played an outsized role in causing the climate pollution that is causing the climate crisis that is bringing tremendous human suffering. The right language about what we should be doing is the language of responsibility and culpability. I think the faith community has been almost unique in using this language—of responsibility and moral obligation—regarding climate-adaptation assistance.

SS: If a miracle were to occur in Durban and what should happen actually did happen, what would you like to see?

JN: I would like to see a binding aggressive treaty for all countries that would put us on a course to bring down the concentrations of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping climate pollution in our atmosphere to 350 parts per million, which is what scientists tell us is the highest safe level for life to continue as we are familiar with it on earth. And I would like to see an acknowledgement of responsibility by the largest emitter nations to make right and provide significant, meaningful adaptation assistance to countries that did the least to cause this problem but are among the first to suffer from it.

SS: How far is your hope from the reality?

JN: I have heard that there’s no real hope of that kind of international cooperation or acknowledgement of responsibility by major nations. And we don’t currently have the political will in the United States to take that kind of leadership role. It’s heartbreaking.

SS: Let’s go from the international to the local level, which is where you do much of your work. Your organization, Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light, was recently involved in the protest against the Keystone XL pipeline. What did you do? And why do you oppose the pipeline?

JN: Interfaith Power & Light is working with over 14,000 congregations across the country to respond to the climate crisis, and our entire network was very involved in speaking out against the Keystone XL pipeline, especially some of our colleagues in pipeline states like Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska.

We oppose the Keystone XL pipeline first of all because it would bring the dirtiest oil, extracted from the Canadian tar sands, over more than 1,500 miles and six states, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, endangering aquifers from which many Americans get their drinking water. The extraction of this oil is very intensive on the climate, even more so than regular oil extraction. Climate scientist James Hansen has said that the full exploitation of these unconventional fossil fuels, like tar sands oil, would mean “game over” for the climate. So we were very concerned for these reasons.

But there was also a kind of reckoning that needed to happen. The president said in his 2008 campaign that this would be the generation that turned away from fossil fuels—and his administration could make the decision about Keystone without congressional help. Not only was it looking like the pipeline would be approved, but the president hadn’t used the word “climate” in a speech in several years. So there was a need to ask, “Are we as nation going to reconcile with the climate crisis?”

We engaged with our congregation on several fronts. A number of our religious leaders made the decision to risk arrest in front of the White House as part of the arrests of about 1,200 Americans that took place in late August and early September. We turned out for several rallies. I spoke at one and quoted the prophet Isaiah when he asks, “Is this the fast I desire?” I asked, “Is this the pipeline God desires of us?” We do need pipelines to connect us with each other. We need pipelines of solidarity, we need pipelines of compassion, we need pipelines of ingenuity, but I suspect that this is not the pipeline God desires of us.

We sent hundreds of comment cards to the State Department, signed by people who had the opportunity after services at their congregations to visit the card tables set up by our green team leaders. I had the honor of delivering a big stack of those postcards with a big thud to the State Department when I gave my testimony at the D.C. State Department hearings. I testified against the pipeline on Yom Kippur, a very sacred day in the Jewish tradition, which is my tradition. That night at sundown begins the holiest night when we cut to the chase and get honest with ourselves about how we can be better people, and whether our lives are on the right path.

I asked the State Department at the hearing, “It seems to me this is a Yom Kippur moment—we either have a choice to invest more and more in fossil fuels and continue to lead the climate over very dangerous tipping points, or to turn back and to say, this isn’t our future, this isn’t life giving, this isn’t fair, this isn’t thoughtful of future generations—it’s shortsighted.” Then we had a large rally outside the State Department where again there was a strong faith contingent.

SS: What happened as a result of all that, in terms of the president’s decision?

JN: Well, in a very unlikely victory—even partial victories can be unlikely—the four days after our largest protest, an encircling of the White House that involved about 10,000 people, the president announced that the pipeline project would be delayed at least for 18 months, until after the election.

SS: I want to play devil’s advocate for a moment and give you some arguments from those opposed to your efforts. For instance, some labor unions say, “You’re taking jobs away from Americans at a time when the economy is in crisis.” Another argument is that the pipeline’s going to get built anyway, and the oil will be sold to China if we don’t buy it. We can get oil from our friendly neighbor to the north, Canada, or from Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. What do you say to that?

JN: The damage to our climate that would be caused by continuing to put greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is irreparable. We don’t know exactly when we’ll hit that point of no return. But the idea that a few thousand jobs is worth permanently destroying the climate on the only earth we’ve ever lived on doesn’t make any sense. Of course people need good, honest, living work. But all of us are human beings who live on earth and in the face of catastrophic, unprecedented, irreparable damage to the climate, any short-term considerations pale in comparison.

I said to the State Department in my testimony, “Every single one of you is also a human being who lives on earth, and based on that, this should be our common ground in this conversation.” I know that people need jobs. We have to figure out a way to employ people in an honorable way that doesn’t insist they also permanently destroy the planet that their grandchildren have to live on. It seems like a real poverty of imagination to say they have to choose that.

As for the question of “if we do the right thing, won’t other countries do the wrong thing?” my understanding is that the United States is a major market for this oil, and stopping the pipeline will address the development of the tar sands. But more importantly, there is no other area of life where people say, “I want everyone else to stop doing that wrong thing first, and then I’ll do the right thing.” For instance, we don’t say, “I’m not going to stop stealing until every other person in my city isn’t stealing.” Yet you hear that argument around our responsibility as a nation regarding climate change all the time. People say, “Why should we do right by our neighbors, why should we think of future generations, why should we have good policies on climate if China or India are not yet doing the right thing?” That’s not a moral argument we would accept in any other sphere of life. I want my country to do the right thing. I hope that caring people in China will also ask their government to do the right thing, but that to me is neither here nor there. I want to ask my country to be a leader in doing the right thing on climate, regardless of how other people are behaving.

SS: People talk about “American exceptionalism” and how we’re a moral leader to the world—except when it comes to this. It’s an intermittent standard of morality.

JN: Reverend Mari Castellanos from the United Church of Christ also testified against the pipeline at the State Department hearings, and she said that we think of ourselves as high moral-ground people. But if we build this pipeline, we’re going to have to think differently about ourselves. That’s a real cost we’ll pay.

SS: I want to ask you about Interfaith Power & Light. What was it created to do, and what are some of the things you’re working on now?

JN: Reverend Canon Sally Bingham from the Episcopal Church founded Interfaith Power & Light because she felt strongly that there should be a uniquely religious response to the climate crisis. Since then, it’s been beautiful to watch the work take off in so many different settings and parts of the country with different faith traditions.

Our work has three big categories. We do education, we support congregations in greening their facilities and changing their impact on the environment, and we support religious communities in speaking out and campaigning on environmental issues.

I’ll speak specifically to what we’re doing in D.C. as that’s what I know best. We are learning as much as we can from the first seven local congregations to put up solar panels. They have been pioneers in figuring out some of the finance obstacles and in educating themselves about lighting their sanctuaries with renewable energy. We’ve put out a booklet telling their stories and encouraging all the congregations in the D.C. metro area to learn as much as they can from these pioneers. We look toward the day when every congregation in the D.C. area is getting their power from the sun.

It’s been incredibly transformative for the congregations that have done it already. St Alban’s parish in northwest D.C. calls the panels their new “stained glass windows.” It’s a very powerful and transformative thing when congregations lead the way by embracing clean renewable energy.

In Maryland we’re working to support groundbreaking offshore wind legislation. We’re talking a lot about the blessing of wind. Many different faith traditions, in both the Hebrew and Christian bible and also the Koran, describe the wind as God’s breath and a reminder of God’s graciousness, so we are working alongside coalition partners to speak out on behalf of the opportunity on the Maryland coast to get our energy from wind power.

And we’re trying to bring the message of climate change—the science and also the question of what it means of us in our traditions—to more and more congregations. We have a speaker’s bureau that offers guest sermons and I speak almost every weekend to a different congregation, opening the question of what is happening to our world, why is it happening, and what should we be doing about it.

SS: Are there particular challenges or benefits to interfaith collaboration?

JN: One of the challenges of the climate crisis is that we’re not going to be able to solve it unless we all work together. But one of the blessings is that it really calls our bluff about what makes us similar and what makes us different. We will only be able to solve this problem if we recognize that our common humanity and common commitment to this planet are more important than any of the divisions and identities that may have gotten in our way in the past. So I see working on an interfaith basis as an incredible opportunity that the very difficult problem of climate change presents us with.

I’ve seen in my work that every congregation of every faith tradition has at least one person who feels like the “green sheep” in their community. They believe deeply in the importance of bringing the issues up in their community, are passionate about finding connections and taking action, but often feel a bit lonely. They sometimes don’t have the support of the clergy or the ear of fellow congregants. The value of this work is bringing together the green sheep from the Presbyterian Church and the green sheep from the mosque and the green sheep from the synagogue, all of whom have a lot in common. They share similar struggles and can inspire each other.

Almost everybody drinks coffee after services, and almost everybody used to use Styrofoam cups. It’s finding ways to gather in fellowship with less waste. We have a listserv where green leaders from congregations can ask each other questions and share encouragement and resources. For instance, lots of congregations have boilers in the basement that need to be replaced and could be more efficient. Lots of congregations have land that could be gardened and used to grow vegetables. In the end there’s wonderful interfaith cooperation that takes place though our work—not dialogue for the sake of dialogue, but conversation for the sake of solving a problem together. It’s beautiful to see.

SS: How do you link this interfaith collaboration and action to mainstream environmental groups? Are you embedded in any kind of intrinsic way, or is it a more informal collaboration?

JN: In the D.C. area I’ve been very grateful that we are a welcomed and central part of several different coalitions working on advocacy goals together. Our unique role in these campaigns is that we can bring in people who would not be hearing from them otherwise. When people hear messages about the environment in their faith community they listen differently. They see the issue more as moral and a matter of right and wrong. We bring new people to this work who would not have heard these messages in any other setting.

I also believe that when people come to these coalitions and speak from a deeply moral, spiritual place about why they support cleaner energy and are opposed to coal-fired power, they get heard differently. It transforms environmental coalitions when there are powerful, articulate faith voices that speak from a moral perspective. It also gets political attention in a way sometimes that the mainstream

environmental groups cannot. So I deeply, deeply believe in the unique value of what we’re doing. We are bringing people to the work and also transforming how that movement is heard when we speak.

SS: One component of the Christian community is white evangelicals. Polling shows that they are more skeptical of climate change than mainline denominations such as Presbyterians or Episcopalians. What’s your experience? Do you see a generational divide among evangelicals?

JN: I’ve had the pleasure of working with a number of organizations that are leading the way within the evangelical community. I make great use of a book called Climate for Change by Katharine Hayhoe, who is an IPCC Scientist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock and is married to an evangelical pastor. Her book does a beautiful job of explaining the science and also contextualizing it within her Christian theology.

I have also done a lot of wonderful work with the Evangelical Environmental Network and have been extremely impressed with the clarity of their vision and their very strong message about calling their community to take seriously what it means to be “pro-life,” which the community strongly understands itself to be. They’ve pushed to say, “Shouldn’t we support EPA mercury regulations that would protect unborn children from mercury pollution? Isn’t that also what it means to be pro-life?” They’ve used the very language and self-understanding of their own community to push in the direction of being supportive of environmental legislation and positions.

There’s been some great work done by a group called Blessed Earth with Dr. Matthew Sleeth and his wife Nancy Sleeth. They’re doing a number of programs here at the National Cathedral in the coming months. These are all voices from within the evangelical-Christian world that are standing up and saying that for us to live out our tradition and really take Christianity seriously, we have to care for God’s creation. From everything they tell me, especially among the next generation, that message is resonating.

SS: It seems to be resonating in a global way in terms of poor communities that will be disproportionately affected.

JN: Reverend Jim Ball from the Evangelical Environmental Network wrote a book called Climate Change and the Risen Lord, where he talks about the impact climate change is having on communities around the world. A lot of evangelical communities in the United States have strong ties with missionaries in Africa and countries who are seeing the impact of climate change firsthand. Missionaries are saying, “You need to pay attention to this because I’m seeing our cause suffering.” It’s very powerful.

SS: All of this sounds very hopeful and authentic, especially on a community level. So how did climate change become such a disputed partisan issue, instead of simply a matter of science?

JN: I can’t speak to how it got that way, but I can tell you that talking about climate change in congregations is uniquely effective for a few reasons. One, when people are in their congregations, they are listening with their moral ears. It’s the place they come to think about taking their own values seriously and pushing themselves and their communities to live out those values. It’s the place they come to think about right and wrong. So when you have a conversation about climate change in someone’s faith community, they hear that as a conversation about how to do right in the world. I deeply believe in the value of simply having these conversations in the buildings where we pray—that by itself is extremely transformative.

Secondly, people have a lot of feelings about climate science. I warn people when I’m showing them a graph of global average temperature for the last 150 years. Not too many graphs evoke a lot of feelings. But when people hear about climate science they have feelings, and sometimes when we try to have a conversations about the science in a setting where these feelings aren’t acknowledged or named, people feel overwhelmed and defensive. They shut down. Some of the denial comes from people having a hard time about how they’d have to understand the world differently if the science were true.

So when I speak about climate in a faith setting, that’s already the place people come to celebrate, to pray, to grieve, so this is already a setting where it’s ok to talk about feelings. I warn people before I take out my slides. I say, “My experience is that people have feelings about this stuff, and I do too. When I talk about climate science, you might feel like you don’t want to be here. You’ll want to think about something else, or think this woman isn’t a scientist, I want to see some footnotes. Or you’ll think there must be something on the internet that will debunk everything I’m going to tell you.” I invite them to acknowledge that and try to keep listening anyway. By saying that in advance and then checking in during the presentation, I find that that’s extremely helpful for having a productive conversation.

Climate science challenges our theologies. Everyone has a theology, which is simply our idea about how the universe works and our role in it. By suggesting that maybe we have some role in the weather and might actually be changing how the earth works in a way that will change the kind of world our grandchildren will live in, in a way our ancestors who wrote the Bible couldn’t have imagined – that’s unsettling, scary stuff. The more we can acknowledge that people are deeply threatened by this information and be whole and honest in our broken-heartedness together, that’s the way to have a real conversation about climate science.

SS: You were saying earlier in terms of Durban that we need to acknowledge responsibility. Linked to that can be guilt. In many faith traditions there’s something called repentance, where people confess.

JN: Totally. I try to offer the people I’m speaking to real hope—hope that I can believe in too. Sometimes those of us in the climate world make a very scary, apocalyptic presentation and then say “But you can change your light bulbs!” as if that’s going to make it all okay. When we don’t believe our own message, it feels false. I’ve thought a lot about the real hope I can offer when I talk about these issues—a hope I can share. I also think about what the cost would be of not caring about this issue. How small would I have to make my world to not have to care about climate change?

First, I would have to not care about anybody who doesn’t live in the United States, because the United States will likely have resources to defend against some of these impacts. I would also have to not care about anyone who will be alive on earth after I’m gone. Some of the hardest impacts of climate change will impact subsequent generations, so I need to let go of any concern for children or grandchildren of mine and what their experience on earth will be like.

Now I’ve made my world small enough that I don’t care about people in the future and I don’t care about people living outside my country. And then I have to not care about any other species. We’re talking about possibly a third of all species—all species, all animals, all plants—may not being able to adapt fast enough to rapid climate changes by 2100. So I need to let go of any attachment I have to any other life on earth. At that point I don’t have to care about climate change, but I have made my world so small and spiritually lonely.

Our religious traditions push us to the opposite, to feel more connected to things and part of traditions that transcend generations and will last after we’re gone, as well as to feel more kinship with the natural world and other life forms. To me there’s nothing that goes more against the message of our religious traditions than to make my world so small that I don’t have to care about this.

The real hope I can offer people is that it will be heartbreaking. It will mean you might have to change how you live. It will mean you might have to feel concerned about future generations. But the way forward in this heartbreak is actually the way to stay whole, to stay interconnected, and to not be so lonely in the world. That’s the most hopeful thing I can offer the community in which to address these problems together.

SS: To that I say, Amen. Thank you.

JN: Thank you.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

Listen to the interview here (mp3)

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative