Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Climate Bill, 2009
distributed 6/6/08 - ©2008

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Reid Detchon, of Bethesda, Maryland.. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

The climate bill is dead. Long live the climate bill!

This morning, the US Senate, in a procedural vote, decided not to take any action on the Lieberman-Warner bill, "America's Climate Security Act". Legislation to address global climate change is now off the table for this session of Congress.

Those who follow the political processes were not surprised that today's "cloture" vote didn't pass. What's more, everybody knew that -- even if the Climate Security Act somehow made it through both houses of Congress -- it was certain to be vetoed by President Bush. What was going on in the Senate, and in all of the lobbying of Senators by countless groups, was political preparation. The groundwork was being laid for the next time.

I can understand and respect the need to push a bill that is destined for failure. Unsuccessful attempts make future successes possible. As I wrote four months ago, "In the realm of politics, building a large constituency is an essential, and slow, process. Legislation is passed and elections won only when a plurality of voters take a stand. Many votes can be lost -- giving the appearance that nothing was accomplished -- while growing the necessary base of support for an eventual win."

My great regret in this week's Senate process is that the climate bill never made it to the point of substantive discussion. The urgency of the climate crisis and the strategies for addressing it were never debated. The greatest absurdity of the whole thing was the demand -- in a clear case of political payback for other issues -- that the entire 492 page bill be read aloud. Kate Sheppard reported on Grist: "Republicans said the maneuver -- which sucked up nine hours -- was a protest against the Democratic majority's slow pace in considering President Bush's judicial nominations."

Next year, with a new president and a new congress, things will be different. There will be a president who is willing to act. Next year, the legislative proposals won't be preparation and games. There will be real and viable options. Come 2009, we can't afford to play political games with such important legislation.

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There is a focal question that shapes the work of Eco-Justice Ministries: "What can churches do?" What is the distinctive role and gift of religious congregations? What is the thing we have to offer to the eco-justice cause that can't be done as well, or at all, by other institutions?

Watching Lieberman-Warner go down the tubes this week, it seems to me that the churches which have been concerned about climate change have not tapped into their greatest power and their greatest gifts.

For many good reasons, church have often addressed -- or at least introduced -- climate change in the context of personal choices. Change a light bulb, drive less, hang your laundry on a clothesline, etc. Our focus has been on individual actions and consumer behaviors. Let me affirm -- those actions are essential, and those points of personal commitment can be good entry points toward deeper involvement.

From what I have seen and heard, though, there has been much less emphasis in churches on our role as citizens, and on complicated matters of public policy. We have talked less about "what must we, as a society, do?" than we have about "what can I, as an individual, do?" That's understandable. Replacing a light bulb is a far easier sell than getting into details of cap-and-trade policies. As we've tried to educate and activate a relatively new constituency on this critical issue, we've gone for the low-hanging fruit of personal choices.

But personal choices won't come close to bringing the changes needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and around the world. We need massive and rapid changes in economic incentives. We need a transformation of our infrastructure for energy generation, transportation, housing, food and more. Working toward those changes requires coordinated action by governments and institutions.

If we place our primary emphasis on personal and consumer actions, then the political piece does not necessarily follow along. In an insightful (and readable!) article, Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?, Michael Maniates noted:

When responsibility for environmental problems is individualized, there is little room to ponder institutions, the nature and exercise of political power, or ways of collectively changing the distribution of power and influence in society.
If we tell people to act on global warming by changing their individual behaviors, we minimize and hide the institutional factors that play such a large role in where our world is headed.

Churches, as agents of moral leadership, have a distinctive and influential role to play in addressing these social and institutional matters. When we ask about "what can churches do?", we have to enter into the realm of politics and social ethics. That engagement can take several forms.

There are some policy wonks within congregations and denominations who will want to delve into the details of specific techniques for moving toward CO2 reductions. (Should the initial cap-and-trade allowances be given away or auctioned? Is a carbon tax more efficient than cap-and-trade?) The insights of policy experts are valuable in our moral consideration, but most church people are not eager to go there.

Others will find ways to empower and activate political constituencies. Voter registration drives, letter writing campaigns and meetings with elected officials are appropriate. So are expressions of economic and corporate power, such as the use of church investment funds to support shareholder resolutions targeting business policies.

On a much more general level, churches can work to build a moral framework for next year's political debate on climate policy. Within the coming months, we must communicate that framework to church members and the broader community. Two challenging moral issues seem to have been at play around the Climate Security Act.

  1. There are real and important questions about the economic impacts of climate strategies on the poor, and on certain economic sectors such as the auto industry. What are appropriate criteria for economic justice that must be taken into account?
  2. To what extent can corporations be held accountable for their impact on the common good? How should the business sector be engaged in reducing climate impacts?

Serious climate legislation will come to the US Congress next year. Churches can make a difference in the success of that legislation as we help evaluate specific policy recommendations, as we mobilize people for collective action, and as we define the moral terms for evaluating policies.

Many congregations have made good progress on practical steps that reduce personal and congregational carbon footprints. That work is to be celebrated, and continued.

In the coming months, though, we will do well to place a greater emphasis on the collective decisions that we must make as citizens and governments. As we look toward the next time a climate bill comes to the US Senate, we must have our moral commitments and our political constituencies well organized and ready to move. At this moment, that may be the most important thing that churches can do to fight global warming.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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