About the Author
Rowan Van Ness

Call an End to Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining!

Call your Representative today to ask her/him to support H.R. 1310, the Clean Water Protection Act, which would help to end mountaintop removal coal mining!

In 2002, President Bush expanded the legal definition in the Clean Water Act of material fill to include mining waste.  This new definition made it much easier for coal companies to engage in mountaintop removal coal mining across Appalachia, dumping the fill in the nearby valleys and streams, polluting the water.  Appalachian coalfield residents face frequent catastrophic flooding, pollution, health issues, and loss of drinking water as a result of this devastated landscape.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that close to 2000 miles of streams and rivers have been polluted and more than 450 mountains and 1.5 million acres of land have already been destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining. Everyone deserves access to a just economic system and a healthy environment, and this is not currently happening in Appalachia and the situation is getting worse.

This week, nearly 200 citizens from Appalachia and across the US are lobbying as part of the 5th Annual End Mountaintop Removal Week in Washington – and hundreds more will show support by making a simple phone call today. The coal industry is also working overtime to block urgently needed legislation that would protect the mountains and its people.   UU congregations voted in a 2006 Action of Immediate Witness to “End Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining.”  It’s time to put our faith into action and take a stand for the mountains and the people who live there.  Call your Representative today!

Hope For Our Administration: Clean Energy Economy Forum at the White House

When Barack Obama was campaigning for his presidency, hope was a clear theme. Now, over a year later, I had the privilege of going inside the White House complex and being filled with that hope he promised. Yesterday afternoon, I attended the Clean Energy Economy Forum, in the company of mayors and business people, non-profit directors and faith-based advocates.

The Forum was split into two parts, with an opportunity to hear both the federal perspectives on why action now is important as well as what community leaders are doing at local and regional levels. The focus was on “livability” and “sustainable communities,” with discussion around collaboration between groups with different interests and purposes striving for more comprehensive solutions, examining transportation, housing, energy, environmental, and health impacts.

Secretary Ray LaHood from the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Secretary Shaun Donovan from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) lifted up both the success of their collaboration with each other as well as the impact of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act. They talked about how greening public housing improves health conditions for people of lower incomes, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and saves the government money. Housing and transportation are two of the largest costs people pay for, and good planning can help reduce the personal and environmental impacts of long commutes for all people, especially people of lower incomes. Approximately $100 million will be available this year for funding regional integrated planning initiatives, and grant recipients will be selected by the partnership between HUD, DOT, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Secretary Donovan said that communities of color cannot be left behind in this movement, like they were in the tech boom of the 1990s. I hope to see policies reflect that!

A moderator led a question and answer session between the panel and the audience. It was incredibly powerful to witness the Administration’s commitment to working towards livable cities and their willingness to seek guidance and feedback from people on the ground. Sitting in that forum made me feel like I actually live in a democracy–one that cares about seeking input from a variety of sources.

The practitioners on the panel in the second section were quite sharp and full of good insights. Doris Koo, President & CEO of Enterprise Community Partners, Inc. started off saying, “Smart growth is not smart unless it is equitable,” and quickly made clear her commitment to greening affordable housing. Rabbi David Saperstein, Director & Counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, spoke eloquently about the clear connections between religion and environmentalism (“creation care”), and the unique role that faith-based community organizing can play. Religious groups are concerned with a multitude of issues, which can bring into light the synergy between seemingly different issues, and at the core, carry a special responsibility to the poor. With some 400,000 congregations nation-wide and about 150 million members, churches can carry profound influence in public policy.

There is much work yet to be done, but this meeting has strengthened my faith that we’re on the right path and having some of the right conversations. To paraphrase Ron Sims, Deputy Secretary of HUD, there are some people who say these things can’t happen. Then don’t do them! But don’t stand in the way of those who will make them happen. Rumi said, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” As a religious community, let us be the ones that seek love. Let us break down the barriers and make things happen.

After Copenhagen

Despite the great snow in DC last week that halted just about everything else, a talk on climate change was still held in downtown DC.  Of all meetings to be held amidst the record-breaking snowfall, it was appropriate that one discussing climate change would still be held.  Though individual weather events are not climate, as climate changes, more extreme weather events are predicted to happen.

Todd Stern, the Special Envoy on Climate Change who represented the US in UN negotiations in Copenhagen, spoke to a packed room at the Center for American Progress about what happened in Copenhagen, where we are now, and where we will go.

Essentially two narratives of Copenhagen have emerged.  Some people say that the COP15 was a failure, as they didn’t accomplish what they set out to do within the UN process.  No fair, ambitious, and binding treaty was signed.  Others call the climate change conference a last-minute success, as many countries agreed to the Copenhagen Accord, which is a politically–not legally–binding document.  The Accord quantifies climate change with the goal of limiting change to 2 degrees Celsius.  For the first time, countries agree to reduction targets, which they successfully submitted by the end of January.  Countries need to “sign on” or indication an association with the Accord.  Some people are concerned because this was accomplished outside of the UN process, though others applaud that something, anything, happened.

The reality is that countries came into the meeting with deep gaps in their positions on climate change within the UN process, and these gaps didn’t narrow prior to the meetings in Copenhagen.  There is clearly a difference in opinions about how much the developing countries should do in terms of their commitments to climate change in comparison with how much the developed countries should do.  This is partly based on the weight that is given to historic contributions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, as the US has contribute a significant proportion of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today.  Todd Stern made it clear that the US position is that both developing AND developed countries need to share the burden dealing with climate change.  He also made it clear that it is vital for congress to pass climate change legislation this year, both because of the need for emissions reductions but also so China doesn’t dominate the emerging green economy.

I think that is something that Todd Stern has right on.  We need climate legislation, and we need it now.  It gave me hope that that so many people turned out the meeting amidst all the snow in DC.  We need to continue these conversations and move them into action.  The Unitarian Universalists for Social Justice in the Greater Washington area are having a program called “After Copenhagen: How Should Our Chesapeake Region UU Community Take Action?” on March 6th.  If you’re in the area, come check it out!

From the First Earth Day to the Climate Change Movement Today

As I’ve been working on the Earth Day Resources for congregations to plan actions around the 40th anniversary of Earth Day this year, I’ve been reminded of the history of Earth Day and the environmental movement in the US. The movement’s start in the late 1960s, early 1970s led to the creation of the first Earth Day, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Scientists warned that the pollution in the water was killing the lakes and streams; the Cuyahoga River even caught on fire. Air pollution was seriously degrading the environment. Both were impacting public health. But if I have learned anything from that movement, it was the amazing commitment of everyday people all over the country that demanded environmental improvements and made them happen.

One year after that first Earth Day, William D. Ruckelshaus reflected:

“We came to realize the human dimensions of antiseptic statistics.

We came to realize that the more than 1400 pounds of air pollution per person which rides the wind and rain across this continent is a hazard to health and life and the human spirit.

We came to realize that more than 50 trillion gallons of hot water, millions of tons of organic and chemical pollutants, enormous amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, and most of all, sewage every year are spoiling rivers once celebrated in our art and literature and history. The Hudson and the Potomac, the Missouri and the Monongehela, the Snake and the Androscoggin – all rivers rich in history – are today rivers rich in industrial and municipal wastes.

We came to realize that the more than 7 million automobiles, 20 million tons of paper, 48 billion cans and 26 billion bottles a year which litter our landscape means that almost nowhere on this continent can man escape the impact he has had on nature.

We came to realize too that we were not alone in our disregard for the delicate balance of life.”

Now is that time for climate change.

In December 2009, the EPA announced an endangerment finding, allowing EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. On January 21st, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced a disapproval resolution, which is expected to be brought to the Senate floor sometime this month. If passed, it would block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases and dirty coal, and furthering US contributions to the environmental injustices that contribute to climate change. Supporting the Clean Air Act is the best way we already have under current law to limit the environmental justice impacts of climate change and to help our country shift to a clean energy economy. This is, without a doubt, the way of the future. Please contact your Senators and tell them to support the Clean Air Act.

This is only the first step. Together, we can, and must, work towards a world where the environment is healthy for all who live there. The people who receive the least of society’s benefits and have the least power to affect changes are the ones who feel the environmental impacts first and most severely. Climate change is already being witnessed by people who work closely with the land. Together, we must love urgently and work towards climate justice.

What food choices can Unitarian Universalists make to build a planet that is both sustainable and just?

If you walk into an average supermarket these days, you’ll find thousands of choices of things to eat. Some things may be grown or produced in low-impact ways at a nearby farm, but chances are that many items for sale contain ingredients whose production has negatively impacted the Earth and her people. As Unitarian Universalists, we are committed to living in ways that respect the inherent worth and dignity of all people as well as the interdependent web of life of which we are a part. With so many choices, how can we find ways to eat ethically?

Fortunately, people all over the United States are thinking about just this right now. Several best-selling books have been written about authors’ deliberations about what to eat, and UU congregations have been engaging in the current Congregational Study/Action Issue, “Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice.” For the 40th anniversary of Earth Day this year, the UU Ministry For Earth (UUMFE) is asking members of all congregations to think about what they eat and what food choices are available to those in their communities. While Earth Day isn’t until Thursday, April 22nd, resources for planning your Earth Day events are already available on the UUMFE website to help you plan both worship and social justice projects. Check them out!

On the eve of the final day of the Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen, I share with you some reflections from Unitarian Universalist Pam Sparr on significant events from the first week and on what the religious community can do.

I attended the first week of the COP-15 events in a professional capacity as a consultant with another religious organization and have just returned home. As I read accounts of what is happening in week #2, I think my reflections on that first intense week of activities still hold. Here are some of my impressions….

Several events in the first week stand out in my mind as significant:

  • The rock concert-like climate justice rally in Town Hall Square with the ever-charismatic Archbishop Desmond Tutu. This was the most upbeat of all events I attended. He presented more than a half million signatures from people in two dozen nations (including the U.S.) to the head of the UNFCCC – the man whose job it is to keep the negotiations going. These signatures supported a strong binding agreement. This was a wonderful example of how the religious community can use its moral authority well. It was also a reminder of how well respected and beloved a religious leader can be – even by people who do not consider themselves “religious” – if they are courageous in their faith and take a public stance on justice issues.
  • The international ecumenical worship service in Copenhagen’s Lutheran cathedral where religious leaders from around the world processed in with poignant, silent symbols of the destruction climate change is already wreaking – bleached coral from the Pacific, shriveled cobs of maize from Africa, stones laid bare from the melting of glaciers in Greenland. A reminder that ritual can be very powerful.
  • The demonstration last Saturday with 100,000 people in the streets all concerned over the lack of progress in reaching a strong, just, and binding international agreement – the largest such gathering to date on this issue. A peaceful show of concern and an unexpectedly large size group which the Danish police didn’t know how to handle well.
  • A seminar on the rights of Mother Earth sponsored by the Government of Bolivia – an example of how smaller nations are finding their voice and political strength in interesting ways with respect to climate change. This is also one of the cutting-edge initiatives that UUs interested in rights-based or Earth-care advocacy should investigate.
  • Two official US government briefings for non-governmental organizations, where, by luck, and possibly by virtue of wearing a highly visible red turtleneck sweater, I had the privilege of asking the first question of the week to our #1 negotiator.

While I am not a regular at major international meetings, I have participated in several historic conferences, including the infamous World Trade Organization ministerial in Seattle. The increasing frustration expressed by delegates from Southern nations in Copenhagen, including tears, tempers flying and threatened walk-outs seems to be much higher here than at any of the other meetings I have attended in the past 17 years. While some of this may be posturing, my sense is that most of the anguish is a legitimate reaction to the fact that the U.S. and other wealthy countries are dragging their feet while the clock is ticking. On the one hand, this first week showed signs that the South is holding together and taking a stronger stand. For me, this was one of the few beams of hope in the proceedings. On the other, the lack of progress left me gloomy about prospects on the official level.

I am most immediately concerned that we have a long way to go before we get international agreement to set a sufficiently strong, binding target to limit greenhouse gas emissions. At this time, the U.S. government is not willing to do what we must to meet our moral and legal responsibilities in this regard. Our government is the biggest stumbling block at this time. There are several policy components to this emissions cap hurdle. The most pressing one now concerns targets for 2020. We need to cut emissions dramatically and fast if we are to have a good chance of preventing a dangerous tipping point – and averting tremendous suffering and hardship on the part of people living in poverty in developing countries.

We have a very intelligent, skillful negotiating team representing the U.S. I would not want to sit across from them at the table in Copenhagen. From my personal advocacy experience, I have come to see more clearly the limits of intellectual engagement with our officials, and even limits to moral or ethical arguments. In a few areas, I have seen humanitarian and faith-based NGOs make a positive impact on the U.S. position on international climate change policy. In those cases, it is apparent that the more technical knowledge one has and the more organizing resources you have, the more effective the organization can be.

Certainly, most NGOs were using a combination of political organizing and intellectual engagement – an “inside” the Bella Center [formal location for the meetings] and an “outside” strategy. Some faith-based groups were using both strategies while others felt an inside strategy was useless.

By the end of the week, I was feeling like the most productive contribution the U.S. religious community could make would be to try to break through to an emotional and spiritual plane with our negotiators in some form of public witness. This is the realm where the religious community has particular expertise and responsibility.

Eco-psychologist Bill Plotkin describes our nation as in an adolescent stage of emotional and spiritual development. This felt true for the U.S. position in Copenhagen, despite the sophisticated economic and political rationale for the official stance. Most of us in the U.S. are comfortable in our privileges and ignorant of the consequences our policies and lifestyles have on the lives of people living in poverty in developing nations. As a nation, we are addicted to fossil fuels, privilege and power. The world sees us as digging in our heels to defend “The American Dream” which is a dream only for some in the U.S. and increasingly becoming a nightmare for many others around the globe.

In his sermon in Copenhagen, the Archbishop of Canterbury reflected that government negotiators from the North and South were operating out of fear. Some of that fear is rational and some of it is not selfish. Nonetheless, he urged the negotiators to detach from the fear and forge an agreement out of love. Certainly this is the mandate for the U.S. religious community — to shift public attitudes and re-set the tone of Congressional debate on climate change policy. This is a long-term challenge that will remain with us well after the conference ends. UUs have practiced Standing on the Side of Love before. Now we must do it again.

Youth and the Future of Climate Change: Notes from Copenhagen

Lynn Dash, UU-UNO Special Correspondent, has shared more notes with us from her experiences at the Copenhagen Climate Conference. These notes are from side events she attended on Thursday, 12/10, and illustrate both the ways that youth are affected by climate change and what they’re already doing to take action.

Youth have an incredible stake in the negotiations going on right now. Today I attended two “side events” organized by youth (defined as those under 25). Both had a sea of bright orange T-shirts, printed in front with “ How old will YOU be in 2050?” and on the back with “Don’t bracket our future.” Today I learned there are about 2000 youth here. Like the CAN—Climate Action Network—they are asking for an agreement that is FAIR—AMBITIOUS—BINDING. Yes, this sounds pretty elementary but it is very complicated, deciding on “Differentiated responsibility,” whether carbon off-sets should be counted, and a myriad of other technical details. The youth point out that in the end, it is their lives that are being affected more than the present negotiators.
In the workshop “Youth and Student Movements Leading the Way,” we heard about use of social networking technology to bring youth together from all over the world. They are reaching out to younger students, inspiring local actions, and creating innovative energy-saving devices. They are promoting intergenerational and inter-institutional cooperation. They are presenting their concerns to the powers that be in their towns, countries, and at the UN. Their careful study results in articulate presentations whether to peers, at a plenary session here with thousands of observers, or at a special briefing. Two young women, one from San Francisco and one from India, joined the environmental writer Bill McKibben to co-found the 350.org movement. Scientists say we need to reduce our greenhouse gases to 350 parts per million from our present 389 ppm to maintain our environment as we know it.
Another workshop focused on “Intergenerational Equity” and noted the growing number of young people around the world who are working on climate change. I am bringing back a little book entitled Climate Legacy Initiative: A New Legal Perspective on an Unprecedented Crisis, by one of the speakers, Tracy Bach from Vermont Law School. The responsibility the older generations have, to pass on a world as intact as the one they received, may be codified into law in some ways, but we know it is already a moral and ethical obligation. This reflects the wisdom of the Iroquois Nation Seventh Generation—whatever we do, let us think how it will affect our progeny unto the seventh generation.
Some interesting web sites:
www.350.org This past weekend some activities are being planned such as candlelight vigils to encourage an equitable Copenhagen agreement—the heads of state are coming this week)
www.studentsummit2010 world student summit for sustainability tomorrow—looking into Climate Action Network
Cheers to you all Stateside,

Notes from COP 15 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference

After much preparation and anticipation, the COP15 United Nations Climate Change Conference began on Monday, December 7th. Several congregations, including The First Unitarian Society of Schenectady in NY and the UU Fellowship of the Peninsula in Newport News, VA, are planning candlelight vigils around climate justice, to show their support halfway through the climate negotiations. More information is available on the UU Ministry for Earth website.

Lynn Dash, a special correspondent for the UU-United Nations Office, is currently in Copenhagen and has kindly shared some of her reflections with us.

Dec. 8, 2009, Copenhagen

If you’ve been to General Assembly you know how intense the experience can be. The Copenhagen conference has the flavor of a giant GA with several times the number of participants. As of this writing, about 15,000 people from 200 countries are here. It is wonderful to see the faces of so many different people from around the world.

The logo is a sphere with thickly interconnecting lines, a web held together in a big blue ball. What a graphic reminder that we are all in this together, in our interconnected web on our one precious planet. So among the multiple offerings on many topics at any given hour, I am reminded that it is all about environmental and social justice for all of us on Earth.

COP is “Conference of Parties” and this is the 15th, and largest, such conference since international negotiations began in 1992 with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

There is an undercurrent of tension between the developed and the developing countries. The major issue seems to be that the developed countries have already put a disproportionate amount of Greenhouse gas Emissions into the atmosphere, while the developing countries have yet to develop infrastructure that would help lift them out of poverty. (The U.S., with 5% of the world’s population, emits 20% of GHG). The “Side Event” panel I attended on the first full day of the conference, “What the Copenhagen Conference must deliver for climate justice,” included speakers from Africa and the Philippines. It was pointed out that developing countries are already dealing with adverse effects of climate change.

“Climate injustice means ignoring that some people somewhere are exposed to danger and yoked to suffering due to climate change.”

There is some fear that the North-South divide that permeates the negotiations may threaten to retard the gains so far achieved ahead of COP15.
Let’s keep posted…and hopeful for a just solution.

And speaking of hope—there is a growing international youth climate movement. Over 1000 youth from 100 countries are here at COP 15 and I’ve been talking with some of them. A young Australian stated simply: “It’s our future.” The Australian Youth Climate coalition sent 20 youth through an application process. They raised their own funds to be able to come here, and to be able to support youth from developing nations. They are peer-organized and meet every morning for strategy sessions. Today they drew a large crowd around them as they sang “Give Peace a Chance” with some added lyrics about climate justice.

Youth from all across the U.S. have come together as SustainUS. They are under 25 years old and were chosen through a competitive application process. There are 1600 members of SustainUS in the US—and their chair is a UU, Kyle Gracey! They trained together in August on how to make presentations, take action, talk with the media and other ways to make a difference. They are expected to go back into their communities and raise awareness of climate change and encourage actions for sustainability. We will be hearing more from these inspiring young people.

If you’re interested in reading the Daily Programme, it’s available at http://unfccc.int/items.

We are grateful to be here at this exciting time.

Lynn Dash

Climate Change Update

A lot has happened this past month on climate change. The Kerry-Boxer Bill (Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act of 2009) was voted out of the Environment and Public Works committee. Senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman started a tri-partisan “dual track” of negotiations on a climate bill, working with the White House to craft legislation that would be likely to get the necessary 60 votes. President Obama agreed to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, which many of us and our allies have been and announced that he will negotiate to reduce US global warming emissions “in the range of 17%” by 2020. We need stronger climate action to really protect our planet and prevent further climate catastrophes from happening.

With the start of the United Nations Climate Change Conference next Monday, December 7th, we’ll all have to keep tuned to the direction the climate talks go. A number of UUs will be in Copenhagen and may contribute to this blog while they are there. In other news, information on the Dial Down Climate Change campaign should be on the Climate Change pages of the UUA website soon and the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth website has information about other ways of getting involved.

Day of Climate Witness

Having arrived at the capitol building early, I paused in the middle of grass, surrounded by sturdy, welcoming trees. A soft breeze rustled the leaves as I was surprised by the warmth of the sun on that November day. Even in the midst of a busy city, an immense gratitude for the natural world filled me and reminded me of the important work that lies ahead.

Last Thursday, November 5th, was the interfaith Climate Witness, with speakers from various denominations joining together to speak truth to power. Morality and ethics call us to act to curb climate change and alert us to the consequences of not acting. While climate change will impact all of us to some extent, it already is most greatly affecting the poorest peoples. Sea level rise could put entire island nations under water, causing millions of people to become climate refugees. A projected increase in hurricanes and other natural disasters puts more people and ecosystems at risk, as we saw in Hurricane Katrina. Farmland can dry up or be washed away with flooding as a result of changes in rainfall. Part of the injustice of the situation is that these people who are most affected by climate change are not the historical contributors of the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere today. We are asking the U.S. to take a strong leadership role at the Climate Convention in Copenhagen this December to ensure strong and just climate policy for all.

In this global day and age, continuing to emit monstrous quantities of greenhouse gases as a nation hurts all of us. Pollution crosses national boundaries, as does trade. Let’s continue to work together and bring more people into the movement for a global climate that is sustainable for everyone.