Robin Blakeman (center, with her mother and daughter) is an ordained PCUSA Teaching Elder, a mother, and an 8th Generation West Virginia Resident. She is currently employed by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and does volunteer work within the Presbytery of West Virginia. She is also a member of the steering committee for the newly formed WV Chapter of Interfaith Power and Light.
There’s a story in my family about my Great-Grandfather, Silas M. “Bud” Javins, that goes something like this: Sometime (in the late 1800’s) after building his own sawmill and house on a piece of Boone County, WV land he owned (which had been in the family since the late 1700’s), he encountered “Rockefeller agents” who wanted to buy his mineral rights. He didn’t want to sell and tried to tell them politely to leave, but they wouldn’t listen, so the dialogue got rather heated. The legend goes that he actually had to chase those land grabbing agents off his property with a gun!
This story illustrates how hard working entrepreneurial Central Appalachians were challenged with increasing levels of force to give up their land and/or mineral rights. Many sold out for the much needed cash they were being offered, not really understanding what they were signing. Some shady dealings were happening, too – several county court houses in southern WV suffered mysterious fires during that era, and land records were destroyed or altered subsequently. I’m one of the lucky ones who still has my family land – the very farm where my great-grandfather built a house and a sawmill – and some of our mineral rights intact. I am very aware, however, that it was during that post-civil war early industrial period when West Virginia (a state forged out of the Civil War) and much of Central Appalachia became essentially a resource colony for the rest of the nation, and has been exploited ever since.
Fast forward to today where current statistics tell us these facts: West Virginia has a county (McDowell) that is both a major exporter of coal AND has the lowest lifespan for its adult residents. A woman of childbearing age can anticipate that her unborn baby will have a 40% greater likelihood of developing a serious birth defect if she lives near a mountaintop removal coal mining operation. Many of our retired, disabled and deceased miners and their families now struggle with the fact their health, retirement, disability and survivor benefits are being terminated due to bankruptcy agreements that allow corporate executives to retain their salaries & benefits, and the miners lose all their promised benefits. Yet, our state’s elected leaders continue to speak with near unanimous voice about the need to “protect coal."
What I can see, from my perspective as both an 8th generation WV resident, and with a faith-filled and social justice informed reader of current events, is that this is at the very least a foolish allegiance to an industry which is soon going to be just as by-gone as the horse-drawn buggy makers of the past. At worst, there is a form of idolatry on the loose in the voices of those who claim that we must protect our “coal jobs” at all cost, when – in fact – the coal industry has been in a labor reduction mode since the mid part of the twentieth century, when mechanization of mining practices became widespread, increasing in size and capacity up to the modern “drag line” that literally rips mountains apart at their seams in the process of mountaintop removal coal mining.
Now, there are much bigger things at stake than just my (or anyone else’s) family farm. There is the fact that the headwaters of much of the East coast’s watersheds are at risk from mountaintop removal coal mining and gas fracking – which is becoming very widespread in Central Appalachia. This is the location of headwater streams for the Ohio, the Potomac, the James Rivers, and many others. There are reports of dramatic and increasing signs of Climate Change, which we truly must address as quickly as possible if we want to avoid all of our coastal cities going underwater due to sea level rise. There are droughts and unbelievably high temperatures in India and other countries that are causing deaths and disease in catastrophic numbers. There are floods and wildfires on our own continent that we can no longer ignore. There is increasing melt of glaciers, permafrost and polar ice caps.
The central question for me is this: what kind of world do I want to leave to my daughter and her descendants?
In answering that question, I am aware of both the global problems of Climate Change, and of shortfalls to my state’s budget due to loss of coal revenues – all of which may impact her job prospects when she graduates next year from college. For her sake and for the sake of her yet-to-be-conceived or adopted children, I am aware of how urgently we need to develop alternative economic industry and truly renewable energy resources in order to fill in those budget gaps (some would say we need to focus on “preserving coal” but I strongly disagree). To spur this kind of development, we need a message about the morality and justice of continued economic dependence on fossil fuel resources, and we need it loudly and rapidly delivered, even though there will be opposition to that message.
The thing that gives me the most hope is that there are some nearby job training programs that are actively training solar installers. This is a growing industry in West Virginia! If we can do this here, it can be done anywhere.
My hope is this: instead of squashing entrepreneurial initiatives (as was done in the past in West Virginia), that Wisdom will prevail and programs like Coalfield Development (http://www.coalfield-development.org/) and Solar Holler (http://www.solarholler.com/) will become the model for increasing diversification of our workforce and energy generation. We need messages sent to our elected leaders and energy providers about the critical need to transition away from dependence on fossil fuels. To help this transition happen, I have supported the work of Fossil Free PCUSA for the past three years. The work being done on the divestment front is another bright and shining beacon of hope – not only for Central Appalachia, but for our entire world.
We're less than a month away from General Assembly. This week members of Fossil Free PCUSA's steering committee remembers some of the reasons that inspire them to care for creation and work for divestment from the fossil fuel industry. We'd love to hear your reasons too!
So much life depends on clean, flowing water. Our Creator gave us the responsibility to care for it and keep it clean and flowing. (Jane Laping)
My two little pirates, Wilson and Thatcher will grow up in a very different Florida than the one I grew up in. They are smiling and dreaming of a pirate birthday party and have no idea what is happening to their birth state. Perhaps they will adjust to the unrelenting hot humid days and nights because it will be their “normal."
But, they will never adjust to the rising ocean that unrelentingly gobbles up more land and buildings every year. They will ask why we let this happen when we could have stopped it. My fervent hope is that I can tell them that their church responded by joining the worldwide divestment movement that changed the world! (Pam McVety)
God calls us, from the very beginning, to love creation and to take care of it. I have known this since I was a child, and now as an adult, I work for creation care in the PCUSA. We must make the world a better place, or there will be no future for children we love. Here are my dear friends Donggeon, Dongjun and Donghyun, three of the four children of parents who work in the Presbyterian church. I want to invest in their future on this planet, not in the fossil fuel companies who profit from wrecking the planet. We must do everything we can to make love God's good creation. (abby mohaupt)
From a very recent trip to Yosemite, I'm reminded of why we do this work. (Susan Chamberlain)
It was in a breakout session on fossil fuel divestment after a climate rally in Washington D.C. where I uttered the words that have changed my life for the past three years. When asked what group I represented, I blurted out: I’m a Presbyterian.
On returning home to Tennessee, I decided to own that statement. I reached out to Presbyterians across the country who were already engaged in issues of climate change and fossil fuel industry divestment. Somehow I ended up moderating a group of passionate grassroots activists... and today we call ourselves Fossil Free PCUSA.
Together we crafted an overture and by the time we met at the 221st General Assembly in Detroit in June 2014, we had gathered a dozen presbyteries concurring on the need to take a moral stand on investing in fossil fuel companies. As good Presbyterians, General Assembly voted to study the issue, referring it to MRTI (the committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment) for two years of study and a report.
The month after General Assembly, I found myself in Atlanta, one of many testifying before the EPA on what became the Clean Power Plan. While there, I met faithful Presbyterians and creation advocates like Mary Anne Hitt, director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, and Kate McGregor Moseley, director of Georgia Interfaith Power and Light.
In September 2014 I traveled to New York City, joining Presbyterians and other people of faith in the People’s Climate March with 400,000 other citizens marching for urgent action on our changing climate.
Over the next 15 months I attended five MRTI meetings in Boston, New York, San Francisco, Dallas and New Orleans. I watched as MRTI grappled with the issue of fossil fuel divestment, and I learned much about the wide-ranging and important work they do for our denomination. I listened incredulously in New York as Hess Oil glibly explained that their business plan would lead to 3.6°C of warming. When asked what that might look like, the disingenuous reply was, “No one really knows…” I listened in San Francisco as a climate scientist and Presbyterian from UC Berkeley was asked if he would support divesting from fossil fuels. His answer: an unequivocal “Yes.”
I traveled to Houston last October for a symposium hosted by Faithful Alternatives to Divestment from Fossil Fuels. There I heard Katharine Hayhoe, a renowned climate scientist and evangelical Christian, explain climate change, and why we as Christians should care. She concluded with a paraphrase of 2 Timothy 1:7 which counsels that if a response smells of fear, it is not from God. Later I saw first-hand the distress and cognitive dissonance of fellow Presbyterians whose livelihood and economic well-being are inextricably connected to corporations whose current business plans – if successfully executed – will wreck creation, and I watched as they were coached through the process of developing overtures opposing fossil fuel divestment.
Less than a month later, in Dallas, I listened as MRTI was warned that wealthy Dallas congregations could leave the denomination if fossil fuel divestment was advised.
Meanwhile, through fall, winter and spring, dozens of congregations and presbyteries across the country were discussing and debating and concurring with the prophetic moral call to put our money where our mouth is and stand with the “least of these” against investing in further degradation of God’s good creation. As of this writing, 31 presbyteries in 12 of 16 synods have concurred with the overture to divest from fossil fuel companies.
We are not alone. Last summer Pope Francis’ encyclical called for all Christians to move away from a fossil fuel based economy. In December it was announced that over 500 institutions worldwide with combined assets of more than $3.4 Trillion have committed to some form of fossil fuel divestment. At the same time secular society in the form of 196 nations at COP21 committed to decarbonizing to keep our planet well below 2°C of warming.
As I think about the next steps in this journey to Portland, I recall Earth Day images of delegates from country after country signing the Paris Accord at the UN. I’m struck particularly by the image of John Kerry, our Secretary of State, signing the agreement with his granddaughter on his lap. It’s not about us, today, cocooned in our first-world economic security; it’s about the next generation, and the generation after that, and the developing world; none of whom may have the opportunity to fully develop if we don’t do everything we can as urgently as we can to slow climate change.
On that first Earth Day, 46 years ago, the Grateful Dead sang: “What a long, strange trip it’s been!” The trip isn’t over yet. In many ways it’s only just beginning. Portland awaits, and I remain grateful to be a Presbyterian.
Katharine Hayhoe is a highly-respected expert on climate change. As an associate professor and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, her focus is developing new ways to quantify the potential impacts of human activities at the regional scale. Katharine’s work has resulted in over 120 peer-reviewed publications, which include serving as lead author on the Second and Third U.S. National Climate Assessments as well as on reports by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Science. In 2014, Katharine was named one of 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy and one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME, and was awarded the American Geophysical Union’s Climate Communication Prize. Together with her husband, pastor and Christian author Andrew Farley, she wrote A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions.
Every day seems to bring startling new headlines about climate change. From climate refugees and out of control wildfires to record flooding and warnings of global water shortages, its impacts are here, now, and serious.
The science is clear that climate is changing. It’s not just a matter of thermometers or satellites. Around the world, there are more than 26,500 indicators of a warming planet—from cherry trees in Washington, D.C. blooming ever earlier in the year to the wintering ranges of migratory birds creeping northward—many of them right here, in our own back yards.
The science is also clear that it’s people—not natural cycles or the sun—causing these changes. If the earth’s temperature were being controlled by natural factors right now, it would be cooling. Why isn’t it? Because when we dig up and burn massive amounts of coal, gas and oil, we are wrapping an extra blanket around our planet. This extra blanket traps the earth’s heat that would otherwise escape to space. And that’s why the planet is warming.
The science is clear too that our choices matter. If we continue to depend on fossil fuels, the impacts will be expensive, extensive, and dangerous: for our food supply, our water resources, our economy and our health. Transitioning to clean, renewable sources of energy will give us time to adapt, and to help others – particularly the vulnerable and disadvantaged of the world –prepare. The choice is up to us.
Science can tell us a great deal about how we are affecting this world we live in. But science can't tell us what’s the right way to fix what we’ve done. Should we divest from investments in the companies that profit from them, or work from within to change their trajectories? Should we support a price on carbon here at home, or a Green Climate Fund to help poor nations prepare? These are questions we can only really answer from our hearts; and for many of us, what’s in our hearts relates directly to our faith.
As Christians, we believe that we have been given responsibility over every living thing (Genesis 1:26-28), and we are to be faithful stewards of that with which we have been entrusted (I Cor 4:2). The Bible doesn’t just talk about duty and responsibility; it also tells us that we are to love one another in the same way we have been loved, and we will be recognized by that love (John 13:34-35). And finally, we know that we are not called to act out of fear, but rather from the spirit of power, of love, and of a sound mind we’ve been given by God (2 Timothy 17).
So what is an appropriate response to a changing climate? It’s one that accepts our unique responsibility to care for all of creation, including ourselves; one that demonstrates in a clear and unmistakable way our love for our brothers and sisters here at home, and on the other side of the world; and one that is not motivated by fear, but rather by a spirit of power and conviction, and informed by a sound mind. That’s our litmus test for the right choice.
Aloha from the Islands of Hawai'i, where we are eagerly watching the great progress of the FossilFreePCUSA overture as it makes its way toward the 222nd General Assembly.
We here in the Hawaiian islands are especially concerned about climate change as we see its effects already impacting our island home. For us, the threat of climate change is no longer a future potentiality but a realtime catastrophe observable in rising sea levels and ocean temperatures and increased storm severity.
Perhaps you have visited Hawai'i and observed its precious and endemic wildlife; if you haven't we hope you will! It is a beautiful and unique landscape. But because the life of our islands is so closely tied to the health of our ocean, any changes in that relationship—such as rising ocean acidification, a direct result of increased carbon dioxide in our atmosphere—have the potential to threaten the delicate balance of life that makes this such a unique place to live and visit. Perhaps you are aware that warmer oceans damage coral health which in turn impacts related ecosystems and reef fish communities; it is all an interconnected web of wellbeing that is threatened when ocean health is undermined.
We also have grave concern about the impact of these changes on our human neighbors here in Hawai'i and in the entire Pacific world. Rising ocean levels and increased storm severity are a huge threat to health and safety for island nations. Because Hawai'i is almost entirely dependent upon imported food, fuel, and goods we feel particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events and their potential to damage infrastructure and threaten food and water security. Additionally, we see rising sea levels, coastal flooding and erosion already threatening entire communities in the smaller Pacific island chains and we worry about their wellbeing and the ways mounting environmental threats is already forcing significant migration.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to hope. Rooted in the Native Hawaiian value of malama 'aina or care for the land, we here in Hawai'i have a strong drive to care for the earth and to recognize all the ways its wellbeing is connected to our own livelihood. Hawai'i continues to be on the cutting edge of alternative energy solutions. As of December last year, 12% of all homes in the state had active PV panels. Our governor also recently signed into law an energy bill directing the state's utilities to generate 100 percent of their electricity sales from renewable energy resources by 2045. Change is certainly afoot.
We are proud to report that many faith leaders have been active in the fight to preserve our island home from degradation and in the work of finding new energy solutions. At Christ Church Uniting, for instance, a Solar Fair in 2013 introduced members of our community to solar options for homeowners. As a result, approximately 40% of church members' homes now have installed PV panels. At least 1/3 also drive green (electric or hybrid) vehicles. (Notably easier when the furthest one can drive from home is only 40 miles, but still an accomplishment to be celebrated!)
Though we in Hawai'i represent only a small voice within the larger denominational body of the PCUSA, we are glad to be able to add our support, through the Presbytery of the Pacific's overture concurrence, to this important ministry of enacting our shared values of stewarding God's creation....particularly the small but beautiful part we call Hawai'i and our home.