A Jewish Climate Activist in Kansas

I am on the steering committee of Kansas Interfaith Power & Light, the local chapter of a national organization that takes a faith-based approach to the issues of environmental stewardship and global climate change. We do this mostly on the retail level, going from congregation to congregation to encourage them to green their facilities and to teach the religious imperative to care for the earth.

This may seem like an odd issue for a Federation director to be involved in, but I agreed to join because an organization like this needs Jewish representation, I’m interested in the issue, and as Hillel might have said, “If not me, who?”

The dynamics of activism in Kansas are unusual because of the state’s hard-core conservatism. An issue that we discuss at every steering committee meeting is whether we’re trying to appeal to “only” those who already agree with us – liberal, largely mainline urban or suburban churches – or whether we’re trying to bring our message of stewardship and “creation care” to the great numbers of right-wing Christian churches that fill the state. Given that almost all of us on the committee are political liberals from liberal denominations it’s a little like discussing how to convert the heathen, but there are a couple of more right-leaning people among us and this is an area of great concern to them.

The problem is that many rightwing Christian churches look askance at global warming, to say the least. We have been clearly instructed that we are not to talk about the science of climate change in these churches, because when the people there hear “the science” they think “Al Gore” and “partisan politics” and they won’t listen to it at all. This strikes me as odd, of course, because if you counseled ignoring science in a community like mine – educated, largely secular in outlook – you would be laughed off the bima. But Kansas is not filled with people with outlooks like mine.

This issue also impacts our ongoing discussions of whether to engage in issue advocacy, or whether to focus our activities on getting churches to put in CFL lightbulbs. This breaks down on a left-right divide as well: the liberals all want to do advocacy and the evangelicals don’t. And the reason this is important at this particular moment is that coal happens to be a hot (so to speak) issue in Kansas right now.

A little background: the energy utility Sunflower Energy wants to build two coal-fired power plants in Holcomb, in southwestern Kansas. Last year the head of the Kansas Department of Health and the Environment (KDHE), Rod Bremby, refused permission for the project on the grounds of its impact on global warming. Sunflower sued in state court on the grounds that CO2 emission have never before been taken into consideration in making decisions about such projects, but the courts have repeatedly supported Bremby’s authority to take the action. At the same time, majorities in both houses of the Kansas’s Republican-dominated state legislature passed bills overturning Bremby’s decision and allowing the plants to be built. Three times such laws were passed; three times they were vetoed by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius; and three times the Republicans failed to muster enough votes to overturn the veto.

Now here it is a year later, and the issue is back on the table – same issue, same bill, same result: last week the bill passed the House, but five votes short of being able to override a veto. The hope of climate activists is that the veto will stand for remainder of the term of Gov. Sebelius’ term (and that of her lieutenant governor and projected successor, Mark Parkinson). Then, when there’s a new governor after the election of 2010, hopefully there will be some kind of regulation about large-scale carbon-generating projects on the federal level that will make this project cost prohibitive.

The issue is likely to push the KSIPL steering committee to a crisis. Clearly the majority of us are not prepared to sit this issue out for the sake of obeying a rightwing definition of “non-partisanship,” even if it hurts the missionary efforts. That’s because we realize that the two Holcomb plants would do more damage to the environment than could be fixed by 1,000 churches caulking their windows.

The more important and interesting question is, if the veto does get overridden this year and the plants move forward, do we say “nice try, get ‘em next time” or are we going to be willing to take the example of this week’s Power Shift conference in Washington and organize “extra-parliamentary” actions to oppose the plant? And if we as faith leaders did call for such actions, would anyone follow? Would I as a climate activist have the intestinal fortitude to take such an action? I really don’t want to have to find out, but on the other hand, I kind of do.

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