THE CLIMATE CRISIS & THE CHURCH
THE CLIMATE CRISIS & THE CHURCH
The impacts of the climate crisis have been on stunning display in 2023, with heatwaves, droughts, crop failure, extreme rainfall, floods, superstorms, sea level rise, wildfires—and the hottest summer in recorded history. The severe heatwave in Waco has been definitively attributed to the climate crisis in peer-reviewed research (World Weather Attribution), which reported this extreme heat would have been “virtually impossible” without mankind’s burning of fossil fuels. Immediate, robust action in all sectors is required to avoid ever worsening heat and weather extremes. Locally, with the prominence of church activities in the lives of many Wacoans, these faith communities have excellent opportunities to help preserve a livable planet. Thus, an overview of some essential steps church groups may take to combat our climate crisis follows. Photovoltaic systems. Since the production of electricity is the second largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S., installation of solar panels allows a church to produce a portion of its electricity free of planet warming carbon dioxide and methane. Further, solar panels improve air quality by eliminating toxic compounds produced by fossil power plants, including heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulates, which contribute to cardiopulmonary disease, and stroke. Finally, by spreading the production of electricity to multiple locations, this “distributed” power increases vital grid resiliency. Although a photovoltaic system may cost $20,000 or more upfront, many providers allow installment plans in which a small monthly payment is usually offset by the savings on monthly electricity bills. Once the system cost has been paid—an average 8-10 years—the panels provide the church free electricity each month. The Inflation Reduction Act tax credits would typically not apply, as most churches do not pay federal income tax.
In Waco, in 2017, Lake Shore Baptist Church set an example, as the first area church to install solar panels (140) on its roof. Waco Friends of the Climate continues to promote this technology to local churches, and is optimistic others will follow Lake Shore’s precedent.
In the U.S., Interfaith Power & Light, a climate action organization of over 22,000 faith communities, reported that in 2021 over 1,250 U.S. congregations had installed photovoltaic systems. These congregations could roughly produce a significant 10,375-ton CO2 reduction, extrapolating from a 20-panel system in Texas.
Battery storage. The addition of batteries to photovoltaic systems allows church facilities to retain electric power during grid outages, forming “resiliency hubs.” This is important as these blackouts become more frequent with climate breakdown and extreme weather. In fact, Texas has the most outages of any state in the U.S., and at the time of this writing, of 13,300,000 customers, 5258 were experiencing a blackout. By becoming a resiliency hub, a church in Waco could serve its members and the community at large during a power outage by providing lights, charging for cell phones, air conditioning, and power for critical medical equipment and medicine refrigeration—without the GHG emissions and hazards of diesel generators. The approximate cost of an installed 13.4kWh battery is $15,000.
Complete building electrification. The clean solar electricity produced should ideally power a church campus that is all electric. Thus, any new buildings, additions, or remodeling should have an electric heat pump HVAC system, electric or induction cookstove, electric heat pump water heater, and electric clothes dryer. And if an existing building contains gas appliances, it should be retrofitted with electric at time of retirement or malfunction. In 2023, it is irrational to install gas appliances which may soon require expensive replacement by federal or state policy. And recent research confirms that an all-electric building has superior air quality, protecting the health of congregants, especially children.
Electric vehicles. With bans on internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles between 2025 and 2050 announced by some 57 countries, multiple states and cities, and multiple car manufacturers, including GM, Volvo, and Honda, the future of transportation is clearly electric vehicles (EVs, battery electric). To combat the climate emergency, churches should make all car purchases as EVs immediately, as the IPCC timeline allows only seven years to halve GHG emissions and avoid catastrophe. With small EVs, like the Chevy Bolt, Tesla Model 3, and Chevy Equinox priced around $35k, and electric charging about half the cost of gasoline, the lifecycle cost of EVs is now highly competitive with gas vehicles. In addition, small electric transit buses, a size often used by churches, are made by companies like BYD and Proterra, with nearly 900 currently in service in the U.S.
EV charging. Despite common misconceptions, for the church to fuel its EVs, all required is a 220V outlet plus a Level 2 charger for daily overnight charging—with hardware and labor less than $1000. And any new parking lot construction must include several commercial grade Level 2 chargers for visitors --rather than the much greater expense of retrofitting chargers later.
Meat reduction. The peer-reviewed science is definitive that a vegan diet has the smallest carbon footprint, followed in order by vegetarian, pescatarian, and carnivorous diets . This science should guide church functions which include snacks or full meals—with vegan options or a full vegan menu.
Divestment. This removal of money from fossil fuel stocks and bonds has proven to be a powerful strategy, as was divestment against the tobacco industry and apartheid in South Africa. Currently, fossil fuel divestment is an enormous $40.5 trillion, undertaken by 1599 institutions, of which 35.7%, or 571, were faith-based organizations. Participants include the Archdiocese of Birmingham, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the World Council of Churches. Divestment has served to raise costs of oil companies, hamper their access to capital, and lower their profits.
Tree planting. Although there is insufficient available land on earth for tree planting to completely correct planetary heating, planting will help lower atmospheric CO2. Additional benefits of planting include creation of an enjoyable activity for church members of all ages, improvement in Waco’s suboptimal air quality, relief from Waco’s fierce urban heat islands, improvement in biodiversity, decrease in soil erosion, and formation of a soothing, shady oasis.
God’s Creation. Most faith institutions emphasize protecting the beauty of our planet. With the suitability of Earth as a livable habitat for man and millions of our fellow species at risk, little could be more appropriate for faith institutions than actions to help preserve this habitat.
Alan D. Northcutt, M.D.
October 22, 2023
Alan D. Northcutt is a retired Waco physician and Director of the grassroots climate action and education group, Waco Friends of the Climate. For free “Climate Crisis is Here” yard signs, email firstname.lastname@example.org.