Climate Action Unites California’s Faith Communities

Winners - CCA

The deal between the United States and China to cut carbon emissions by 2025 and 2030 wasn’t the only good news about climate change this week. Wednesday night, as some badly needed rain began to fall on San Francisco, people of faith gathered to celebrate the work they’re doing for the climate right now.

The 8th Annual Cool Climate Awards, hosted by California Interfaith Power & Light (CIPL), acknowledged the hard work faith communities are doing to conserve water, cut their emissions, energize their legislators, and educate their congregations — hard work they’ve taken upon themselves without government regulation and easy economic incentives.

“I think it’s really gratifying for them because it’s an uphill battle in their congregations,” said Susan Stephenson, Executive Director of CIPL. “It shows that regular people working together really can do a lot.”

The evening opened with a videotaped congratulatory message from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and remarks by Rev. Sally Bingham, President of CIPL, and CIPL Program Director Rev. Will Scott. Alliance for Climate Education and Rev. Ambrose Carroll, a “green” pastor working with East Bay faith communities, also highlighted the importance of involving the youth and minorities in faith-based climate action.

“We just really want to wake the African-American church up on this issue, and I need your help and all of your good thoughts,” said Rev. Carroll.

Wen Lee of Alliance for Climate Education (Photo Robyn Purchia)

Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto Dreams Big

The recipients of the awards were remarkable to say the least. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, recipient of the Education & Advocacy award, has presented forums on sustainable living; hosted a film series on topics such as energy, community organizing, and housing; and held an eco-fair that showcased everything from fossil fuel divestment, to raising chickens, to composting.

“It was a very energetic activity, there was lots of interest,” said Bill Hilton of UU Palo Alto. “The kids, of course, loved the urban chickens maybe more than they loved anything else. And they got to see the worms in the compost too.”

But UU Palo Alto’s activities extend beyond education. The church’s grounds have a California native garden, a solar roof, and other energy efficiency measures, which will help the church achieve its goal of net zero emissions. The congregation’s Green Sanctuary Committee also wants to turn the church into a demonstration site for community solar by covering its parking lot with solar panels and providing that power to the community.

“I think all congregations, whether they’re churches, or mosques, or synagogues, or humanist congregations, have an opportunity as community centers to demonstrate what’s possible, and walk the walk,” said Vanessa Warheit, co-chair of the Green Sanctuary Committee. “I want to use a transition to a clean power economy as a mechanism to a transition to a more egalitarian economy.”

UU Palo Alto - CCA
Vanessa Warheit and Bill Hilton of UU Palo Alto (Photo Robyn Purchia)

St. Jude’s Episcopal Church in Cupertino Models What’s Possible

St. Jude’s Episcopal Church in Cupertino, recipient of the Energy Efficiency award, is equally as impressive in its climate efforts. The church embarked on a two-year, comprehensive process to make its facilities more sustainable, including an energy audit; lighting retrofit; low-flow aerators and other water-reduction measures; and a solar system. The church also uses eco-friendly cleaning supplies, encourages public transportation, and adopted an environmentally-preferable purchasing policy.

For Rev. Wilma Terry Jakobsen of St. Jude’s, the first female priest ordained by fellow climate activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu, taking action on climate change was a no brainer. In her native country of South Africa, the effects of climate change are already apparent. When she moved to the United States, she was surprised that not more action was being taken. Her hope is that St. Jude’s will serve as an example to others in the congregation and in the community.

“You talk it up and maybe someone will be inspired to do something more than we have because we could do a whole lot more,” Rev. Jakobsen said.

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Members of St. Jude’s Episcopal Church celebrating their award (Photo Robyn Purchia)

Faith Communities Inspiring a Greater Love for Creation

It was refreshing to see faith communities going to such lengths for the planet. Sometimes fighting for climate action can seem like an overwhelmingly big task, especially after Christian conservatives elected such an environmentally unfriendly congress last week. But witnessing religious communities being inspired by their faith to take on the task was what made the Cool Climate Awards truly remarkable. There was a sense among all in attendance that a higher calling was being fulfilled — a duty to something greater was being honored.

“From a Judeo-Christian standpoint this is God’s creation, and it’s incredibly important because we are charged in the Book of Genesis for keeping God’s creation and loving God’s creation,” said Karma Quick-Panmala of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, winner of an Honorable Mention for Water Stewardship. “Whatever we can do to ensure clean water, clean air, to create this Earth in God’s image and not destroy it or damage it, is, for me, one of our true charges.”

Katelyn Roednerof the Catholic Charities Diocese of Stockton and winner of an Honorable Mention for Advocacy, agreed that environmental protection is just a part of her religious faith. She described Bishop Stephen Blair’s response to priests and parishioners who are skeptical about the Diocese’s environmental programs.

“To be a pro-life church does not mean a focus on the narrow issues some may think it means,” she said. “If we are truly going to support life and respect life that includes the environment and the water we drink, the air that we breathe, the land that sustains us — that’s all part of our life ethic in the Catholic Church.”

The “less narrow” approach that all the faith communities seemed so invested in was perhaps the most inspiring part of the Cool Climate Awards. Instead of limiting action to faith, issue, or congregation, there was a sense that everyone there was part of a team — a team that was invested in changing their communities for the better.

“We all have our role, we all have our place, we just have to keep doing it,” said Ariela Ronay-Jinich of Urban Adamah, winner of the award for Youth & Young Adult Engagement. “It’s like bringing you back to this web, this ecology, of work that’s being done. It’s great — it’s grounding and it’s inspiring.”

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About the Author

I'm an organic-eating, energy-saving naturalist who composts and tree hugs in her spare time. I have a background in environmental law, lobbying, and field work. I believe in God; however, I do not call myself a Christian or a Jew or a member of any religion. I am merely someone who finds a spiritual connection to all humans and the environment. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, and .