Sustainable and Abundant Life

Sustainable and Abundant Life
Commuter trains reduce pollution by lowering the number of cars on a city’s highways each day.

When Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast last October, flooding homes, train stations and even halting Wall Street trading, it shook more than buildings. Coming on the heels of summer wildfires, droughts that caused more than half of all U.S. counties to be declared “disaster zones” and the hottest July in U.S. history, the storm may also be the “watershed” moment when more Americans acknowledged climate change is real, and we’re feeling its effects now not just in some hypothetical future.

Hurricane Sandy is just the latest reminder that we are at a crossroads in the life of our nation and world. We face an economy not creating enough meaningful, well-paying jobs for everyone who wants and needs one. We face growing income inequality and persistent poverty. We face backlash against increased racial and cultural diversity. We face an economy that must transform to the realities of a climate-challenged world. We face a huge moral responsibility to our children and to the rest of the world to speedily shift to a low-carbon economy.

That’s a lot. At such a juncture, it’s no surprise that many are experiencing fear, anxiety, panic, depression, anger and grief. The familiar is falling away. It doesn’t help that some politicians and media work hard to fan our fears to serve their own interests.

As Christians, we are called to a way of life that makes it possible for all to live abundantly. The good news is that there are many inspiring initiatives underway, creating more just, sustainable, inclusive and beautiful communities here in the United States. The great news is that many of these efforts are crafting solutions that address job creation, racial justice and climate change all at once. By supporting, participating in and advocating for such initiatives, we can have and be a source of hope.

Creating low-carbon futures

While Congress has struggled with meaningful climate and energy legislation for more than a decade, some U.S. cities and states are charting their own courses toward more sustainable futures. Some efforts focus solely on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing energy efficiency and moving to renewable sources of energy, while others are much more comprehensive. All are pieces of an emerging quilt of policies, local experimental projects and cutting-edge entrepreneurship by nonprofits and commercial businesses.

There are now two regional compacts designed to reduce U.S. carbon emissions. In December 2005, 10 Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states launched the nation's first regional "cap and trade" system with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to reduce carbon emissions. New Jersey has since left this program, leaving nine states. A similar agreement, the Western Climate Initiative, was crafted to cover seven Western states and four Canadian provinces. Only one state, California, is currently participating, along with the four provinces. Finally, six Midwestern states and Manitoba subsequently crafted their own regional accord, but progress toward a program ceased in 2010. All told, 20 states now have set their own targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions while 38 states either have or are completing a comprehensive climate action plan.

The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions explained the basics of a climate action plan:

“[A climate action plan presents] steps that the states can take to reduce their contribution to climate change. The process of developing a climate action plan can identify cost-effective opportunities to reduce GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions that are relevant to the state. The individual characteristics of each state’s economy, resource base and political structure provide different opportunities for dealing with climate change. However, without targets for emissions reductions, incentives for cleaner technologies, or other clean policies, climate action plans will not achieve real reductions in GHG emissions.”

These are critical policy points that United Methodist Women can monitor and advocate.

Washington State has a climate action plan and established emission reduction targets. The faith community in Washington is helping enable a broader spectrum of people to benefit from the plan’s implementation. For example, 10 Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations and larger faith bodies joined with labor unions and immigrant groups in the Seattle area to champion legislation putting $14.5 million of the state’s federal stimulus funds into the Community Energy Efficiency Pilot program. Their collective, Sound Alliance, said, “The bill’s combination of high standards around both jobs and the environment sets a national precedent . . . as the most comprehensive and groundbreaking green jobs legislation of our time.” The pilot program provides job training in weatherization skills and the funds to weatherize homes. Following passage of the legislation, Sound Alliance helped create a separate nonprofit organization that was awarded a $4 million grant to retrofit 1,800 homes in seven high-need neighborhoods across the state.

Adapting to climate change

As of late 2012, 18 states had or were developing climate adaptation plans, designed to set in motion a variety of efforts to help state residents, businesses and communities adapt to the impact that climate change has or will likely have on the state. After the harsh weather-related challenges of 2012, it is likely that more state officials will see the need to create such plans.

An obvious vital piece of an adaptation plan is a thorough review of emergency and disaster procedures and standards. As Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy painfully illustrated, these plans are often inadequate. The needs of seniors, people with disabilities, low-income neighborhoods and people living in marginalized, physically vulnerable areas often are not properly addressed.

For example, what happens to seniors and people with disabilities living alone in high-rise apartment buildings when the power goes out, shutting down lights, elevators, air conditioning and heat? How do people relying on public transportation evacuate when public transportation stops running? The safety and security of people living in various types of public housing and the availability of public transportation during floods or power outages are just some of the aspects of plans that need rethinking.

Emergency and disaster experts attuned to equity concerns point out that seniors and people in low-income and communities of color often are not invited to participate in emergency and disaster planning and review processes.

A second vital piece of adaptation planning in many states concerns access to water. As climate change shifts rainfall patterns and exacerbates droughts, some states that already struggled with water shortages now need more stringent plans to conserve and allocate precious water supplies. Some jurisdictions have or are contemplating privatizing water provision, possibly making it even more difficult for low-income households to afford this most basic of needs. This is an aspect of adaptation planning where United Methodist Women could play a critical role. For example, state lobbyists in California extol the role of the faith community in introducing the Human Right to Water Act (A.B. 685) and pressing Gov. Jerry Brown to sign it. This most basic right for all Californians became law in late September 2012.

Cities map paths to sustainability

From Juneau, Alaska, to Falmouth Maine, to Huntsville, Ala., to Duluth, Minn., more than 500 large and small municipalities across the nation are members of Local Governments for Sustainability U.S. (ICLEI-US), which is part of an international network of local jurisdictions sharing strategies and best practices to limit carbon emissions and build climate-resilient communities.

For more than 20 years the network has provided training and friendly competition for local government staff and elected officials. Communities receive ratings based on the degree of difficulty and comprehensiveness of their actions. As communities acquire higher ratings, they get national recognition. Often, it is concerned local residents who push city officials to join the network.

Late last year, inspired by how the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) transformed construction industry practices by its voluntary Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, USGBS, ICLEI-US and the Center for American Progress publicly launched an ambitious sustainability road map for local jurisdictions that goes far beyond the existing ICLEI-US framework.

Unlike other existing rating systems, this roadmap places equal weight on the three aspects of sustainability: economic, social and environmental conditions. It covers local economic conditions such as job training and employment, support for local businesses, affordable housing, social safety nets and educational outcomes, for example. It looks at social conditions such as food deserts, basic services, educational outcomes; how well neighborhood and community groups participate in municipal decisions affecting them; civil and human rights; and how local governments honor and celebrate the diversity of their residents. And it addresses environmental conditions including water quality and access, indoor air quality, access to green spaces, urban sprawl and exposure to toxins in addition to climate change. Overall, the roadmap helps planners ask, “How fair, transparent and inclusive are local policies and the effects of those policies?”

This effort took more than 150 volunteers nearly four years of labor to craft an ambitious, far-reaching vision of what a beloved community could look like in the United States in the 21st century. While not perfect, this tool has tremendous potential. It is the best comprehensive tool we have to advance justice in a systematic way where most people can actually feel it: right where they live — particularly if traditional champions of economic, racial and gender justice like United Methodist Women and other faith-based groups get behind it.

The STAR challenge

The challenge in creating Sustainability Tools for Assessing and Rating Communities (STAR) was to make it ambitious enough to stretch jurisdictions already moving toward sustainability while also being accessible to areas that had not yet taken any steps in this direction. Another challenge was finding ways to integrate economic and social justice throughout the categories so municipalities would not shy away from less familiar and possibly more difficult aspects of sustainability.

Unveiled in late 2012, STAR is now in the testing phase. Some 32 North American jurisdictions volunteered to work with the first edition tools to test their practicality and impact.

The STAR toolkit lays out objectives in seven goal areas:

  • Health and safety
  • Economy and jobs
  • Equity and empowerment
  • The built environment
  • Climate and energy
  • Education arts and community
  • Natural systems.

Many of these objectives require significant public input. The spirit of STAR is to tap the wisdom, creativity and energy of local residents to create a sustainable community that celebrates what is unique and special in their community and works given local conditions, while establishing certain principles and standards that hold for all.

Pam Sparr is an economist and former United Methodist Women executive staff for economic and environmental justice education and advocacy. She now serves as a consultant on environmental justice and is based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Posted or updated: 2/28/2013 11:00:00 PM