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The Clean Power Plan: Why it Matters

There’s a good chance that, at some point in the last few days, you’ve heard something about the Environmental Protection Agency or the Clean Power Plan. In short, the EPA’s new rule--called the Clean Power Plan--is the first governmental effort in the US to regulate the amount of carbon dioxide that an existing power plant is allowed to release into the atmosphere, effectively categorizing carbon dioxide as a pollutant for the first time. The rule would cut carbon emissions from existing power plants (the USA’s leading source of greenhouse gas emissions) by 30% from 2005 levels by 2030.

So what’s the big deal? After all, is 30% of 2005 levels really enough to do anything meaningful about climate change? While it is true that the new rule could have been more ambitious, the actions of the EPA on Monday were unprecedented. Never before has an administration proposed limits on carbon dioxide--the most abundant greenhouse gas and the leading driver of man-made climate change. Never before has an administration said so clearly to the American people and to the world, “Climate change is real and we plan to do something about it.” For a government that has been disappointingly inactive on the issue of climate change, the events of Monday were tectonic.

The announcement on Monday also signaled to a watching world that the United States is finally ready to take climate change seriously. For decades, efforts at establishing a global framework to tackle the challenge of climate change have been frustrated, both directly and indirectly, by the United States. Ever since 1997, when the US walked away from the Kyoto Protocol, countries have repeatedly referenced the US’s lack of demonstrated commitment to addressing climate change as absolution for their own climate sins. With Monday’s announcement, however, the US has finally demonstrated to the world that it intends to take climate change seriously.

The new EPA rule also matters for members and congregations of the Christian Reformed Church. In 2012, the CRC synod adopted a watershed report on climate change and creation stewardship, affirming that it is the “current near-consensus of the international scientific community that climate change is occurring and is very likely due to human activity”; that “such climate change poses a significant threat to future generations, the poor, and the vulnerable”; and that it is an “ethical, social justice, and religious issue.” This statement made the CRC one of the first evangelical churches in the US to have a definitive statement on climate change. Of the report’s many recommendations for how best to embody this statement, one is particularly pertinent given Monday’s events:

That synod call upon the churches and their members to consider and advocate for public strategies that reduce carbon emissions and move us toward very low or zero net emissions.

In other words, the Christian Reformed Church has already said, since 2012, that rules and policies like the Clean Power Plan are necessary if we are going to address climate change in any meaningful way. Governments have a crucial and necessary role to play in the fight against climate change. We are sinful people, who often seek our own welfare above that of others. Good governments, then, restrain our evil and promote the common good that we, if left to our own selfish devices, would not seek. This is a reality that Synod 2012 recognized. The EPA’s flexible, market-based Clean Power Plan is a good (though not perfect) strategy, and it deserves our support.

Of course, the CRC is a bi-national church, and its members have a responsibility to advocate for better public policy in both the US and Canada. Unfortunately, Canadians don’t have much in the way of “good public strategies” to advocate for at the moment. Though Canada has the same 2020 emissions target as the US, its government has failed to even introduce a plan to meet this goal. Its rapidly increasing oilsands production means that it is on target to massively miss its emissions reduction goal in 2020. Perhaps this (long overdue) progress from the US on climate action can encourage our Canadian brothers and sisters to turn up the heat on the Harper government.

Synod also recognized that government is not the only agent with the responsibility to address climate change. According to synod, churches and individuals should “be voices for justice and public examples in the effort to live sustainably within our God-given resources, to promote stewardship in our own communities and our nations, and to seek justice for the poor and vulnerable among us and for future generations.” They should “reduce individual and collective carbon emissions to the atmosphere.” They should “respond with generosity and compassion to people and places negatively affected by climate change.” In other words, the announcement from the EPA on Monday should be applauded, but it is far from an excuse to sit back and consider our work done.

This new rule is significant not only for members and churches in the CRC, but for all Christians. There is no doubt that climate change has become one of the most divisive and politicized issues of our time, and perhaps especially so in the church. Part of the reason this is so is because we have allowed the discussion to become separated from a proper theology of creation. As Christians, we believe that the Earth and all it supports is God’s. We believe that God proclaimed creation good before humans were ever even on the scene. We believe that we, as image bearers of the Creator, have a unique responsibility to care for creation by mirroring the love of the Creator to the creation and echoing creation’s praise back to its Creator. How, then, can climate change--with its potential to wreak unprecedented havoc on the created order--be anything but an issue of creation stewardship? How has the church allowed itself to become so thoroughly co-opted by ideologies of fear and division as to miss its creational calling? These are dire questions, and the consequences of ignoring them are more dire still.

The Clean Power Plan is a big deal--there’s no doubt about it. It is the most ambitious plan to address climate change by any US government ever. It has the potential to significantly reduce US carbon emissions, to avoid thousands of pollution-related deaths and diseases every year, and to spur technological innovation that could chart the course toward a sustainable energy future once and for all. News out of China this week of its intention to set an absolute cap on carbon by 2016 even suggests that has the potential to finally break the global gridlock and lead to an international agreement on climate action. In the face of all of this optimism, however, we must remember that the Clean Power Plan is also only one, small step along the long and winding road toward global climate mitigation and adaptation. By itself, this plan, while ambitious, will barely nudge the global emissions that are threatening the future of my generation and our children.To do that, we need a global, grassroots revolution. The Clean Power Plan is a welcomed step in the right direction, but there are still miles and miles to go.

[Image: Flickr user Les Haines]

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