What If the ELCA Had A Climate Caucus? Responding To The IPCC Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change 2021

What If the ELCA Had A Climate Caucus? Responding To The IPCC Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change 2021 August 16, 2021

For some time now, all official updates on climate change have been dire. Many are calling the new report from the Sixth Assessment of the IPCC “the final alarm bell.”

The United Nations argues we must take all the measures necessary to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“The internationally-agreed threshold of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels of global heating is perilously close. We are at imminent risk of hitting 1.5 degrees in the near term. The only way to prevent exceeding this threshold, is by urgently stepping up our efforts, and persuing the most ambitious path.”

I must admit, as a pastor and theologian, these kinds of reports can be enervating. What can be done, and will it make any difference?

Addressing climate change has a different “feel” because, once one begins to consider it, you come to the realization it is not isolatable in the same way other political and moral tasks are isolatable.

Unlike immigration policies, which can be transformed by electing the right officials, climate change is caused by everyone and really only repairable with buy-in from everybody. Our impact on the climate is on one of the true cases where we see how everything is connected.

Not only that, but climate change itself has the most dire implications for the concerns progressives most care about: refugees, the poor, children, women. All the groups of people, and all aspects of the natural world, will be most adversely affected in the short and long-term at places around the globe populated by some of the poorest and most vulnerable (and politically subaltern) groups and species on the planet.

I’m aware not everyone will have time to read the full report, or even the summary report, of the IPCC. So first of all, let me offer a quote from what I found one of the most salient sections. After essentially establishing with a very high level of scientific credibility that climate change is real, is accelerating, has been impacted by industrialization since the middle of the 1800s, and only some effects are even reversible, if we act now, the report states:

“This Report reaffirms with high confidence the AR5 finding that there is a near-linear relationship between cumulative anthropogenic CO2 emissions and the global warming they cause. Each 1000 GtCO2 of cumulative CO2 emissions is assessed to likely cause a 0.27°C to 0.63°C increase in global surface temperature with a best estimate of 0.45°C41. This is a narrower range compared to AR5 and SR1.5. This quantity is referred to as the transient climate response to cumulative CO2 emissions (TCRE). This relationship implies that reaching net zero42 anthropogenic CO2 emissions is a requirement to stabilize human-induced global temperature increase at any level, but that limiting global temperature increase to a specific level would imply limiting cumulative CO2 emissions to within a carbon budget.” (Page 36)

Bottom line: globally we have to limit CO2 emissions. The report offers a footnote I want to discuss. It adds:

“The term carbon budget refers to the maximum amount of cumulative net global anthropogenic CO2 emissions that would result in limiting global warming to a given level with a given probability, taking into account the effect of other anthropogenic climate forcers. This is referred to as the total carbon budget when expressed starting from the pre-industrial period, and as the remaining carbon budget when expressed from a recent specified date. Historical cumulative CO2 emissions determine to a large degree warming to date, while future emissions cause future additional warming. The remaining carbon budget indicates how much CO2 could still be emitted while keeping warming below a specific temperature level.”

So basically, we are working with a limited budget of CO2 we can emit in order to stay below a specific temperature level (like the 1.5 Celsius goal). And some of the conclusions from these newest reports indicate we’ve already lost 1.5, in which case the carbon budget is gone…

How do you reduce CO2 entering the atmosphere? The answer is both difficult and easy: stop burning fossil fuels like gasoline, gas, & coal.

What replaces these fuels? Well, the 3Rs still apply, for starters. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Go on less international flights. Billionaires can stop taking field trips into outer space. Carpool. Etc.

Shift to renewable forms and sources of energy. We are now at 20% renewable electricity in the U.S. If we could get to 80% by 2030, it might be possible to keep warming to 1.5 C by 2100 (perhaps some of our kids may be alive then).

Even if we fall a little short, coming close should preclude a +3 C 2100.

Churches can lead or follow. Our kids are watching. They will remember.

What Can Churches Do?

In this conclusion, I’m going to focus on what my denomination, the ELCA can do, and do immediately.

Although individual churches can and are taking steps, we need some way to more effectively and immediately organize. All institutions, corporations, governments and churches need to say what they are doing to actually decrease, this month.

We have a social statement on Care of Creation and a Pastoral Message from the Bishop on Climate Change. But the Care of Creation statement is almost 30 years old! A lot has happened since then, in the world, and especially in our understanding of global warming. We need greater guidance, more intensive strategies for engagement, ways to encourage one another to act now.

What if the ELCA had a Climate Caucus? Consider: a network of churches much like some other affiliated networks in our denomination, like Reconciling Works. Churches who identify as members of the Climate Caucus would adopt a statement as a congregation committing them to X, Y, and Z by X date.

Like Reconciling Works, the Climate Caucus would publish resources on how to bring congregations along on the study process to joining the Climate Caucus, and would offer language that was required to adopt as churches in order to be a member.

Send out eco-friendly stickers to all churches who join the caucus, and give them the opportunity to state they are proudly a member of the ELCA Climate Caucus.

This would be helpful on multiple levels. When people are considering churches, in the same way they hope a church will be committed to full inclusion, they also hope the church is committed to sustainability and the environment. Putting this commitment front and center in a church’s congregational life will thus be both a practical step toward CO2 reductions as a church, and an effective evangelism strategy.

And it would align, in every way I can think of, with the current ELCA social statement and pastoral message on the care of God’s creation.

What would be the commitments that would make a church an ELCA Climate Caucus church? How about…

  1. A church starts by conducting an energy audit.
  2. The church will commit to using 100% renewable energy by 2030.

In order to make this possible, we ask the ELCA to commit 10% of its annual budget to funding churches joining the ELCA Climate Caucus. This could be grants, or a revolving door of loans for solar panels and other renewable energy resources.

A mini-addendum: One section of the IPCC report mentioned “anthropogenic CO2 removal strategies,” something I personally didn’t understand, either at the science or policy level. The relevant paragraphs are quoted here:

D.1.4 Anthropogenic CO2 removal (CDR) has the potential to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and durably store it in reservoirs (high confidence). CDR aims to compensate for residual emissions to reach net zero CO2 or net zero GHG emissions or, if implemented at a scale where anthropogenic removals exceed anthropogenic emissions, to lower surface temperature. CDR methods can have potentially wide-ranging effects on biogeochemical cycles and climate, which can either weaken or strengthen the potential of these methods to remove CO2 and reduce warming, and can also influence water availability and quality, food production and biodiversity45 (high confidence).

{5.6, Cross-Chapter Box 5.1, TS.3.3}

D.1.5 Anthropogenic CO2 removal (CDR) leading to global net negative emissions would lower the atmospheric CO2 concentration and reverse surface ocean acidification (high confidence). Anthropogenic CO2 removals and emissions are partially compensated by CO2 release and uptake respectively, from or to land and ocean carbon pools (very high confidence). CDR would lower atmospheric CO2 by an amount approximately equal to the increase from an anthropogenic emission of the same magnitude (high confidence). The atmospheric CO2 decrease from anthropogenic CO2 removals could be up to 10% less than the atmospheric CO2 increase from an equal amount of CO2 emissions, depending on the total amount of CDR (medium confidence). {5.3, 5.6, TS.3.3}

D.1.6 If global net negative CO2 emissions were to be achieved and be sustained, the global CO2-induced surface temperature increase would be gradually reversed but other climate changes would continue in their current direction for decades to millennia (high confidence). For instance, it would take several centuries to millennia for global mean sea level to reverse course even under large net negative CO2 emissions (high confidence).

{4.6, 9.6, TS.3.3}

A parishioner with expertise in sustainability offered a critique of this portion of the report, indicating that CDR serve as delay tactics and a smoke screen for big oil. To learn more about this point, read

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