How Can Friends Help Save Our Planet?

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

As Friends, most of us are taking steps to reduce our personal carbon dioxide emissions. Many of our meetings and institutions are doing the same. We are constantly urged to “reduce our carbon footprint.” This is important. As we work to save earth from an absolutely catastrophic climate crisis, we need to walk our talk. Our testimony of integrity demands it.

But changes in our personal lifestyles alone will not do much to save our planet. The problem is way too big, and the need for enormous changes is way too urgent. We now have the knowledge and technologies to make the necessary changes. The real and huge obstacles to saving our earth are political and economic. Preventing incalculable suffering, massive deaths, and widespread extinctions will require us to join with people and organizations all over the world to convince governments, corporations, and other powerful institutions to make enormous changes in a really big hurry.

Reducing Our Carbon Footprint

During the past decade, my wife and I have taken important steps to “reduce our carbon footprint.” This has seemed important, and we feel good about the steps we have taken. So imagine my shock when I learned that much of the hype around our “carbon footprints” has come from fossil fuel companies. The idea of a personal carbon footprint was popularized back in 2005 by a large advertising campaign of BP, one of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies. The campaign instructed people to calculate their personal footprints and suggested ways to “go on a low-carbon diet.” Similar to previous campaigns by the tobacco industry and plastics industry, this strategy aimed to shift the blame for negative consequences of the very profitable fossil fuels industry onto individual choices while BP itself made no attempt to reduce its own carbon footprint, instead expanding its oil drilling into the present decade. The effects of this campaign are still felt today with a rise in consumers concerned about their own personal actions, and creation of multiple carbon footprint calculators.

This does not mean that we should stop taking personal actions to clean up our energy uses. But it should drive home the fact that without concerted political and economic pressures, many powerful people and institutions will continue driving our earth into unparalleled disaster.

Without concerted political and economic pressures, many powerful people and institutions will continue driving our earth into unparalleled disaster.

Taking Political Action

There are many, many ways we can act politically to save our planet. Right now, it appears that saving our democracy is pretty high on the list. Assuming we succeed in that endeavor, we should constantly engage in lobbying our elected officials to take legislative and administrative actions to move us rapidly out of our old fossil-fuel economy and into a clean-energy economy. Nationally we need a carbon market, a renewable portfolio standard, tax credits and incentives for clean energy manufacturing, “clean” agriculture, and many more policies. We must convert all electrical power production from coal, oil, and gas to solar, wind, and other renewables. This should proceed hand in hand with electrifying everything we possibly can: from our cars, trucks, ships, and trains to our heating systems and lawn mowers.

We should also be actively recruiting and supporting candidates for political office who are clearly committed to supporting these changes. Volunteer to work in their campaigns; register voters; and keep in mind that our state and local legislators and political leaders have a lot they can do to move this transition forward.

Of course, we can initiate and support efforts to organize rallies, demonstrations, and online presentations. Many Friends are led to participate in nonviolent direct actions, and some extend this to civil disobedience, risking arrest for their dramatic actions.

In all that we do, we should lift up the terrible social and environmental impacts suffered by communities of color, poor people, and immigrants. This is true both within our country and all over the world. We who are privileged will be able to manage the worst impacts of climate change for a time. Most of us can live and work indoors in air-conditioned comfort. We can even move away from areas that are terribly hot, subject to massive fires, or constant flooding. But millions of poor Americans, often People of Color, don’t have these options. 

And when I look abroad, holding in my heart the families I have met in India and Africa through my work with Right Sharing of World Resources, I am filled with fear for their futures. Most of them must work outdoors, often depending upon subsistence agriculture. Their homes lack air conditioning, electricity, and often running water. If you think the world has been facing an enormous refugee problem in recent years, you haven’t seen anything yet.

In all that we do, we should lift up the terrible social and environmental impacts suffered by communities of color, poor people, and immigrants.

A Personal Example of Effective Lobbying

Starting in 2020, I (with support from many Friends) undertook a two-year lobbying effort to support an important clean-energy initiative in my home state of Pennsylvania. I was working with other members of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) Eco-Justice Collaborative to ensure implementation of a major clean-energy initiative called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI. 

RGGI is a cap-and-invest program that has led to steady reductions in carbon emissions from the 11 member states over many years. Electrical power plants must purchase allowances to emit greenhouse gasses; the revenues go to the states and are used to improve air quality, facilitate the development of clean energy, and help communities that have been negatively impacted by pollution and loss of jobs in fossil fuel industries.

Most Republican legislators in the state capital Harrisburg have been trying to kill RGGI for the past two years. But to prevent Governor Tom Wolf (a Democrat) from implementing RGGI, they needed the votes of a few Democratic senators and representatives in order to overturn his vetoes of their bills. In June 2021, extensive lobbying by the fossil fuel industry led six Democratic senators to join Republicans in passing Senate Bill 119, which would prevent any governor from joining the RGGI program or ever regulating CO2 without legislative approval. If these Democrats voted with Republicans again to overturn the governor’s expected veto, RGGI would be dead.

One of these six Democratic Senators represented me. Newly elected Senator John Kane had spent most of his working life in the Plumbers Union Local 690. He didn’t know much about clean energy and the climate crisis. He did know that plumbers and pipefitters had many jobs in fossil fuel power plants—and very few in solar and wind powered plants. And he was getting a lot of pressure from plumbers unions from all over Pennsylvania.

As soon as Kane won the Democratic primary in May 2020, I arranged to meet with him. I included a very knowledgeable Friend, Liz Robinson, in the meeting. This was the first of several meetings we had with him or his staff. We discussed the opportunities for thousands of good union jobs in an ultimately inevitable transition to clean energy in our state. We emphasized the fact that Pennsylvania would earn approximately $500 million from the sale of carbon allowances as part of RGGI in a year, and that the governor was committed to using much of these funds to help environmental justice communities and workers who had lost jobs in fossil-fuel industries. 

In September, these repeated contacts led to Senator Kane visiting a major work-force training program which Liz and the Philadelphia Energy Coordinating Agency had begun in 2009. Senator Kane was impressed and excited by what he saw. By November, Senator Kane and three other Democrats announced that, despite their earlier vote for Senate Bill 119, they would not vote to overturn Governor Wolf’s expected veto of this bill. Thanks to a major grassroots lobbying effort by citizens from all over the state, a vote in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives also failed to gain enough Democratic votes to kill RGGI.

As a result of Governor Wolf’s initiative and tremendous grassroots lobbying, Pennsylvania has now joined with the eleven other RGGI states to initiate the same carbon “cap and invest” program. On April 22, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued a press release stating, in part:

The Wolf Administration has finalized the regulation to combat climate change and allow Pennsylvania to participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), fulfilling a promise made in a 2019 Executive Order to take part in the market-based program.

This is great news. As a major energy-producing state, Pennsylvania’s greenhouse gas emissions are almost as high as those of the other eleven RGGI states put together. Putting a cap on these emissions, and then gradually reducing them over the coming years, is thus a really big deal. But our work is never done. The coal industry immediately sued to block RGGI. This will not prevent our state from moving forward with the RGGI regulations unless, of course, the courts find in favor of the coal interests. Many Quaker meetings are joining an amicus brief to defend the state’s action. Another risk, of course, is that Governor Wolf’s term ends in January 2023; a new governor could kill the RGGI program. Many of us will be working (as individuals, not as the PYM collaborative) to support a gubernatorial candidate who is firmly committed to keeping Pennsylvania in RGGI.

EQAT members joining the Vanguard’s Very Big Problem Campaign—an international effort led by various activists and organizers around the world, demanding that Vanguard divests from climate chaos. Photo by Corinne Austen, courtesy of EQAT.

There are so many ways that Friends can act to bring about desperately needed changes related to the climate crisis and terrible eco-injustice in communities of color around the country.

Other Examples of Local Action

This is just one example of effective political action. While state legislative action is essential, in states where legislators persist in delaying action on the climate crisis, policymaking on the municipal level is urgent. Many Philadelphia-area Friends have joined with neighbors to create a vision for healthier communities powered by 100 percent clean and renewable energy. Altogether, these efforts have led to 30 or more cities and towns in southeastern Pennsylvania passing clean energy resolutions with measurable plans and near-term actions. There are now more than 180 communities in the United States committed to ambitious goals to address the threats to residents’ health and property in the face of extreme weather and air pollution. Eight states and 11 counties have made similar commitments. 

Local government leadership has been critical to the growing movement to transition away from fossil fuels. In 2016, less than 2 percent of people in the United States lived in a place committed to 100 percent renewable energy. Today, 28 percent of U.S. residents live in a community committed to 100 percent clean energy.  While towns and cities can lead by example through passing clean-energy transition plans, most municipal governments contribute very little in the way of direct greenhouse gas emissions. The greater challenge is to engage the wider community in efforts to support four key strategies: (1) increasing energy efficiency, (2) purchasing or producing clean electrical power from renewable sources, (3) converting to electric vehicles, and (4) switching to electric power for virtually all other end uses. Friends meetings can invite local community, business, school, and religious leaders, along with parents, students, and others to develop and implement specific plans for the transition to clean and renewable energy.

Friends can also lead in resisting dangerous fossil fuel operations. In New Jersey, Medford Meeting became concerned about the plans of New Fortress Energy to ship highly explosive liquified natural gas (LNG) from Pennsylvania through neighborhoods in South Jersey. The gas would be liquefied in northern Pennsylvania; carried by trucks and trains to a terminal in Gibbstown, New Jersey; and loaded onto ships in Delaware Bay for export. The liquefied gas is under extreme pressure and highly explosive; an accident could be catastrophic. The truck and train routes would have to include passage through densely populated low-income areas and communities of color. In addition to the danger of explosions, this project creates new markets for methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas that must be kept in the ground in order to stop global warming.

Medford Meeting learned about this plan from the Pachamama Alliance, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and Food and Water Watch. The meeting began by hosting a public discussion, which was attended by 30 people. Attendees were given model resolutions opposing the project, each customized for their zip code, so they could present them to their respective municipal governments. Next, the meeting approved a resolution addressed to New Jersey Governor Murphy, joining 13 other civic and religious groups to urge him and the Army Corps of Engineers to oppose permits for the project. Meeting members then took this resolution to a meeting of their town council; they will work with the town’s Environmental Affairs Advisory Council on next steps. The resolution has also been shared with other South Jersey meetings, as well as the Eco-Justice Collaborative of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. The project has focused the energies of Medford Meeting on a concrete goal at a time when Friends are looking for practical steps toward a clean-energy economy.

A final example is Earth Quaker Action Team’s (EQAT) recent joining with a global direct-action campaign to persuade Vanguard to stop investing in fossil fuel industries. Vanguard manages over $7 trillion in assets, making it the second largest asset manager in the world. It is also the largest global investor in coal, and the second largest investor in oil and gas. It has a terrible record on climate-related shareholder resolutions. For information, Friends should check out the EQAT website. EQAT is presently asking people who have investments in Vanguard to let them know so they can organize and plan for greater collective action. Of course, any of us with retirement funds or other investments can direct our investment managers to move our money out of fossil fuel companies, and hopefully put some money into innovative clean-energy industries and products. As shareholders and account holders, we can work to change big corporations from within.

There are so many ways that Friends can act to bring about desperately needed changes related to the climate crisis and terrible eco-injustice in communities of color around the country. Of course, this includes work on policies and legislation at the federal level. It includes support for principled political candidates who commit to working for such a clean-energy future. But there are so many additional opportunities for us, as individuals and as meetings, to work in our local communities and states to move forward with this critical transition. Future generations need us to act. So let’s get active.

Bruce Birchard

Bruce Birchard is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting and served as general secretary of Friends General Conference from 1992 to 2011. He is a member of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Eco-Justice Collaborative and was assisted by several of its members in preparing this article.

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