When I was growing up, Christians regularly concerned themselves with developing disciples, missionary service and caring for the poor. While those are bedrocks of the faith, Christians are called to so much more. While we are saved by grace, we cannot ignore the issues confronting humanity.
One of the most pressing areas people of faith must concern themselves with today is creation care, which is stewardship and nourishment of all that God has created. Mindful focus on God’s creation, including identifying and eradicating threats to our sacred home is a necessity. If we are not actively and intentionally working to address threats to our environment, we are missing an enormous opportunity. That is why United Women in Faith used its annual convention, held in May during Clean Air Month, to urge state and federal legislators to take action to ensure clean air.
When more than 1800 members of United Women in Faith convened in Orlando for the organization’s assembly, May 20-22, we launched a postcard campaign to our respective senators and governors. The campaign is sponsored by United Women in Faith and the Breathe Again Collaborative.
We are telling elected officials that we want investments in clean renewable energy and clean transportation, especially for electric vehicle school buses which affect children’s health. We urge them to pass legislation funding more clean energy. We are specifically asking governors to support climate justice funding by working to access federal funds.
Why? Of all issues we can focus on, why this?
There are few aspects of creation care as significant as addressing air pollution. While focusing on challenges to the environment is the right thing to do, it is also the moral thing to do. That’s because quality air is essential to maintaining and protecting the public’s health. Air pollution kills an estimated seven million people worldwide every year. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) data shows that almost all of the global population (99%) breathe air that exceeds WHO guideline limits and contains high levels of pollutants, with low- and middle-income countries suffering from the highest exposures. How can we expect to live healthy lives when we are breathing dirty air?
According to WHO, air pollution is contamination of the indoor or outdoor environment by any chemical, physical or biological agent that modifies the atmosphere’s natural characteristics. Vehicle exhaust, household combustion devices, industrial facilities, pollen, mold, dust and even forest fires are common air pollutants. Pollutants of major public health concern include particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Outdoor and indoor air pollution cause respiratory and other diseases and increase mortality risks.
What’s more, the impact of dirty air is not evenly felt. Air pollution, like so many other things, disproportionately impacts communities of color, persons living in poverty and persons in urban communities. Those communities are least responsible for air pollution even though they suffer disproportionately because of it. The American Lung Association noted that due to decades of residential segregation, African Americans tend to live in heavier traffic areas, leaving them more exposed to pollutants from traffic. Additionally, if one thinks about the tools that facilitated white flight from urban areas, it was our transportation system, with highways ripping apart communities. Those living near highways are more likely to breath dirty air.
Even when one controls for socioeconomic status and geography, people of color in the U.S. still breathe more particulate air pollution on average, according to a study by researchers at the Environmental Protection Agency-funded Center for Air, Climate, and Energy Solutions. “The findings expand a body of evidence showing that African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and other people of color are disproportionately exposed to a regulated air pollutant called fine particulate matter (PM2.5).” Additionally, exposure to PM2.5 can cause lung and heart problems, especially for those with chronic disease, younger people, older people and other more vulnerable populations, according to Science Advances.
Those are areas that Christians cannot and should not ignore. Because we must concern ourselves with the challenges of this world, the climate emergency is critically important. We do have hope in a variety of policy proposals.
In November 2021, President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act became law. It includes provisions for environment-related investments in processes such as more electric charging stations, accessible public transportation and addressing extreme weather due to climate change. Additionally, the Build Back Better Act earmarks $555 billion toward renewable energy and transportation incentives. Although the bill has yet to go into law, we must remain diligent in urging our elected leaders to vote in favor of it.
Ultimately, there is an urgent need to transition to renewable energy that prioritizes public health for frontline communities, women and children, communities of color and workers for whom the current energy economy has impacted their health and livelihood. But we cannot make progress unless we see this as part of our Christian duty. I’m clear that it is; I invite you to join me in expanding our understanding of what we are called to do today, tomorrow and into the future.