We are not separate from our planetary home, Earth. We breathe Earth’s air into our lungs, our muscles feed off its oxygen in the blood that flows through our veins, and all that passes through us comes from sunlight, soil, and water. — Rev. Tom VandeStadt, introduction to Becoming Carbon Positive

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Churches and synagogues and other houses of faith have been involved with social justice and ecological movements for decades, and many are becoming proponents for climate action, taking up recycling and starting edible gardens.

Energy Action Team -- IEN AustinBut as faith groups move toward addressing the 21st Century crisis of climate change, they may find themselves without a clear road map.

A new manual, Becoming Carbon Positive, being released by Austin’s Interfaith Environmental Network (IEN)  in collaboration with Climate Buddies, aims to fill that vacuum.

The manual, being released at Austin’s Earth Day celebration on Saturday, will be available as a free download or in a $20 printed version. It was “community drafted” by volunteers from IEN and Climate Buddies, which helps organizations assess and reduce their carbon impact, said Chris Searles, outreach coordinator for the Interfaith Environmental Network.

The IEN, which has 15 organizational members, among them Jewish, Quaker, Zen Buddhist and protestant congregations, joined with  Climate Buddies, also based in Austin, in late 2011 to develop the action plan for faith groups.

The concept: Help churches and synagogues get their own energy action teams together and guide them in finding successful ways to reduce their carbon impact.

IEN members began with some of their own congregations, a pilot project that uncovered vast carbon savings.

The five participating congregations — All Saints Episcopal; Austin Zen Center; Central Presbyterian; First Unitarian Universalist; and Saint David’s Episcopal — saved an estimated 1 million pounds of CO2 emissions in 2012, Searles said.

Becoming Carbon Positive evolved during that process and also helped guide the faith groups’ progress. Now, in finished form, it could work as a foundational “toolbox” for any faith group wanting to address the crisis of climate change, Searles said.

“I don’t think there are too many people out there who aren’t concerned [about climate change], especially people who are concerned about ethics and the consequences of their actions,” Searles said. “There are plenty of people out there who want to do the right thing and this is a way to speak to them.”

The 58-page manual starts by recapping the faith basis for taking action against climate change, includes chapters on team building and an addendum on best practices, showcasing successful recycling, weatherizing and solar projects.

It opens with a call to action from Rev. Tom VandeStadt, pastor at the Congregational Church of Austin and co-chair of the Interfaith Environmental Network:

We are not separate from our planetary home, Earth. We breathe Earth’s air into our lungs, our muscles feed off its oxygen in the blood that flows through our veins, and all that passes through us comes from sunlight, soil, and water. We are of the Earth, and its beauty and complexity reveal deeper truths about us, and mysteries that inspire words like sacred and holy and leave us in awe. May we awaken to the ways we harm that which sustains us, and choose the journey to “heal the damage done.” May our grandchildren and their children look back upon us with love and gratitude for the choice we have made. May this manual guide us as we journey together.

Joep Meijer, co-founder of Climate Buddies, approached the Austin IEN in late 2011. Climate Buddies felt it could help organizations reduce their environmental impact, but it wanted to work with groups that were already persuaded that climate action is necessary.

Climate Buddies is an all-volunteer group and offers its services for free.

Greenhouse Gases

Becoming Carbon Positive contains some basic information on how greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels is heating the planet.

“We’re here to help you, but not to convince you,” says Meijer, a sustainability expert and environmental chemist. He explains that Climate Buddies’ philosophy is to be positive and action-oriented, in other words, to be a “buddy” to anyone who wants to seriously work on climate action.

” Anybody who wants to work on climate change, on a daily basis, we can help them,” he said. The group has kept its services free, because so far they can, and they’ve found that not asking for money has “changed the conversation” in several instances. In a meeting with the city, officials decided to help them with some printing needs, he said.

The Interfaith group seemed to be a perfect partnership, Meijer said, because it fit the Buddies’ criteria for linking up with people seeking to protect the earth but needing guidance.

For the churches trying the pilot program, Meijer and his colleagues measured the carbon imprint of all their purchasing decisions, including energy, operations and food expenditures, and then turned the information over to internal committees that hashed out ways to reduce carbon emissions.

The group sought to pin all changes the churches made to an actual carbon savings, so that the participants could project ahead to concrete goals. For example, a church could switch to a wind energy program, and instantly reduce the carbon impact of its electricity budget by around 90 percent, Meijer explained.

By making the program more concrete, the participants were able to enjoy incremental successes that could be integrated into the big picture.


Climate Buddies calls these “Victory Scenarios,” in which participants celebrate when they’ve won. Winning on the energy front, for instance, means getting to the point where the energy is clean, local and abundant, Meijer said.

This specificity is a crucial difference between the Climate Buddies and Becoming Carbon Positive approach and other green programs, he said.

“We give people tools, so they know what’s important. So it becomes ‘I do this and I get there’ ….instead of just, “I do this, it feels good.”

“All the education and the group process around this has culminated in the manual that we’re releasing on Saturday,” he said.

(To get a free download or a printed copy of Becoming Carbon Positive, contact Chris Searle at ien.outreach@gmail.com)

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