Colorado’s Religious Communities See Climate Action as a Moral Obligation

Whether fighting for clean air or affordable housing, several of the state’s faith leaders are uniting around the notion of protecting “home.”

Credit: Ericka Lugo for NRDC

On the steps of City Hall in Colorado Springs, the signs read “Fossil Fuels Desecrate Creation” and “Our Faith Is Stronger Than Big Oil.” The message of the few dozen rally-goers—practitioners of various religions, from Christianity to Buddhism to Islam to Judaism—was clear: Climate action is a moral imperative.

“Rarely do you see different religions united over a single issue, but people of conscience from all faiths are working together to protect the planet and create a more compassionate and just world,” Rev. Gail Nuth, a former United Methodist minister and one of the event’s organizers, told the Gazette (Colorado Springs).

The 2021 rally is an example of a growing interfaith alliance in Colorado committed to tackling the climate crisis through efforts that range from greening their congregations to lobbying for new state air quality laws. Active progressive communities in cities like Denver and Boulder help advance climate action, says Janel Apps Ramsey, co-director of Brew Theology, an initiative that hosts conversations about spirituality and social justice issues in Denver-area breweries. But even in traditionally conservative areas like Colorado Springs—once nicknamed the “evangelical Vatican” for its concentration of prominent evangelical Christians—people of faith are demanding that political leaders speak out against fossil fuels, protect the air they breathe, and work toward climate justice.

Across the state, many Coloradans are growing uneasy with the status quo. They endure some of the country’s worst air quality, due to a combination of fossil fuel emissions, increasing frequency and severity of wildfires, and a mountainous topography that traps pollution. Meanwhile, a housing crisis plagues Colorado’s cities, and the water levels in the Colorado River (which supplies drinking water to 40 million people) continue to decline. “We have a lot of people that are already really aware of the intersectionality of the problems that we face in this world,” Ramsey says, “and that opens the door to doing some really solid work on climate.”

Together Colorado leaders and staff at a rally in Denver for climate justice in August 2021
Credit: Together Colorado

Climate justice is housing justice

Between 2010 and 2020, Colorado’s population grew by nearly 15 percent—about double the nation’s average. In cities like Denver and Boulder, housing prices are sky-high while availability is plummeting. Only about 48 percent of white Colorado residents can afford to buy an average-priced home in the state (versus 63 percent of white Americans nationwide), but the housing crisis is hitting communities of color even harder, with only 30 percent of Black and 32 percent of Latino Coloradans being able to purchase a home (compared with national rates of 43 and 54 percent, respectively). To compensate, people, particularly in places like the Denver metro area or in mountain communities, must move farther and farther from city centers. The result? Longer commutes—translating to more driving and congestion, leading to ongoing expansion projects of Interstate 70 and other roadways, which will, in turn, exacerbate air quality issues. (Environmental advocates, including Colorado faith groups, who spoke out against expanding Interstate 25 through central Denver were relieved in September when Colorado scrapped the project and then reallocated $100 million toward bus-, bike-, and pedestrian-friendly transit improvements.)

Pastor Josue Rubio of Centro Cristiano Vida Nueva, an Assemblies of God church located just outside the ski resort town of Vail, sees these struggles firsthand among his largely Latino congregants. Rents are so high that multiple families share homes meant for one; can afford to live only in older, lower-quality housing stock; or live so far out they’re driving an hour or more to work—sometimes in treacherous winter conditions on steep mountain roads. Housing insecurity leaves them more vulnerable to other extreme weather events that plague the state, too, be it increasing droughts or intensifying wildfires that are becoming commonplace. And unpredictable weather in turn puts vulnerable homes at risk, leading to further displacement and the likelihood of low-income communities like his becoming trapped in poverty. Rubio calls attention to these issues in an effort to make housing more equitable and offer some human dignity to peoples’ living situations. The pastor and his congregants are also on a faith-driven mission to help protect the area’s natural surroundings, especially the Colorado River, which runs northwest of Vail. He leads Colorado efforts for Por La Creación, a faith-based alliance of Latinos across the country committed to environmental stewardship.

The links between inequality and climate change are on the minds of other Colorado faith leaders, too. Together Colorado, a Denver-based coalition of 220 congregations and religious leaders, sent an informational sheet to state legislators on its priority issues. The document—which it calls a covenant—states, “No matter what we look like, how much is in our wallets, or where we come from, everyone deserves a safe, stable place to call home.” The covenant letter goes on to say, “Housing is a human need; home is a human right.”

Climate and land-use policy, after all, are very much intertwined. Alana Miller, NRDC’s director of Colorado climate policy, says that faith-based advocacy has played a role in pushing climate progress in the state. “It's an interesting time right now where we have alignment among a broad swath of activists while Colorado wants to put forward something pretty visionary, too.” In September, Governor Jared Polis laid out a vision to address the housing crisis by encouraging cities to allow denser housing near transit lines. And in June, the Colorado legislature passed HB22-1304, a bill supported by NRDC that creates grant programs dedicated to affordable housing and sustainable land use.

Together Colorado leader Sharon Battle addressing the crowd at a post-election press conference in November 2020
Credit: Together Colorado

The power of faith-based action

Climate change is already wreaking havoc in Colorado, but acknowledging its urgency and addressing its cause, the burning of fossil fuels, aren’t a given in the state. Take some recent competitive political candidates, for example, several of whom claimed humanity’s contribution to climate change is still up for debate. (It’s not.) The fossil fuel industry also wields an enormous amount of power in Colorado, where oil and gas drilling is widespread.

But faith-driven individuals and groups can play a unique role reaching people on these issues. Sam Gilchrist, NRDC’s Denver-based deputy national outreach director, says the religious leaders he has worked with are well respected in their communities and offer valuable perspectives in the fight against climate change. They also tend to represent more diverse populations than their climate-denying peers. “We need to help elevate their voices more to push back on that opposition,” he says. “They speak from a place of authority, good authority, and that’s not as included in the broader climate conversation as it should be.”

Together Colorado, which has been doing intersectional justice work for more than four decades, has engaged on climate largely through a volunteer committee of clergy, but it is intent on bringing more people of faith along. The group has reason to be hopeful: According to a poll conducted last year by Politico/Morning Consult, 60 percent of the country’s Christians and more than 70 percent of those identifying with other religions consider congressional action on climate a top or important priority.

When people of faith speak out about something, it tends to command a certain respect and attention, notes Sarah Hautzinger, an anthropology professor at Colorado College and a co-organizer of last fall’s Colorado Springs rally. “People’s faith,” she says, “can often occupy a kind of higher ground in terms of morals and ethics, and there’s real potential there.” Often what’s guiding their activism is a sense of duty to care for creation, as well as for humans, especially the most vulnerable among us.

Cantor and activist Moshe Kornfeld, a former academic who started Colorado Jewish Climate Action, agrees. “When you come as religious groups, as faith groups, it’s different from the usual suspects who are showing up,” he says. “I think the more different voices that arrive at the State Capitol and talk to state representatives saying this is really, really important to us, the better. They are going to pay attention.”

Religious leaders also have the power to reach members of their communities who aren’t engaged in environmental activism. “In any given congregation, you may have people on both sides of the climate issue,” says Ramsey, who notes that many congregants across Colorado have ties to the oil and gas industry. “We always want to open the table up to anyone who’s interested, and we try to build bridges with those where it might be a little more of a challenge.” That’s where a congregation’s “Green Team” may step in. On top of starting conversations and providing educational materials about climate change, the teams initiate smaller projects around recycling and composting, energy efficiency, and community gardens to encourage parishioners to get involved in whatever way they feel most comfortable.

Credit: Together Colorado’s activist work is intersectional. Here, leaders are celebrating a legislative victory after a bill to reform the discriminatory police practice known as a "showup" was signed into law in August 2021. Together Colorado led this bill from beginning to end after a member’s son was unjustly arrested. Together Colorado

Lindsay Garcia, a Denver resident who runs communications for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action and its parent organization, Evangelical Environmental Network, says a big part of her work involves starting climate conversations in churches and on Christian college campuses. “People don’t always expect the connection between an evangelical and the environment,” she says. “But for the most part, when people discover that we exist, they’re excited to get involved and they know other Christians who would be, too.”

The next step for faith leaders is to harness that interest into activism and, eventually, policy change. In Together Colorado’s case, that meant a 30-minute Zoom conversation with Governor Polis in late 2020. Ramsey says the event, attended by some 200 people from the network, sent a strong message that climate action is important to Coloradans of faith. The group has also supported legislation like HB22-1244, Public Protections from Toxic Air Contaminants, which increases air quality monitoring and regulates nearly 200 pollutants not covered under the Clean Air Act. Governor Polis signed the bill into law at the beginning of June despite strong opposition from the oil and gas industry.

People from all faiths are eager to take a stand on issues that will help their communities thrive, Ramsey says. “The power of interfaith action on climate is that we bring all of our traditions to the table and all of our love of our home—our shared home—and that that’s what we're working for.”

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