In a society increasingly driven by science and technology, world religions and the communities they inspire remain a vast and rock-solid political force. Going by the numbers alone, Pew Research Center estimated in 2015 that there were over 5 billion people of faith in our contemporary world, belonging to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faith-based cosmologies, including Indigenous and Native belief systems. Despite their outsized influence on so many aspects of our personal, social, and political lives, religious thinking and morality don’t have a strong foothold in debates over a number of critical issues confronting our world today, including climate change and environmental justice, consumer capitalism, and solidarity struggles.
In this four-part series, host and climate correspondent Aman Azhar shines a light on how faith-based cosmologies inform and influence our political conduct, even in the most intimate of ways. These interdisciplinary conversations with thought leaders from different faith groups explore the intersections of religion and the politics of climate change. What sort of political actions do—and can—these worldviews inspire? Do the gods and followers of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism have a say in the future of our warming planet? If the answer is a resounding “Yes,” then why can’t we hear their voices more in popular media? Have they been muted? If so, why (and by whom)?
In Part 4 of “Faith and the Fight Against Climate Change,” Aman Azhar engages Codi Norred—director of Interfaith Power and Light—a national nonprofit working with hundreds of congregations and faith organizations across America “to save energy, go green and respond to climate change.” The conversation ponders how faith ties into the quest for sustainable living and whether there’s a consensus between various faith groups in the United States on tackling the climate emergency. Norred argues faith groups are uniquely situated as organizations that think about morality as a way of being and caring for the neighbors and the planet. But the question remains if the faith has enough pull on the faithful given the competition from science, consumer culture and wholesale media punditry.
Aman Azhar: Hello and welcome to another round of conversation here on the Real News Network. I’m your host, Aman Azhar. And my guest today is a Program Director at the Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, Mr. Codi Norred. It’s a nonprofit organization, mobilizing faith communities for environmental action. Thank you, Mr. Norred for taking out time and speaking with us today.
Codi Norred: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Aman Azhar: Okay, so let me fire away with my first question. Could you give us a sense of what the Interfaith Power and Light is about and how matters of faith, power the work that you do?
Codi Norred: Sure. So Georgia Interfaith Power and Light has been around for about 16 years, mobilizing and inspiring congregations within Georgia to take part in faithful environmental action. So that both means educating congregations theologically, so that from their faith background they have the moral foundation to propel them into environmental work. That’s what sustains that work for faith communities.
But then also have the practical tools to engage in a systemic policy action, to engage in community action around actually achieving solutions. So that can be as simple as energy efficiency, water efficiency, solar onsite. It can be as complex as trying to do coastal policy around offshore drilling or addressing energy burden in cities across Georgia.
Aman Azhar: Great. Do you think there’s enough consensus between the various faith groups in the United States that climate justice and climate crisis is the single most important issue of our time?
Codi Norred: Oh, that’s a good one. I don’t think so necessarily, but I think that all of the major faiths within the United States and the world have the potential to see that as one of the most important issues of our time. The environment is not only set up to be one of the places that God interacts with the world the most and holy texts and traditions, but it also is an incredibly intersectional issue.
So if you want to talk about environmental justice, you want to talk about racial justice, you want to talk about migration and immigration. All of those things have to do with the environment and climate change at large, or resource depletion and mismanagement across the world. So the potential both on the religious grounds to have it as a theological tenet is there. And then also as a social tenat, especially for faith groups that are more organized and in touch with social action as a part of their faith.
Aman Azhar: Yeah, okay. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that, is there that urgency knowing that today we have a global pandemic ravaging the planet, which in so many ways is tied to these extractive practices of our times. So is that sense of urgency that you see beyond the potential to do something more?
Codi Norred: Absolutely. I’d say it varies from congregation to congregation. But across the nation, we obviously have, and we have about 35 Interfaith Power and Light affiliates in different states, all of whom have congregations leading the charge in their states on extractive industries. From natural gas, fracking to oil pipelines, to CAFOs and the way that we do farming, to nuclear disposal, we have offshore drilling, we have energy burning, which I talked about. And I think that faith groups are uniquely situated as organizations that think about morality as a way of being, and treating neighbors and planet as something that is holy work to do so.
I say a lot here in Georgia, that the more energy that we use here, we kill our neighbors faster because of the types of energy that we produce and the way that we dispose of. And I think faith groups understand, that they have a tenet not only to love God, but also usually have a tenant to care for neighbor and to care for community. And I think that they are on the front lines of that struggle, especially here in Georgia.
Aman Azhar: So despite all this hard work, Codi, that you mentioned, why is it that this consensus failed to manifest in the political choices that we make nationally? I mean, we have a political administration which is firing up coal energy and dismissing climate crisis as a hoax.
Codi Norred: Right, so I think something that is often hard to get people to understand is that in a society in which people are already stressed and burdened for a number of reasons, especially when it comes to climate change and environmental injustice, that those processes and systems I think are intentionally designed to be complex, hard to understand, hidden, hard to see, hard to find. And so I think when people are exposed to those issues in a way that they can see how it’s actually affecting them in their communities, they can actually see how it’s affecting their state, as opposed to a nebulous idea about climate change or a nebulous idea about fossil fuel industry.
But when they see it ravaging their coasts or they see it poisoning their neighbors through coal ash ponds, or they see it contaminating their rivers and their waters, then I think they actually start to pay attention more because it’s all about experience. They have to experience it. I think it’s hard when it’s such a nebulous idea for people to get a hold of what’s actually going on.
Aman Azhar: And do you-
Codi Norred: And I think that utilities generally play a very important part in state infrastructure and jobs, especially in rural parts of states. And so those are the lifeblood of different parts of the state. And so I think people fear that there may not be a just transition in the way that we might hope for, for the people who are employed by the fossil fuel industry, for the types of money that that pumps into different parts of the state and the nation.
Aman Azhar: So in the middle of all these myriad of issues and complexities, what kind of clarity does faith bring? Do you think faith has enough pull these days, having competition by Disney and Netflix and Amazon and everything like that?
Codi Norred: Well, I’ll speak for the Southeast in particular. I think the Southeastern part of the United States is uniquely faith-based. I mean, especially Christian roots in the Southeast still hold a lot of pull and people design their lives around that moral fabric, either subconsciously or consciously. And so I do think that those moral values bring a lot to the table sometimes for supporting our cause, sometimes for not.
But I think the challenge is to get into the discourse about theology and about faith to demonstrate why caring for neighbor, caring about environmental justice, caring about the planet, is actually an embedded foundation of what it means to be faithful. And I think that what faith can do that a lot of other ideas can’t do, is there’s a long history of what it means to be prophetic. What it means to stand up to injustices. What it means to scream in the middle of the town square and for no one to hear you, but to speak that truth over and over. To call attention to the destruction and the injustices, to hold people to account. That’s what faith calls people to do, is to move into the world and to challenge injustice and to try to make that difference.
Aman Azhar: And how do you think that Georgia IPL is trying to connect with the larger national political discourse with the grassroots activism that you’re doing on a day-to-day basis?
Codi Norred: That’s right. Yes, so we start from building power from the grassroots. Getting people to speak for themselves and their congregations and their communities, and get an understanding of how these environmental issues are coming to bear exactly where they are. Now after that, we try to give them tools and demonstrate how being engaged in the system is actually what’s necessary. Because a lot of these utilities span several states, a lot of the issues that we have, span several states. So while we might get a victory in one state, it could mean a loss in another, if we’re not paying attention to what each other’s doing. We have to be both as specific as possible at the grassroots level, so that people are really doing what they need to do for their community and being able to use their voice. But also being able to pay attention to what’s going on nationally.
I personally think that right now, especially in the Southeast, we have a lot more potential in our cities and our states to do some things on the ground and at the more local level, that the federal government can’t actually regulate. And we can actually make some really huge strides without having to be so concerned necessarily with what’s going on on the national stage. We can actually take that power at the local level to make the changes that we want to see.
Aman Azhar: And could you also touch a little bit upon the political advocacy work-
Codi Norred: Sure.
Aman Azhar: … that you’re doing, especially in terms of influencing the legislatures? Because we see that when it comes to Congress, it’s just as divided and incapable of any action. So how do you come around that?
Codi Norred: That’s right. So here we do a lot at the state legislature, and a lot of that work has to do with clean water issues and environmental justice issues. I think at the end of the day, no matter where people are on the spectrum, they want clean air and they want clean water. And there are effective measures that can be taken to ensure that that’s the case for the communities that everybody lives in. I think that’s a bipartisan issue. We’re a nonpartisan organization and people want clean water.
So I think when it comes to coal ash, especially, which is a huge problem here. In a lot of cases, those are both coal ash ponds in cities. Those are coal ash ponds in rural counties that’s leaching into the groundwater and poisoning all of those people. And I think when that case is brought to the surface, people really pay attention to those issues. I would say the same for the coast. We work a lot on offshore drilling with our partners, Oceana and One Hundred Miles, a lot in that area. And when people are threatened on their coast where their homes are, then they begin to understand what some of the problems with offshore drilling might be like and whether it’s really worth the risk.
So I think it’s all drilling down to being able to have some examples about what is actually happening, where we live in our state, showing that and bringing it to the surface. How that then connects with the people that we serve and we love, and then providing some practical solutions forward. So not only saying, “Hey, this is a problem,” but actually, “Hey, this is a different way of thinking about it and a more productive solution.”
Aman Azhar: And do you think you’re also influencing the ultra right-wing religious groups because they tie into the political circle as well. And it’s a lot of powers that at least this administration is showing, is from the ultra right-wing groups.
Codi Norred: Sure. Yeah. I mean, it’s complicated, the intersection of faith and politics is complicated, especially in the South. And I think, I try not to get too caught up in what we might call the right-wing or people on the left. What I would say is that, even for the most conservative people that we work with or exist in our nation, a lot of those people still have some faith tenets that drive them that are really important. And I think what has to be done is to come to the table and to demonstrate why actually, because of the faith that those people already have, why they actually already care about the environment and their neighbor. And there are different ways to think about it and move them towards action.
So it doesn’t have to be a, “Oh, this is a liberal issue because they’re very concerned about climate and we don’t believe in that.” What it becomes is, now this is about taking care of our neighbors, taking care of our children, taking care of our land and water resources that are holy, that are God entrusted to human beings to take care of. And I think that those types of arguments get at the morality foundation, which is really what helps people make decisions and move in these justice realms. It’s not really about throwing facts back and forth. It’s about tapping into what do you care about and why do you care about it. And I think that some of the foundations are there religiously to make that happen.
Aman Azhar: Right. Do we really need God to tell us how to care for the planet?
Codi Norred: Oh, I don’t think so. Not necessarily. But I think for people who believe in a God, regardless of their tradition, that it is difficult to be faithful without caring for the environment and caring for people. So I’m not super interested in proselytizing God per se, but I think that it’s pretty difficult to believe in a God and not also care for the environment as a major tenet of that religion and also care for people.
Aman Azhar: Well, then we don’t really understand why we are in a situation that we are today. And I guess this also brings me to my last point, which is how does this pandemic and climate urgency shape your work going forward?
Codi Norred: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a lot of good work happening here. I think the pandemic highlights some injustices that we already knew existed, and I think are showing them in different ways to different people. It shows a light on the way that we treat our environment and deforestation. It sheds a light on our food systems, which is some things that we already knew about. And it demonstrates how seriously we really need to be taking this.
It isn’t a thing where, “Oh, there are island nations who will experience the brunt of climate change. There are nations who are less wealthy who will experience the problems with climate change.” This demonstrates that no one is safe. The same way that no one has saved from this pandemic, no matter how much money you have or where you think you live in the world, the reality is that it will still get to you. And the same is true for climate change. That those, what that will do to the world and to people, will spill over in ways that we can’t predict. And it’s very serious.
Aman Azhar: Well, this brings us to the end of this conversation. Thank you, Mr. Codi Norred, for your time and sharing all the brilliant work that Georgia Interfaith Power and Light is doing in the United States. And thank you again. Goodbye for now and be well.