In order to build a broader coalition of supporters and increase the rate of deployment for renewables, the clean energy industry needs to put more money towards consumer education and grassroots communication. To do this, they should start with mobilizing people of faith.
Despite dramatic reductions in cost and a surge in clean energy deployment, the industry still faces strong opposition and must combat negative stereotypes about cost and reliability. Recent events like the expiration of the net metering tariff in Nevada and the Renewable Portfolio Standard freeze in Ohio serve as reminder that policy support for the industry is far from certain. Clean energy’s viability is all too contingent on indeterminate financial prospects and shifting political agendas, and this uncertainty is holding clean energy back from achieving its full potential.
A lack of strong political backing is due in large part to the unpopularity of climate change as an underlying motivation for clean energy expansion. Traditional climate change advocacy has relied on fear of impending doom. For this reason, historical grassroots organizing on clean energy has come through Big Green organization, whose message often reaches only a self-selecting choir of environmentalists.
Clean energy has survived so far by being innovative in its approach and its technologies. It needs to be innovative in its politics, too. If the industry invested in broader grassroots movement-building and consumer education, we could create a base of knowledgeable, motivated voters and buyers to advocate for clean energy locally.
We need to start by investing in communities of faith.
Effective change holds a tension between fear and hope. In the pursuit of this paradigmatic shift, faith communities and clean energy are natural allies. To the fear of climate change, clean energy answers with hope. The prophetic vision with which faith leaders are so conversant renders clean energy solutions to climate change a beacon of hope for voters.
Further, in a hyperpolarized political climate, faith communities are one of the few remaining trans-partisan spaces. Synagogues, churches, and mosques are sites where Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and Socialists come together to express shared values that inform their varied political identities. As traditional faith-based voting blocs fracture, this mixed partisanship in religious communities is more true than it ever has been before, creating ample opportunity from the inclusion of clean energy as in line with faith values.
And today’s evangelicals are not the Religious Right that Ted Cruz would have had us believe. In fact, Cruz’s demise (and Trump’s rise to power through the Republican primary) is evidence of a political splintering among evangelical Christians. While historically evangelicals voted as a bloc on a strict “family values” agenda, the story is now more multi-faceted. Evangelicals have been slowly shifting left on marriage equality, climate change, and other traditionally ‘progressive’ issues over the past decade. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 23% of millennial evangelicals identified as political progressives.
While this trend is making more family holidays uncomfortable, it also presents an opportunity for dialogue and mobilization across lines of faith instead of party. In a world where Democrats and Republicans don’t even watch news at the same time, faith communities stand alone as a space for those with differing politics to come together to engage in civil discussion of our nation’s biggest challenges.
The good news is that this mobilization work is already happening. Religious leaders from a variety of faith backgrounds have become vocal advocates for renewable efforts. Their messaging is a far cry from historic environmentalists. The Evangelical Environmental Network is running a “pro-life equal whole life” clean energy campaign, engaging it’s traditionally Republican base in clean energy education and advocacy. This is not just a movement coming from a marginal Religious Left. The campaign draws on the pro-life tradition that has fought against abortion rights to argue for clean air and clean energy. This is a pro-life stance consistent with the position taken by the Catholic Church, one that opposes abortion and abolishing the death penalty and, in the same breath, supports establishing a new economy without fossil fuels.
Recently, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life created the Jewish Energy Guide and an Earth Justice Passover Haggadah, to begin mobilizing American Jews across the political spectrum. We’re not alone in this work: In over forty states, Interfaith Power and Light works with local communities, utility companies, and state legislatures to push for renewable policies and solar implementation in homes and houses of worship.
Together, the clean energy industry and people of faith could inspire a powerful grassroots advocacy coalition to drive smarter energy policymaking and safeguard the industry. Faith leaders are ready and waiting.
Liya Rechtman is the Manager of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) and a Policy Associate of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. She is a Fellow of the Clean Energy Leadership Institute (CELI), a D.C. based 503(c)(3) professional development organization for young energy professionals.