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Evangelicals Call for Clean Air in Ohio

Cleveland, Ohio. Photo: Stephen Leonardi

For years, Ohio’s slogan was “The Heart of It All” and brands and politicians alike have flocked to the state for what is considered America’s test market. Polls consistently reflect a state divided nearly down the middle when it comes to party politics and conservative-moderate-liberal identifications, but united in a shared sense of values around God, country, social responsibility, and stewardship of the land and its resources. There’s a midwest practicality that infuses the culture, so much so that issues like environmental regulations to protect clean air seem more like common sense than politics. But politicians in the state have not historically supported such common sense measures and now 53,000 evangelicals are asking Governor Mike DeWine and Ohio lawmakers to walk the walk in moving Ohio to 100% clean energy by 2030. They say that anti-abortion lawmakers need to match their vote with their conviction: “Pollution harms the unborn, causing damage that lasts a lifetime.” 

Their call is backed by years of studies showing the dangerous impact of fossil-fuel pollution on infant and child development. According to the World Health Organization, children under five make up ten percent of the world’s population, but they suffer 40 percent of all environment-related disease. They also experience 88 percent of disease linked to our changing climate, partly due to their immune systems not being developed enough to protect irritants or toxins. Hydrocarbons found in the air around fossil-fuel plants are linked to impaired brain development, lower IQs, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, all of which can begin in the womb as the mother breathes polluted air. Studies conducted in tandem from Europe to the US to China show air pollution causing babies to be born prematurely and underweight, hampering their development and setting them up for a lifetime of health risks including heart disease. Four of Ohio’s major cities are in the top 20 Asthma Capitals of the United States, with Cleveland ranking 5th on the annual list of 100. A recent study projects that as America shifts to renewable energy, the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions will experience the most significant improvements in physical health and economic growth. 

A healthy environment equals a healthy economy. Before the COVID-19 shutdown, clean energy jobs represented twelve times more jobs than the state’s fossil fuel industry, at 114,000, with a growth rate four times that of Ohio’s overall employment. Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, National Organizer and Spokesperson for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action says these jobs were “almost entirely market-driven,” and in the pandemic economy, evangelicals are calling for lawmakers to step up and save 20,000 clean energy jobs lost during COVID, and boost the growth of an industry that will support Ohio’s economy and health of its citizens for years to come.

The petition delivered by Evangelical Environmental Network on July 16, “shows that Christian conservatives move beyond politics when it comes to protecting God’s creation,” Pastor Dean Van Farowe of Calvary Reformed Church in Cleveland told Energy News. This is not the first time Christians in the state have stood up for clean energy as a means of stewardship and creation care. But the petition is timely in that it came just days before the Department of Justice alleged that Ohio Speaker of the House Larry Householder took $60 million in bribes to help power company First Energy obtain a $1.3 billion bailout for aging nuclear power plants. The Ohio House Select Committee on Energy Policy and Oversight is currently holding hearings on Householder’s controversial energy bill HB6, passed in 2019. Meyaard-Schaap hopes legislators will read the proverbial writing on the wall. He told us: 

“The question of clean energy and strong pollution standards, like so many other common sense policy decisions, have become victims of the polarization of our time. To date, the majority of Ohio legislators have simply followed the conventional political wisdom that their constituents are as polarized as the headlines say. But a petition like this has the potential to break through that political echo chamber and reveal important insight about the true feelings of Ohio voters.” 

While it may be complicated to gauge the true feelings of Ohio voters, twenty-nine percent of Ohio adults identify as evangelical Christian and in studies conducted by Yale and George Mason University from 2008 to 2018, three-quarters of Ohioans said they favor policies that would regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, maintaining a majority in each of the state’s 88 counties, even those rooted in coal mining and natural gas production. Two-thirds of Ohians statewide support higher taxation for fossil fuel companies and strict carbon dioxide limits on existing fossil-fuel powered plants. A 2019 Public Opinion Strategies poll asked 400 Republicans and independent voters in Ohio who identify as conservatives: “If it were up to you, what percent of Ohio’s electricity would come from renewable sources like wind and solar power?” Two-thirds said they would like to see at least half of Ohio’s electricity sourced from renewables.

As Meyaard-Schaap told us: “When it comes to caring for God’s creation and loving our neighbors through clean energy policy and climate action, our task is the same: to practice being Jesus to each other. To offer others the respect and dignity they deserve as image bearers of God. And the thing is, when we listen with respect and an ear toward someone’s values and motivations, we actually make more progress on policy because we are able to establish common ground and identify solutions that resonate with that person’s particular worldview.” He went on, “Our task as Christians is to help others see past the arbitrary partisan divisions and see themselves in the work of building a cleaner, brighter, healthy future.”

It remains to be seen whether Ohioans will appeal to their better angels and land on common ground, but in the words of the state motto, “With God, all things are possible.” 

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