Cathedral Thinking: Can Houses of Worship Become Beacons of Sustainability?

"Cathedral thinking" refers to deep dedication to a complex endeavor that will outlive its architects. Today, it's imperative to apply this philosophy to climate change -- a threat that's taken centuries to create and requires unprecedented, strategic engagement to resolve.
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Notre Dame de Paris took 182 years to build. No less than 140 years of construction passed before the Duomo in Florence was finally complete. Accordingly, "cathedral thinking" refers to deep dedication to a complex endeavor that will outlive its architects. Today, it's imperative to apply this philosophy to the global crisis of climate change -- a threat that has taken centuries to create and will require unprecedented, strategic engagement of mankind to resolve.

With the science of climate change no longer up for debate, the call to action is immediate. Leaders from Bill Clinton to Bill Gates have pushed for government, industry, and civil society to combat climate change as its impact on our nation begins to intensify. One of the most direct ways to affect climate change is to choose clean energy sources, including solar power, over ones that emit greenhouse gases.

As they have across the centuries, houses of worship stand ready to heal our wounds. Decades ago in America, we witnessed African-American churches stand valiantly at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Today, we face a crisis that threatens the success of all civil and spiritual missions, regardless of color or creed. Using solar power, the more than 300,000 houses of worship across America can empower both their rooftops and their communities through sustainability.

Cathedral thinking calls for collaborations between diverse partners. The Solar Foundation, a charitable research and education nonprofit, has joined forces with Reverend Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition, one of the most prominent religious networks in the country, to raise awareness and use of clean, affordable solar energy within faith-based communities. With the help of Clinton Global Initiative America, the new Solar Faith and Empowerment Initiative will provide assistance to religious leaders in understanding the benefits of solar energy to their communities and the earth.

There are strong economic benefits for religious communities to become more sustainable. As energy bills rise -- and houses of worship, like other facilities, struggle to keep the doors open -- solar energy can reduce costs. As corporations such as IKEA and Walmart, known for shrewd business models, and the U.S. Defense Department, with its needed security and reliability, rapidly adopt solar energy solutions, why can't houses of worship?

While some faith-based communities are moving on solar, the speed of action needs to match the urgency of the climate challenge. Champions such as BlocPower founder Donnel Baird, carrying out a commitment through Clinton Global Initiative University to retrofit churches and other buildings in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Washington, D.C., are leading the way. In fact, after working with BlocPower, six Catholic schools are now hiring three teachers with the money saved from lower energy bills.

Some faith leaders have imbued this call to climate action with a biblical obligation of good stewardship of the earth. With its "Carbon Covenant," Interfaith Power and Light exemplifies the deep connection between the sacred and profane in the fight against global warming. Sadly, most religious communities lack the resources, capacity or understanding of a viable path to sustainability that doesn't require sacrificing core missions of faith. In truth, sustainability enables enhancement of such missions, not their sacrifice. The Solar Faith and Empowerment Initiative seeks to make the path to success in both missions of faith and overcoming climate change easier to follow. The road must be more understandable, but also self-sustaining -- which is why, with the help of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, we're strategically building relationships with those communities of faith that can inspire others to take action.

Reversing the consequences of climate change won't happen overnight. But then again, cathedral thinking, like spiritual leadership, is not about instant rewards. It's about giving future generations the opportunity to lead sustainable, spiritual lives -- and the chance to care for the earth centuries from now, when dirty energy is in the history books, alongside Michelangelo and Wren.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Clinton Global Initiative in recognition of the latter's fourth meeting of CGI America (June 23-25, 2014, in Denver). CGI America convenes business, government, and civil society leaders each year to make commitments boosting the economic recovery and long-term competitiveness of the United States. For more information, click here.

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