How a Group of Nuns Is Taking the Lead on Climate Action

In the sleepy town of Nazareth, Kentucky, a revolution is brewing. And it's being led by a tough band of women in their 80s.

Nazareth is the headquarters of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Their mission has spread from Kentucky to Belize, Nepal, Botswana and India where the Sisters of Charity have established missions, schools and hospitals.

It will come as no surprise, especially to Catholics, that these sisters have dedicated themselves to the betterment of the poor. What came as a surprise to me was that they now consider planet Earth to be one of the poor.

You heard right. The sisters—whose average age is 82—realize the Earth is about as desperate as a homeless drug addict. Cataclysmic floods, loss of crops and loss of endangered species are all predicted outcomes of climate change. They know climate change is real, and now they're taking action.

That's why they have declared their intent to make all their residences, schools, hospitals and other services across the globe carbon-neutral in the years to come. Their goals for sustainability put most multinational corporations to shame.

"They’re pretty badass," says Carolyn Cromer, the woman hired by the sisters to be their director of ecological sustainability.

At a recent meeting of the Louisville Sustainability Forum, Cromer explained how the sisters became environmental activists.

It started in 1995 when they got together to create a mission statement. Part of that statement was "care for the Earth."

In time, that commitment manifested as solar panels on the Nazareth campus, energy efficient windows on their historic buildings and on-demand water heaters. Having done their research, they're buying electric zero-turn motor lawn mowers, basically the lawnmower equivalents of a Tesla.

They're also in the process of converting all their lighting, both inside and out, to LED lighting, which is up to 80 percent more efficient than traditional fluorescent or incandescent lights.

In India, they practice water capture and sequester cow manure for conversion to biogas, which they use to cook their meals.

They also harvest and use rainwater. One of their hospitals in India is 70 percent powered by solar energy, captured in batteries.

Last July, the sisters got together again, and decided that caring for the Earth meant they had to get to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2037 in the United States and Belize and 2047 in the other countries. Cromer notes that this goal is aligned both with United Nations recommendations on addressing climate change and with the Paris Agreement.

In addition to that ambitious goal, the sisters are also going zero-waste. That required an assessment of their trash. "We opened up trash cans and weighed things," said Cromer.

They have established recycling stations for eight categories of waste, and they’re brainstorming how to establish composting in individual sisters' apartments.

One of the order’s resources is its many acres of land, located in missions across five countries. They are sowing native plants, which benefit wildlife, birds and bees. They are restoring vegetative buffers on their lakes and streams. And they are looking into creating conservation easements to protect natural resources on their land for perpetuity.

"They walk the talk in a way that is really humbling," says Cromer.

The Sisters of Charity's "green team" is a subgroup of nuns particularly passionate about fulfilling their zero-emissionn goals. They engaged the University of Kentucky to teach them how to conduct their own energy audits. Once the audits are complete, the goal is to look at the order’s energy consumption and ask "How can we...winnow that down?” Cromer says.

None of this is pie in the sky. The sisters are well aware that transportation, the leading contributor to climate change, poses an obstacle. They drive an average of 6,000 miles a year, each. That’s not a lot of mileage, comparatively, but "there are a lot of them," Cromer observes. They've bought one all-electric vehicle and one plug-in hybrid, and they're learning to drive them.

"Really, this is where everyone needs to be," says Cromer.

The nuns' revolution, however, depends on a revolution in airplane technology. These are, after all, flying nuns, but not the Sally Field kind. They fly in fossil fuel-consuming jets. They can’t realize their goals for mitigating climate change until there is a radical new technology for travel.

I guess this is where the faith comes in. I'm not the only one praying for new technology that will let us travel from coast to coast without sacrificing our morality. I know Ed Begley, Jr. prays for that. So, I assume, do the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.

Science will need to step up to the plate, too. We can't let 80-year-old nuns do all the work of saving the world.

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