Faith-Based Actions for Local Climate Change Solutions

Faith-Based Actions for Local Climate Change Solutions

Curbing the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet and disrupting many traditional weather patterns is a governmental, economic, scientific and environmental challenge. It is also a moral challenge, contends Christopher Topoleski, the new executive director of Northern Virginia’s Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions (FACS).

“It’s a moral imperative for us, where we live and where we worship,” he said in a recent interview, adding that addressing climate change transcends any one religion. “It is negatively affecting our children and future generations. Whatever you believe, we are all on the same planet and have a shared responsibility,” he offered. 

Climate change is a term generally meaning changes in temperatures and climate patterns attributed largely to burning fossil fuels like carbon dioxide and methane. These fuels produce gases that trap heat and warm the planet.

The Alliance was founded in 2013 “when a small group of passionate people of faith gathered in a church basement in Oakton to reflect on a faithful response to the climate crisis,” explains Christine Connelly Montagnese, FACS Community Organizer. It is a region-wide, nonprofit organization composed of many different faiths and people who do not practice any religion. Topoleski seeks to build a strong, diverse network of people and over 190 places of worship, including people from Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, Hindu and Peace traditions.

While addressing climate change is debated in the halls of Congress, state legislatures, parliaments and the United Nations, Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions is focused on local solutions, from supporting solar energy to reducing vehicular emissions. 

Vulnerable Populations

Topoleski, a Reston resident, comes to the position with years of advocacy experience. As the legislative director for the National Indian Education Association (NIEA), he gained a deeper understanding of how Indigenous people view our natural resources. “They were the first people here,” he said, “stewards of the land. It all comes down to one Earth, one planet.” 

He is especially focused on how energy and environmental policies impact vulnerable populations and sees heading FACS as a “perfect opportunity” to highlight solutions. “Some lower and no income people and people of color suffer the most from greenhouse gas emissions,” he maintains. For example, some low-income areas have some of the worst traffic congestion and vehicular pollution. In Fairfax County, for example, transportation emissions are 42 percent of all carbon emissions. “It’s a social justice issue,” he believes.

Working with congregations and individuals, he’s building an advocacy army to persuade elected officials to do more. He brings the tools he promoted at the NIEA, tools that are applicable at all levels of government. He’s also been a volunteer government liaison with Reston Strong and member of the Social Justice Committee of Reston’s Unitarian Universalist Church. 

“Current policy is not sustainable,” he argues and believes that advocates should not just focus on law or policy changes, but their long-term implementation which too often gets short shrift.

Scott Peterson, FACS Board Chair, lauds Topoleski’s talents, saying, "Chris's experience will enable him to communicate with a wide range of stakeholders as we move forward. His expertise in fundraising, development of alliances, commitment to diversity and inclusion and his leadership roles will serve us well." 

FACS’s Projects

In 2022, FACS received a U.S. Department of Energy grant to help convert buildings to clean energy sources and energy efficiency measures. Climate activists see clean energy as energy that does not produce carbon dioxide and other pollution from fossil fuels. FACS is developing a pilot program and hopes to eventually scale up to help many home and building owners install solar panels and more efficient hot water heaters, for example.

The FACS Tree of Life campaign helps congregations “green” their outdoor campus by restoring natural habitats, improving soil quality and planting native plants and trees. 

Why is my sanctuary so cold? That was the title of a Jan. 16 FACS program on financing heating-cooling systems and energy efficiency and renewable energy products. The organization’s solar sanctuaries program leverages the power of faith communities to strengthen energy efficiency and install solar power and battery backup systems. Not only will this reduce greenhouse gas emissions, these places of refuge can provide emergency shelter for the most vulnerable and save lives during power outages.

FACS has local subgroups called “hubs” in jurisdictions like Fairfax and Arlington that work on hyperlocal projects.

As a volunteer, Topoleski manages the Reston Strong free market every Sunday at the Reston YMCA, providing free food, donated by Costco, no questions asked, to up to 150 families. “All anyone has to do is bring a bag,” he says. 

The father of two adult children, Topoleski calls himself an “avid home chef” and prepares meals from his summer home garden. With vegetables out the backdoor, he’s at least not creating greenhouse gas emissions by buying produce hauled across the country. Local change can have global impacts, he believes.