Badass Nuns Assume the Lead on Climate Action

By Lynn Hamilton

In the sleepy town of Nazareth, Kentucky, a revolution is brewing. And it’s led by a band of women in their eighties.

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 SCN 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 the earth to be one of the poor.

You heard right. The Sisters 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.  Though their average age in the United States is 82, these sisters know climate change is real, and they are taking action.

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

“They’re pretty badass,” says Carolyn Comer, the woman hired by the Sisters to be their Director of Ecological Sustainability.

At a recent meeting of the Louisville Sustainability Forum, Comer explained how the Sisters became radicalized.

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 are buying electric zero turn motor lawn mowers, which are the lawnmower equivalents of a Tesla.

They are in the process of converting all their lighting, both inside and out, to LED lighting. In India, they practice water capture and sequester cow manure for conversion to biogas, with which they cook their meals. They also harvest and use rainwater. One of their hospitals in India is seventy percent powered by solar energy, captured in batteries.

In July, the sisters got together again. And this time they decided that caring for the earth meant they needed to get to zero green house gas emissions. They plan to get there by 2037 in the United States and Belize, and 2047 in the other countries. Comer 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. And that required an assessment of their trash. “We opened up trash cans and weighed things,” said Comer.

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 Comer.

The SCN’s “green team” is a subgroup of nuns particularly passionate about fulfilling their zero emission goals. They engaged the University of Kentucky to teach them how to conduct their own energy audits. Once these audits are complete, the goal is to look at the order’s energy consumption and ask “How can we . . . winnow that down?” Comer 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 6000 miles a year, each.

That’s not a lot of mileage, comparatively, but “there are a lot of them,” Comer 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 Comer.

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. Come on now, y’all. Don’t let eighty year old nuns do all the work of saving the world.

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