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‘Action on climate change … is an act of love’

Christian scholars encourage churches to consider sustainable energy practices.

On her daily commute to New Orleans, Jaime Green can’t help notice the land seems to be vanishing. 

“​​I literally drive through town every day and think, ‘Wow, the bayou is really high today,’ but it’s high every day,” Green said. “It’s never not high anymore.”

Louisiana contains 40 percent of the nation’s wetlands, but — battered by hurricanes and tropical storms that cause an ever-evolving coastline — it also accounts for 80 percent of environmental losses since the 1930s, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

An illustration shows the deterioration of the Louisiana coastline and the Isle Dernière from 1853 to 1978.

An illustration shows the deterioration of the Louisiana coastline and the Isle Dernière from 1853 to 1978.

The loss of the wetlands is just one way Green sees the Earth’s climate changing. 

Green permanently moved into the New Orleans area in 2008 after visiting on and off since 2005. Back then, extreme storms left just as quickly as they blew in. Now they settle over the city and rain for days, she said. 

“The storm structure itself is different,” Green said. “They come in and sit on top of us for such significant amounts of time. … Even if you have a structure that could have maintained a Category 3 hurricane previously, it can’t maintain for 24 to 48 hours.”

Over the last 10 years, Green and her husband estimate that they have worked on more than 75 natural disasters with Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort Inc., based out of Nashville, Tenn.  

Floods, hurricanes, tornadoes — Green has helped with them all.

But while she attributes the weather patterns and the frequency of natural disasters to climate change caused by human consumption, other Christians aren’t so sure.

Questions of identity

Rusty Towell

Rusty Towell

Rusty Towell is a professor of physics and director of the Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing Laboratory at Abilene Christian University in West Texas.

Towell believes the climate is changing — and has for all of recorded time. 

But he is skeptical that humans are the cause. 

“Certainly, there’s good data that says the average temperature is a degree warmer over the last so many decades,” Towell said. “We have great measurements from satellites over the last 30 to 40 years, and we’re a degree warmer than we were 40 years ago on average. There’s good data for that.

“But there’s also good data that says CO2 concentrations vary seasonally, and it’s varied overall in recorded history,” he added, referring to carbon dioxide. “The real connection between CO2 concentration and global average temperatures — the only thing that really connects — are computer models.”

Towell advocates for more comprehensive research on the impact of human consumption and energy before making policies to address environmental issues. 

His views are shared by many White evangelical Christians living in the United States. 

Only 28 percent of White evangelical Christians said that human activity was warming the earth, while 33 percent said the Earth was following natural patterns and 37 percent said there is no solid evidence that the temperature has changed at all, a 2015 Pew Research Center study found.

Data on religious adherents perception of climate change.

Data on religious adherents perception of climate change.

Christopher Doran, a theological scholar who has published articles on the intersection of sustainability and faith, believes church members’ skepticism and denial of the human impact on climate change stem from a crisis of identity. 

“If all this science is right, do we really have to change our behavior?” asked Doran, who teaches theology, ethics and public policy courses in Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. “Do we really have to sacrifice? What does loving our neighbor around the world look like? Do I have to really give up my air conditioning? Is it really my fault that these things are happening? Those are pretty big questions of identity.”

He points to what he sees as a major problem.

“More younger Christians who do take (climate change) seriously are still within church homes who don’t,” he said, “and it’s a struggle for them to keep their own faith if their parents or their church leaders are not taking climate change seriously.”

With White evangelicals the least likely to believe in climate change of any Christian faith group, those like Doran often find their views among a minority. A member of the University Church of Christ Malibu, he believes that sustainability and environmental caretaking are also a matter of faith, not just science.

“We’re not really treating the actual root of the problem: That we are flawed and fallen human beings who don’t really believe that all people should breathe clean air, should drink clean water and should eat nutritionally dense food because — if we did — our political, economic and scientific ripple effects of those decisions would be far different.”

“If a society can’t make a decision about whether clean water, clean air or decent food for all people is a moral problem, we’re just treating symptoms,” Doran said. “We’re not really treating the actual root of the problem: That we are flawed and fallen human beings who don’t really believe that all people should breathe clean air, should drink clean water and should eat nutritionally dense food because — if we did — our political, economic and scientific ripple effects of those decisions would be far different.

“All of these things seem to suggest a massive inconsistency between the individual evangelically focused, personalized understanding of Jesus,” he added, “rather than a more communal, corporate, global understanding where all things fall under the lordship of Christ, not just the things that are hot button political issues at the moment.”


Related: ‘God is bringing water today’


A global challenge

But the resistance from Christians in regards to climate change isn’t always as simple as partisanship issues. 

Emily Stutzman, academic director of the Institute for Sustainable Practice at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., studies environmental sociology, examining how humans understand and collectively create meaning around their experience of the environment and the impact of their behavior on the environment. 

The biggest challenge with convincing people of climate change, Stutzman said, is that many of the changes caused by people are often not immediately visible on a local level. 

However, over time the effects of climate slowly take place, as Green observed in the flooded bayous. This leaves impoverished and marginalized groups locally and globally more likely to be affected by pollution, extreme temperatures and severe weather. 

“The poorest children in Nashville breathe the worst quality air,” Stutzman said. “That’s a direct result of pollution, not only that they didn’t cause, but that was caused overwhelmingly by members of the wealthier neighborhoods. … Some of the worst impacts of climate change fall on the poorest people in some of the most environmentally marginal situations.”

Emily Stutzman

Emily Stutzman

Rather than viewing climate change solely as a responsibility of environmental stewardship, Stutzman urges Christians to view it in a more personal way: Loving one’s neighbor. 

“I do see my Christian faith spurring me on toward action, and toward the work that I do around climate change, because of Jesus’ command to love God and to love other people,” Stutzman explained. “Climate change is very much a challenge for people globally. Action on climate change, from where I stand, is an act of love — love for my global neighbor, love for my neighbors in Nashville.”

Kevin Withem, senior minister for the North County Church of Christ in Escondido, Calif., cautions against overgeneralizing on what Christians believe on climate change.

“I know of people who believe there’s climate change, but it’s not manmade climate change to the degree many believe it is today,” Withem said. “Then others believe there is no climate change. And some realize that climates change, but climate has always changed and always will.”

“I know of people who believe there’s climate change, but it’s not manmade climate change to the degree many believe it is today.”

A proactive approach to make an impact

Both Doran and Stutzman acknowledge there is little an individual can do. One person using a Hydro Flask or eating less meat likely won’t have a lasting impact, Doran said. 

That’s why climate scientists increasingly promote “collective efficacy,” which is how people involved in a broader social or communal movement can bring about positive change. Such social movements include churches and faith groups. 

Churches, like commercial and industrial buildings, waste 30 percent of the energy consumed — often through automated control systems — according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Colby May, an ordained pastor and certified energy manager, specializes in energy efficiency, performing energy audits at over 2,000 commercial-sized facilities across the nation, including churches, seminaries, universities and schools. 

His company, Energy for Purpose, has a specific goal: Identify and reduce energy waste in churches so they can redirect the reclaimed utility funds into missions and ministries. 

What I’m sharing with churches about being good stewards is being strategic and not just keeping everything on 24 hours a day, which is only going to impact climate change even more,” May said. “Being good stewards is taking a proactive approach to make an impact, and it starts with the home effects of your church. From the level of energy management, we can make a 20 or 30 percent impact on climate change, or at least on our energy use — which directly impacts climate change — at no cost.”

“Being good stewards is taking a proactive approach to make an impact, and it starts with the home effects of your church. From the level of energy management, we can make a 20 or 30 percent impact on climate change, or at least on our energy use — which directly impacts climate change — at no cost.”

May’s company, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, charges churches about 2 to 3 percent of the overall utility costs per year, and funnels 40 percent of the company’s revenue into their own mission work, providing solar power to areas in India and the Democratic Republic of the Congo that lack electrical grids. 

But May’s own clientele has varied views on climate change and sustainability. 

While those focused on sustainability feel more responsible for their energy practices, even conservative churches see practical savings regardless of the sustainability impact, May said.


Related: Churches of Christ helping in flood-stricken Appalachia


‘It’s hard to deny’

Yet Green, volunteering at disasters across the country and in her own city of New Orleans, struggles to understand how Christians can deny that the climate is changing due to human activity. 

“It’s hard to deny it if you live somewhere like here, because you face it every single season,” she said.

Green said references to climate in the Bible — darkness at the crucifixion, storms on lakes, floods, earthquakes and droughts — and how the disciples and prophets responded are too often overlooked by Christians considering their role in the environment.

Damage to a house after a storm in Louisiana.

Damage to a house after a storm in Louisiana.

Her husband David, minister for the Church of Christ of Greater New Orleans, gives sermons three to four times a year on climate change and environmental responsibility. However, such sermons and conversations are uncommon. 

“People here will definitely talk about the changes in the storms,” Green said. “They will talk about how the weather has changed, they’ll talk about the erosion of our coastlines, but they will not talk about why those things are happening. It’s a topic without being a topic.”

“We don’t worry about things that God is in control of — and he is in control. But we do take responsibility for things, and should have conviction about things that we do that are impactful to our environment.”

But while other Christians continue to debate the existence of climate change, Green watches the water rise in the bayous. 

“We don’t worry about things that God is in control of — and he is in control,” Green said. “But we do take responsibility for things, and should have conviction about things that we do that are impactful to our environment.

“It’s not a matter of worry. It is a matter of being responsible in mitigating what we can.”

Filed under: Big Questions Churches of Christ and climate change climate change collective efficacy energy conservation faith and climate change National News sustainability Top Stories

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