One day, our children, their children, will almost certainly ask, “What did you do to solve the climate challenge?” That’s how President Obama put the challenge ahead of us in his extraordinary call to action on climate change at Georgetown University.
Those of us in the audience were certainly warm to the challenge, and not because it was over 90 degrees in the afternoon swelter of humid Washington. Most of us had already accepted the call to do something about this moral and spiritual challenge. Alas, most Americans are only now waking up to the reality that this is about “us,” more than even government.
Ironic enough, most evangelical leaders have not. Standing in the shade before Obama’s speech, Mitch Hescox, president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, admits the irony. The leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals, for example, will say there’s a climate impact on the poor but won’t adopt any specific legislative or legal solutions.
It was more than a dozen years ago when the challenge was first issued. Professor Calvin DeWitt and Sir John Houghton, in a personal letter to church leaders, as the convenors of “Forum 2002,” held at St. Anne’s College, Oxford University wrote: “When it comes to action from the Church on global climate change, especially from evangelical Christians like ourselves, little action has taken place.” They went on to issue a call “to recognize human induced climate change as a moral and religious issue and to take necessary action to maintain the climate system as a remarkable provision in creation for sustaining all of life on earth.”
For me, it was what seculars call a “responsibility moment,” and what I called a “conversion,” recognizing that spiritual maturity is not a single “Damascus Road” event but a continuous evolving spiritual journey. I was urged on to attend the event by my friend Rev. Jim Ball, but it was also true that my own colleagues at the time, some of the leaders of the NAE, urged me not to, saying I “could be unduly persuaded by the scientists.”
As it turned out, I was. It was a dramatic moment, profoundly spiritual, and life-changing. I was converted to both the “challenge” of climate change as a moral and spiritual dilemma, but also to the concrete science. This was no indoctrination. Scientists, after all, are skeptics alike, and not easily to fall into line. But there was enough evidence even then to dismiss what President Obama this week called the “Flat Earth Society” disputers. I had been a doubter, and had become a believer. In the words of John Newton, “I was blind, but now I see.”
Alas, over a decade later, the “evangelical establishment” is still complacent about the need to speak to our government leaders and to be bold. How else can one explain the Republican resistance? If every evangelical pastor in America were to take what is nowadays a minimal risk, and tell his or her congregation to speak to their elected member of Congress, do you really think the GOP would ignore them? Would Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell be so obstructionist on climate action, if the evangelical world was united around the goal? Not a chance. Nor would the president have to resort to Executive Orders and agency rule-making to get progress.
If you think this is overstating the problem, the Senate Republicans are holding up confirmation of Obama’s nominee to be head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, who has worked for five Republican officials in her exemplary career, and now serves at the EPA. If getting evangelicals to contact their elected leaders is difficult, it shouldn’t be that hard, you would think, to get them to speak to their own parishioners or congregants. That’s where the “courage,” the President referred to, comes into play. It will take guts to overcome the hurdles.
I believe there is a reason for the Republican obstruction. It’s the financial power behind the fossil fuel industries. Consider them the “goliaths” of our day. Republican campaign donations come from Big Oil and these politicians are worried they’ll lose that funding. Or that the Koch Brothers will fund a Tea Party challenge to them in their own party.
In reality, they have something else to worry about. It’s the slow moving earthquake within evangelicalism, called the “new evangelicals,” who have the courage to act before it’s too late.
We are the “Davids,” speaking collectively now for all those in the religious community who have joined this fight, facing down Goliath. The big oil companies will fight to the death to keep their big oil subsidies. Coal industry executives have lots of money and lobbyists to kill carbon standards on existing power plants. But we have spiritual resources at our disposal, and lots of potential troops. I would say to my co-religionists, “Do what is right and be not afraid.”
Republicans might also want to take a look over their shoulder at what President called the “invest and divest” movement, which is taking hold on college campuses and within religious denominations. This effort, backed by the movie “Do the Math,” released by 350.org, is going to make it difficult for the fossil fuel industry to, as Bill McKibben explains it, “profit from the destruction of the planet.”
Millions of people of faith, living in the red states, must get serious and take their investments out of the fossil fuel industries. College students and faculty need to press their administrators to do same with their huge retirement and endowment funds. If they so, Wall Street may pay heed. It’ll be like the old ad on television, “when E.F. Hutton speaks, people listen.” Only it will be “when the Religious speak, Republicans (and Wall Street) listen.” But even worse will be Big Oil’s “black eye,” on account of the public’s repudiation of those companies who resist renewable energy and regulation of carbon emissions.
We all will have to give an account. Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, such as Ben Lowe, ran for Congress against a climate-denying Republican (and lost) right out of Wheaton College. Anna Jane Joyner, who now works for an environmental organization in North Carolina, accepted the challenge. She grew up the daughter of Pastor Rick Joyner, who leads a thriving evangelical ministry in the same facility where Jim Bakker of the “PTL Club” once preached. Pastor Rick told me over dinner with his family last year, “Yes, I will vote for Mitt Romney, but I believe that climate change is real, and we need to do something about it.” He had changed his mind, just as I did. His daughter Anna Jane is a persuasive advocate. The same thing happened to Rep. Bob Inglis, when his son at Yale began to press him on climate. Bob may have lost his seat in Congress because of his support for a carbon tax, but he has no regrets. He continues the fight as Executive Director of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, founded in 2012, to change the way Republicans think.
My personal aphorism has become the following: “If you’ve never changed your mind about something, pinch yourself, you may be dead.” It will be that way for the Grand Old Party if it doesn’t change its anti-science views. It’s going to be that way for anyone who refuses to change. It’s that serious. But if science, or the political consequences are not persuasive, consider God’s warning in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 11:18): “I will destroy those who destroy the earth.” Surely evangelical leaders, more than most, ought to pay attention.
Cizik is president, New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good and spokesperson, The Good Steward Campaign.