‘Within minutes I was weeping’: the US pastor using scripture to mobilize climate action

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The Rev Scott Hardin-Nieri regularly revisits the story of Noah’s ark. “People look at that story fondly, because they focus on all the animals that were saved,” the pastor says. But for Hardin-Nieri, Noah’s ark isn’t a simple story of hope; it is principally a story about human suffering amongst widespread ecological devastation. “We forget how many people were killed in this apocalyptic world where the environment was ruined,” he says.

Hardin-Nieri, who was ordained in the Christian church in 2003, works in North Carolina trying to get congregations across the state to care about climate change. Creation Care Alliance, an organisation he has directed since 2015, aims to connect the religious with the environment around them. Across religious pockets of the south, Hardin-Nieri sees fertile ground for climate activismand believes scripture is uniquely suited to help religious communities better comprehend the unfolding environmental catastrophes happening around them.

The language of faith, Hardin-Nieri says, “allows us to stand on something that is pre-United States, on scriptures [written] way before democracy or capitalism was around”. When Hardin-Nieri conducts bible studies with members of his church, he likes to ask: “How is nature being discussed in these passages?”

He’s not alone: across the US, there is a growing movement of religious leaders who are trying to deploy faith as a vehicle for climate action. And Hardin-Nieri’s own journey toward climate activism began when he lived in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and witnessed how different faith communities – from Catholics to Quakers – came together to fight climate change.

“It wasn’t a Republican or Democrat issue,” he says. “It was a life issue.”

The Rev Scott Hardin-Nieri: 'We forget how many people were killed in this apocalyptic world where the environment was ruined.'

When Hardin-Nieri moved back to the United States in 2014, he felt his church wasn’t doing enough to address climate change. He considered leaving the ministry to join an organisation doing climate resiliency work – but his friend Frank Joyce, a director for UCLA’s Costa Rica program in tropical biology and conservation, convinced him his time would be better spent trying to reach people in the church.

Hardin-Nieri knew people in North Carolina were already feeling the impact of climate change: the state faces increased flooding, as well as droughts and extreme heat. These extreme, inconsistent weather patterns severely affect the agriculture and agri-business industries, where 17% of the state’s population hold jobs. North Carolina is also one of the states experiencing the most hurricanes in the US, damaging people’s homes and local economies.

He spent a year talking to other religious leaders, brainstorming his communication style, and in 2014, began volunteering for the Creation Care Alliance. At the time, the project was a loose network of congregations in Asheville meeting in church basements. Over the years, the alliance grew and Hardin-Nieri became the director, rolling out a series of initiatives to bring climate action into people’s spiritual practices.

The alliance developed a toolkit for congregations, giving guidance on everything from waste reduction to building relationships with legislators to promote climate action, and organized climate reading groups.

After one reading session, a grandmother who volunteered with the alliance cried as she told Hardin-Nieri that her grandchildren were scared about climate change. Another man spoke of sleepless nights, where he laid awake anxious about environmental destruction.

“I realised we don’t have places where it is safe to talk about these feelings,” Hardin-Nieri says.

Creation Care Alliance decided to host a one-time grief conversation about climate change, bringing together a therapist, a chaplain and a pastor on a church member’s porch, overlooking the Asheville skyline. People of all ages showed up, some of whom were climate activists or pastors themselves. “Within the first four minutes I was weeping and I’m not a public cryer,” says Selena Wright, a pastor in Colorado who attended. “But I never felt like I had a spiritual outlet for my climate anxieties and this group gave me that.” The session was a huge success, prompting the alliance to host regular eco-grief meetings.

Claire Burnet, a 20 year-old climate activist, has been involved in groups like the Sunrise Movement, but says she has often felt uncomfortable with how academic circles speak about climate change in clinical terms. “It’s the hard stuff that is vulnerable and uncertain and sucks sometimes.”

She sees these kinds of initiatives as filling a gap in the climate justice movement. “The emotional side is what Scott deals with,” she says, adding: “I don’t think you can deal with climate change without addressing it.”

While these initiatives have been successful in some religious communities , they haven’t attracted more conservative or evangelical congregations that are skeptical of the climate crisis.

Solar panels at the First Christian church in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

“I was envisioning a big room filled with a diversity of religions and all sorts of people – Republicans and Democrats,” Hardin-Nieri says. “That has not come to fruition in the way that I dreamed about.”

The Rev Kevin Bates, a co-minister of a new church called Way in the Wilderness, also wanted to reach conservative Christians, but knew he’d have to try a different approach. In 2018, while Bates was working in the small community of Candler, he noticed people were struggling with higher energy bills. Along with members of his church, Bates went door to door, handing out fresh vegetables grown under energy-efficient LED light bulbs.

“We said to people, ‘We care about you, we care about the Earth and we want to help lower your energy bill,'” Bates says. “I was surprised but people really latched on to it.”

Bates used this as an opportunity to talk with community members about changes to their environment. “People in rural areas often feel that progressives from cities are always looking down at them,” he says. “So instead I asked them, ‘What can you teach me about caring for the Earth?'”

Experts say religious leaders, who know how to relate to their communities on an emotional level, may be best positioned to convince people to support climate action, especially in conservative areas. Robin Veldman, an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas A&M University, notes that climate deniers get more airtime than climate advocates on channels watched and listened to by evangelical communities.

“They have positioned skepticism as the more biblical position on climate change,” Veldman says. “That’s why it’s really important to have people who are insiders in the tradition talk about climate change.” (She adds that scientists like Kathryn Hayhoe, who is also an evangelical Christian, have been very effective in getting these communities on board.)

Hardin-Nieri says he is “still learning” about how to best talk to conservatives about climate change, but he remains hopeful.

“Climate change is a symptom of a larger moral problem of greed,” he says. “Faith communities, at their best, can address those things in a way that a solar panel industry cannot.”

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