Green Gospel

These young activists are working to convert the faithful into climate crusaders.

ONE WOULD BE HARD-PRESSED to find a better motivator for climate action than the oil refinery in Torrance, California. The sprawling complex of towers and tanks spans 750 acres in Los Angeles County. The Torrance Refinery can process 155,000 barrels of crude oil per day and 1.8 billion gallons of gas per year — enough to supply a tenth of California’s demand, it claims — along with diesel fuel, jet fuel, liquefied petroleum gases, coke (used in the production of steel), and sulfur (which is needed for sulfuric acid, a key ingredient for fertilizers, lead-acid batteries, matches, explosives, cement, and glass). Like a smoldering black heart, the refinery pumps these products into the world via pipelines, railways, barges, ships, and trucks, all while spewing pollutants on the residents below.

One of those residents is William Morris, who went to school in the shadow of the refinery, and, along with both his parents and sister, worshipped at the evangelical Baptist churches here. On a warm Thursday this fall, I met with Morris at a coffee shop not far from the refinery, curious to learn how people of faith, especially in evangelical congregations, might offer solutions to the climate crisis.

White evangelicals made up more than 20 percent of the electorate in 2022… Only one in three of these voters believes climate change is being caused by human activity.

From a certain perspective, after all, it would appear the climate fight has an evangelical problem. White evangelicals made up more than 20 percent of the electorate in 2022, according to the exit polls. Only one in three of these voters believes climate change is being caused by human activity, and more than 80 percent voted for Trump in 2020. Meanwhile, right-wing Christian nationalists have captured headlines, bringing strict religious thought into local, state, and national politics.

But Morris and other evangelicals like him offer a counternarrative. He’s one of the leaders of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (YECA), a small group of climate activists fighting an uphill battle to convince members of their faith that the Gospel can be green. With the US presidential election just one year away, in a country with the potential to make or break our future climate, YECA could be one of the most important activist groups on Earth.

GROWING UP IN TORRANCE was “very hard, because as you can see, it’s very concrete,” said Morris, who is now 28, removing a face mask as we sat at an outside table on the back patio. “Not a lot of nature.” But his parents, who are both from the area, would take the family on outdoor excursions to national parks like Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon. There, Morris found an appreciation for the woods and the wild, for the mountains and fresh air, and, eventually, for environmental science.

At church, though, science was dismissed, and the Earth was 6,000 years old. This created a dissonance he struggled to settle in his own mind. “I’m not hearing at church to take care of the Earth,” he said. “But I know as part of my faith that makes sense. Like, if you were being taught that we’re supposed to love our neighbors, shouldn’t we be taking care of the Earth? And the people around us?”

Morris earned a degree in environmental science at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, with a focus on ecological restoration. Following graduation, he volunteered for conservation work in Kenya with a Christian Science conservation group. He worked with environmental scientists from all over the world who were leading projects along the coast and who, along with their Kenyan colleagues, were Christian. “For them, it was a no-brainer: Of course science and environmental care and being Christian makes sense. There was no difference. It just made complete sense to them. And I was like, Hey, I’m home.

He worked subsequent trips with other Christian groups in Mexico and Chad, until he had another realization. The people he was working to help, especially farmers, well understood how climate change was impacting them. “And we are the ones who don’t. And then I come back, and people would be like: Oh, you’re Christian, and you do environmental stuff, how does that even work? Like, oh my gosh, we’re not even at square one here.” So he decided to shift his focus. “I need to go deal with my own people in my own place.”

Eventually, Morris found the Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, and he quickly learned that the same proselytizing skills he used as an evangelical growing up — how to meet people, connect with them, and perhaps sway them — could be used in the climate fight. He was able to connect with other evangelicals, look for common values, and help them understand the climate crisis. He would find ways to open doors, meeting with faith leaders, speaking to congregations, spreading a green gospel.

“What I would always try and do is tie their faith knowledge to what they know is going on in the world.”

“What I would always try and do is tie their faith knowledge to what they know is going on in the world,” Morris said. “We’re in California, so they’d recycle, or they like to go to the national parks, and they understand that they enjoy the natural world and being out in it. And they also understand what their faith is telling them. Let’s just take those two things and put them together. If you love God, you’re taking care of God’s creation. We’re supposed to help it flourish. And we have an active role in that. And if you want to love your neighbor, you need to make sure that they don’t have polluted air, they have clean water to drink.”

YOUNG EVANGELICALS FOR Climate Action was started in 2012 by students and young professionals who felt that a gap existed between what their church was asking them to believe and sound, evidence-based science. It is supported by the Evangelical Environment Network, which has since 1993 worked to help Christians align their faith with environmental practices and activism, in what they call “creation care” or a “tend the garden” approach. YECA focuses on the climate and climate justice.

a group of young people comfortable outdoors

Young Evangelicals for Climate Action leadership, fall 2023 (from left): William Morris, Jaime Butler, Lauren Kim, Zoe Davis, Jenna Van Donselaar, Adam Hubert, Lindsay Garcia, and Christine Seibert. Photo courtesy of YECA.

“We are Christians who believe that God sides with the oppressed (Bible, James 1), and scripture tells us that God created all people in His image and with irrevocable dignity (Bible, Genesis 1, Psalm 139),” YECA’s literature states. “We have zero tolerance for racism or harassment and discrimination against those in the LGBTQ+ community or other marginalized identities.”

YECA is now a nationwide initiative, educating communities of evangelicals, supporting local initiatives, and lobbying at the national level to help bring evangelical leaders to greener ideas and policies. They support young leaders in university faith groups and educate evangelicals on how their beliefs align with “creation care.” They meet with local officials; organize petitions; work to get voters to the polls; write op-eds, letters to editors, and blogs; push messages on social media; train college fellows; and meet with church leaders, congregations, and students.

“Evangelicals, and especially young evangelicals play a really important role in bringing down the temperature on the politics as well as in the climate,” Jessica Moerman, the president and chief executive officer of the Evangelical Environmental Network, told me. “Our young people are among our best messengers. Because it’s their future.” When a young person talks to their family, or their faith community, about their concerns, “that’s when we take things out of the head and science level and to the heart level. And who doesn’t want to pass on a life better than their own to their kids and their grandkids?”

“I realized that if I was going to fulfill Jesus’s greatest commandment, to love God and love my neighbor as myself, I couldn’t ignore climate.”

In many ways, this is the fundamental work for anyone trying to move the climate message. Katharine Hayhoe, a Canadian Christian, climate scientist, and public speaker, encourages people to connect with others by aligning their values. She does this through her faith, not in spite of it. “I truly believe, after thousands of conversations that I’ve had over the past decade and more, that just about every single person in the world already has the values they need to care about a changing climate,” she told a TedTalk audience in 2018. “They just haven’t connected the dots. And that’s what we can do through our conversation with them.”

Moerman, who is also a climate scientist, agrees. “I am a climate scientist because of my faith,” she said. “I got into this because I wanted to go into ministry. I’d heard about climate change and had heard how it impacts the most vulnerable first and worst, the very people overlooked in society who Jesus calls us as Christians to give special care to. I realized that if I was going to fulfill Jesus’s greatest commandment, to love God and love my neighbor as myself, I couldn’t ignore climate.”

The challenge is not in changing minds, she said, but in scaling up. “Conservative climate organizations are [some] of the most under-resourced organizations out there,” she said. (EEN’s annual expenditure in 2022 was less than $900,000. YECA’s was less than $200,000.)

Operating on relatively small budgets, such organizations are not welcomed with open arms in either conservative or environmental circles. “And so we face this challenge of our ability to counteract [climate] misinformation at a scale that can really combat it,” Moerman said. “But what we have found is: Whenever we do get our message out, it resonates.”

STILL, GREEN EVANGELICALS face major headwinds. The climate deniers have worked hard to disconnect the dots and turn the faithful away from environmental causes. And they’ve been at it for decades.

In 1992, the UN held a summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in hopes of addressing the dire environmental challenges facing the planet. By then, the dangers of global warming were clear to scientists, if not the public, along with deforestation, the loss of biodiversity, and the decline of natural resources. From the summit came comprehensive international plans for addressing many of these challenges. But so too came an organized opposition led by the fossil fuel industry.

“These [industry] people and these [conservative] think tanks, they’re actually writing each other letters,” said Neall Pogue, a historian and author of The Nature of the Religious Right. “They’re in the early part of the 1990s, and they’re saying to each other, We need to get on the ball here and start fighting this thing. If we go along with what’s happening here, it is going to really change our way of life.

Major corporations formed the Global Climate Coalition, which then embarked on a massive disinformation campaign. Its pseudoscience was amplified by both-sides journalism, sowing doubt about settled science. Cynical evangelical leaders began to encourage their followers to separate their faith from environmental activism, emphasizing spiritual matters and cultural issues like abortion and same-sex marriage instead. Conservative politicians courted the evangelical community, arguing that environmentalism was part of a liberal, secular agenda.

“Undergirding that whole thing is an economic argument,” Pogue said. “That’s a sort of a bottom-line argument, not an ideological argument. It is really kind of a bottom-line concern.”

All these years later, that bottom-line concern has translated into blocks of voters who find it hard to accept that the way to climate recovery is through a major revamping of the way we’ve constructed our world. To green evangelists, however, the way forward is through these communities, not around them.

ADAM HUBERT, ANOTHER of YECA’s leaders, is a herpetologist who teaches science at a Christian middle school in North Carolina. He sees a clear connection between scripture and care, and he grounds his activism in helping his students find it too.

“Part of my job as a science teacher is, immediately I’m dispelling this idea that faith and caring for creation — that’s the language we use as Christians — or the environment, those things don’t have to go against each other,” he told me. “Historically, that’s actually not true.”

a congregation

Evangelical voters exert significant political influence in the United States and made up an estimated 20 percent of the electorate in 2022, according to exit polls. Only one in three of these voters believes climate change is being caused by human activity. Photo by Mor.

Two young women sitting at a desk with a large Young Evangelicals for Climate Action poster to their left

YECA mentor Lindsay Mouw (right) leads training on organizing and project planning for college fellows with steering committee member Christine Seibert. Photo courtesy of YECA.

Gregor Mendel, whose scientific research with garden peas opened the door to modern genetics, was an Augustinian monk. George Washington Carver, a former slave and an agriculturalist whose work saved countless acres of depleted soil, was deeply religious. “His faith,” Hubert said, “empowered him to ask, ‘How do I bring renewal or restoration to this place that’s been racially segregated, to land that has been degraded?’”

Science can help faith and tolerance, Hubert said. One of his favorite activities is to introduce children to snakes for the first time. “I think there’s some beauty in that, when I can take a student who was afraid of a snake — based off these misconceptions — but by the end, they still might not want to hold it, but they can at least see there’s beauty in that. Right? And again, that’s just a snake. There’s something developmentally that shifts in the brain that might now turn into something else. Like, Oh, here’s this person that I think I disagree with, or that I fear, but actually, if I get to know them …right?”

The key, he said, is finding a purpose for your faith — and having a strong argument against the cynical politics that have kept Christians out of environmental issues. “As a Christian, it’s like, What is the endpoint of your theology? Our theology should move us to ask, How do I care for the people near me? It’s so clear with the climate crisis. It’s already bad, and it’s only gonna get worse. I do not understand how you can see that, then go read Scripture and say, Ah, well, they’re just trying to make me buy an electric car. Just the logic of that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

“Our theology should move us to ask, How do I care for the people near me?”

To overcome this kind of false logic, YECA takes several different approaches. Not only does it work to help evangelicals align their faith with environmental practice, but it works to support climate-aware leaders within the evangelical community. YECA’s leaders know that other young evangelicals look to them. Their influence on the youth may serve them well across a wider swath of Christian communities, many of whom are seeing young people leave the faith or leave congregations that don’t align with their values. YECA also works to organize voters, which helps translate the green gospel to political wins. In 2022, the group supported a campaign in favor of the Inflation Reduction Act and pushed voter engagement in the midterms via text campaigns in Wisconsin and Arizona and in the Georgia runoff that helped Democrats secure a Senate majority. They sent more than 84,000 texts in those campaigns.

The group also supports communities already engaged in their own environmental or social justice projects. In Greensboro, North Carolina, where Hubert lives, YECA supported a local church in efforts to build a community fridge to help feed unhoused people, while educating people along the way on the relationship between high costs of living and the climate crisis. In another effort, YECA is working with the Gullah Geechee — descendants of enslaved Africans who worked the plantations and who live on the southern Atlantic coast — to help archive their stories as they grapple with the prospect of rising seas and the vanishing of their unique culture.

The group’s approach is intersectional and inclusive and nothing like the headline-grabbing antics of Christian nationalists, who tend to dominate the news cycles. Hubert said the group wants to ensure that through public information campaigns, op-eds, and media, YECA can show a different side of US evangelism. “With some of the far-right pressure, nationalism, people are looking to see, like, What are Christians thinking about these things?

IT IS CLEAR THAT in the Christian space, as in all others, leadership is needed. The climate crisis has become too acute to ignore anyone ready to help. In October, James Hansen, the very same man who warned Congress 35 years ago that greenhouse gases were heating the planet, put out a new paper. In it, he and his colleagues warn that the Earth is heating up faster than expected and that “there is a great amount of climate change in the pipeline.” The idea that we’ll hit just 1.5 degrees of warming, Hansen told reporters, is “in the rear view.” Much hotter times are ahead.

Solutions to the climate crisis will not come from the secular world alone. After all, the climate problem is not a scientific problem. It is a social and political problem. Any solution to the crisis will have to address the religious dimension of the challenge. On that front, green evangelicals may be the best bet the US has at shifting public perception. To ignore these voters is to hand control to cynical politicians.

young people reading in a garden

YECA college fellows take part in interactive training on theology and creation care in Albion, Indiana. Photo courtesy of YECA.

A group of people sitting on logs around a campfire in an open green space with prayer sheets in hand.

Evening worship and campfire during a YECA leadership retreat in Albion, Indiana. Photo courtesy of YECA.

When I first met with Morris, the Speaker of the House was Kevin McCarthy. Now, the man who is third in the succession line for the presidency is Mike Johnson, who denies the election results of 2020 and has taken nearly $350,000 from the oil and gas industry since 2015. He has already worked to cut renewable energy funding in the Inflation Reduction Act and seems to have no intention of addressing the climate crisis.

“I am a Bible-believing Christian,” Johnson told Fox News host Sean Hannity shortly after his rise to speaker. “Someone asked me today in the media, they said, ‘It’s curious, people are curious: What does Mike Johnson think about any issue under the sun?’ I said, ‘Well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it. That’s my worldview.’”

Perhaps the congressman will one day soon visit his own shelf, pick up the Bible, and start again — from the beginning. After all, green evangelicals and countless others throughout history have read the same book and come away with a thoroughly different understanding of the message.

“There is all this progressive justice history behind Christianity,” Morris said. “Jesus was someone who was born in a place that was colonized by a violent empire that was really oppressive to [Christians]. And they resisted and were loving … and trying to help each other and make their world a better place. As Christians, we have such a huge responsibility to be vocal and active around undoing a lot of the harm that’s been done in the name of God.”

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.