Religion, Faith, and Climate Activism: Morality and Religion in the Climate Crisis

Rev. Susan Hendershot is the president of “Interfaith Power & Light (IPL),” a nationwide interfaith climate action organization. Prior to Iowa IPL, Rev. Hendershot served as a pastor in both Disciples of Christ and United Methodist congregations, focusing on social justice ministries. The Journal of International Affairs spoke to her about the religious and ethical implications of the climate crisis.

Rev. Susan Hendershot
February 11, 2020

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): You are the president of Interfaith Power & Light. Can you describe for our readers what that organization does and why the work is important? 

Susan Hendershot (SH): The mission of Interfaith Power & Light is to inspire and mobilize people of faith and conscience to take bold and just action on climate change. Our whole mission is focused on mobilizing people of faith from around the country to work for climate solutions. We are based in Oakland, California, and we have 40 state affiliates around the country, so we are able to work at the local, state, and national levels on our issue, which is pretty unique for a faith organization. It allows us to be fully focused on the issue of climate change and to have that grassroots infrastructure we need. 

We bring people in the door to the issue through our programs. For example, we have a program called Cool Congregations. It is actually our longest running program and it teaches congregations how to measure and reduce their energy use. Programs like that bring people in the door. It educates them on the issue of climate change and shows them how to respond in a practical way. But we never want to leave them there; what we really want to do is to bring them into the advocacy side of things. We know that what we really need to do is get the right policies in place to address this emergency, and bringing people into advocacy is a major part of the solution. What we need to do is cultivate advocates who can speak up to their policy-makers and urge them to enact the right policies and block the bad policies. We look at it as a “both/and” issue: we want people to take personal, practical action, and we want them to be policy advocates. 

JIA: A lot of people are probably used to seeing religion and climate change in separate baskets. How do you see the concept of climate change fitting in to the biblical narrative? 

SH: While religion can play a very positive role in calling attention to this as a moral issue (which I believe it is), in some ways it has also played a negative role. Consider the broader creation narrative; although there are two creation narratives in Genesis, we’ve translated one word of it as “dominion,” which, many people have decided, means that humans control the earth, that it was given it to us, and that we can do what we want with it. The problem with that narrative is that it obscures the narrative of stewardship and caretaking. The idea that humans were put into the Garden of Eden to tend and to keep it is a much different way of thinking about it than giving “dominion” over it. 

At the same time, when I read scripture, I find many examples of this compelling narrative around how we should be taking care of both the earth and one another. The truth is that we are all bound together. We cannot separate out what happens to the earth, what happens to the water, what happens to the air we breathe, what happens to us, or the creatures, or the plants, and so on. 

In the Hebrew scriptures, when the people of Israel were in right relationship with God, they were fulfilling the Covenant and the land was flourishing. The opposite was also true; when they fell out of that relationship, when they broke the Covenant with God, then the land was in drought and there was more desperation. 

It is an important concept; we have a responsibility to uphold this Covenant. It is not as if we were just given the land and then God walked away; the Covenant is to steward the land that God gave us. When we are fulfilling that Covenant, the land, and all of us, are flourishing. 

The other thing that I think is incredibly compelling is that the Hebrew prophets called on us to care for those who are vulnerable. The Biblical narrative talks about the poor much more than it talks about anything else. In fact, when the leaders were not taking care of the poor you found people going into exile. Of course, we know that poor and marginalized communities are much more impacted by climate change than wealthier communities are.

JIA: You mentioned that religion can also play a negative role. How do you respond to people who use religion to argue against climate action? 

SH: I like to remember this line of poetry from Mary Oliver, who says, “That God had a plan, I do not doubt. But what if God’s plan was that we would do better?” I love that. It is a good jumping off point for this. 

I came into this work actually because I began to understand the connection between hunger and climate change. When I was serving congregations, I was very focused on the issue of hunger. I did not find climate change to be very compelling because there were hungry people right in front of me. Through that, I have been able to understand how climate change exacerbates issues that people already care deeply about. 

It could be the issue of hunger, or of global conflict; it can be immigration, or racism and environmental injustice, or land dispossession from Indigenous communities. There are a lot of issues that people care about that are made worse by climate change, and we have to talk about climate change through a moral and ethical lens, in terms of safeguarding our children and future generations. I have found this to be very compelling for people across the board. 

Also, the idea of caring for God’s creation is a very compelling narrative, even for those who are on the more conservative side. I think the more that we can tie this back into values, what we value as individuals, as families, as communities, the more we can have conversations that could actually transform us from politicizing the issue to talking about how to solve it together. 

JIA: From the time you have spent working on climate action, what do you feel is missing from our collective conversations? 

SH: We have been lacking an ability to be intersectional in our conversations. Maybe it is just human nature to silo our issues, but we treat things like climate change, hunger, and civil rights as completely separate issues. Climate change is such a huge issue, and it is interconnected with many other things. I mean, it is connected to money and politics, like how the fossil fuel industry is buying politicians’ votes; it is connected to environmental justice and pollution in frontline communities, which of course is tied to racism. Even if we look at the traditional issues the congregations are working on, like hunger, immigration and issues of war and peace, it is deeply tied to all of those. I find it sometimes difficult to help people make those connections, because it is easier in a way to say, “well, our congregation is already working on the issue of hunger so we cannot work on another issue,” than to look at how climate change is connected to the issue that they are already working on. 

I think that is one of the things missing. There are many of us who are working very hard to build those connections, and I think once people realize that all these issues are connected they will start to see climate change as an existential and moral crisis and act accordingly. 

JIA: You have been referring to climate action as a moral and ethical obligation. From a religious standpoint or otherwise, what do you think is humankind’s moral obligation to the environment? 

SH: I am going to try to reframe your question a little bit, because it sort of sets up a dualistic structure; it sets up humans and the environment as if they are separate. I would argue that they are not separate, that in fact humans are a part of the environment. We live in the world, and we are not disconnected from the earth. At the same time, we of course have way more power over the earth than any other creature. We are very, very powerful. We can wreak a lot of havoc, but we can also do a lot of good. 

The issue sometimes becomes one of hierarchical dualism, the idea being that in any relationship one thing is always over the other thing. We love our dualistic structures, but I think the Buddhists have a much more holistic approach of interconnectedness, suggesting that we are actually part of the natural system, and anything that we do to it actually impacts us, even if we don’t see it right away. The fact that we are blowing the top off of mountains to get coal absolutely has an impact on us. It has an impact on nearby communities. It has an impact on people who are breathing pollution both there and from burning coal. 

I would say that our obligation is to the whole natural system that includes us. Our obligation is also to those who are suffering disproportionately from the impact of what we are doing to the natural environment. 

JIA: In the spirit of caring for the earth, the IPCC says we need to get to net zero emissions by 2050 in order to keep warming below 2˚C and avoid the worst consequences of climate change. What do you think is the role of religious leaders and religious institutions in helping us reach those targets? 

SH: Faith leaders are trusted messengers to their community, so in an ideal world, every faith leader would be speaking up on the issue of climate change. One thing that gives me hope is that religious narratives show us that people are capable of transformation. In some traditions, we would call it conversion. We have our conversion moment like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus; we have this moment of recognizing that we have not been living the way we should be living, and we are called to change, to transform and reconcile as to what God wants for us. 

I think if faith leaders around the United States and globally were speaking out about this on a regular basis as trusted messengers, it would be incredibly compelling for people. Faith communities can also model this behavior. When we work with congregations through our Cool Congregations program, we see congregations who are becoming more energy efficient; they are installing solar on their rooftops; they are planting community gardens and composting. They are modeling actions that actually build towards the overall goal of limiting emissions. 

These are things that people can do in their homes and in their businesses. We know that it does have an impact. I mean, I have had people say, “Changing my light bulb isn’t a big enough action,” but I continue to say, “But if everyone would change their light bulb, it adds up.” And as I said before, then the goal is to have people of faith take on roles as advocates where they are actually speaking up, they are talking to policy-makers about the right policies that need to be in place; they are ratcheting up our goals in terms of the Paris Climate Accord and adding their voices as a civil society to what the state actors are doing. 

I think all of it adds up together, but I do think this piece about faith leaders being trusted messengers, and speaking regularly on this topic would have immense positive outcomes in terms of transforming the way people are thinking about the issue of climate change. 

JIA: You spoke just now about the value of individual actions. Particularly in the younger generations, there has been a pushback against this narrative of individual actionspaper straws, energy efficient light bulbs, etceterabecause it obscures the need for larger, more systemic change. What do you believe is the balance between personal actions and agitating for grander policy change when it comes to climate action? 

SH: I think it is a “both/and” situation. I do not like the either/or narrative because the truth is that sometimes people taking a small step leads to people taking a bigger step. Our goal is to bring people into the conversation and get them connected, and then give them concrete things that they can do, and it is everything from those personal actions to policy advocacy. I think that all of those things are important, and to me the biggest step is getting people to recognize that they have agency. 

JIA: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about our ability to respond to climate change, and what do you think is the biggest challenge in addressing it? 

SH: It depends on the day, and what is happening. The truth is that this is really, really hard work, especially for those individuals and organizations that have been in the trenches for a long time. Right now, we are really working primarily on defense. 

I do not use the word ‘optimistic’ because ‘optimistic’ removes my obligation to do anything to affect the outcome. I prefer the word ‘hopeful’ because I think of hope as being an active word. It does not remove my obligation to do the work. 

The future is not decided yet, and what we do matters. I think that it is really important to show people that what they do matters. It does have an impact; even the small actions can inspire someone else to do something, which is hopeful itself. I think about it that way. 

There are a couple of places where I am finding hope right now. One of them, as I said before, is this idea that religions throughout history have believed that people are capable of great transformation, and that we need to continue to provide opportunities and conversations transformative for people. Another place that I find hope right now is in the voices of our young people, from the Global Climate Strike to the Sunrise Movement, from the young people who are suing governments over climate change to Indigenous youths who have been fighting for land rights. There are so many inspiring stories of young people who are taking leadership, not waiting for states to act, but taking control of their own futures. I find that incredibly inspiring because when I started this work it was because I was really compelled by envisioning my own sons’ future, and knowing that this generation was going to be tasked with solving a problem that it did not create. 

I would say right now one of the biggest challenges in addressing the climate crisis is money in politics. There is dark money supporting and propping up fossil fuel interests, who are fighting tooth and nail to keep the status quo that benefits them regardless of how much harm it does. 

JIA: What policies would you like to see adopted to address the climate crisis, or dark money in particular? 

SH: We have to stop treating businesses as people. That Supreme Court decision really changed everything. When it comes to comprehensive climate policy, I think that there are a lot of really good policy components of the Green New Deal that need to be moved forward. 

One thing we need to be doing in policy conversations is making sure that frontline communities have a voice, that labor has a voice, that some of those groups and organizations that have traditionally not been a part of the conversation have a voice at the table in order to create comprehensive climate policy equitable for communities. Centering justice and equity in that conversation is going to be incredibly important.