Bringing science and faith to bear on climate change

Drone footage of flooding near Charlotte

Homes flooded along the Catawba river after massive rainfall. Catawba County declared a state of emergency on June 9, 2019.
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Homes flooded along the Catawba river after massive rainfall. Catawba County declared a state of emergency on June 9, 2019.

Many people are concerned about climate change, but most do little to reduce the way they contribute to it. They’re daunted by a problem that’s as big as the world and by the smallness of their place in it.

On Tuesday, two advocates for action came to Raleigh as part of a campaign to replace that sense of individual futility with a spirit of common mission. One is a lawyer, the other a minister and together they’re trying to help save the planet by joining the forces of reason and faith.

Kenneth Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Rev. Susan Hendershot, president of Interfaith Power and Light, spoke at Raleigh Pullen Memorial Baptist Church as part of a five-state swing through the Southeast. They are focusing on the South, Hendershot said, because it is where religion is strong but not enough believers are focused on what should be a moral imperative: protect God’s creation.

Hendershot, a Disciples of Christ minister, said religion has contributed to the problem by teaching that humans have dominion over the Earth, a perspective that leads to pollution, the exploitation of nature and now a dangerous warming of the atmosphere. It is better, she said, for religion to stress that humans are part of an ecosystem.

“God calls us to be stewards,” she said. “It isn’t all about us. We are connected to everything else.”

The pair’s message found a friendly reception from an audience of more than 200 people at Pullen Memorial, a liberal church adjacent to the N.C. State University’s campus. But it would seem that the faithful who really need to hear it are evangelical Christians. They helped elect President Trump, a president who withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate accord and who dismisses climate change as a hoax.

But Hendershot thinks converting evangelicals who are skeptical about climate change isn’t the way to start. Rather it is better to begin with people who are already worried about what’s happening to the Earth. “If we could get just those people who are alarmed to do some stuff, that would be pretty incredible,” she said in an interview before the Pullen speech.

Kimmell said some of those steps would be taking public transit, switching to an electric car, installing home solar panels, cutting back on eating red meat and using LED light bulbs.

A lawyer and former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Kimmell said the situation is urgent. Asked how much time humanity has to act before climate change arrives, he said: “We don’t have any.”

Indeed, he said, extreme weather events are already upon us in the from of floods, droughts and wildfires. Those events are making climate change warnings resonate beyond coastal blue states. “There are a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump who are quite concerned about climate change,” he said.

There’s still room to avert the most severe effects of climate change, Kimmell said, but it will take a combination of government and individual actions. A key goal, he said, is to have the nation powered entirely by clean energy by 2050.

Hendershot said her tour through the Southeast is akin to the biblical prophets, who issued dire warnings but also urged people to reform. “They said, ‘This is going to get really bad,’ ” she said, “but they didn’t leave you there. There is hope. Things can change and get better.”

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com