Southern Faith Leaders Start Talking Climate

Southern Faith Leaders Start Talking Climate

A new type of climate leader is emerging across the American South: faith leaders, who claim they have a moral obligation to speak to their congregations about the overarching danger threatening their community. According to Reverend Robin Blakeman, a Presbyterian minister and eighth-generation West Virginian, there is "often some disjunction” amongst the religious community when it comes to climate change and its role in fueling natural disasters. But, as flooding frequency and severity increase in Blakeman’s home state, she says “[climate change is] becoming more and more of a conversation.”

The South is not the only region where religious institutions are shifting their focus toward climate. Longtime environmental advocate, Pope Francis (named after St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment), has called climate action a moral imperative since 2015. And faith leaders worldwide have started to act based on this imperative. A group of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders recently joined in a statement, demanding financial institutions cut their support of the fossil fuel industry.

Source: Fortune, March 30, 2022.

CBS: Climate change elevating risk of dangerous weather, July 25, 2022.

NBC: Heat Wave Worsens As 75 Million Americans Are Under Alerts, July 22, 2022.

TED: His Holiness Pope Francis | Our moral imperative to act on climate change, October 20, 2020.

BBC: Religious leaders including Pope Francis call for a new climate deal, October 4, 2021.

Why This Matters

The South is especially vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. Louisiana coastal communities, for example are projected to experience intensifying hurricane seasons, while Texas is in the midst of what’s sure to be the state’s hottest summer on record. The effects of climate change are impossible to ignore. As part of their congregations’ lived experience, many religious leaders are finding conversations and action around climate change to be ever-relevant and essential.

Source: NOAA, 2021.

Museum of Science, Boston: Sensing Our Climate: Extreme Precipitation, March 3, 2022.

Guardian: Climate change is making floods worse | Here's how, October 19, 2021.

Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment: AI for climate change | Stanford researchers predict extreme precipitation with machine learning, August 10, 2021.

Initiating The Conversation

At a recent conference, Blakeman and other West Virginia faith leaders met to discuss how religion could mobilize communities on climate. They found that most churches experienced positive outcomes when they started small. After bearing witness to concrete initiatives, such as tree planting and energy retrofits, demonstrating social and environmental benefits, people were more willing to discuss larger, value-based issues.

Vox: Why heaters are the future of cooling, September 24, 2021.

Indeed, churches in the South have a significant role to play in organizing both people and capital. It’s not uncommon for climate conversations to be met with roadblocks in the region, including denial or economy-based opposition to action. But in West Virginia, for example, where 78% of residents identify as Christian, Southern churches have major reach beyond politics and across race and class.

Now This: Evangelical Scientist Busts Myths on Christianity & Climate Crisis, May 8, 2021.

"Who can get into places that most people can’t? The church. When you think about the credible messages or voices, that's your clergy,” said Reverend Marcia Dinkins, a non-denominational Black Christian leader focused on climate and social justice, to the Guardian. "If you’re going to [engage on the subject of the climate crisis] from the evangelical point of view, let’s talk about it. What’s the true point of view of faith? To stand up for the widow, the poor. To enact justice.”

Robin Hood: "This is Loss and Damage - Who Pays" narrated by Mark Strong, September 23, 2021.

DW: This is just how unfair climate change is, May 21, 2021.

Grantham Imperial: Dr Friederike Otto speaks to CNN's Connect the World about the extreme heat, 18 July 2022, July 19, 2022.

The Economist: See what three degrees of global warming looks like, October 30, 2021.