Presbyterians Are United on Climate Action as a Matter of Faith

15 mins read

Written by Ani Fête Crews and Emily Parker, of BlessedTomorrow.org

From beginning to end, the Bible is filled with descriptions of God’s Creation and God’s call to be good stewards of this world. It is God who created the Earth and saw that it was good. We can express our gratitude for these gifts through our moral responsibility to live sustainably in relationship with God’s creation, for us and for all who live within it, now and in future generations.

People often ask, “how does addressing climate change connect to this calling?” As people of faith, we have important moral choices to make when it comes to Creation Care. The urgency of climate change means that now is a time to become bolder in action, and Presbyterians are affirming this call through prayer, education, advocacy, and other forms of witness. At the most recent 223rd General Assembly this June 2018, an entire committee was devoted to environmental overtures from presbyteries on climate: preaching and teaching about climate change, using the Precautionary Principle in adopting new technologies, advocating for fair and just carbon pricing, standing against environmental racism, and pressuring fossil fuel corporations on their climate emissions through shareholder advocacy and possible future divestment actions. The urgency of our responsibility to care for our changing climate and for our neighbors—particularly those who can least afford to bear the burden—is not a political, economic, or scientific issue, but a moral responsibility laid before us by God.

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[ACMS] results from 2018 affirmed that the PC(USA)’s concern and commitment to strengthening its witness in the world by addressing climate change…is felt across the entire church and among varying demographics.
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Our organization, Blessed Tomorrow, is supporting the PC(USA)’s commitment to act on climate change and provide tools that support congregations in their Creation care efforts. Our partnership includes new resources that will help Presbyterians to reduce energy use, speak with friends, family, and policymakers about climate change, and take other actions to sustain a livable world for future generations. We also conduct an annual survey called the American Climate Metrics Survey, which assesses awareness, attitudes, and actions on climate change by Presbyterians over time (ACMS also surveys nationally). The Presbyterian-focused survey results from 2018 affirmed that the PC(USA)’s concern and commitment to strengthening its witness in the world by addressing climate change is not just a desire held at the highest levels of the denomination—it is felt across the entire church and among varying demographics.

Presbyterians and Climate Change: The Numbers

The ecoAmerica American Climate Metrics Survey of the Presbyterian Church in 2018 garnered responses from 413 PC(USA) self-identified members—laity and clergy. The survey was fielded September 7-28, 2018 and was part of a national survey to determine American attitudes and behaviors on climate change. Below are notable findings from the survey that compare Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) members’ responses to national averages, and opportunities specific to the PC(USA) for further consideration.

Belief and Concern

Nearly nine in ten (89%) surveyed Presbyterians understand that climate change is already happening and another four in five (80%) are concerned about it, well above the national average (73%). They are keenly aware of changing weather in their backyards, with 84% of Presbyterians saying they have noticed more severe weather in recent years, compared to 60% nationally.

Causation

Surveyed Presbyterians acknowledge that humans are causing climate change at nearly twice the national average, with 43% attributing humans as the primary cause of climate change (vs. 23% nationally). 45% attribute climate change to a combination of both human activities and natural causes (vs. 53% nationally).

Impacts and Harm

Nearly two-thirds of surveyed Presbyterians (62%) report being directly affected by climate-related impacts. They report experiencing record heat waves (62%), increased economic hardship (61%), harm from extreme weather (56%), and increased flooding (48%) more than Americans generally (vs. 60%, 52%, 49%, and 41% respectively). While most Presbyterians believe that they (58%) or their family (64%) will be harmed by climate change, they are more likely to believe climate change will harm communities that are distant from them (83% say future generations, plant and animal species, and the world’s poor will be harmed).

Benefits of Action

A majority of Presbyterians also see the benefits that climate solutions bring to health (71%), the economy (60%), and jobs (59%). However, there is an opportunity to educate Presbyterians on the competitive cost of clean energy in the U.S., as 56% currently align with the misconception that climate solutions increase the cost of energy (vs. 49% nationally).

Values and Motivation

Presbyterians highly value preparation for climate impacts. 97% say that communities need to prepare for floods and droughts to minimize their impact. Nearly all members believe clean air (95%) and clean water (96%) are critical rights for all people, and most (95%) believe in a moral responsibility to act on climate to create a safe and healthy climate for ourselves and our children (vs. 88% nationally). Three quarters of Presbyterians say the government needs to protect all people from the impacts of extreme weather. Similarly, Presbyterians are in strong consensus (96% agree) that their faith compels them to address climate change.

Solutions and Energy

Presbyterians are in consensus in their support for climate solutions and transitioning away from fossil fuels. Fully 98% say that the U.S. should produce more wind and solar energy (up 9-points from 89% nationally). Reducing climate change pollution by modernizing America’s electric grid (93% support), expanding public transportation (92%), and a charging corporate polluters (89%) top the list. A majority would like the U.S. to produce less energy from coal (83%) and oil (75%).

Urgency and Agency

Presbyterians are motivated on climate: A majority (86%) believe that we collectively, and 83% that they personally, can reduce the pollution that is causing climate change. By a majority, Presbyterians prioritize climate change over economic growth (74%), and very few believe the costs and sacrifices are too high to address climate change (74%).

Action and Advocacy

Presbyterians believe it is important to advocate on this issue, and are already discussing it with colleagues (54%) and friends and family (77%) at higher rates than national (vs. 33% and 57%). In fact, surveyed Presbyterians have contacted or voted for an elected official based on climate change (50%)at rates twice national (21%). Most individuals are conserving energy (81%) and many more are willing to adopt other climate-friendly behaviors. At their place of worship, a majority of say it is conserving energy (68%), but many are unaware of other efforts to address climate change or of the programs and resources being provided by the denomination.This is an opportunity for the PC(USA) to communicate more about the programs and resources available to support this work.

Trust and Sources of Information

Surveyed Presbyterians have heard or read about climate change from a diversity of sources, and they are hearing from religious and faith leaders on climate change at rates over six times the national average (58% among Presbyterians vs. just 9% of respondents nationally). This is a strong indication that the PC(USA’s prioritization of the issue as a matter of faith is reaching the pews. And while Presbyterians trust scientists and other “experts” most, they trust religious and faith leaders for guidance on this issue over 30-points more than national (60% vs. 28%), presenting another opportunity for PC(USA) leadership.

Above is only a small sample of the encouraging data on the Presbyterian Church’s attitude on climate change and solutions. We invite you to read the full ACMS report here.

Summary of Findings

These findings tell us that Presbyterians in the PC(USA) care deeply about climate change and the impacts it brings personally and to neighbors near and far. There is strong support for a variety of solutions. However, while a large group supports action, a smaller cohort is taking action today. 68% of Presbyterians already say their place of worship is conserving energy. Only 34% say their place of worship is having creation care-focused worship services. 24% say their place of worship is bearing witness to the public about climate change, and only 18% say their place of worship is working to reduce climate impacts. Ultimately Presbyterians talk the talk and are ready to walk the walk as well – now is the time to lean in.

Communicating on Climate

How do we help Presbyterians feel confident in talking about and acting on climate solutions in a more public way? ecoAmerica’s Let’s Talk Faith and Climate Guide was developed to help people of faith communicate effectively on climate. In this guide, you’ll find the best steps to create a successful message by presenting climate change with an emphasis on the moral responsibility to care for children, future generations, and the “least of these,” in addition to Creation itself. Other recommendations include focusing on the personal benefits of climate solutions and employing a personal, local story arc.

There is not a single region in the United States (or world) that hasn’t experienced climate impacts. Consider the ways in which you experience climate change in your community and name it. Remember that support for Creation care and climate solutions crosses religious, political, and generational divides, so stay positive and hopeful. Solutions are within reach and it’s important to emphasize that we must act now because it is not “too late.”

Acting and Advocating on Climate

As noted above, Presbyterians strongly support climate solutions. Blessed Tomorrow, PC(USA) and other partners launched a new congregational toolkit, the Moving Forward Guide, to adopt smart energy use, adapt to climate impacts, and advocate for solutions at the local, state and national levels. This guide provides a 5-Step Plan for individual houses of worship to move toward clean energy, to assess local impacts, and prepare a house of worship to be a place of refuge for the community. Finally, the guide outlines key ways to engage congregations, the community, and advocate with policymakers through bearing witness to climate change and calling for action. For a detailed walk-through of these steps and for more resources, see the Blessed Tomorrow Moving Forward Guide.

The Call to Care for Creation

So, we know that Presbyterians nationwide are called by their faith to care for God’s creation and to act on climate change. They are concerned about the impacts of climate change on their communities, their jobs, pocketbooks, and their families’ health. They want to do more, and they are looking to their religious leaders for guidance on how to do so. There is an important opportunity for the PC(USA) to continue to support congregations and individuals through resources like the ones referenced above. It is also a time to motivate all Presbyterians to strengthen their witness to the world because of the responsibility to address climate change as a matter of faith.
Our families, our neighbors near and far, and our children’s futures depend on our actions today. As children and disciples of God, we must sustain and ensure a livable world for all those who inhabit it.

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Authors: Ani Fête Crews serves as Director of Blessed Tomorrow, and Emily Parker serves as its Faith Sector Intern. Blessed Tomorrow is a program of ecoAmerica, designed by people of faith for people of faith, to inspire action and advocacy on climate solutions. Blessed Tomorrow is an ecumenical partner of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that shapes new guides, tools, and messaging to help us reduce energy use, speak with friends, family, and policymakers about climate change, and ensure a livable world for future generations.

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