Creation Justice Ministries, an ecumenical Christian climate action group spun off from the National Council of Churches in 2013, recently hosted an event in which they repeatedly discussed ways to advocate progressive climate policy from the pulpit. The group interviewed James Gustave Speth, a self-described far left climate activist who recently published a book entitled They Knew: The US Federal Government’s Fifty Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis. The talk focused on the book, the recent Hurricane Ida, government environmental policy, and the role of church leaders in preaching progressive climate arguments.
Hosting the talk were Reverend Jim Antal, the special advisor on climate justice for the United Church of Christ (UCC), and Reverend Michael Malcom, an Environmental Justice representative for UCC. Speth, their guest, was the principal environmental activist for President Carter. Antal said that he and Speth met in jail after protesting the Keystone XL pipeline under the Obama Administration.
The talk began and ended with a deliberate framing of the climate debate in faith-based terms. Speth argued that policy changes are insufficient to solve environmental issues. Rather, he claimed that the problems “are selfishness, greed and pride, and for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.” In his closing remarks, he argued: “The faith community can reach people that latte-drinking, Volvo-driving liberals can’t.”
The conversation also involved a discussion of Juliana v. United States, a federal court case that Speth is involved in through advocacy and testimony. Twenty one youth plaintiffs sued the federal government, alleging that the government’s role in causing climate change has stripped them of their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. The case has been sent back to a District Court in Oregon after being rejected by both the Circuit and the Supreme Court.
The thrust of the event was about what climate policy “might make for an interesting sermon,” as Antal said. Speth proceeded to lambast the fossil fuel industry, alleging that through lobbying and fiduciary concerns, the federal government has actively pursued policies harmful to the climate. He said this creates a “tremendous inertia” that is difficult to overcome for activists, and that this inertia “is a product of the great power and money of the fossil fuel industry.”
Speth also argued that this inertia is a result of “an economy hooked on growth,” implying that the market economy’s structure is what contributes to climate change. In particular, he took issue with the widely accepted Gross Domestic Product metric, at one point calling it a “rotten measure.” He also seemingly implied that the government allows climate catastrophes to provide a reason for more spending:
“GDP measures all the bad things as money. So if you’re trying to ramp up GDP, well all the things you’re paying for to clean up the climate mess, and deal with all the problems that we’re now experiencing up and down the east coast, for example, or the west, that’s all money spent because of climate. So a lot of terrible things GDP covers.”
In discussing sermon topics, Speth also commented upon the emergence of the radical right. He painted this group as anti-government and anti-regulation, tracing its origins back to President Ronald Regan and his philosophy that government is not a solution to problems, but rather is the problem itself.
Speakers devoted considerable time to discuss proposed environmental solutions. Speth said that “we need a tough, hard-nosed regulatory approach.” In response to a question, he remarked that a carbon tax, “where the fee and dividend from these taxes and fees would be returned to the public in a progressive way,” would be beneficial.
He also spent time discussing President Biden’s proposed $3.5 trillion infrastructure package which funds climate concerns. Speth couldn’t point to specific reforms in this bill that he supported, but cited U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) endorsement for it, saying “I trust Bernie.”
The speakers also proposed a more militant type of civic advocacy. Malcom remarked that after reading Speth’s book, “I was ready to put my fatigues and combat boots on and go to war, because they knew.” Speth contended that, to solve climate problems, a “constant pounding on the system” was needed, including people getting arrested and engaging in civil disobedience.
Malcom also raised concerns over environmental racism. A term that the UCC helped initially coin, environmental racism is the idea that communities of color face disproportionate impacts from climate change due to their forced proximity to danger areas.
“We’ve skirted around the fact that we’ve got a bad racial issue in this society and we’ve got to deal with that, because that right there is one of the biggest hindrances to our existence as a people. Because that is one of our biggest contributors to our climate devastation that we have.”
He pointed to the recent hurricane in the Gulf South, calling it an “unnatural disaster.” The waters were so heated by industry in this area, Malcom argued, that the hurricane intensified beyond its natural state. Malcom linked this issue to his previous discussion of environmental racism.
The talk concluded with reemphasis on the role pastors and church officials could play in spreading progressive climate policies and arguments. After recapping the discussion’s threads of the environment, economy, racism, militant advocacy, and regulation, Antel concluded: “These are exactly the kinds of connections pastors can make from their pulpits to help their congregations.”