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God’s Work: Meet the Woman Turning Evangelicals Into Environmentalists

With the pope’s encyclical on the environment expected this week, Rolling Stone spoke to Christian climate activist Anna Jane Joyner

Anna Jane Joyner

Anna Jane Joyner frequently speaks about climate change to evangelical Christians, including her father, Rick Joyner.

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Showtime

Among the victims of the organized campaign to discredit climate science and obstruct action are many of the country’s 80 million evangelical Christians, who are bombarded with messages that climate change is a hoax and environmental regulation a cover for Big Government’s agenda to convert the nation to a police state. Some evangelicals also interpret the burning, flooding Earth as a sign of the Rapture and the second coming of Christ. While 63 percent of all Americans think climate change is underway, only 51 percent percent of evangelicals do. An estimated 27 percent of evangelicals don’t think the climate is changing at all.

Those numbers might be disheartening to many environmentalists, but for an emerging class of activists, they represent an opportunity: to convert those believers into potent advocates for the planet. Among those activists is Anna Jane Joyner, who was featured last year in Showtime’s Years of Living Dangerously debating her fathermegachurch pastor and climate skeptic Rick Joyner.

Now a politically progressive Episcopalian who believes that preventing the wholesale meltdown of the planet lies at the core of Christianity, Joyner is helping revamp how global warming realities are communicated to evangelicals and other conservative Christians.

Among other things, Rolling Stone spoke to Joyner about Pope Francis’ widely anticipated encyclical on the environment – expected in its final format later this week, after being leaked – during which the pope will make the moral case for not destroying the Earth, and argue that protecting the planet and its inhabitants is biblically mandated.

You just returned from Rome, where you saw Pope Francis conduct mass. There’s tremendous excitement about his upcoming encyclical on the environment.
The climate encyclical could be a game-changer in the Catholic community. I think it’s going to make climate mainstream for hundreds of millions of Catholics around the world. The pope is a fascinating and transformational figure. To have someone at such a high level using his platform and taking leadership on climate is huge. Most devout Catholics view his interpretation of the theology as infallibly right. That’s an incredibly powerful position. He also has a big fan base among younger American evangelicals and Millennials.

Catholics are calling the encyclical a focus on human ecology – this idea that humanity and ecology are integrally related. Climate change and how we treat the Earth has everything to do with our own spiritual lives. That’s going to be the overarching theme: the interconnection between human survival, caring for our neighbors and the climate and the environment, and addressing climate change. There will be a heavy focus on poverty and caring for the least of these, for the most vulnerable communities and traditionally marginalized people who are already the worst impacted. It will stress that this is a moral and faith issue.

So many things are aligning this year for climate change: the encyclical, the UN climate talks. Certainly the Senate being so anti-climate isn’t good, but it could help in the sense that more and more, that position looks ludicrous.

They look increasingly like dinosaurs.
Yes. Paul Ryan and John Boehner are Catholics. It’s going to be interesting to see how high-level conservative legislators respond to the encyclical. But really, it’s on all of us to hold them accountable – to say that if you consider yourself a devout Catholic and a devout Christian, you have to acknowledge that this is a core part of our faith. That means caring for our neighbors and caring for God’s gift of creation and life. If you’re a policymaker, you have to do something about it. It’s your job. The pope is going to get a lot of media out of this, obviously, but it’s on the American people to take that and communicate it to their elected officials.

When talking to evangelicals or conservative Christians, what’s the most effective argument? Love your neighbor? Protect the poor?
The core narrative I use is stewardship – the idea that we’re charged to care for and protect the land, God’s creation, and these amazing gifts that God gave us. That includes our human communities, each other. And it includes wildlife and the larger creation. My dad, who is very evangelical and conservative, responds pretty well to that idea – he genuinely believes we should be protecting all life, including non-human life.

Environmentalists have put a heavy emphasis on wildlife, but they haven’t made the critical connection that we’re part of the environment. What we do to the environment impacts people as well. When you’re talking about climate change and environmental injustice, the poor and the vulnerable are impacted the most. Protecting the poor is a core Christian value – it’s sort of the ABCs of Christianity. [We have to bring] humans back into the conversation, stress that environmental stewardship includes human communities, and poor communities where people can’t just pick up and move when there’s pollution in the back yard.

The other underused narrative is that climate change is going to impact us all. You don’t have to be poor, you don’t have to be wildlife; it’s already impacting everybody in very intimate ways. We’re doing this because we love our lives. We’re not doing this out of fear, or because we’re being bullied into it by liberal propaganda. It’s because we love this place and want to protect it. I think that’s an important piece. 

Another piece is hope. So much of the dialogue around climate change is apocalyptic and terrifying. Even if I sit with it for very long, I feel overpowered and panicked and want to shut down. It’s dire, but there are things we can do to make this transition better. There’s agency there, there’s empowerment there, there are options and choices, but we have to make them now – we have to start now.

We’ve talked about how to engage some of the country’s 80 million evangelicals on climate. Do you need to change 80 million minds?
You don’t have to change 80 million minds. But it would be great to change a few strategic minds. If even a small percentage of evangelicals got actively engaged, it really could change the dynamics of the political game on climate.

The model we work off of is that 10 percent are gung-ho activists who will tie themselves to trees. They’re with us. Then there are 10 percent who are never going to be with us – they think we’re crazy hippies who are trying to take over the world. But 80 percent are somewhere on the spectrum, and that’s the group I’m most interested in moving: young working people, others in the faith community who are empathetic and compassionate and smart, but not engaged in making change on this issue. And if one or two really high-level conservatives came around, it could really change the game. 

On global warming – its existence, man’s role in it – are evangelical Christians only going to be swayed by other evangelicals?
No. There’s merit to [being an evangelical talking to other evangelicals] in the sense that you’re going to trust and connect with someone who shares your faith background and your value system. Certainly some of the best messengers are those who do share that with you. That being said, I’m an Episcopalian. I’m still very much a Christian, but I consider myself an evangelical in the way that somebody who grew up in the Catholic Church but is no longer involved does; it’s part of my heritage. I know the language and the cultural system and I think that allows me to work well with that community. The environmental movement hasn’t done a good job of cultivating effective messengers to faith communities.

A lot of mainstream environmentalists think evangelicals are Neanderthals because they don’t believe in evolution. If slowing global warming is our collective goal, that seems counterproductive.
Climate activists have a reputation for being bullies, for being condescending to people who are skeptical or uninformed. We have to get past this narrative of talking down to people.

What I’ve really noticed is how siloed people are. Environmentalists stay in their camp, and evangelicals stay in theirs. Even the basic work I’ve done to connect them has been revolutionary in some ways because it hasn’t been done, but it’s very simple: it’s getting people together to talk. You learn that you have much more in common than you think you’re going to have, and that’s huge, when that you can see each other as human beings with shared values.

From the evangelical camp, there’s a lot of fear around environmentalists and climate change and liberals. On the other side, you have this snobbery that these people aren’t smart, they’re not educated, and that isn’t true. Many Evangelicals are very intelligent people who are just operating from a different ideological framework.

Our message would go much further if we realized that we aren’t dealing with a lack of intelligence, we’re dealing with a lack of scientific literacy. A lot of people in this country don’t understand climate change – it’s complex, it’s scientific, it feels distant. One of the keys is connecting it to the people, places and things we love – not making it about the future and occasional hurricanes or natural disasters, but how are things in your backyard changing? How are the things you love being impacted? That’s where it starts to shift a little.

So much progress has been made on certain issues – marriage equality, for instance. Yet we’re stuck on so many others, like climate. With reproductive rights, of course, we’re going backwards.
It feels that way with climate. It’s a David and Goliath situation, but that doesn’t mean we back off. David still won that fight. Gay marriage was recently legalized in North Carolina. I never thought I’d see that in my life. You fight and fight and fight, then you win. You don’t know what pushes that button, and when it’s going to come. I hope it happens in time with climate, because we’re up against the clock.

Can a climate-denying conservative candidate win in 2016? Jeb Bush just called it “arrogant” to claim there’s scientific consensus on climate.
I would argue no, they can’t. It’s becoming less palatable to the American public to have leaders who are denying basic science. Climate denial does mobilize the conservative, Tea Party base, but it also alienates conservative Millennials and moderate Republicans who are more accepting of climate science and more concerned about global warming.

You’re organizing around Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which sets targets for reducing carbon emissions from power plants. There’s huge opposition from the right.
It’s going to go through lots of court battles, which could be messy. I think the biggest battles will happen at the state level with ALEC and the Koch brothers pushing back, so it’s a very important time to be vocal about wanting climate action at both the state and federal levels. We need to demonstrate to legislators that this is something American voters want – 80 percent of Americans want a greater emphasis on wind and solar. It’s going to be interesting to see in 2016 if the GOP’s climate position doesn’t come back to bite them.

A friend who works on climate says the solution isn’t going to be a silver bullet, it’s silver buckshot. It’s going to take a lot of different strategies and approaches. 

But public sentiment is shifting. I recently read that the Tea Party in Florida is organizing around solar. It’s a free-market issue, the idea that energy freedom means having access to those technologies. Their whole narrative is: We want energy choices. If solar is better for my family, or we want to invest in clean energy, I want that option. And we don’t want these huge monopolies telling us we can only get our energy from, say, coal. There’s a narrative around choice that’s really effective.

How are you so optimistic?
If there was ever a moment to get involved with climate activism or to change your environmental impact, it’s now. With the UN talks in Paris coming up [in November] and an activist pope, I really believe we’re at a critical historic moment where we can impact the outcome. It’s important to debunk the cynicism that there aren’t available solutions, or that we can’t get it together.

In This Article: Climate Change, Environment, Religion

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