An evangelical leader calls on young Christians to save the planet

The subject of our overheating planet wasn’t brought up much in Kyle Meyaard-Schaap’s household when he was growing up, but when it was, it was usually the butt of a joke. He was raised in a “very godly” home in Holland, Michigan, where he learned the names of Jesus, Joseph and Abraham before Cinderella and Snow White. “The overwhelming memory for me growing up was the complete disconnect between my faith and the natural world,” he said.

Meyaard-Schaap, 30, now lives in Grand Rapids, a short drive from her hometown. He is ordained in the Christian Reformed Church, with what may seem like an unexpected goal. He spends his days talking about how to overcome the climate crisis — on Christian college campuses, with church leaders, and in editorials for religious publications. He is the national organizer and spokesperson for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, a nonprofit that has engaged more than 20,000 young people in its campaign since its launch in 2012.

Meyaard-Schaap is one of a growing number of Christians who are sounding the alarm. Across the country, young conservatives are breaking ranks with their parents over the pressing issue of our overheating planet. Among Republicans, more than half of millennials accept that global warming is real, and they’re more likely than older generations to say it’s caused by human activity and worth addressing. worry, according to a study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

“A lot of young people recognize the existential threat this poses to us and to the families we start or want to start,” Meyaard-Schaap said. “The stakes are higher than ever for a generation that is finding its voice and beginning to claim power in church, politics and society.”

For Meyaard-Schaap, the wake-up call came in high school, when her older brother, Brian, returned from a semester studying abroad in New Zealand with shocking news for his meat-and-potato family: due to religious and environmental concerns, Brian was to become a vegetarian. “I literally didn’t know anyone who had ever made that choice,” Meyaard-Schaap said of her brother’s decision. “In my head, I created this group of people [vegetarians] who were like freaky hippies and threw red paint on fur coats on the weekends – people I felt no connection or solidarity with.

Over the next few years, he began to make the connection between his faith and the environment. While on a college service trip to West Virginia, he stayed with nuns who had to collect rainwater to drink because their aquifer had been cracked and contaminated from mining atop a mountain that was happening nearby. He saw firsthand that families living near these operations suffered from high rates of cancer.

“I cannot love my neighbor if I do not protect the land that sustains them and defend their rights to clean water, clean air and a stable climate,” Meyaard-Schaap said.

In 2013, he began volunteering with Young Evangelicals for Climate Action in 2013. The organization had been founded a year earlier by a group of young people in conjunction with the Evangelical Environmental Network.

“We had to start really basic and almost explain why we’re not atheists, why we’re not socialists,” Meyaard-Schaap said. But over the past seven years, he has seen a change. For the most part, young evangelicals are already learning the basics of science. They just want to know what they can do about it.

Kaleb Nyquist

The National Association of Evangelicals – a group that represents 43 million Americans across 40 different denominations – adopted a statement in 2015 that recognized climate change as a threat to “the lives and well-being of poor and vulnerable people”. and called on its members to take action. The move came after Meyaard-Schaap’s organization sent hundreds of letters to the executive committee asking them to show leadership on the issue.

A number of prominent evangelicals have spoken out on “care for creation”, arguing that they should care for the world God has created. There’s Richard Cizik, former vice president for government affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals; Katharine Hayhoe, Texas Tech climatologist and lecturer; and Charlotte Keys, pastor of Mississippi, among others.

Yet the campaign to turn climate change into an evangelical issue has encountered obstacles (i.e. talk show hosts) over the years. According to a report by the nonpartisan New America think tank in 2015, a major push in the mid-2000s, mostly led by evangelical elites, failed to defeat opposition because it failed to garner enough support. from the base. need for “a softer path that breaks partisan polarization and builds a base among grassroots evangelicals,” with a focus on individual congregations and evangelical universities, “the places where the next generation of evangelicals learn what that their faith commits them to act in the public sphere.

This is exactly where Young Evangelicals for Climate Action came in. “I feel like they’re probably doing some of the most promising and savvy work in this space, especially because they’re focusing on the population where I think there’s actually a opening,” said Katharine Wilkinson, author of Between God and Green: How Evangelicals Cultivate Common Ground on Climate Change.

“The best messengers are sons and daughters, they are grandchildren, they are young people who grew up in the church,” Meyaard-Schaap said. “They see someone like them who they love and respect, who is involved in the story and can invite them into it in a way that resonates with them.”

It’s an approach supported by other recent research from Yale’s climate change communication program that shows that personal ties are stronger than political divisions. A study from North Carolina State University found that middle-aged children who learn about climate change are effective in sparking interest in the topic among their parents, especially conservative parents.

Where efforts to engage evangelicals in climate activism have failed, it’s because of a lack of “real listening,” Meyaard-Schaap said. “The climate movement has basically communicated that to be part of this movement, it’s best to be like ‘us’. And that usually means more liberal, more progressive.

Most of the resistance to accepting climate change as a concern he has encountered is political, he said, not theological. “Look, you don’t have to like Al Gore to worry about how you’re going to feed your family, or to worry about your neighbor down the street with asthma,” he assures the audience. people.

The media often depicts an all-out war between religion and science, but many Americans have found ways to reconcile the two. A 2015 Pew Research poll, for example, showed that two-thirds of Americans see no conflict between their personal religious beliefs and science. Meyaard-Schaap said young evangelicals in particular have been open to his message that caring for God’s creation “is part of what it looks like to follow Jesus in the 21st century with integrity.”

His organization teaches young people how to talk to older people, including their parents, about climate change as well. “Helping evangelicals connect their passion for protecting vulnerable lives with the issue of burning fossil fuels brings us a lot in our community,” Meyaard-Schaap said. When people tell him that focusing on climate change seems like a distraction from what they see as a bigger issue – abortion – he will point to evidence that when pregnant women breathe polluted air, contaminants like soot reach the placenta, causing health problems for babies. . Pushing for clean energy, he said, also protects the unborn child.

A deeply conservative veteran of the Climate Leaders Fellows program with Meyaard-Schaap’s organization has returned from his second tour of Iraq “super on fire” about climate change. He had started noticing the desert seeping into areas he hadn’t been on his first tour, dug and came to the conclusion that climate change was behind it all.

“He didn’t stop being a veteran, he didn’t stop being a libertarian, but he advocated for solutions consistent with those identities and with his values ​​of love and care for his neighbours, especially its Iraqi neighbors whose livelihoods were affected by the desertification of their land,” Meyaard-Schaap said.

Instead of getting better and better at articulating a message that resonates with the same group of people, Meyaard-Schaap says, climate advocates need to get better at speaking to people different from them.

And although it “wasn’t super easy” at first, Meyaard-Schaap and her brother eventually figured out how to talk to their mom and dad about climate change. His parents were able to put their apprehensions aside and take what their children were saying seriously. “They would still identify as politically conservative today,” he said, “but they would also identify as people who are concerned about the reality of climate change and doing what they can to address it.” .

When Meyaard-Schaap was coordinating activities for the Paris climate conference in 2015, her mother phoned the office of Fred Upton, her Republican representative in Congress, to say that she was following the negotiations closely as a Christian and she wanted him to back the deal. . “As far as I know, and certainly on climate change, it was the first time she had done something like this,” Meyaard-Schaap said.

Barry F. Howard