The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


Climate Change and Mainline Protestants

This is another in my series on climate change and religion. I have already written about Catholicism, Evangelical Christianity, and Islam. I am not a religious scholar and I do not want to represent myself as an expert on any of these faiths and practices. Rather, I am applying a somewhat unusual focusing lens to the readily available information on each; how different religious traditions relate to climate change.

Religion is a major force in American culture and politics, as is true for many other countries (depending on the definition of “religion,” all countries might be said to depend on it, but that is another topic). Religion both influences personal belief and reflects it–and religious identity is often the most obvious clue to deeper cultural and ethnic rifts, the fault line across which people standing in the same room might as well be living in different universes because of the basic misunderstandings between them. We need to be able to communicate on climate change; we therefore need to consider climate change and religion.

Climate change is, of course, not a matter of belief–except for the fact that some people disbelieve in it, sometimes in accordance with their religious views. More importantly, science can only tell us that climate change is real. Science cannot tell us what climate change means in a moral or existential sense–that is what religion is for.

Some Definitions

Mainline Protestant Christianity is best defined by what it is not–it is not evangelical or fundamentalist. These are churches with strong theological ties to the Protestant Reformation, not to the later religious movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In terms of doctrine, mainline churches tend to regard the Bible as requiring interpretation and many encourage the baptism of infants (evangelicals do not, maintaining that baptism is for those who already believe in Christ). But there is a great deal of overlap between the two groups; some denominations have both evangelical and mainline wings. Whether a person identifies as evangelical or mainline depends on the wording of the question.

According to polls, the population of the United States is anywhere from 13% to 18% mainline Protestant, fewer people than identify as either evangelical or Catholic. At one time, the mainline churches were the dominant form of Christianity in the United States, but they are now steadily losing ground to the evangelical churches. Overall, this means a conservative shift in American Protestantism.

Protestant Christianity is, in general, descriptive rather than proscriptive–there is no central authority able to define belief and practice, as there is in Catholicism, because the distinctions between denominations are fluid. That is, a particular denomination may have its own orthodoxy and regard other churches as apostate or simply not truly Christian, most individuals can switch denominations at will, without being perceived as changing religions. This freedom to vote with the feet on doctrine means that the only way to find out what Protestant beliefs are is to ask Protestants.

Mainline Protestants on Climate Change

According to polls, mainline Protestants tend not to be concerned about climate changebut they are more concerned, as a group, than other white Christians.

The poll I’m using subdivides both Protestants and Catholics by race, yielding five categories of Christian: Hispanic Catholic, white Catholic, black Protestant, white evangelical, and white mainline. This system is both curious and questionable for several reasons, most of which I will not explore here. For the most part, American Christianity is not organized along racial lines. There is only one Catholic Church and it does not have separate Anglo and Hispanic wings.

But the poll data is interesting. Taken as a whole, the Catholic Church is very climate aware, as I’ve written before. Not only is Pope Francis a powerful climate ally, but in polls American Catholics express more concern for climate than either evangelical or mainline Protestants. But when the pollsters separate Catholics by race, the white group ends up looking almost exactly like the evangelical and mainline Protestants–which are numerically and culturally dominated by white people. It appears that white Christians, regardless of denomination, drag their feet on climate in a way that no other group defined by the polls does. And I don’t know why.

(Before I get a lot of angry comments, I’m not saying ALL white Christians are climate deniers–my husband is a white Methodist and he bought a hybrid before it was cool. I’m saying that there is apparently a racial dimension to American attitudes on climate that transcends the religious dimension. And it could be important.)

Of course, there are leaders within the mainline Protestant community who are active environmentalists and who ground their environmental concern in their faith for much the same reasons that Catholic and evangelical environmentalists do.

It can be difficult to get more in-depth information on mainline Protestants as a whole, probably because few people really self-identify as such–the group is defined as those Protestants who do not self-identify as something else. I have therefore looked for information on several specific mainline denominations. This review is by no means exhaustive or even necessarily representational of the variety of belief and practice out there. It’s just some of the things some mainline Protestants are doing with respect to climate.


The Episcopal Church has published an official statement on climate change, acknowledging that it is real but that church members should not give in to despair because “God has not Abandoned His creation.” The language is heartfelt but somewhat ambiguous. Some of the Church’s leadership’s actions are much more straightforward, including backing conservation-related legislation and supporting emissions-reductions efforts in developing countries by donating money.

However, many Episcopalian congregations have not yet signed on to the denomination’s climate efforts and there has been substantial pushback from church members in some areas–interestingly, many of them complain that climate change does not seem like a religious issue or that it is too political to address in church. Some pastors report being told by congregants that church (defined as what they do and think about on Sundays while attending services) should be separate from the rest of life and that pastors should not tell them how to live. I do not know how widespread that attitude is among Episcopalians.

And yet other congregants and the Church leadership keep pushing. The Episcopal Church has a long history of environmental leadership–it officially opposed drilling and mining in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in 1991. And if some of the pushback against environmentalism sounds a bit unusual, the Episcopal Church also has a theological justification for environmental concern that I have not encountered before–that Jesus said to love our neighbors and that some of our neighbors are animals and plants.


The United Methodist Church has, as a “global church community” issued a resolution that human-caused climate change is real and is a problem and that church members should do something about it and encourage others to act as well. Representatives of the UMC marched as an identifiable block within the People’s Climate March (I saw them there). United Methodist Women, a missionary organization associated with the Church, has written accurately and movingly about climate change on its website.  The group describes the problem as a moral issue, tying it to both social justice and a sacramental understanding of nature as God’s creation.


The Lutheran World Federation is organizing a monthly fast leading up to the IPCC meeting in Paris later this year. The organization also called for increased climate advocacy on the part of Lutheran churches after the meeting in Lima, which the body criticized as not taking climate change seriously enough. A grassroots Lutheran environmental organization exists to support individuals and congregations with what it calls “earthkeeping.”


The Presbyterian Church (USA) published an accurate and serious position paper on climate change (and ozone depletion) in 1990. The paper called for the United States to take leadership on emissions reductions and for individual Americans to support that process through lifestyle change. The statement is not overtly theological or religious is nature. The Presbyterian Mission Agency provides support and information to Presbyterian faith-based activists on a number of environmental issues, including climate change–and its website does describe climate action in theological terms, as a way of “keeping the garden” as God asked. In 2006, the Church’s representative General Assembly voted for the Church as a whole to become carbon-neutral. Not surprisingly, such assertive environmentalism is not without controversy–some church members see economic and social benefit from continuing to exploit coal, for example. But such arguments sound distinctly secular and not different from the ways that any other group of people might disagree on how to handle worldly problems.

I can’t find any word on whether the Church (meaning not just its institutions but also its entire membership) has gone carbon neutral, or any report on their progress thus far, but the Church website does have a guide members can use in their efforts to achieving that goal.


“Quaker” is the nickname for a member of the Religious Society of Friends. I have heard that it was originally coined as an insult, but the Quakers themselves have appropriated the term and use it freely. In fact, although a Quaker congregation or a Quaker service is properly called a Friends Meeting, I am aware of no other way to refer to a member of such a group besides “a Quaker.” I know and have known several Quakers, and while I do not know if they are representative of their faith, I have always been impressed by them as individuals.

The Quakers have a long history of activism in social justice–they were very active in the anti-slavery movement, for example, and in various peace movements. During the Civil War, some Quaker men were imprisoned and abused by the United States government for their principled refusal to bear arms (or to pay for anyone to take their place). It is therefore not especially surprising that the Religious Society of Friends would get involved in climate sanity–I saw a contingent of them at the People’s Climate March, and finding articles and blogs on climate issues by Quakers is easy. Oddly enough, I have not been able to find an actual statement of policy on the subject by American Quakers. I did find a moving statement on the Quakers in Britain site, which described the issue in social justice terms and describes the environmental problem as a symptom of larger economic and social issues.

Bringing It All Together

So, I set out to read up on the responses of five mainline Protestant denominations and find that all five are more or less on it. I did not find a single climate-denial site identified with any of these denominations (doesn’t mean there aren’t any, only that they don’t rank well in search results). Nor did I encounter any reports of mainline climate activists having their faith questioned by their co-religionists (as does happen to evangelical climate activists and scientists). Only among Episcopalians did I encounter any stories of pushback, and those frankly sounded more like grumpy apathy than any kind of religiously motivated resistance.

So, where are all those white Protestants who disavow climate concern in polls?

Logically we might assume that these five denominations are dominated by black people, since the polls report a lot of environmental concern among black Protestants, except that they aren’t–these are majority white groups (there are also historically black Methodist denominations, but that isn’t the same organization). It’s also possible that since I only covered five denominations, I happened not to pick the churches where the deniers are. That, too, seems unlikely.

I am guessing that, as with the Episcopalians, the pro-climate sanity leadership of each denomination is encountering some degree of foot-dragging and pushback from among their followers. I am further guessing that I saw no direct evidence of that for some combination of three reasons: the dissenters could be disorganized, without leaders of their own inclined to speak and write publicly; climate deniers in mainline congregations could be in the process of migrating to evangelical churches; or maybe the lack of concern is fundamentally not religious or even not ideologically based at all. The people who register lack of concern in those polls might be unconcerned either way and just interested in going about their lives.

But guesswork aside, what we know is that a lot of white mainline Protestants do not care about climate, even though the leadership of their churches say otherwise. Why not? What message isn’t getting through? Can we help?



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Please Notice

Normally, I might write about the typhoon.

The Philippines have just been hit by another typhoon, known internationally as Hagupit and in the Philippines as Ruby. Normally, I’d devote an entire article to the storm, since keeping track of natural disasters with a climate dimension is one of the things we do here. Typhoon Hagupit/Ruby hit Tacloban, among other places, the same city that was devastated by Supertyphoon Haiyan/Yolanda  just last year. Because Hagupit was never quite so powerful and thanks to massive preparation efforts this year’s storm was not a catastrophe, but it is still certainly news. It has been downgraded to a tropical storm and is en route to Vietnam, where it could crash straight in to Ho Chi Minh City.

But the United States is also reeling from a series of non-indictments in the highly suspicious deaths of black people. Simultaneously, the climate conference in Lima continues, an obvious must for this blog to cover.

These two seemingly very different topics find common ground in ostensibly representative bodies ignoring and exacerbating social justice.

I will not go over the current racial justice protests, and the reasons for them, in detail here. Readers who do not know what’s happening should consult writers with more expertise in that issue. I will point out that the problem is at least two-fold: one folding is the specific issue of black people being shot, strangled, or otherwise done-in and no one even getting arrested for it; the other folding is that the first one is hardly news, yet major swaths of the American populace (like, for example, me) have only just now started to notice. Even now, many seem to define the problem as the inconvenient and occasionally frightening protests, not the fact that it really looks like black lives still don’t matter in this country. The invisibility of the problem to those who do not experience it directly is absolutely entrenched.

That failure to notice is not exclusive to the issue of American racial violence. Right now in Peru, the world’s leaders meet to discuss the most important issue of our times and they make space to converse with oil company leaders but not the indigenous people of Peru–who are also, not incidentally, fighting for their lives against illegal loggers whom the government does not seem able to adequately control. That these people are being threatened and killed for attempting to protect their rainforest has an odd resonance with the conference in Lima, which intends to offset its rather large carbon footprint by protecting rainforest. Empowering the people who live in the rainforest to protect their homes would seem to be a good way to meet that pledge, but Peru has a poor record of doing that.

In essence, the conference in Lima aims to address climate change using the same political and economic mechanisms that created the problem in the first place–a global structure that prioritizes the needs and interests of the powerful over those of the powerless. That’s not an inherently bad idea, of course; the global structure is unlikely to change any time soon, so it makes sense to work within the systems as much as possible.

But operating from the perspective of the powerful makes it look as though fossil fuel use is a legitimately controversial thing, a good and necessary practice that unfortunately has some bad side effects. The issue looks very different from other perspectives, for example those of many American communities of color. Coal-fired power plants are disproportionately sited in communities of color, which may be why the incidence of asthma in black children is almost double that of American children as a whole. Dense urban cores, where the concrete and asphalt collect and re-radiate heat and few people can afford air conditioning, are also disproportionately black–so a Los Angeles resident’s chance of dying in a heat wave doubles if he or she is black. The seriousness of climate change is just one more thing that the privileged are free to ignore if they want to. Solving the problem depends, in part, on such people giving up that ignorance.

This week is also the occasion of the People’s Summit, an alternative climate conference in Peru that brings together all the people that the delegates in Lima might well forget–indigenous groups, feminist groups, and labor organizations from many different countries. Solving the problem also depends on as many people as possible making so much noise that there is no way their perspective can be ignored.

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On Natural Gas

So, this has been bothering me for a while now. One of the arguments for fracking–an environmentally destructive method of extracting natural gas–is that it is a relatively clean fuel with a lower carbon footprint than coal or petroleum products. How could any fossil fuel have a lower carbon footprint? Isn’t the chemistry of burning carbon compounds basically the same everywhere?

Well, it turns out that no, the chemistry isn’t always the same. Natural gas is relatively clean, with a lower carbon footprint. There are some complications, of course.

Some Chemistry

Natural gas is so called in contrast to manufactured gas, which was typically made from coal. Manufactured gas was very popular through the 1800’s and early 1900’s. The gas lights of gas-lit London (and elsewhere) burned manufactured gas, as did the household ovens that were so tragically easy to use in suicide–manufactured gas is very toxic. The manufacturing process for  gas was an environmental nightmare.

Natural gas, in contrast, exists in gaseous form naturally, hence the name. It burns relatively clean. A natural gas oven cannot kill a person (unless the gas explodes), so the switchover actually caused a dramatic drop in suicide rates–apparently, making self-injury just a little harder gives a lot of people enough time to change their minds..

Natural gas is mostly methane, which really does release less carbon dioxide per unite of heat released than any of the other fossil fuels.

This is because the energy released from burning any substance comes from all of the chemical reactions that occur during the fire. All fossil fuels are hydrocarbons–chemical compounds made mostly out of carbon and hydrogen. When these burn, the carbon combines with oxygen, releasing energy and creating carbon dioxide. But the hydrogen also combines with oxygen, a second chemical reaction–this one releases heat, too, but creates only water.

Because methane has the least number of carbon atoms per hydrogen atoms of any fossil fuel, burning it creates the least amount of carbon dioxide per unit of heat–but by the same principle, burning methane produces more water.

Water vapor is also a greenhouse gas.

What About Water Vapor?

Water vapor is our most important greenhouse gas. Most of it is natural; humans didn’t create the greenhouse effect, we’re just adding to it.

But human activity is adding water vapor to the sky. Besides the chemical production of water through burning fossil fuel, irrigation and other industry exposes more water to evaporation (and transpiration by plants). And, the warmer the planet gets, the more water the atmosphere can hold and so the more water is sucked up into the sky. This is part of how heat waves make droughts worse.

So, what is all this extra water vapor doing to the climate?

It’s hard to tell for sure, because there is a lot scientists still don’t know about the hydrological cycle–including how much water vapor, exactly, is in the sky. Humidity is very variable, so, depending on where and when you measure, the atmospheric concentration of water vapor could be anywhere from zero to 4%.

Climate scientists do know the feedback loop between hotter weather and increased evaporation is very serious. The more water evaporates, the hotter the planet gets, and the hotter the planet gets, the more water evaporates.  This is just one of the several feedback loops that could easily make global warming become a frighteningly self-exacerbating problem.

But the extra water vapor we add directly (through irrigation, and so forth) it more confusing. Climate scientists typically ignore this extra humidity, in part because it isn’t clear that it has a global impact. A huge amount of water goes up into the sky–the entire flow of the Colorado River and most of the Aral Sea, for example, both are sucked up by human activity and almost all of that water either evaporates or is transpired. But at least some of that water probably falls back down again pretty quickly, so the total amount of water vapor in the air might not increase all that much. Still, at least some of that water vapor probably stays up there for a while, plus both  groundwater mining (pumping well water out faster than it can recharge) and fossil fuel use add water to the cycle that wasn’t in it at all before. It seems plausible that there is at least as much extra water vapor in the sky as extra carbon dioxide. That must be having some effect.

Anthropogentic (human-caused) water vapor could be one of the things science is wrong to ignore. But on the other hand, there is a lot more water vapor than carbon dioxide up there. The concentration of CO2 has gone up by about 100 parts per million (PPM) since the Industrial Revolution, meaning that just over a third of what’s in the atmosphere is our doing. In contrast, if the concentration of water vapor has also gone up by about 100 PPM as a direct result of human activity (that is, not counting the feedback loop), then only about one ten-thousanth of the water vapor up there is our doing. The extra might well be lost in the shuffle.

The above figure assumes that the global concentration of water vapor is 1% which, as noted earlier, might well be wrong–the true figure could be anywhere from 4% to zero, but given how much of the planet is either ocean or humid landscape, 1% seems plausible. The point is that, whatever the real numbers are, we’re looking at a difference of several orders of magnitude between the concentrations of the two gases. Of course, while an extra 1oo ppm of water vapor might mean nothing over, say, a rainforest, over a desert where natural humidity approaches zero, the difference might be quite real. So, whether anthropogenic water vapor matters might therefore be a very complex question, depending on where the increase occurs and what happens to the global climate if certain areas warm disproportionately.

The reason I bring all this up is that while coal is a very dirty, destructive fuel on almost any conceivable level, burning it produces no water vapor at all. When methane (natural gas) burns, for every one molecule of carbon dioxide produced, we get two molecules of water.

Bringing It All Together

On balance, I’d say that burning methane is better for the sky than coal is, and may be better than gasoline and other petroleum products. Much of our natural gas now comes from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is an environmental horror show (flammable well-water, increasing earthquakes), but so is coal mining (mountain-top removal) and petroleum (oil spills, groundwater contamination). The EPA’s new rules for CO2 emissions will probably encourage the natural gas industry at the expense of the coal industry, and that’s ok.

But the issue with water vapor is only one place where the environmental impact of natural gas might be more complex than it sounds. Clearly, the stuff is no panacea.

Ultimately, we’re going to have to get off fossil fuel entirely, and that is where our efforts need to go–towards renewable energy sources and energy conservation. Anything else is probably a distraction, although any step that lowers our carbon emissions is an improvement and needs support.