Although the pandemic has forced many celebrations of Earth Day 2020 to move online, faith leaders and Christian organizations are championing various initiatives to conserve resources and preserve the planet. On this 50th anniversary of what’s become the world’s largest civic observance, people of faith are publicizing environmental concerns while attempting to change attitudes. Meanwhile, research shows that U.S. pastors’ perceptions of climate issues have been shifting.
Earth Day 2020 Observances and Initiatives
The first Earth Day celebration, on April 22, 1970, is credited with launching the modern environmental movement. To celebrate the milestone anniversary, several interfaith prayer and worship services are taking place.
On Wednesday evening, the Washington National Cathedral will host a Facebook Live event for Earth Day, with the Rev. Stephanie Spellers leading a panel discussion. “It’s strange and fitting that we’re marking the 50th Earth Day during a global pandemic,” she says. “COVID-19 has forced us to acknowledge the web of life that connects us and all of creation. We are—for better and for worse—in this together.”
The United Methodist Church Board of Church and Society held a virtual worship service midday Wednesday featuring the theme “‘Fierce Urgency of Now’: A Prophetic Call for Climate Justice.’”
Some congregations celebrate Earth Sunday the weekend before or after the official April 22 observance. Creation Justice Ministries offers a variety of activities for marking Earth Day in your congregation and community.
More than 80 non-governmental organizations, including several faith-based groups, have signed a Climate Compact through the InterAction alliance. Signatories include Catholic Relief Services, Church World Service, Episcopal Relief and Development, Heifer International, and Save the Children. InterAction works with NGOs to serve the world’s poor and to meet large-scale global goals such as the U.N. Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
Pastors’ Global-Warming Beliefs Heat Up
The half-century birthday of Earth Day also brings news of shifting attitudes among U.S. clergy. According to data from LifeWay Research, a majority of America’s Protestant pastors now—for the first time—say global warming and climate change are real and human-caused. When asked to respond to the statement “I believe global warming is real and man-made,” 53 percent say they agree. (Of that total, 34 percent say they “strongly agree.”) For comparison, only 36 percent of surveyed pastors agreed with a similar statement 10 years ago.
Scott McConnell, Lifeway executive director, says, “Fewer pastors are rejecting global warming and climate change out of hand, yet pastors are still split on the subject, likely following along with political divides.”
A breakdown of the results indicates that younger pastors, those with higher levels of education, and those from mainline denominations are more likely to believe that climate change is real and human-caused. More than three-quarters (78 percent) of African-American pastors agree with those ideas.
In the latest survey, only 24 percent of Protestant pastors say they “strongly disagree” that climate change is real and human-caused. “Climate change can be a difficult issue to address because the causes and effects are not always easily seen where you live,” says McConnell. “Much like the current coronavirus pandemic, environmental mitigation efforts require trust in the scientists measuring the problem and finding the best solutions that balance all of the concerns involved.”
More than half (54 percent) of U.S. Protestant pastors say their congregation is taking steps to reduce its environmental impact. That number increases to 70 percent among pastors who believe climate change is real and human-caused.
Pope Francis: We’ve ‘ruined the work of God’
In Rome, Pope Francis observed Earth Day’s 50th anniversary by urging a global response to urgent environmental concerns. Young people, he says, should “take to the streets to teach us what is obvious…that there will be no future for us if we destroy the environment that sustains us.” The “natural tragedies” occurring in today’s world are the result of human “mistreatment,” the pope says, adding, “It is we who have ruined the work of God.”