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Young Evangelicals fight climate change from inside the church: "We can solve this crisis in multiple ways"

Young Evangelicals fighting climate change
New generation of believers try to tackle climate change skepticism in Evangelical churches 08:03

Ahead of September's U.N. General Assembly in New York City, thousands of youth activists flooded the streets of Manhattan, calling for the end of the use of fossil fuels. Among them was Elsa Barron, 24, a young Evangelical Christian looking to make change in her community. 

Barron, a climate research fellow at the Center for Climate and Security, a non-partisan institute of the Council on Strategic Risks, told CBS News that she is hoping to change the minds of those in her church who don't believe in climate change. A Pew Research Center poll from 2022 found that 53% of Americans say human activity is responsible for a warming planet, but only 32% of Evangelical Christians agree. That's the lowest amount of support from any of the religious groups surveyed, 45% of Christians said that human activity is responsible for a warming planet, and 50% of Catholics said the same. In general, Evangelical Christians are the most skeptical religious group when it comes to climate change. 

"There's a lot of emphasis on sort of God's divine care for the world and his good plan for the world," Barron told CBS News. "But some people kind of take that and say ... 'If you think the world is at risk, then maybe you don't have enough trust or faith in God.'"

Elsa Barron. CBS Saturday Morning

Barron tries to speak to her community the best way she knows how: by quoting from the Bible. With passages like Genesis 2:15, which says that "the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it," she hopes to encourage peers in the church to look seriously at the impacts of climate change.

"What does loving our neighbors really look like in a world where the sorts of decisions are directly impacting people's ability to live in their homes across the world, or to manage their crops or have food or water to drink?" Barron said. 

Barron isn't the only Evangelical Christian trying to make a difference. In November 2022, Galen Carey, the vice president of government relations at the National Association of Evangelicals, issued a sweeping report urging members to help curb or mitigate climate change on a biblical basis. The Evangelical skepticism around climate change, Carey said, started when the issue became politicized. In the 1970s, Evangelical Christians were early leaders in raising concerns about environmental degradation, but in the 1990s, political conservatives began to emphasize economic growth over environmental concerns by casting doubt on climate science. 

"Well, very sadly, this whole issue has become politicized in an unhelpful way," Carey said. "And they say, 'Oh, well, if I am conservative then, or if I'm Republican, or whatever, then I must be opposed to this stuff.' ... I think that's unfortunately where the issue is wound up for a lot of people. But we still have the Bible. It hasn't changed. And so we continue to call people back to that." 

Barron said she can understand the skepticism: It's something she once experienced. Growing up in Wheaton, Illinois, where Evangelical Christianity is firmly rooted, she said she was known as the "Creation Girl" for her strongly held beliefs and literal interpretation of the Bible. However, she was "very passionate" about science, and soon began to question some of her beliefs about evolution. 

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"I was starting to really see the evidence behind things like evolution or even climate change," said Barron, who now lives in Washington, D.C. to work at the Center for Climate and Security. "It was definitely a moment of questioning for me, in crisis of whether I could still hold on to my faith at all. ... Do I stay or do I go, because I didn't know if I should go find a faith community that was more in line with my values. That was very much a turning point for me trying to dig in my heels and really have these tough conversations that I hope will inspire the kind of change we need." 

Barron said that her beliefs and attempts to change the church's attitudes from the inside have caused some friction with peers and loved ones, including her own family. While her father recognizes a responsibility to care for the planet, he has doubts about the cause of extreme weather. However, she said she just tries to "keep opening spaces for conversation to happen" and work to meet those who doubt her message with compassion and kindness.

"We can solve this crisis in multiple ways," she said. 

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