Chattanooga faith communities learn about their 'moral obligation' to fight climate change

Ken Kimmell, Union of Concerned Scientists president, said faith communities have worked on important social histories throughout history. Their next movement should be fighting climate change, he said. / Staff photo by Wyatt Massey
photo Staff photo by Wyatt Massey Ken Kimmell, Union of Concerned Scientists president, outlines the disturbing trends of climate change for local faith communities on Monday night at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga. / Staff photo by Wyatt Massey

The religious community has played important roles in the past century in social movements from poverty to civil rights. And, members of several religions heard Monday night, the next major fight for the faithful should be stopping climate change.

The Rev. Susan Hendershot, Interfaith Power & Light president, and Ken Kimmell, Union of Concerned Scientists president, led a discussion about the size of the problem, steps to reverse the disturbing trends and the moral obligation the faith community has to protecting the planet.

Working on environmental issues can be a tangible representation of faith since faith requires followers to care for the planet and work in the present to create a better future, Hendershot said.

"Science tells us what is happening and how we can solve it," she said. "The faith community can provide the why."

The nearly 100 people gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga on Monday night included Unitarians, Quakers, Episcopalians and Jews.

Interfaith Power & Light, a San Francisco-based organization, has 40 state affiliate programs, including one in Tennessee, which gives the organization a reach to about 20,000 congregations to advocate for greater participation by faith communities in fighting climate change individually and collectively, Hendershot said.

Kimmell, whose nonprofit organization uses science to advocate for policy positions related to climate change, transportation and economic equity, said the collaboration with Interfaith Power & Light is part of a move to build a broader coalition of people addressing climate change. Hendershot and Kimmell are making five stops throughout the Southeast United States, including in Atlanta; Birmingham, Alabama; Greenville, South Carolina; and Raleigh, North Carolina.

"Our view of the political landscape of climate change is that we've really got to broaden the coalition to make lasting change," Kimmell said.

The work of the coalition would be to create policy changes on the local, state and federal levels, Kimmell said. The presidential administration under Donald Trump has removed a number of Environmental Protection Agency regulations implemented under former President Barack Obama. In June 2017, Trump removed the United States from the Paris Agreement, an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The world will experience food shortages and major species extinctions by 2040 unless trends of climate change are reversed, according to a 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Increasing global temperatures will lead to greater risks of heat-related illness, greater air pollution, damaged food supplies and more severe weather, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

People should be alarmed by the present and future threats of climate change, Kimmell said, but they should not be immobilized. The necessary changes to reach "net zero" emissions - having all carbon emissions offset by carbon removal practices - are already in process. Those changes include expanding electric car use and curbing damaging industrial practices, removing carbon from the atmosphere and incentivizing companies to decarbonize, he said.

Kate Anthony, 72, said faith communities must take up the issue of climate change because many traditions require followers to be stewards of the earth. Scientists and faith leaders can create an important partnership, she said.

"Some people think science and faith [are] opposed and they're not," she said. "And this is one way to demonstrate this."

The other issues faith communities take on - from food insecurity to poverty - will be made worse if the climate continues to warm, said Olin Ivey, Urban Century Institute board member and longtime advocate for sustainability.

"If we do not make radical changes, and very, very soon, not only here in the United States but the overall world, I do not see the world being habitable past 2040," Ivey said.

Hendershot said she was encouraged by the growing Tennessee chapter of Interfaith Power & Light and the energy in local faith communities. She and Kimmell may make a second tour to visit more congregations throughout the United States, Hendershot said.

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Find him on Twitter at @News4Mass.