Author and environmental activist Bill McKibben spent three days in jail last year after being arrested protesting the Keystone Pipeline, a project scientists say would signal "game over" for the climate. Three cells away was United Church of Christ Massachusetts Conference minister the Rev. Jim Antal. To McKibben, the involvement of Antal and the UCC in the nonviolent protest to stop what he calls "environmental catastrophe" is powerful and prophetic.
But even more than that, McKibben says, it's necessary. At a time when leading climate scientists are urgently stressing the need to take action on global warming before it's too late, the religious community can make its voice heard by coming together and taking a stand.
"We're not actually going to solve climate change one light bulb at a time – it will also take structural reform, so we need the churches involved in a very serious way," McKibben said.
The most important action an organization can take in the fight against climate change, McKibben stresses, is to divest in fossil fuel companies and weaken their power. Universities throughout the U.S. have spearheaded this effort, with trustees at schools such as Maine's Unity College voting to sell all fossil fuel stock, and the students at Harvard University asking their trustees to do the same. Similarly, the UCC Massachusetts Conference has proposed a Synod resolution calling for the entire denomination and its 1.1 million members to divest from fossil fuel companies. The resolution has since been endorsed by Community UCC in Boulder, Colo. While the conference acknowledges the financial impact of the UCC's movement would be rather minimal in the eyes of fossil fuel producers, the message it would send would be big. McKibben believes it's the kind of action more organizations will need to take to keep the momentum moving forward.
"This is vital because these [fossil fuel] companies have used their vast wealth to prevent significant action on the most important issue facing the planet," McKibben explains. "It's not OK to be financially entangled with them – if it's wrong to wreck the climate, it's wrong to profit from that wreckage."
Another obvious step to care for the climate is to decrease the use of fossil fuels. As a precursor to the UCC's church-wide Mission 4/1 Earth campaign, UCC churches across the country have been actively making changes to reduce their environmental footprints. First Congregational Church UCC in Bakersfield, Calif., invested $200,000 into a solar panel installation project last year that produces 240-260 kilowatts of energy on an average day. The Environmental Ministry Team at the Congregational Church of Needham (Mass.) UCC conducted a professional energy audit of their building and replaced more than 700 incandescent light bulbs with LED counterparts. Tennessee's Pleasant Hill Community Church UCC installed a geothermal heating and cooling system which utilizes energy generated from heat retained deep within the earth rather than fossil fuels. Minneapolis-based Mayflower Church UCC has set a goal to be completely carbon neutral by 2030.
"All of us play a role by burning fossil fuels, but most of us would be entirely happy to power our lives with the sun and the wind instead – it's just this [fossil fuel] industry that insists on using its muscle to blot out the future," McKibben said.
Despite his passion, McKibben actually didn't set out to be an environmentalist. But the writer, lecturer and activist always seemed to immerse himself in the prominent societal problems of the day. Not just by reading, writing and researching. But by, for example, living on the streets of New York City to understand the emerging homelessness crises of the late 1970s and then building a homeless shelter in his church's basement. By the time he was in his late 20s, his attention had turned to emerging scientific studies about climate change. McKibben's first book, 1989's The End of Nature, identified the earth's destruction as the most important of all of society's problems. Thirteen books, countless articles and lectures, and the founding of a few organizations later, he's since been on a mission to change the world.
"I realized it would be the great story of our time," he said of climate change. "And I supposed I figured out in the process that this would have to be my life's work."
McKibben grew up in Lexington, Mass., and was an active member of Hancock UCC. He is currently a member of the Methodist denomination, as it is "the only mainline flavor available" in rural Vermont where he lives with his wife and daughter. The church has always played an important role in his life – the youth group was "the center of his social life" and he also taught Sunday school. In addition to a peaceful home life and upbringing, McKibben cites Hancock's ministers as profound role models that helped shape his views and morals.
"The house I grew up in was filled with that kind of thought," he said. "As a boy, the Narnia stories of C.S. Lewis were my most important reading. So I think it's not completely surprising that I've ended up involved in nonviolent movement building for the common good."
As the war against the planet rages on, McKibben can only hope that more organizations and individuals will soon accept the crisis at hand and begin to take action. He compares the situation to the gradual demonization of the tobacco industry – once deemed too powerful to fight, but, over time, exposed for its fatal effects – and hopes the fossil fuel giants soon face the same undoing. It will take time, education and maybe even a few sacrifices. But if people take collective action, only good can come from it.
"Slow down climate change so that the world is something like the one we were born into," he says. "If you think about it, that's not a radical goal at all. It's a conservative one."
The United Church of Christ has been working for environmental justice for almost 30 years, and recognizes the opportunity for a shared mission campaign to live out our faith — in unity, as one church — for the sake of our fragile planet Earth.
With the help of UCC congregations everywhere, Mission 4/1 Earth, which begins Easter Monday 2013, hopes to accomplish more than 1 million hours of engaged earth care, 100,000 tree plantings across the globe, and 100,000 advocacy letters written and sent on environmental concerns.