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Featuring guest Jessica Moerman

Jessica Moerman | No Act Too Small

Studying paleoclimatology helped Jessica Moerman understand Earth's climate in the past and call people to act for a healthy future.


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colorful abstract image of stalactites

This image was created with the assistance of DALL·E 2

Studying paleoclimatology helped Jessica Moerman understand Earth's climate in the past and call people to act for a healthy future.

Description

Jessica Moerman’s scientific research has included the study of stalagmites in Bornean caves and digging up ancient lakes in Africa. Through this work she and other paleoclimatologists—those who study the climate of the past—have started to piece together the puzzle of how earth’s climate has changed in the past, which helps us to understand how it could change in the future. For Jessica, science has always been a tool for ministry and for understanding God’s creation. That idea has led her to her current role as the CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network where she is able to share her knowledge of science, her passion for ministry and the call to act to bring about a healthy future.

Theme song and credits music by Breakmaster Cylinder. Other music in this episode by Northern Points, courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc.

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  • Originally aired on November 09, 2023
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Transcript

Moerman:

Because as much as I had loved my research career in doing the scientific work itself, I’d always loved sharing that with others and doing the work of climate communication, of helping folks understand that climate is changing today, that it’s real, it’s us, it’s bad. We’ve got to do something about it. And especially being the wife of a pastor, being a church planter or a leader in the church, recognize that God had positioned me to reach my fellow Christians who may have had those questions and help bridge that gap, and lead them to really seeing that we can’t ignore climate because if we do, we are not living out the mission of God as fully as we could right now, especially in the face of the huge humanitarian disasters that are being driven by an unstable and unsafe climate.

I am the Reverend Dr. Jessica Moerman. I serve as President and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network. I am also a climate scientist by training and the co-founding Pastor of Grace Capital City, a church here in Washington, DC

Stump:

Hey everybody, welcome to Language of God. I’m your host, Jim Stump. I’m tempted to introduce the Reverend Dr. Jessica Moerman as a scientist turned ministry leader. But as we’ll hear in the interview that distinction between science and ministry doesn’t really work for Jessica and maybe it’s a distinction we should try to get rid of altogether. For Jessica, science was always a path to ministry even as she was traipsing around Bornean caves studying the isotopic levels in stalagmites or digging up layers of ancient lakes in Africa. Her scientific training is in paleoclimatology, this study of past climates, and we spend a good portion of our time talking about that science and how it’s done and what it tells us.

Jessica’s current role is as the CEO of the EEN, the Evangelical Environmental Network where she takes this knowledge along with the input of many other scientists and puts that in the context of Christian faith. The result is a pretty clear calling to act. There are a lot of ways that Christians can take action and the EEN helps people do just that. BioLogos is thrilled to come into closer partnership with the EEN as both our organizations see it as a critical part of our Christian witness to equip people to care for this world God has given us. 

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Jessica Moerman, welcome to the podcast. We’re very glad to be talking to you.

Moerman:

It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Stump:

So you and I first met at the ASA meeting in Toronto last summer and you had laryngitis. So our conversation there was very one-sided. I hope we might remedy that now and have you do more of the talking this time. So tell us a bit about yourself and in doing so, I always like to hear origin stories. So go back a ways. What signs do you see, say even in your childhood, at least in retrospect, that would make somebody reading your biography think you would one day become a climate scientist and the head of a Christian nonprofit organization. Tell us a little of this story.

Moerman:

Absolutely. And yes, the first time we met I was definitely practicing what I preach, which is to always start by listening.

Stump:

You did that well.

Moerman:

I think that was some of my best listening that I’ve done, so that was good. That was good. But I love this question and something that I often over the years have thought about because one question I often get asked is how did a nice girl from the south get involved in climate science? Not typically the story that you encounter every day, but I grew up in East Tennessee in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, and I was just spoiled with the grandeur of God’s creation. It’s beauty. And I found myself as my family would go up into the mountains often just wondering like, wow, how did God make this? This is just beautiful. And I’d get out with my dad who is a hunter, and he would teach me and my sisters about conservation and caring well for God’s creation and all God’s creatures, and was in Girl Scouts where my mother led me and that went to Christian summer camp, a camp called Wesley Woods. I grew up in the Methodist tradition and my uncle ran that camp there.

I just had so many opportunities I think as a young child to begin to piece these things together. But it wasn’t something that when it comes to creation care or Christian environmental stewardship, it wasn’t something that in church that we had explicitly talked about either. So when I was 17, 18 years old in youth group, one thing that my church did talk a lot about was calling, and is God calling you into full-time ministry? And I felt that as a 17, 18-year-old, this tug of like, yes, yes, God is calling me into ministry with him, but for me, I didn’t know what that looked like.

Stump:

Your story sounds very familiar to lots of our stories, mine included, lots of evangelicals growing up in similar circumstances and perhaps even having an appreciation for nature of some sort. But still most of those stories did not end up saying, “And yes, my calling is going to be, I’m going to be a climate scientist.” So I still want to hear a little bit more about how that happened.

Moerman:

Yeah, what happened, whenever I felt this call towards full-time ministry, I decided that I’d simply ask God, “What did that look like for me?” So I asked him, I prayed and I prayed, “Lord, what would you have me do?” And what he kept on coming back with was, “Study geology. Study geology.” And I didn’t know what to do with that because one, I didn’t see how geology fit as ministry. And also, I have to say, just to be honest, I wasn’t really sure if I could be a scientist and a Christian.

I had a real wrestle on my hands of do I be obedient to God in what he’s directing me towards or not? And so that was the wrestle that I had as an incoming freshman looking to go into college, what was I going to major in? And so that summer, actually my church, we were out on a mission trip and the mission leader, the leader of our group at that time asked the question that every kind of incoming college freshmen gets of, “What are you going to study in college?” And thinking it’s a simple question and I just spill my guts to him and it’s like, “”I feel like God is calling me into ministry specifically by studying geology. I don’t know if I can do this. And he was so gracious, and patient, and simply listened. And then once I was finished with my spiel, he looked at me and he said, “Jessica, don’t you know that I’m a geologist?”

I had no idea. And I’m so grateful looking back because God put the right person in my path at the right moment in my life to give me the permission that I felt like I needed to be obedient to his call. And again, a scientist in the church being open about that, it changed my life. And so with that courage, I became a geology major. I still didn’t know how geology and ministry fit together, but I decided to be obedient. And it was actually in a freshman geology class where we were learning about how we can figure out what climate was like in the past using the rock record, using clues in God’s creation that I can only attribute to the Holy Spirit.

Stump:

Where’d you go to college?

Moerman:

I went to UT Chattanooga. So also just a very, very beautiful place.

Stump:

So a state institution that what you’re just describing there in your geology class of seeing this in God’s creation, was that your own interpretation of what you were learning there or was that actually actively being taught to you at there?

Moerman:

Oh no, they would not have framed it that way. They would not have framed it that way. But that’s for me as a scientist, I simply look at science as the study of God’s creation, as a scientist and a Christian. And that’s what I love about science is that as I study God’s creation, instead of it being a barrier to my faith, it’s actually enhanced my faith by giving me an even greater picture of the grandeur of God, of his magnificence, of how much he loves us by seeing the care, and the time, and orchestrating things coming together in just the right way. It just has given me such a greater picture of his love for us.

Stump:

So it sounds like within your church you had community there that was encouraging and supporting you. Same story in your family and then on the other side in the state institution of those who knew you were a Christian doing this, did you find support or was there resistance in any of those pockets of— 

Moerman:

More so instead of outright support or outright objections, more just kind of mild curiosity.

Stump:

Yeah, interesting.

Moerman:

And especially for myself as I describe myself a little bit as a people pleaser, one, not wanting to disappoint people, that was hard for me. Even just sort of that mild, mild curiosity and kind of like, hmm, I’m not quite sure if this is the normal thing to do, but I will say what was stronger than that was again, that clear sense from God that this was the path that he had me on. And again, in that moment, in that freshman geology class, I found myself so often in my science classes is anything that I found that I was studying that seemed to be in conflict with what I had learned in my church upbringing or just kind of gleaned from the atmosphere of, “Oh, this might be controversial.” I’d simply ask God. I’d say, “Lord, what do you say about this?” And so I ended up having this dialogue with God in science class and doing my science studies and every single time when I’d ask him a question, he would give me a sense of peace and show me how it all fit together. That is just the graciousness of the Lord that I found in that season.

Stump:

Well, keep the story going here. Any other formative experiences during this undergraduate geology degree and what did that lead to?

Moerman:

Yeah, absolutely. And so that was one of those moments in that class on Paleoclimatology, which again is just the long-winded way of saying the study of past climate change, before we had weather stations. That was one of those moments where in science class, and I can only attribute it to the Holy Spirit, breaking in, plunked down Matthew 22 on my heart during that lecture of Jesus’s greatest commandment to us to love God with all your heart and soul, and strength, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. And that was when the Lord made it clear how geology and ministry fit together. Because I had heard about climate change and I had heard that it impacts the most vulnerable first and worst, and I had just a deep desire to join God in his ministry of serving others. And that’s where the connection was made by studying climate change and climate science, I could participate in the solution of protecting all people, but especially those most vulnerable, most at risk from the worst harms of climate. And so I was off to the races after that. I was like, okay, I’m going to become a Paleoclimatologist. I’m going to study what climate was like in the past. I’m going to go into climate science and I’m going to help solve this problem.

Stump:

So if I might observe, so I grew up in this world too, and most of the people I have heard who are as passionate as you come across about your calling from God to do ministry and to serve God in this fairly dramatic way, rush right to the immediate ministry outlets as opposed to, “I’m going to go get a PhD in paleoclimatology.” Are there any other hints from your past that we might understand this in you a little bit more? How do you have, I mean, it’s kind of a delayed gratification in a sense, right? Of “I’m going to go through and do the really hard work of getting a PhD in the sciences as opposed to I’m going to go out and start comforting the poor and the homeless right now, right away.”

Moerman:

And so doing that was something that of that more immediate ministry and kind of the typical path of what ministry and missions can look like, definitely did engage in that while I was in my hometown church as well as kind of in my church life at each stage. I guess, and again, my heart has, when I was trying to discern what did it look like for me to go into full-time ministry one, I’ll just say I had a hesitation of, you know what? I don’t think that looks like being upfront and preaching and being that typical pastor role.

I was looking into, well, maybe I’ll go into medical missions. I did a lot of mission trips with my church here in states across the US as well as internationally. And I just found, and I suspicious, I always liked science. So I think something science-minded, maybe I’ll go into medical missions, but it just wasn’t that right fit. Again, every time that I brought those things before the Lord, it just didn’t feel right. And again, that’s what I found is whenever you bring your plans to the Lord and he says that we as children of God, we will make our plans, but God will order our steps and we bring those plans to God and say, “Lord, what do you think?” I found that one, it’s a very dangerous thing to do. Again, you just don’t know what he is going to say.

But then secondly, he always surprises us and I think he really just honors a willing heart that says, “Lord, I’ll go wherever you send me.” And that was my experience. And I think we’re seeing a generation of young believers today who are doing just that and the Lord is sending them into surprising places, not just into the four walls of the church or kind of those typical ministry areas. And I find that so exciting. That’s something that our church and our church here in DC that we’re always looking to lead our congregation in is whatever vocation or area that the Lord is calling you into, that is ministry, do it unto the Lord, be that light and you are able to reach people in your unique context and vocation that no one else can. They may not step into the four walls of the church, but you get to be the light and life of Christ right there incarnationally where God has placed you.

And that’s the story of my life, also, when it comes to faith in science as I’ve met so many young people who are aspiring for careers in science and technology, engineering. They have some of those similar stories as well and have a hunger of how can I live out my calling through this unique vocation in science and technology, and engineering? Which is really exciting.

Stump:

Yes, it is. And very refreshing to hear it described in that way. And I need to change one of my notes here now to make sure I don’t fall prey to what you’re trying to undo there and “Say, well, let’s not talk about ministry quite yet. Let’s talk about the science.” Because what you are saying is the science is the ministry. We shouldn’t be separating these things quite that much. I do want to talk about the Evangelical Environmental Network that you lead in a bit, but I want to get there in the same way that you did, go through the science to get to that.

So let me ask you a few questions specifically about the work that you’ve done scientifically and how the rest of us might understand this if I can? Because one of the real common responses I hear now from people who accept that the climate really is changing, that’s difficult to deny anymore, but want to kind of deny human responsibility, is they fall back on this rhetorical ploy of saying, “Well, it’s just a natural cycle. Climate has always been changing.”

And I’ve taken to asking such people why they believe that and they eventually have to admit, well, it comes from people like you, from climate scientists who have discovered such things, the same people who are telling us that climate change now is not due to natural causes, but you are an expert in this paleoclimatology. What was the climate like in the past? How do you do this? How do you understand what the climate was like 10,000 years ago, a million years ago? What are the scientific processes you go through to determine such things?

Moerman:

Yeah, so what I love about this is that I kind of think about this as, again, God has left clues in his creation for us to figure this out. And so that means looking to the rock record and the natural record. And so as Paleoclimatologist, what we do is we look for different geologic materials across the entire globe and especially things that grow in layers. So you often think about tree rings, ice cores. I specifically looked, used stalagmites and caves as well as lake sediments that all form these layers. And we can essentially look at each of those layers as a unique page in a history book. And we just have to figure out how do we read each page? And so we use different chemical signatures or assemblages of different microfossils that have a signature of oftentimes of temperature, of rainfall in the past.

And when we know how to read, decode those clues, I use specifically stable oxygen isotopes and hydrogen isotopes, you can go through and the work that I was doing with stalagmites in the tropics, those that isotopic signature reflected rainfall amount. And so what I’d do is I would look at these layers of the stalagmites, I’d measure their oxygen isotope chemistry at each layer and would get this incredible record at different times while that stalagmite was growing, it was rainier or wetter. And then what we do is we compare those records with thousands of records that have been generated from different places around the globe using different materials. Again, those ice cores or tree rings, corals in the ocean and see how everything lines up. And that’s how we’ve just gotten this incredibly robust record, body of evidence of how the earth’s climate has changed throughout its history at different stages.

And we can ask questions of not only how did it change? But also why, what was causing these changes, drastic changes and rainfall patterns and temperature across earth’s history? And I have to say when I get that question from folks of, “Well, is climate change today just part of a natural cycle or is it something different?” I love getting that question because it’s something that I studied and asked myself for 15 years and that colleagues even before me, this is a science that goes back a century. And what’s so great about that is that we’ve got some really good answers to that question, and I love sharing that answer with folks as well, as well as just bringing folks into telling how it’s done. And I just find it’s such a fascinating, and elegant body of research and scientific study.

Stump:

Okay, so let me probe that a little further. I too think this is really fascinating. And so our crack research team here for the podcast, namely Colin, the producer, uncovered an article that you were the lead author on in the Journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, which sounds like what you’ve just been talking about here. The title of this was Diurnal to Inter-Annual Rainfall Delta 18 Oxygen Variations in Northern Borneo Driven by Regional Hydrology.

So I love this title as it raises two really interesting issues for us in this conversation. First is that there is real climate science going on by real scientists who traipeses through far away places and methodically measure things, right? Scientists aren’t just making this stuff up and that should make it easier for us to trust the conclusions, I think.

But then the second aspect of this is I consider myself fairly scientifically literate, but I don’t think I could say what that article is really about just from the title. And that underscores the fact that scientific expertise is often fairly far separated from most people’s range of normal experience, and that makes it harder to trust.

So I’d like to give you the opportunity here to flex your science muscles a little more, maybe bring this down further to a layperson’s level. Describe what you were actually doing. Were you in caves in Borneo looking at stalagmites and scraping stuff off of them? Or what are you actually doing to end up with these conclusions that come in a very impressive sounding journal article like this?

Moerman:

Well, I have to say that article was a doozy, and I’m happy to go into how such a very esoteric sounding title what that actually means, but you’re exactly right. And this was what I loved so much about being in science as it takes you… Can take you to just amazing places in God’s creation. And so I had the privilege and the joy of doing research in Borneo in the Western tropical Pacific into the hiking through the jungles to these remote caves. And oh my goodness, I just have to tell you, the caves were spectacular. It wasn’t kind of like the type of caving that I was used to doing in the southeast here in the US where you really are doing that spelunking and crawling through the mud. No, it wasn’t tight squeezes. It was really like hiking in huge underground caverns.

It was hiking underground. It was so amazing with these huge stalagmites and stalactites and just beauty. It was actually these caves were featured in the first Planet Earth documentary series. So that was fascinating. But one thing that I was doing, and specifically, to that research article that you point towards was my research was doing the ground truthing of, okay, when we do our paleoclimate records from these stalagmites, we’re using these different flavors, isotopic flavors of oxygen to tell us this connection with rainfall amount. And while we wanted to know how well did that isotopic oxygen chemical signature, how well did it actually reflect rainfall amount up on the ground? And so what I was doing, I set up rainfall collectors at the airport, the local airports weathers station there. So we’d collect water samples every single day, have that paired with rainfall amount recorded at.

And I have to say it was a very tiny airport, and that flight into that airport was always a bit hairy, but we would collect rainfall every single day. We were also collecting cave drip waters about every two weeks, had some fantastic partners on the ground who would help us do that when we weren’t there ourselves. And then we’d match those with the weather station rainfall data and see how well our isotopes were reflecting rainfall amount.

And specifically to answer the question, the reason we were in Borneo was that it is a hotspot, kind of a hinge point for the El Nino cycle. And we wanted to know how El Nino was changing in the past. And that might be more relevant to listeners today because we’re in currently heading into a very massive El Nino pattern right now. It’s part of Earth’s natural cycle of climactic change, but it changes weather patterns all across the world and kind of wreaks havoc with rainfall amounts causing drought in some areas, floods in others, changing up kind of our expectations. And so we wanted to know how El Nino had changed in the past and how we could expect it to be impacted by future warming that we’re causing today? And so I was going through that ground truthing of how reliable are our paleoclimate records of this, how well does our isotopes that we’re basing that on, how well does that reflect rainfall amount at the site?

Stump:

Okay, so let me see if I understand this. You’re seeing how much it’s raining currently and how much that affects the drip water, is that what you call it?

Moerman:

Mm-hmm.

Stump:

That’s coming down into the caves forming these stalactites, stalagmites. So there must be some relationship between the amount of rain and the specific oxygen isotopes. Is that what you said you were measuring?

Moerman:

Right. Yes.

Stump:

Okay. So you find what that correlation is currently, and then you’re able to use that relationship to dig down deeper into the stalagmites and stalactites and see what the isotope concentration was then and from that predict how much it was raining in those years. Is that close to it?

Moerman:

Yep, that’s exactly right because that oxygen, so we know water rainfall is H2O and are stalagmites, they’re made of calcite. So that’s a calcium atom with a carbon and three oxygens there. So that oxygen from the rainfall gets embedded into that mineral structure of the calcite and the stalagmite and gets recorded and captured through time. And so what we were looking at is those different isotopic signatures, the flavor of that oxygen isotope that was captured in the calcite crystal. How well did that reflect rainfall amount in the past?

Stump:

And how far back could you look using these methods with stalactites and stalagmites?

Moerman:

Our longest records go back about half a million years and could go back further based on switching to a different, we were using uranium thorium, the dating system, using uranium thorium that gets us back about a half million years reliably, and then had other colleagues that were pioneering uranium lead for the stalagmites that would get us back millions of years.

Stump:

Wow. This is very interesting. I understand that you also did a postdoc with Rick Pots whose name some of our listeners might recognize. He’s the director of the Hall of Human Origins at Smithsonian in DC and was the guest on this very podcast way back on episode 12. What did you do on that stint with him there? I assume you’re in Africa?

Moerman:

I was in Africa, yes, I was in the South Kenya Rift doing the same technique of looking at oxygen isotopes, but this time looking at them in a Paleo lake record. So this dried up lake that is right next to one of Rick’s paleoanthropological sites. And so I was the token paleoclimatologist in this anthropology lab. And what Rick wanted to do was understand how changes in climate may have impacted the rise of our own species, homo sapiens.

Stump:

And what did you find?

Moerman:

Oh, we found that especially at this critical time period in Rick’s work of where we see a rise, a change in both technology as well as social interactions from these big hand tools. About a million years ago, these big hand axes that were dominant between a million years ago to about a half million years ago, then we see this dramatic shift to these really elegant spear tips made of obsidian that are well-crafted. Kind of like this idea of going from technology wise from the Zach Morris like brick cell phone to our sleek iPhones. Rick’s work traced this transition as well as an incredible transition in social cooperation and a long distance trade that happened at the same time period of a big shift about a half million years ago. So what we did was come in and do the paleoclimate record that covered that same time period. And what we found was also a very big shift in the local climate and environmental context in Southern Kenya at the same time. And so that gave us an idea that the local population there, that technological shift, the need to work collaboratively with other people groups at long distances that may have been driven by this shift towards a more unpredictable climate and environmental context. It was really fascinating.

Stump:

So what was the shift from, and to in that sense, what was so a more stable climate that looked like what? And then it turned into what was the variable climate that it went into?

Moerman:

Yeah, so we were looking at how the natural climate patterns that the tropical monsoon system goes through due to changes, and we’re going to get cosmic for a second changes in the monsoon cycle and the ice age cycles because of how close our earth’s orbit is to the sun. And that’s a whole nother fascinating area of science that we may not have time to go deep into right now. But this cosmic dance of the earth and the sun impacts, drives the ice age cycles and drove changes in the monsoon cycle and looking at when there was higher variability in the monsoon cycle at this same time period. And then how that interacted with the local landscape, which if you’ve been to the Southern Kenya Rift, that is a dynamic local landscape with volcanoes going off throughout time period of where these part of the continent of Africa is rifting apart.

It’s changing these local lake basins. And we found that this change in the amount of rainfall coming to that site as well as with these dynamic landscape shifts work together in concert to make, again, at this time that we see this shift to more advanced technology, this just incredibly more unpredictable, highly variable climate and environmental landscape that was changing the vegetation type in that local area. It completely changed the animal life as well. And so you’d got this picture in the time period where they had these large hand axes, the climate and environment, the vegetation, the wildlife were very stable. It was a nice time to live there. And then with the shift in climate and the shift in technology, it became at that same time, the climate and the landscape became just a really hard place to live because everything was changing. And it gives us this idea that the local people there, they needed to up their game and get some better tools, technology work together to be able to survive in that more unpredictable landscape.

And one of the big takeaways for me of doing that work, of looking at how our human ancestors adapted and responded to climactic and environmental change in the past, I think it gives us an incredible model and picture of what we need to do today in our own climate that’s becoming more unpredictable and making it harder to live. We’ve got to advance innovations as people made in the image of God. He’s the ultimate innovator. So how do we tap into that human ingenuity and God-given innovations to address the problem of climate and also make our air cleaner or water cleaner? But then also we’ve got to work together too. We’ve got to come together. And oftentimes, I think about the challenge that we have at hand. It’s less of a technological problem. We’ve got the tools and know-how to figure this out. We’ve got to figure out how to work together to make it happen.

The other advantage that we have over our human ancestors is they were responding to a natural change in earth’s climate and environment. They were at the mercy of nature. All they could do was adapt.

What’s different today is for the first time in human history, we are causing climate to change. And so that means that when I see that, that’s good news to me, it’s such good news that climate change today isn’t part of a natural cycle, but it’s caused by us. That’s good news because it means now we have another tool in our toolbox. We aren’t just at the mercy of nature and have to adapt to it. We can actually act to stop it. We have agency in this because it’s us, so we just have to address the problem and we actually can. And so those were just some great takeaways that I had from my time working with Rick on that research.

[musical interlude]

Interview Part Two

Stump:

I want to get to a few more of those practical takeaways for us today of what we might do. But if you’d spend just one more minute there, because we jumped pretty quickly from you pretty persuasively talking about how we have understood the natural changes in climate in the past, to asserting that, but this one’s different, this one’s us. Can you give us a little bit more about why we can’t just… So I started down this line of asking you because people say, “It’s just a natural process. Climate’s always been changing.” What can we say the why? Yes, we understand that in the past it has been driven by natural changes, but this time is different. How do we know that?

Moerman:

Yeah, we know this a couple different ways. And so the whole scientific enterprise has been throwing our best state-of-the-art methods of trying to tackle and understand this question. And to answer this question for my fellow Paleoclimatologists and I, what we do is we kind of take a CSI forensic science approach of lining up the common culprits of past climate change and seeing if they’re at play today, can we fingerprint them as the culprit or rule them out? And we’ve talked a little bit about the ice age cycles and how that’s related to Earth’s orbit and how close it is to the sun, that’s caused a lot of climate change in the past. Well, if it was part of that ice age cycle, we’d actually be getting ever so slowly cooler. Volcanic activity is another one that’s caused a lot of climate change in the past.

And if you look around the scale of volcanic activity that we would need to cause the warming that we’re seeing, we’d need to cover half of India in constant volcanic eruptions and huge lava fields. That’s what it looked like in the past when volcanic activity drove massive climate change. Well, we don’t see that today. And actually the small, sporadic volcanic eruptions that we have right now, again, actually have a short-term cooling effect of putting up ash and sulfur dioxides that reflect the sunlight doesn’t let it come down to the earth to warm us. And we get incidents like Krakatoa in the 1800s where we had the year without a summer.

So again, as we rule out these common culprits, we find that naturally, those would be acting to ever so slowly drive us towards cooler temperatures instead of the rapid warming that we see across the globe. And the only thing left with that is the release of carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases that are heat trapping and seeing that rise of their levels in the atmosphere. We can look around and say, “Where are these greenhouse gases coming from?” And what we find is that it’s from using our carbon rich energy sources to power our economies, and fuel our cars, and heat our homes of using a carbon rich energy source that has this shadow effect of taking carbon that was stored for eons in the geologic store of the earth and rapidly putting it up into the atmosphere. We’re changing the chemistry of the atmosphere, putting heat trapping gases up there that’s driving the global warming that we see today.

I’ll pause and say that I am very grateful that we have energy, that we do have electricity, that we have transportation. This has led to incredible prosperity across the world, but it’s come with that shadow side of the emissions of these heat trapping gases as well as air pollution, water pollution that harms our health.

And so that’s why I think we’re at this cusp of an incredible time in history as we respond to this challenge as we respond to climate. We have the opportunity through clean energy sources to get rid of those emissions of greenhouse gases that are driving climate change, but also that gets rid of pollutants, like soot and ozone, and pollutants into the water that harm our health. Just by addressing that shadow side of our energy system of taking out those emissions, it’s an incredible opportunity to further advance prosperity and health across the globe. Again, that’s where I think about this work as very central to missions and ministry of making sure that everyone has a healthy environment to thrive in.

Stump:

Yeah, so let’s start addressing that a little more, particularly here now. I would note too that prosperity you mentioned for which I am thankful as well, has not been so evenly distributed across the world and across the people of the world, and that we who are benefiting most from that prosperity are probably going to suffer the least from the coming climate change, whereas, those who are least responsible for climate change are probably going to suffer the most. Is that a fair assessment?

Moerman:

Oh, that is an absolutely fair assessment. And also it’s a deeply unfair fact in the sense that it is unfair that those of us, and I include myself, who are benefiting most from the system today and responsible most historically for emissions are just, as you said, more shielded, better able to cope with the changes that we see. And it is those who are most vulnerable and least responsible that are going to be impacted the most. And I think that’s why we have to have a deep commitment to, as we are in our ministry and mission work as people of the church and of Christ who are doing that work to help bring prosperity across the world, that we don’t do it in a way that repeats the mistakes of the past.

There is an incredible opportunity for bringing in clean energy, clean transportation to places around the globe that as they develop, helping them develop in a clean way so they aren’t burdened with the pollution that comes from gas powered cars and carbon driven energy systems. We have the opportunity to do that in a better way, but we’ve got to make sure and advocate for, we’ve got to… I think this is especially important for Christians and people of faith to be involved in these conversations to make sure that there is the equitable distribution of clean energy sources, that this doesn’t just become something for the rich or high income countries, but a real focus on countries that are now developing. Helping them develop in a clean way that makes those technologies accessible to them.

Stump:

Okay. So let’s hear a little bit more of what you do specifically with regard to that because just as your path to ministry through geology and Paleoclimatology might’ve raised some eyebrows so too, I’m sure some of your scientific colleagues have been a bit surprised by the trajectory of your career. So describe what it is that you do today as President of the Evangelical Environmental Network.

Moerman:

So you’re exactly right. It was one of those, again, times in my life and my career where I surprised folks on a very promising research career kind of hitting each of those benchmarks and pinnacles that you do for pursuing an academic career at an R1 institution. And at the same time, I found myself really dissatisfied, I suppose.

And what I realized was it was that I was studying so much of the problem of climate when God had called me to be a part of the solution. And so there was a real turning point in my career saying, “Oh, okay, I’ve missed the mark a little bit.” And that realization was what drove me into getting involved in climate policy and eventually led me to the Evangelical Environmental Network because as much as I had loved my research career and doing the scientific work itself, I’d always loved sharing that with others and doing the work of climate communication, of helping folks understand that climate is changing today, that it’s real, it’s us, it’s bad. We’ve got to do something about it. And especially being the wife of a pastor, being a church planter or a leader in the church recognized that God had positioned me to reach my fellow Christians who may have had those questions and help bridge that gap and lead them to really seeing that we can’t ignore climate because if we do, we are not living out the mission of God as fully as we could right now, especially in the face of the huge humanitarian disasters that are being driven by an unstable and unsafe climate.

And so that, again, I don’t have time to lead you through all the steps, but God in his graciousness connected me with the Evangelical Environmental Network that was doing exactly that, helping our fellow Christians rediscover and reclaim our biblical mandate to care for God’s creation, and then also advocating for positive solutions to ensure that every child has the hope and expectation of a healthy pollution free world and safe climate to grow up in. And that was just exactly, I don’t know, it’s been such a joy to find the Evangelical Environmental Network because it brought together all of the things that the Lord had put on my heart to do in ministry.

Stump:

So more specifically, I’m giving you the chance here to make a little commercial for the EEN. What is the EEN doing to advocate for those things you talked about and what are the greatest needs and challenges that the organization is facing right now?

Moerman:

Yeah, so we are doing what is Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, fellow climate scientist and evangelical Christian says is the most important thing you can do to address climate change, which is to talk about it, to lift your voice. And so what we do is we analyze and study all of the different climate policies that are out there because it be hard. It can be hard to know what is sound, good policy to move forward with. And we look at this through a lens of, well, does it defend life? Does it protect the health and wellbeing of people, of God’s creation? Does it protect God’s creation and does it have the opportunity to bring new family sustaining careers in the clean economy? We’re looking at things of holistic wellbeing, analyzing different policy solutions that way, and then bringing them to our network, helping facilitate for them to get their voice heard, to share those opportunities with their local community, with their churches, and to come to Washington DC to the halls of Congress to share why they care about a changing climate as Christians and point folks advocate for those common sense positive solutions that not only address climate change, but also advance human wellbeing and the wellbeing of all of God’s creation.

And so that is my absolute joy to help demystify that process and make it easy for folks to share with their elected officials, their local community, why this matters to them as Christians.

Stump:

Can you share at all perhaps some successes and maybe even some failures in terms of approaches that have been better and more successful at changing attitudes and perhaps policies, and ways that perhaps we thought initially would be successful but didn’t turn out to be so successful? I’m again looking for some practical tips here for those of us who also want to do something in this regard. What works and maybe what are we doing that doesn’t work so well that we should stop doing?

Moerman:

What we have found that works is making the impacts of climate, helping folks make the connection both locally and personally. Again, the truth is, is that we’re all impacted by climate. It is, we see it in the headlines today of our local communities being impacted by more extreme weather, from extreme heat to more wildfires, to more severe hurricanes and extreme storms. And so there has been this myth that the impacts of climate, they’ll be felt far off in the future, far away in some distant place in the world that, that’s somebody else’s problem. But what we’re finding today as climate change… We’ve allowed it to continue to persist, that it’s knocking at our own doors, and that’s driven our focus on making the connection of how an unsafe climate as well as pollution, impacts human health, especially those most vulnerable, including our children, as well as communities of color.

And with that, as we’ve been advocating for, again, getting, making our energy system cleaner, our cars cleaner, oftentimes we may not lead with the reason why we need to do this is about climate. We focus on pollution because the truth is, is that solutions to climate are also solutions to pollution. Climate solutions are clean air solutions. They’re clean water solutions. And the truth is, is that nearly 40% of Americans still live in counties that have unhealthy air according to the American Lung Association. This has an impact on the youngest in our families, the oldest, and especially as we talk with church leaders who may say, “Well, I recognize that climate’s a problem, but I’ve got all these other immediate problems in my community that need to be addressed. I don’t have time to add one more thing to the list.” What we help them do is make the connection.

We often ask, “Do you have kids who are suffering asthma in your community?” And so often, yes, they do. Well, one of the causes and triggers of asthma is pollution from traffic and from nearby power plants that are run by coal or natural gas, and we help them make that connection. You can help reduce asthma rates by cleaning up our air, by getting rid of these emissions. So making that direct connection between carbon-based energy, pollution, and health can also help drive folks towards positive solutions. And the co-benefit is it also addresses climate change too.

Stump:

So this isn’t just some sacrifice we’re making now for the future, but rather it’s good for us now too?

Moerman:

It is good for us now too. Yes.

Stump:

I have noticed that conversations with Christians about the climate crisis almost always come around to asking about hope, and we’ll end there, but let me get there by asking you about climate anxiety because just this morning on my way to the office, I was listening to a panel of climate scientists and one of them said, and I think this is a quote directly, “I look at the data and the models derived from the data, and I’m terrified.” He said, he was talking specifically about the oceans and the challenges coming from the oceans absorbing so much heat and what’s going to happen there and about the extreme heat events that are going to overwhelm our power grids. I’m sure you could add a bunch of other threats that induce anxiety. How do you, as a climate scientist who understands these things, how do you personally deal with climate anxiety? And do you have any tips for the rest of us who are learning more and more about the situation and wanting to come back to hope?

Moerman:

Yeah, no, this is a real problem that’s out there, especially of looking at the headlines that are of disasters that are happening today, of looking at what the future could be if we don’t do anything about it. And that for me, of how I deal with those feelings. And just to be honest, it can feel like panic sometimes. What I do is I really focus on, how can I be a part of the solution? Got to be action oriented and solution oriented. Otherwise, you can just fall into despair. And that actually is one of the biggest threats and challenges that we’re facing today, is that so many folks who see that this is a problem, that this needs to be urgently dealt with, fall into despair and paralysis and inaction. And so that’s why, again, at the Evangelical Environmental Network, we’re really focused on helping folks take action.

And whether that’s by working on policy at the federal level, lifting their voice for advocacy in the halls of Congress, in their state houses, but also in their own local communities with their church and in their household. And I’ve really found that action is the antidote to that anxiety and despair that it can cause, just being laser focused on being a part of the solution. Because one thing that I will say, and this is looking at the climate projections that say, “What will our future be like?” Well, one thing that sometimes gets lost is that there’s different scenarios of what the future will look like. We’re not locked in to a particular path right now. It’s kind of choose your own adventure. Are we by taking action now… Or I’ll just say this, the biggest uncertainty in the climate projections of where we’re going to land actually isn’t in the models themselves. It’s in what we as people are going to choose to do. Are we going to choose to take the high action path that can safeguard us against the worst climate impacts that could happen? Or are we going to let business as usual happen? And especially for us who see the urgency, if we allow ourselves to fall into paralysis and not take those positive actions that’s preventing us from choosing that low impact path.

Stump:

Well, we’ll leave it at that and to each of us and what we choose to do here in the future, which is going to have pretty important consequences. So thank you, Jessica. Thank you for your work. Thank you for the legitimate scientific credibility that you bring to this conversation. And thank you for the heart for Christian mission that you so obviously exemplify, and thank you for talking to us about all of that here today. Let’s do it again sometime soon.

Moerman:

That would be wonderful. Thank you so much for having me on here. And if I could conclude just with one final statement, what I hope folks come away with is that there is no action too small, no action too small, every single one, every action, every person, us all working together for that healthy future, that safe climate for ourselves, our loved ones, and the next generation. Every little bit matters.

Stump:

May it be so. Thank you so much.

Moerman:

Thank you.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute. Fetzer supports a movement of organizations who are applying spiritual solutions to society’s toughest problems. Get involved at fetzer.org and by the John Templeton Foundation, which funds research and catalyzes conversations that inspire people with awe and wonder, and BioLogos is also supported by individual donors and listeners like you, who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River Watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find the link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum, or visit our website, biologos.org, where you’ll find articles, videos, and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.


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Jessica Moerman


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