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The Christian case for fighting climate change is being tested in Eastern Oregon

A Patriot Planet billboard stands in Pendleton, Ore., near Interstate 84, Jan. 25, 2023.
Antonio Sierra
/
OPB
A Patriot Planet billboard stands in Pendleton, Ore., near Interstate 84, Jan. 25, 2023.

A Baker City man is planning a series of events in the region while a professor is collecting data from Pendleton.

Like many Christian stories, the origin of Climate Vigil began with an awakening.

Peter Fargo, who founded the group, traces the idea back to the birth of his son in 2019.

“There was something about that moment with our newborn son that I needed to get my attention,” he said. “That was when I said yes to that calling in my heart and soul.”

God was calling Fargo to an uncommon type of missionary work. He left his job to dedicate himself to fighting climate change full-time. And from his home in Baker City, Fargo plans to spread his message across Eastern Oregon.

Science and religion are often depicted as opposing forces in the debate over climate change, but Fargo isn’t afraid to make an explicitly Christian argument for environmentalism that he believes can capture hearts and minds.

In conservative Eastern Oregon, which has been battered by wildfires, floods and decades of drought, he’s counting on his message being especially relevant. And researchers are watching Oregon, and rural America at-large, to see if these types of arguments will break through in communities where these issues can sometimes carry political baggage.

Psalms and prayers

When Fargo thinks about the moral justification for fighting climate change, he turns to his faith.

He thinks about the Bible’s Book of Psalms: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in the world, and all who live in it.”

For Fargo, there’s something inspiring about thinking of the planet — the air people breathe, the food they eat, the shelter they take — as belonging to God. He describes it as an inspiration and a responsibility.

“The beauty and the glory of a mountain landscape of the communities that are nestled between mountains and valleys here in Eastern Oregon are just part of God’s creation,” he said. “And we have a part to play in that.”

This is one of the passages Fargo was wrestling with when his son was born. Four years prior, he and his family had moved from Colorado to Baker City, where Fargo worked as a public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service. He had already begun talking about the issue with his pastor, but something clicked when he looked at his son.

Climate Vigil founder Peter Fargo by the Powder River in Baker City, Ore., 2020.
Courtesy Photo by Kathleen Kiefer /
Climate Vigil founder Peter Fargo by the Powder River in Baker City, Ore., 2020.


A few years after his son’s birth, Fargo quit the Forest Service to dedicate himself to Climate Vigil, a religious organization dedicated to raising awareness and fighting climate change through public events, media productions, and eventually, political action. He wrote a book called “A Million Prayers to Solve our Climate Crisis” making a Christian argument for addressing global warming.

He also tapped into a pre-existing community that recognized an intersection between Christianity and environmentalism. Fargo worked with a group of Christian artists to release an album called “Climate Vigil Songs,” a collection of hymns meant to raise awareness of the climate crisis in communities less focused on the issue.

Fargo announced the album in Glasgow, Scotland, while he was attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference. At the 200-year-old St. George’s Tron Church, he took part in a candlelight vigil for the climate.

As much as he’s worked toward connecting with like-minded people, Fargo is also trying to persuade fellow Christians to care about climate change. In the deeply conservative community of Baker City, Fargo said the conversations he’s had have been productive.

It’s a conversation pastor Wes Sheley was willing to participate in, if not exactly make his top priority

Sheley has preached all around the country for the past 26 years and is now the associate pastor at Pendleton First Assembly of God. He said his congregation has a diverse set of political beliefs and ways of worshiping, but explicit discussions about the environment aren’t common.

“I wouldn’t say that we have a lot of conversations about the environment, but we do talk about creation and how God created everything,” he said.

Sheley agreed that Christians have a duty to take care of the planet, but added that his work is also concerned with life beyond the “sliver of time” people had on Earth. Even a long life is temporary, Sheley said, but eternity is forever.

“God will return someday and restore his creation back to its original creation,” he said. “We are still mandated as we live here to take care of His creation, but also take care of our neighbors as well.”

While Fargo views fighting climate change as a struggle to save God’s creation for future generations, for Sheley, Earth’s ultimate redemption will arrive in God’s second coming.

Patriot Planet

Finding ways to make discussions around climate change more appealing and less politically fraught in conservative parts of Oregon isn’t limited to the church.

Less than a half-mile from Interstate 84 and above a vacant mini-mart in Pendleton, a billboard displays a picture of Earth cradled in a pair of hands. To the left of the globe and underneath a segment of the American flag, the billboard blares its message in all capital letters: “FOR GOD, COUNTRY AND PLANET.”

In a conservative community like Pendleton, the basic message and presentation doesn’t look that different than the nearby billboard rented by the anti-abortion group Pendleton Right to Life. But the purpose becomes much clearer once readers visit the website advertised on the billboard.

The homepage for Patriot Planet introduces visitors to Western Washington University journalism professor Derek Moscato, who is conducting a survey on “environmental protection and green advocacy.”

“This survey is interested in hearing from you about the relationship between environmentalism, patriotism, and faith, particularly as they relate to bipartisanship in rural and nonurban regions of the U.S.,” the website states.

Survey takers are asked whether they agree with statements like, “Protecting the environment is a patriotic duty — we all have a role to play” and “I am willing to come together with Americans of all faiths to protect the environment.” It also asks them to rate the quality of the billboard’s slogan, a message meant to convey “patriotism, faith and protecting the environment.”

In an interview, Moscato said he’s studied previous environmental campaigns like “Clearcut Oregon,” a series of billboards from environmental group Oregon Wild, which spotlighted the timber industry’s clearcutting practices. Moscato decided to put together his own billboard messages to see if this type of campaigning could not only attract attention in Eastern Oregon, but also persuade.

Moscato chose Pendleton to pilot the study because it met the requirements for the type of community he wanted to study.

“It’s a community that really connects to a lot of rural issues (and) has sort of a great tradition of farming, agriculture, natural resources. So it hits a lot of those issues that a lot of communities in the inland Northwest or the Pacific Northwest are contending with when it comes to that interplay of rural issues and environmental issues.”

The professor said the website hasn’t collected enough data yet to reach any statistical conclusions, but some of the early returns show residents are interested in issues like sustainability, wildlife conservation and clean air. Survey respondents also said they wanted more attention from the urban part of the state.

“I think one of the ways to really get at ecological protection across the board is to take down those partisan barriers and to really drive these issues at the local and hyperlocal level,” Moscato said.

He said he doesn’t expect the billboard to stay up much longer, but his long-term goal is to expand the billboards across the rural Northwest and into the Great Plains.

The Elkhorn Mountains sit closest to the south side of Baker Valley. As one resident said, "All roads out of Baker City run uphill."
Vince Patton
The Elkhorn Mountains sit closest to the south side of Baker Valley. As one resident said, "All roads out of Baker City run uphill."

The climate, Christians and rural America

Pro-environment stances aren’t uncommon in religious and spiritual traditions outside Christianity. When the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon turned over stewardship of some land in Union County to tribal members from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, their conservation work was guided by the tribes’ creation story, which places water at the center.

Research on Christians’ relationship with environmentalism has produced mixed results. Early studies suggested Christians followed the idea of “dominion over nature,” meaning God created the Earth explicitly to serve mankind. More recent studies have shown a “greening of Christianity’' as adherents have become more environmentally aware over time. But a 2017 study pushed back against this trend, stating that the data showed little evidence Christians were more concerned about the environment than in decades past and may actually be less.

Journalist Meera Subramanian found conflicting thoughts on climate and the environment from Christians through her own work as a freelance reporter. Subramanian went on to co-found the Religion & Environment Story Project, a group focused on the intersections between religion and the environment.

Following the 2016 presidential election, Subramanian traveled through the rural U.S. to gather environmental viewpoints from conservative communities, places at the “frontlines of the climate crisis,” as a part of a series of stories she wrote for Inside Climate News.

Her stops included Wheaton College, an Evangelical liberal arts college in Illinois, where students openly supported action against climate change but also found themselves as awkward fits in the political landscape. In rural West Virginia, a deadly flood killed eight people in a small town, but some residents more easily understood the storm as a sign of biblical revelation than an indicator of climate change.

“There’s all these gradations,” she said. “I think that’s where we really need to recognize that white evangelicals – who often the conversation revolves around when talking about resistance to climate action in this country – that there’s a whole spectrum of responses that can happen.”

Turning words into action

In a country where politics and religion were traditionally considered taboo subjects for polite conversation, Fargo has noticed that talks about climate change can also be considered uncomfortable and impolite.

It’s something he wants to change by making an argument that could appeal to Eastern Oregonian’s politically conservative side: In a region that’s seen some of its hottest years on record over the past decade, action is needed to protect farming, fishing, hunting and the rural way of life.

“It’s one thing to acknowledge that intellectually, and to see it on a piece of paper or projected up on a slide,” he said. “It’s another thing to have a conversation about that and what it means for us as a community.”

Quitting full-time work to pursue a life of climate activism hasn’t come without its life changes.

Fargo said Climate Vigil is operating on a “song and a prayer,” and is being supported by his family’s savings. The organization is also getting help from his church, the First Presbyterian Church, and the body that oversees it, the Presbytery of Eastern Oregon.

Fargo’s early work took on a wide focus but a grant he’s getting from the church will help him hone in on Eastern Oregon this year.

He’s planning a series of Climate Vigil events, not only close to home in Baker City, but also in La Grande and Pendleton. Fargo will bring his Christian perspective to the events but said he wants them to be open to all people regardless of their faith.

He will also be working with other groups to look ahead to November 2024, when they want to put a measure on the ballot codifying the right to a safe climate in the Oregon Constitution. Supporters expect this ballot measure would legally compel the state to reach “net zero” – establishing a balance between emitting the greenhouse gasses warming the atmosphere and those being taken out – by 2050. That target would align Oregon with the standard set by the United Nations and would up the ambition compared to the previous climate goals set by the state.

“When we think about the Declaration of Independence, many of us think about the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Fargo said. “To have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we’re going to need a safe, stable climate (and) temperatures within a range that we’ve enjoyed as humans, as communities, since we planted the first seed in the first farm.”

Fargo said the exact language of the measure is still “under construction” but he thinks it could be a model for states across the country regardless of a person’s political or religious beliefs, should it pass.

The ambitions are large, but Fargo needed both the science and his religion to push him forward.

“We have scientific, engineering, economic, political challenges that we’re all wrestling with,” he said. “But unless I can get out of my head and access the power of the heart, there’s not enough motivation for me to respond, to change, to do what I can do.”

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.