Q&A: GreenFaith’s Fletcher Harper on moral discomfort and changing to address the climate crisis together

By Heather Beasley Doyle
Posted Dec 15, 2021

[Episcopal News Service] The Rev. Fletcher Harper first became involved in environmental projects when he was in grade school. Now 58, he’s the executive director of GreenFaith, which has under his leadership become an international, community-led climate and environmental movement. Harper’s sense of climate urgency and his desire to share that are palpable. Talking about climate change, it’s as if he can’t find enough words to convey humanity’s collective, dire danger. “Climate change is about the suffering of people who are innocent of creating the problem. In parts of the world that are less materially wealthy, the impacts are absolutely devastating,” he recently told Episcopal News Service.

Harper first understood the connection between religion and environmentalism in the 1990s while working as a parish priest and volunteering for the organization that would become GreenFaith. When the group asked him to become executive director in 2002, Harper felt “a really powerful experience of a calling within a calling,” he said. “I felt a calling to be a priest, but then this felt like a real, strong, clear refinement of what that was about.”

With a decade of Episcopal parish ministry and activism in New Jersey as a foundation, Harper has led GreenFaith for the past 20 years, viewing its response to climate change through a religious, multi-faith lens. In that time, the organization has grown its scope from national to international, organizing at the grassroots level through trainings and awareness-raising events (such as ahead of COP26) and by creating new initiatives such as Shine, which supports renewable energy access initiatives for communities in India and Africa. Author of the book GreenFaith, he wrote in a September piece in Sojourners, Harper advocated that clergy preach strongly and directly for climate action, even if it feels uncomfortable. In 2022, GreenFaith will continue organizing to raise awareness of climate change within faith communities and encouraging religious people and organizations to divest themselves of fossil fuel investments. Allowing climate change to happen is “just wrong,” Harper said. “What climate change is about is an unwillingness to be human in the middle of a global community.”

The rest of ENS’ interview with Harper has been condensed and edited into the Q&A below.

ENS: What sparked the emergence of climate change into your professional and religious life?

Harper: As a parish priest, I was always an activist in social justice initiatives at the parish and community levels. I found out about GreenFaith’s predecessor organization when it was getting started and got involved on a volunteer basis. To me, climate change is a religious issue on two levels: The natural world is, for an awful lot of people, the place where they meet God or where they encounter something they feel is holy. Also, the forces responsible for the lion’s share of the destruction of the planet are massive corporations, extractive industries and governments. Those patterns of injustice are true not just for the environment, but for poverty and every other major social issue, so this connects as an issue of social justice.

ENS: I’ve had the sense that GreenFaith is growing. Is that the case?

Harper: Yes. In the last three or four years we’ve brought on board staff members in France, Germany and Kenya. This coming year we’re going to hire staff in Indonesia, Japan and the United States. Part of what accounts for our continued growth is we’re unequivocal that religious groups have to step up way more to meet the fact that we’re facing an absolute emergency. Our growth now is because we find a lot more in common with past nonviolent civil disobedience movements like the civil rights movement [in the U.S.] and Gandhi’s movement to liberate India from British colonial rule. Very powerful vested interests maintained the status quo, and polite conversation and periodic references to the Bible were not going to dismantle the system. It was going to take people really confronting centers of power and calling them out in ways that a lot of religious people feel uncomfortable with. Our growth is because we’re willing to do that [and] due to younger people who are really fed up with inadequate responses on these issues, including from organized religion.

ENS: GreenFaith is involved in global initiatives while also advising local clergy leaders. Could you talk about that two-pronged approach?

Harper: Anywhere you look in the world, [most of] the destruction of the climate is because [of] coal, oil and gas companies, industrial agriculture companies. They control government and regulatory processes just about anywhere. That dynamic is global and the challenges at a local level are the same. In a number of places, it’s hard to name Chase Bank, BlackRock, Vanguard, Fidelity, Citibank or Barclays because [of] people’s jobs. People’s sense of identity is tied up with those institutions. And in some places, a lot of places, it’s actually really dangerous. We have volunteer activists in East Africa who got all the proper permits for a peaceful march protesting the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline, and they got pushed off the road by police who were doing the bidding of the government. It takes courage for religious leaders to speak to those issues in those parts of the world. In places like the United States, in wealthier communities, it takes guts for clergy to speak up because a lot of their parishioners don’t want to hear it. [Yet] we’ve found that when you say this stuff directly, a lot of people welcome it because they get the dynamics at play and they’re looking for moral leadership.

ENS: On State of Belief last month, you said that the pope has gotten very specific in his demands and that it’s crucial for senior religious leaders to do so. Why is that so important?

Harper: Because specificity creates change. Every social change expert says it’s the only way you get change at a broad level: by choosing specific targets and doing specific things. We need specific companies—in the fossil fuel industry and industrial agriculture—to go into a managed decline because their business models are destroying the planet. We need to be very clear about that. And we need them to reckon with that reality. We need their shareholders and governments to reckon with it. So naming that specifically is the only way you’re going to provoke real conversation. Pope [Francis] is admirable for his willingness to do that. Until [other] senior religious leaders do, they won’t matter much in terms of this work. The only way that a status quo gets changed is through moral discomfort; they’ve got to be willing to be instruments of moral discomfort.

ENS: You’ve said that COP26 was a disappointment. Do you want to say more about that?

Harper: This COP was important because when the Paris Agreement was signed, there was a mechanism inserted so that every five years countries were supposed to increase the ambition of their climate change commitments. This was the first COP where the expectation was that countries would come back and commit to higher levels of ambition. Ultimately, what the COP process ought to get measured by is, ‘What are those commitments and how well are countries doing keeping them?’ And the answer is, ‘The commitments remain very far away from where they need to stabilize the climate,’ and countries are generally not keeping their commitments.

ENS: I read that you will be calling on wealthy households around the world to lead climate-friendly lifestyles. Tell me about that.

Harper: We need systemic change as rapidly as [possible]. We also need, around the world, wealthy and middle-income households to make dramatic reductions in their own carbon emissions. The three behaviors responsible for most of our personal emissions are: diet, specifically consumption of meat; transport, specifically the use of automobiles and flying; and the energy we use to power our homes. We’ll be calling on people of diverse religious backgrounds, as a matter of their religious values, to make changes in those areas. We’ll have a particular time for that during January, to take that on as a New Year’s commitment.

ENS: We haven’t heard the religious voice on climate change in the way we’ve heard the religious right on many topics. What’s holding back the religious left?

Harper: There is a growing movement that is more active and I think that we play an important part in that. I’m more concerned about [religious moderates] and a sense that religious institutions exist to help people remain comfortable and to help deal with the challenges and tragedies of their own lives, without looking at larger societal issues. The religious right, I couldn’t disagree with their positions more. Methodologically, they earned it. They organized at a grassroots level. We’re starting to see that greater level of grassroots involvement by progressive and even some moderate religious communities. That needs to be accelerated and grown as much as possible and as quickly as possible.

ENS: What do you want to say about the pandemic and the climate movement?

Harper: While much of the world’s economy was forced into a slowdown over an extended period of months, carbon emissions did not appreciably decrease. That points to the urgent need for systemic change. Energy and food systems [should be] creating energy and healthy food without destroying the planet—we need to accelerate change because even in a pandemic they don’t slow down enough to solve the problem. During the pandemic, we learned that when we have to, we can make considerable changes. Civil society norms changed at a meaningful scale because of an accurate, science-based perception that we faced a grave threat. We need to remember, in relationship to climate change, [that] rapid change is possible and a precondition for that change is accepting and believing that we face a real threat and that we have to change together.

– Heather Beasley Doyle is a freelance journalist, writer and editor based in Massachusetts.