YPCCC Partnerships: Interview with Evangelical Environmental Network’s Jessica Moerman

Founded over three decades ago, the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) educates, inspires, and mobilizes Evangelical Christians in their effort to care for God’s creation. Through programs and advocacy, EEN supports individual knowledge and action, empowers trusted messengers in local communities, and champions climate legislation across political and ideological spectrums. EEN’s strategy – centering identity and values in their climate communication messaging, embodies core YPCCC research and insights, inspiring change and climate action in the Evangelical Christian community and beyond.

Natasha Feshbach from YPCCC’s Partnerships Program recently had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Jessica Moerman, President and CEO of EEN to learn more about how the organization successfully ties climate, Christianity, and communication together in their work and how YPCCC’s research and insights have informed this messaging strategy.

Headshot photograph of Jessica Moerman. She is the executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN). She is a white woman with long brown hair and wearing a purple shirt and black suit jacket. She is smiling.

Natasha: I would love to start by hearing how you got to where you are both in the climate space and at EEN.

Jessica: I have been with EEN for nearly four years now. It has been a very exciting space to work in and is a real coming together of what launched me into the climate movement. EEN represents everything I didn’t even know was possible when I first started. I got into the climate movement and became a climate scientist because of my faith. My journey started when I was 17 years old figuring out what I was going to do with my life. I grew up in the church in East Tennessee at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains and was just spoiled by the beauty of God’s creation. Growing up in the church, I felt a call to serve people and press into that aspect of our faith. I wasn’t sure though what that would look like in practice, so I prayed, “Lord, what would you have me do?” The answer I kept getting was to study geology. One, I was like well how does that help people? I didn’t understand at the time. And two, in the community I was in I did not know if I could be both a scientist and a Christian, so I had a real wrestle with what to do.

Natasha: Those are big ideas and challenges to grapple with as a teenager. How did you navigate that?

Jessica: The right person came into my life at just the right time. I was chatting with a leader at the church who asked me what I was going to study in college, and I shared with him the decision I was wrestling with. He listened so patiently and responded saying, “Jessica, don’t you know I’m a geologist?” I had no clue. That conversation changed my life. Learning about a scientist in my church in the very field I felt called to gave me the permission I felt I needed to follow this path. So I went and studied geology in college. In freshman geology class on paleoclimatology, I became absolutely fascinated by the breadcrumbs left throughout the earth’s record. At the same time in that lecture, a scripture verse came to mind: The greatest commandment is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40). I had heard about climate change and how it impacts the most vulnerable first and worst – the people Jesus calls us to serve, and I realized this is how I help people through geology – through climate science. That set the trajectory for my professional life.

Natasha: What an incredible journey! Can you speak a bit more about your transition from academia to advocacy?

Jessica: I got my PhD from Georgia Tech in climate science, paleoclimate specifically, studying how El Nino changed in the past using stalagmites in Borneo as geologic records. My husband and I moved to DC after I finished my degree. He started a new church congregation, which I helped him start while I was doing my postdoc. In my research, however, I actually began to find myself a bit miserable because I realized I was spending all my time studying the problem of climate change, and I got into this field to be a part of the solution. Also, I caught the bug for science communication and communicating about climate change in grad school, and realized I was also well positioned to reach the Evangelical audience on climate. These realizations together prompted me to leave academia, which was scary, and start a journey into policy, advocacy, and education. I did a stint working at the Department of Energy as an AAAS policy fellow, and then I came across the Evangelical Environmental Network, and it was just the perfect fit that brought together everything I wanted to do. I started at EEN in 2020 as the Chief Educator to the House of Representatives on Climate, Clean Energy, and Environmental Health. Then recently this past month, I transitioned to President and CEO.

Natasha: That is such an amazing story – the way you fit all the pieces together to have this role and create this impact. I love hearing what brings people to this work because it is often so personal, yet we all unite under these shared goals. Speaking more specifically about EEN, how do you approach climate communications?

Jessica: We were founded 30 years ago. I follow a long line of very dedicated leaders who have seen environmental care and climate action come to be the issues of our time. Our mission is to help our fellow Evangelicals rediscover and reclaim the biblical mandate to take good care of God’s creation and remind them that is not a radical new idea but that it is foundational to our faith. We find it in scripture and leaders throughout church history advancing good environmental stewardship. Our vision at EEN is for every child to have the hope and expectation of a safe climate and pollution-free world, and we especially focus on the most vulnerable in society who are the most burdened and at the greatest risk for climate impacts and pollution. We focus on health, children’s health, the elderly, and communities of color who have long been overburdened with pollution. We are always looking at climate solutions with fairness and justice in mind. We are guided by scripture and informed by science.

Natasha: EEN’s goals are so important for the future of climate policies and solutions. Your organization and mission prioritize Evangelical Christians as your target audience. How do you reach them?

Jessica: As a scientist and a Christian, I simply think of science as studying God’s creation. Our work focuses on the education and science communication side, as well as advocacy – thinking of how we as individuals, in our churches, and in our local communities can take climate action and use our voices to reach our elected officials and policymakers. We focus on meeting folks where they are at and helping them make the connection between their values — the people, places, and problems they are called in their faith to care about — and how climate impacts those. We believe that every action and every step matters and not to despise small beginnings. It is exciting to lead people on this journey as an outpouring of their faith and deep care for loving their neighbor and honoring God.

Natasha: The 30-year history of the organization is remarkable, especially having roots at the forefront of the movement. I can imagine that foundation has been crucial through more recent circumstances of polarization.

Jessica: Addressing polarization is one of my personal passions. It sits squarely in [EEN]’s value to bring people together and ultimately make climate a nonpartisan issue. It shouldn’t be partisan. Climate change impacts so many things we all care about. Engaging faith communities, and especially increasing Evangelical support for climate solutions, is one of the most powerful tools we have to bring down the partisan heat on climate.

Natasha: Thank you so much for speaking to that, and it emphasizes the importance of connecting on shared value and identity and communicating along those lines. Thinking about EEN’s education, organizing, advocacy, and civic engagement programs, what do those communications strategies look like and how has your partnership with YPCCC informed that work?

Jessica: Connecting to values and what people care about is at the core of what we do, and we constantly connect that back to YPCCC’s research showing its effectiveness. The three values we try to connect on are: 1) defending life and protecting the health of the most vulnerable, 2) protecting God’s creation, and 3) creating family-sustaining jobs in the clean economy. We emphasize how those are all interconnected, and when we look at climate solutions, those are the win-win-wins. Climate solutions are benefit multipliers, and we focus our strategy on those co-benefits. We often work in spaces where when you lead with climate you get the door shut in your face, so we take a listening posture to find out what folks care about and make that connection to climate. YPCCC’s research and tools have demonstrated not only the importance of shared values but also having trusted messengers in the community to make the issue as local and personal as possible. In particular, our message testing experiments with YPCCC have been deeply valuable in honing our messages in this work. At EEN, we focus on making action as easy as possible and share success stories to normalize it in the community.

Natasha: In the face of such an overwhelming problem, folks can immediately close off, so your intention to meet people where they are at and bring the solutions to them is so important. In your transition from a climate scientist to working at an advocacy organization, what has been the most surprising aspect of communicating about climate at EEN?

Jessica: Talking about climate often takes courage and faith, but what I’ve discovered speaking at churches and in conservative communities is that so many people are hungry for climate information from someone that they trust. I just got an email from a woman from my church in Georgia saying she is devastated about the fires in Hawaii but is hearing misinformation about the role climate may have played. She reached out to me because I come from her community, and she wanted someone who could give her trusted information and resources to understand what is going on.

Natasha: That is such a perfect example of being that trusted messenger and having someone feel confident and comfortable coming to you to break through all the noise.

Jessica: In my organizing work I always go back to polling and research from YPCCC about who are the trusted messengers and how family and friends are the most powerful advocates. I always make the point that you don’t have to be a climate scientist like me to be a trusted voice and encourage people that they are uniquely positioned to reach their family, friends, and communities for climate action.

Natasha: Someone you care about asking you to do something is one of the most powerful motivators for action. To close out, I would love to hear what keeps you hopeful and positive in this space, especially in the face of ever-growing polarization, noise, and misinformation.

Jessica: This is very personal to me, but my faith and looking to scripture gives me deep hope – the story ends with the restoration of all things. My faith gives me hope that I am not alone in this. I also see increasingly more folks understanding how climate impacts their communities and joining together to take action. We’ve also seen big breakthroughs in climate legislation with the Energy Act of 2020, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the Inflation Reduction Act. Those are not everything we need them to be and there is still so much work to do but we are seeing action happen. I am hopeful for real significant bipartisan climate action in the coming years.

Thank you to Dr. Jessica Moerman and Evangelical Environmental Network for their time, ongoing partnership with YPCCC, and important work in the climate space.