Ivor John received the birthday present of a lifetime in February when an email invitation to attend a White House event on climate change and religion showed up in his inbox. John serves as the chair of ECOFaith, a collaboration of Santa Barbara’s faith communities that formed in 2008 to align religious principles with environmental stewardship. After the group held an event last October in which several area faith leaders pledged to reduce the carbon footprint in their houses of worship, national officials — with help from Rep. Lois Capps’s daughter, Laura Burton Capps, whose career has centered on combating climate change — took notice and asked John to participate in the White House meeting. Religious leaders from around the country and representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy spoke.
John — who was raised Episcopalian, spent some years as a Presbyterian and is now a member of the Unitarian Society — called the Washington event part of a lifelong “journey.” With a PhD in atmospheric physics, previous positions in meteorology (including teaching British Aerospace cadets in Saudi Arabia), and now a longtime job auditing the greenhouse-gas emissions of companies like Chevron and Shell, John spoke with The Santa Barbara Independent about how, when it comes to climate change, “I really live and breathe this stuff.” Below is an edited version of our conversation.
What were your key takeaways from the White House meeting? There is unilateral support for [addressing climate change] across the faith communities. Some believe it’s going to come through the science. Others are saying the science just gets us into trouble, that people don’t understand it. We’re right on point here in Santa Barbara as the faith communities’ buildings are going to be important places in terms of climate resilience. They’re going to be warming shelters when the storm comes. They’re going to be the places to go on the hot days to cool off for a couple hours. We have an emerging idea that ours would be energy centers, with solar panels. It was interesting that others are beginning to pick up on the idea that these churches are going to be critical infrastructure.
What else did you find interesting? Everyone says, “Do this, and you’ll save money.” They forget that you need money to pay for the [energy-efficient] lightbulbs, to pay for the windows, to pay for the insulation. There are grants and incentives, but they don’t get you all of the way. Some of the faith communities on the Eastside need $1,000 to change the bulbs to LEDs. They just don’t have that sort of money.
President Obama released his Climate Action Plan last June. What role will groups like ECOFaith play in addressing climate change? The members of these congregations are often the least served, and the least wealthy people are impacted often by the injustices of our environment and energy practices. Our president is really smart, and he knows that he can reach people who will support him, because he’s going to need it. I thought that it was very good and sincere and not just for his own agenda. That’s the deal — climate change is really having an impact on the South and on the coastal communities. Our pollution in America is affecting the Arctic tribes. But there is an attitude that “We don’t see it — what do we care?”
What drew you to start working on climate-change issues? We had a weather station in the backyard of our small house in Wales. I got really interested in the weather. You’re always dependent on the weather in Wales. In my teenage years, I started having thermometers and instruments in the backyard, and I’d take observations. At school, we’d get free meals. I’ve always felt a bit of a chip on my shoulder. My wife and friends say to let it go. I’m a little bit of an overachiever because I’ve got to prove something. Britain has this class system where you’re not allowed to step out of your bracket, and I was beginning to move out of that bracket. My mother would say, “Don’t talk like that.” I’d say, “Why not?” and she’d get mad. Then my dad would say, “I think it’s good.” I went to Scotland and was weather-forecasting for the oil rigs. It was energy from the beginning. I was 25 years old, doing the weather, doing the waves and the winds out in the wild North Sea, and not thinking, “Gosh, what about the effects of the oil?” Then I wanted to travel, so I found a job that took me to Saudi Arabia. I was exposed to a very different religion and a different culture. Then I met my wife on those travels. We were married in Wales, lived in Scotland for four years, and then she got a job in Santa Barbara.
What did you do when you first came here? I came to Santa Barbara in 1987 and didn’t have a job. I came up with a global warming “Fact or Fiction?” presentation. I went to the Santa Barbara Gardening Club and the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs. I remember vividly back in the day there were two questions: Is the world warming, and is it caused by anthropogenic carbon dioxide? People just weren’t ready for it. It’s taken 25 years! But now we’re doing it.
Why is tying climate change measures to faith communities important? I’ve seen how difficult climate change has been in America. I’m a scientist. Al Gore relays that we’ve got a problem, and it doesn’t work. People are not changing their behaviors because of the science. I’m tired of getting into arguments with people who just want to pick a fight. They’ll pick one little bit of the whole problem and say, “See, you can’t explain this.”
Why will espousing the issue in religious institutions work better? People in a church on a Sunday morning will listen, and their behaviors are often changed by what their faith leader says. They’ll go away and think on it. If it’s a scientist, they’ll find all the reasons to argue with it. But if it’s the faith leader, they’ll process it. Faith leaders have a way of creating a sermon that really weaves these things in. This is an important venue for anyone working on climate. You’ve got to be really reaching in to the heart of the population to make a campaign successful, and I think ECOFaith is a piece of that. I think we can make a difference. Every time a congregation does something, there are 200 members who are watching and saying, “I can do that at home.”