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Ways churches can respond to extreme heat and climate change

Creation Justice Ministries webinar offers tips, ideas and precautions as communities swelter

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

People of color and community members with low incomes are more likely than other groups to live in historically redlined neighborhoods that are today’s “intra-urban heat islands,” which are neighborhood-level hotspots, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (Photo by Frank McKenna via Unsplash)

LOUISVILLE — With climate change and other factors contributing to scorching conditions in various parts of the world, Creation Justice Ministries hosted a recent webinar to help churches spring into action, from becoming cooling centers to advocating for environmentally friendly legislation. Watch the recording of the webinar here.

One example came from the Rev. Sylvia Harris of Wesley United Methodist Church in Phoenix, Arizona. The church converted a dormant preschool into a cooling and respite center in the city’s south mountain area, where many people struggle with the effects of systemic oppression, homelessness and poverty. With the help of seed grants, community partnerships and some donated labor and goods, the center has given people — and their pets — a cool, comfortable place to stay while also providing food, showers, a laundry facility, and referrals for other services, such as housing.

“What we have found is the more that we reach out and make known what we’re doing, the more God shows up to provide in the spaces and places that we would not have been able to do this otherwise,” Harris said. “We served over 700 people over the course of four months last summer through this work” and received heartfelt testimony, such as, “I really thought I was going to die this summer and then found you guys, and now, I was able to live one more summer.”

People also have talked about the love, acceptance and peace they’ve experienced at the center. That’s because “they were seen as people,” Harris said. “They weren’t seen as a problem, and they were welcomed fully, as they were.”

Creation Justice Ministries hosted the webinar “Extreme Heat: How Can Churches Respond?” (Screenshot)

Harris was among a handful of speakers featured during the webinar, which included consultant Christian Brooks, formerly of the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness. Brooks announced that CJM has released a heat and health resource and toolkit, which can be downloaded here. Some of the content will include a research paper covering topics such as extreme heat, water justice and heat islands, to help with advocacy efforts. There also will be information about how to recognize heat-related illness, how to become a cooling station, how to protect vulnerable populations, and sermon starters on the impact of climate change and the responsibility of Christians to care for Creation.

Fellow speaker Ella Mendonsa, a health equity program manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council, pointed out that churches have some advantages when pushing for policies or raising awareness. Those advantages include trust and community connections. “I think you guys are at a really powerful place to be doing this work,” she said.

If your church isn’t strong on a particular topic of thing, “partner up,” Brooks said. “Pool your resources so that you can have a amplified voice.”

Legislation that can prove helpful, according to Mendonsa, includes the Green New Deal for Health and proposals related to air quality, which tends to be worse during heat waves.

Earlier, Mendonsa had outlined some of the ways that humans are contributing to the Earth’s climate crisis.

Actions by humans have contributed to the climate crisis, experts say. (Photo by Markus Spiske via Unsplash)

“Why are we experiencing this growing heat?” she said. “Well, we’ve known for decades that human activities have been the main driver of our warming planet, so as we dig coal, oil and pipe gas out of the Earth and burn it for fuel and energy, this leads to emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, that make up greenhouse gas emissions. Those get trapped and then they warm the planet, and so this fossil fuel … really accounts for about 75% of global GHGs or greenhouse (gas) emissions.”

Also, “there are other choices that we make that lead to a hotter planet like cutting down forests that absorb carbon dioxide; car and freight transportation; food production; and just general overconsumption,” she said.

Mendonsa suggested several action steps, from urging cities to begin switching to electric vehicles and pushing for the planting of trees to supporting community cooling centers and using environmentally friendly transportation such as biking and walking.

Also, “you can reduce the red meat you eat from livestock that has a large carbon footprint, but the truth is you know, large polluters and fossil fuel companies continuing like they are now, we will still be experiencing extreme heat, and we’ll be experiencing it at a greater rate.”

Climate change is on many people’s minds lately, partly because of sweltering summer heat in much of the country — and beyond — as well as smoke from the wildfires in Canada, and El Niño.

“The deadliest impact of climate change is extreme heat,” said Mendonsa, who noted that extreme heat can lead not only to heat stroke and heat exhaustion but heart and respiratory issues as well as mental health effects.

Among those impacted most are people with pre-existing health conditions, the elderly and young children, pregnant people, people of color and low-income residents as well as outdoor workers and unhoused people, incarcerated people, and indoor workers without sufficient air conditioning, she said.

Some cities or even blocks are hotter than others because they are heat islands, which are urban or metropolitan areas that have higher temperatures than the surrounding areas because of an abundance of things like asphalt, cement and brick and a lack of green space, Mendonsa said. However, “many cities and urban planners are now working to address these design choices because they can impact quality of life and health outcomes from rising extreme heat.”

Morgan Zabow of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spoke about the Urban Heat Island mapping campaign program, which involves volunteers collecting temperature data that helps to show where steps need to be taken to protect vulnerable people. The program is managed by NOAA’s National Integrated Heat Health Information System in partnership with CAPA Strategies LLC.

Morgan Zabow of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a Maryland volunteer, Nicholas Mullenix, work to attach a heat sensor to a car in preparation for the collection of heat data. Their efforts were part of an Urban Heat Island mapping campaign. (Photo courtesy of NOAA)

“With these campaigns, the cities and counties are able to learn where the hottest neighborhoods are in order to provide and implement solutions in these neighborhoods,” she said, “and more often than not, those neighborhoods tend to be disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved and overburdened by environmental factors.”

The mapping has made a difference in communities such as Las Vegas, Nevada, where shade structures were added to bus shelters to give relief to bus riders, she said.

If someone is conducting a heat mapping campaign in your city, “you may want to partner with them to do outreach efforts or serve as a distribution hub for the campaign,” she said. Also, “your organization may want to be a cooling center on days where your community is under a heat advisory” or similar conditions.

For more information about topics related to heat, go to

Interested in Creation Care? Learn about Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Earth Care Congregations and read the Eco-Justice Journey blog of the Presbyterian Hunger Program.

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