Longtime research leader says addressing climate change is the 'Christian thing to do'
GRAND FORKS — When Phyllis Johnson visited the small congregation at Shepherd of the Prairie Lutheran Church in Walcott, N.D., for a recent Wednesday night Lenten service, she shared a message that some may not have been expecting.
The top lay leader who serves as vice president of the 100,000-member Eastern North Dakota Synod pulled no punches when she said climate change is real and that, as Christians, "we all have a calling to pay attention to it as we are supposed to take care of our Earth, feed the hungry and watch out for our neighbors."
She has shared that message to more than a half dozen of the 196 congregations that make up the synod across the eastern third of the state.
The North Dakota native who lives in Grand Forks has the resume to justify her climate change message, as she proudly claims to be one of the "97% of scientists worldwide that agree climate change is real and is caused by human activity."
For 33 years, Johnson worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, starting as human nutrition researcher and advancing to senior executive positions at the agency and at the department's largest agricultural research center near Washington, D.C. She also spent several years overseeing 22 USDA labs in eight states on the west coast.
She's traveled through developing countries and worked with international scientists who all believe climate change is here and because it's caused by humans, they believe "we as people can also help to slow down or put the brakes on climate change." The other option, she said is "we can allow it to continue to get worse."
After retiring from USDA in 2008, she was hired as vice president for research and economic development at the University of North Dakota, a position she held for about six years.
Next for Johnson came the chance to help the Lutheran church she has belonged to her entire life, without forgetting her past work and life experiences. When Johnson started her more intense work for the church with her continued interest in agriculture, science and climate change, she said it was an obvious connection.
One of those connections came to her about a year ago, she said during a Holy Week telephone interview, when she thought about the effects of atmospheric emissions in the food chain that start with tractors moving across the fields to people driving to supermarkets. When food is wasted, that entire process seems like "it was all for nothing," she said.
To tackle the issue, she issued a challenge to people everywhere. It's something "everyone of us can do to help" and that's slowing or stopping the alarming wasting of food — estimated at about 40% in America. On top of that, she noted that by the year 2050, there will be 2 billion more mouths to feed on Earth.
Not only can cutting food waste help with emissions, but she said it can also save a family of four about $1,500 a year.
"And it's a very easy thing to do," Johnson said.
Those easy suggestions are:
- Planning a menu before you go to the store.
- Using leftovers. Johnson said her father used to have a phrase called "lolo," which was leftover leftovers or using the food a third time.
- Ignoring some of the "use by" or "best by" dates on products because the item is still likely good for several days or longer after the date stamped on the product.
- Buying some of the fruits and vegetables that look kind of "beat up" at the store but are still good. "We don't always need the perfect-looking product," she said. Bruised apples, for example, can make a good applesauce.
- Using websites such as for the Save the Food group, which can offer tips on how to make changes to conserve food.
- Eat food in take-home containers. Johnson said about half of the containers are left at restaurants and another large number of them are left to dry up in the refrigerator at home.
Johnson said with the population growth expected by 2050 — which is "really closer than we think" — the call for Christians to feed the hungry, preserve God's creation and take care of neighbors is also a matter of intergenerational justice.
"What kind of planet are we going to leave for our grandchildren?" she asked. "We have to do something."
Synod Bishop Rev. Terry Brandt couldn't agree more.
Brandt, who works out of his Fargo office, said it's a national priority of the church to address climate change.
"We have concerns about food security and water shortages and it's only going to get worse if we don't do something about it," he said.
"We also believe that it's part of our faith to take care of God's beautiful creation," he said.
Johnson pointed out in her talk to the Walcott congregation that her message was not meant to be political. Brandt agrees that it's not a political issue.
Realizing there are the naysayers about climate change, Johnson simply said, "there are always people who are contrarian."
However, she said the "evidence of climate change has been carefully evaluated by thousands of scientists" and documented in peer-reviewed journals.
She said the United Nations' international panel of scientists also has left no doubts and that the lines of evidence are great.
As she continues her pilgrimage to the churches, Johnson said she also talks to professional organizations.
"I'll really talk to anyone who'll listen," she said.