Activist sees climate change as a spiritual issue

June 29, 2013
By Peter Smith
The Courier-Journal

Tim DeChristopher was a University of Utah student and had been studying the role of civil disobedience in historical social movements when, in December 2008, he became part of that history.

DeChristopher walked into a federal auction of oil-and-gas leases in Salt Lake City, represented himself as a bidder and received auction paddle No. 70. After watching for about 20 minutes, he ground the auction to a halt.

He bid on one parcel after another, winning 14 worth nearly $1.8 million, which he had neither the means nor the intention of paying for. Other bidders walked out, the proceedings were halted and DeChristopher soon enough found himself under arrest.

He was convicted in a jury trial on two federal counts — violating the leasing law and making a false statement (for signing a federal form saying he was bidding in good faith). DeChristopher finished his 21-month sentence in April.

DeChristopher, now 31, spoke in an interview during visit to Louisville last week, when he also appeared at a clean-energy rally sponsored by local environmental groups and participants in the Unitarian Universalist Association’s national general assembly.

He said he wanted to confront the fossil-fuel industry and the government over the scientific consensus on the link between carbon emissions and global warming, with such consequences as disastrous weather extremes, coastal erosion, species extinction and the rupturing of delicate ecological cycles.

DeChristopher is also critical of current legal practices whose flaws, he says, were exposed at his trial. But his next stop is neither the science lab nor law school.

It’s seminary.

The earnest, smooth-headed DeChristopher, 31, with a muscular physique reflecting his years as a wilderness guide and in the prison exercise area, said he believes spirituality can help embolden people to take actions that may require personal sacrifice.

“Most social movements in this country have had a strong spiritual element and have had strong support from some religious institution,” he said. “For the climate movement to really be successful, it’s going to need that as well.”

He added: “The heart of the spiritual issue ... is whether we have faith that our moral values actually matter. Our government really discourages us from having faith in our own moral values and says if people trusted their own moral agency there would be anarchy. I don’t think that’s true.”

DeChristopher is scheduled to begin Harvard Divinity School later this year and to seek ordination as a minister in the Unitarian Universalist Association — a small, non-creedal liberal denomination united more by common political and social causes than by common religious beliefs. He said fellow Unitarians in Utah were among his biggest supporters during his trial and imprisonment.

Unitarian Universalists, in their assembly in Louisville, voted Sunday to launch a dialogue on whether congregations should pull their investments entirely from fossil-fuel corporations or use shareholder influence to steer them toward renewable energies.

People’s views on global warming continue to divide along political and religious lines. Recent surveys have shown a majority of Protestant ministers and of Republicans disbelieve in man-made global warming.

DeChristopher isn’t surprised by such disparities. Religious movements have stood on both sides of past social movements, he said.

He said the current challenge is not only to prevent worsening climate change but to deal with the inevitable effects of the warming already underway.

“That’s a question that has a lot of spiritual elements and is going to require us to reconnect with our shared moral values,” he said.

Born in West Virginia and raised in Pennsylvania, DeChristopher said he grew up without a religious background but became a Christian around age 18. He promotes cooperating with people of various religions (and none) because he sees that diversity as evidence “of the strength of those values.”

DeChristopher — whose case is featured in a new documentary, “Bidder 70” — doesn’t plan to run afoul of laws anytime during his three years of post-prison probation, but he doesn’t rule out an eventual return to civil disobedience.

DeChristopher said during his federal trial, jurors agreed to follow court instructions to decide only on the facts of the case, not to be “judges of the law” itself. DeChristopher was denied his attempt to argue that he violated the law out of necessity to prevent ecological harm.

An appeals court upheld his conviction, saying DeChristopher could have used legal means against the leases, such as joining other environmentalists who had filed suit. As it happened, the Obama administration later revoked the leases being auctioned that day.

DeChristopher contended jurors should be able to evaluate laws themselves and use the same discretion that police, prosecutors and judges use in weighing whether to bring charges and what sentences to mete out.

“There are very few problems with our legal system which couldn't have been anticipated by our founding fathers, which is why they insisted on jury trials,” he said.

Peter Smith is the religion writer for The Courier-Journal. This column is adapted from his Faith & Works blog at He can be reached at (502) 582-4469. Follow him on Twitter @faithandworks.