The climate activist who hasn’t given up on mainstream America
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Anna Jane Joyner has worked to draw religious communities into the climate movement. Now she’s taking the cause to Hollywood.

on Dec 23, 2019

By now, Anna Jane Joyner’s disagreement with her father about climate change is a wholly public affair. Joyner, who mostly grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, has dedicated her life to mobilizing people around climate action.

“Working on other issues suddenly felt like painting the walls of a room when there’s a wrecking ball outside the house,” she said recently.

Anna Jane’s father, Rick Joyner, is the charismatic founder of an evangelical Christian empire called MorningStar Ministries. He has amassed millions of followers through his teachings and books, and invested millions of dollars converting real estate into churches, universities, and housing across the South.

Rick has described climate change as a communist plot, and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina as signs of God’s “judgment” on the planet.

In 2014, Showtime created a documentary series called Years of Living Dangerously, which highlighted Anna Jane’s attempts to convince her father that climate change is real. Over the course of the show, she introduced him to scientists, fellow Republicans, and church leaders who did their best to convince him of the seriousness of the threat.

With Rick Joyner’s reach to evangelical Christians across the country, Anna Jane knew that changing his perspective could be a major win for the country and the planet. And if anyone could convince him, it was her. But in the documentary, it didn’t pan out.

“I tried to go into it as open as I possibly could,” Rick Joyner said recently, discussing his involvement with the Showtime documentary. “But I came out of it more of a skeptic than I came into it.”

The experience was a blow to Anna Jane. “There’s a psychological toll to staying in relationship with someone who loves you as his daughter, but openly and publicly denigrates your life’s work on climate as nonsense,” she said.

But it also propelled her deeper into the work of convincing Christians to get involved with campaigns for clean air and water, to take on the fossil fuel industry, and to protect those at the frontlines of climate change. And recently, it has put her at the center of an effort to change American culture via one of the most powerful thought-shaping tools available: the shows we watch on TV.

NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP via Getty Images

Anna Jane, who now lives on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, wasn’t always interested in protecting the environment. Like many of us, she absorbed her family’s ideologies, going so far as to condescend to people who recycled.

“My dad loved nature, though, and we would go on Sunday hikes,” she said. “Even though there wasn’t an emphasis on environmental protection, there was an appreciation of God’s creation and the natural world.”

That was the seed. The rest was all Anna Jane.

When she turned 16, Anna Jane left the church. She said she was exhausted by the fear, guilt, and frustration of the faith she was raised in. A few years later, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a sophomore-year study-abroad program in New Zealand sparked an interest in the environment.

“I was taking my second course on ecology and environmental studies, doing a lot of field studies, and I was super mesmerized by that,” she said. “I also took a class on Middle Eastern politics that challenged the evangelical views I was brought up in, and I hung out with friends who helped me think about the world in a bigger way.”

Her father, not a fan of her expanding worldview, cut off payments for her tuition.

But people are complex and full of contradictions. After graduation, when Anna Jane was offered an unpaid internship with the Sierra Club, her father stepped up, supporting her financially through the experience that would eventually launch her career.

And while the two remained ideologically worlds apart, even after the Showtime saga, Anna Jane’s religious upbringing did come to serve her. While some activists shout at Republicans and religious leaders to demand change, she went into the heart of these communities to understand how supporting climate solutions fit into their worldviews.

Her work took her to evangelical colleges mostly in the South and the Midwest, where she organized students and professors to campaign against coal and improve campus sustainability practices. She met with hundreds of faith leaders who were encouraging their congregations to get involved with the environmental movement and protect those most affected by climate change: communities of color, families experiencing poverty, and working class people in rural towns.

“I met a lot of devoted Christians who are very committed to justice and caring for the Earth,” she said. She knew that her understanding of biblical stories and scripture could be a way to encourage more Christians to support climate solutions and campaigns.

Anna Jane brought Christian rock stars to the Paris Climate Conference in 2015, and created a documentary that encouraged young people of faith to help solve the climate crisis. Two years later, she worked in partnership with faith leaders and congregations in Asheville, North Carolina, on a successful campaign that shut down a local coal-fired power plant.

“There was a fair amount of theology in this work,” she said. “The first commandment in Genesis talks about taking care of the garden and Earth you’ve been given. It’s [about] loving your neighbor[s], and the fact that environmental degradation impacts the most vulnerable of them.”

Scott Keoni Shigeoka

Anna Jane’s work has gained urgency in recent years because of her time in Perdido Beach, a small town of 650 people on the Gulf Coast of Alabama.

It’s a place she visited every summer as a kid. Now she lives there on a family compound, built on land that her great grandfather bought 95 years ago. There are three houses: Anna Jane lives in one with her partner, Forrest Johnson, a talented artist from eastern Kentucky; her aunt lives next door, and her grandfather lives in the third house.

“If there’s a place where the land, the air, the way it feels is a part of me — that would be Alabama,” she said.

Perdido Beach is less than 10 feet above sea level and is surrounded by water on three sides. It’s especially vulnerable to hurricanes and has been identified as one of the most climate-vulnerable places in the U.S. In 2010, the waters of the nearby Perdido Key were polluted by the BP oil spill. Two years later, Hurricane Isaac washed away parts of the town’s beachfront. The pier outside of Anna Jane’s home has been rebuilt four times in the past two years, she said.

Perdido means “lost” in Spanish, and it perhaps foreshadows the town’s future.

“I live in utter and complete heaven and know it won’t be around much longer,” she said, “and it’s specifically someone’s fault that my home is getting destroyed.”

Living in Perdido Beach has motivated her to stay committed to Alabama and the South. To her, this became especially clear in her work campaigning for Senator Doug Jones, a Democrat from Alabama, during the 2018 midterms.

While people hold stereotypes about Alabama, Anna Jane said the state is more complex than most folks imagine. A Pew Research Center study found that 52 percent of adults in Alabama identify as Republican, but nearly 48 percent consider themselves Democrats, independent, or undecided — potential allies in the climate fight, Anna Jane said, especially in towns like Perdido Beach, where residents are experiencing the devastation of climate change first-hand.

“I feel like people write off the South as this lost cause — and even in Democratic politics and climate organizations, there isn’t an investment in building relationships there,” she said. “That’s a huge strategic oversight.”

Anna Jane Joyner

Not long after Doug Jones won his Senate seat, Anna Jane received a phone call that would change her path in a dramatic way.

The caller was Alex Maggio, a writer and producer for the CBS television show Madam Secretary. He called because he wanted to cast a character in the show who was an evangelical daughter battling with her father about climate change.

“When I was writing the episode, I had my fantasy idea of a character to write,” he said. In his research, he stumbled upon Anna Jane, and thought she could help him build out the fictionalized version of her story for the show. They struck up a conversation, and Maggio had her review some of his outlines and scripts. The actress they eventually cast for the episode even looked like Anna Jane.

“When you’re a writer, you’re constantly searching for real-world people who have specific experience and personality that you can draft onto your characters,” Maggio said. “Very rarely do you get to write about a hero and root it in something real.”

The Madam Secretary team liked the storyline so much that they turned it into a three-episode arc, focused on the effect the crisis has on migration and climate refugees. The trilogy aired last spring, with more than 5 million people watching it live and millions more who saw it within a week of it airing.

But while it was a heady moment, less than 1 percent of shows or movies talk about climate change, according to Anna Jane — a shortcoming that has inspired criticism recently in outlets such as The New York Times and VICE.

Just like she had done before with Christians and Southerners, Anna Jane saw an opportunity to engage new kinds of people to address the climate crisis. This year, she piloted an organization called the Good Energy Project (it will officially launch in March 2020 as a partnership with the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Norman Lear Center, and the Center for Cultural Power). With a rockstar team of strategists and storytellers, the group’s mission is to bring new audiences to the climate movement through the power of TV and film.

Anna Jane said the team has worked eight mentions of climate change into TV scripts that she hopes will air in 2020, and has advised on five substantive climate-themed storylines for an upcoming series. In the last eight months, she said they’ve met with 25 writers and directors in the industry.

“I hope this is the beginning of a wave of writers tackling this issue,” said Maggio, with Madam Secretary, about the work Anna Jane is doing. “It doesn’t have to be the Day After Tomorrow doomsday scenario to tell an effective story.”

“People are more likely to respond when they can identify with someone going through a similar struggle,” he added. “People turn off on the issue because the expectation is that you have to be perfect.”

Love is a Big Deal

And what about those years Anna Jane spent trying to convince her father that climate change is real? Well, it might not have been all for naught.

The two have recently found common ground on issues such as cleaning up air pollution and the plastics ending up in our oceans, and Rick has started to talk about both in his sermons.

“I think my focus on environmental activism has made my dad focus on it more,” Anna Jane said when asked if she feels like she’s had an influence on him. “It has opened his eyes to the theology behind creation-care and caring for the Earth.”

Rick Joyner said he doesn’t think he’s changed — he’s always considered himself an environmentalist, and even attended the first Earth Day celebration. Though not a trained scientist, he said he doesn’t believe in climate change because of his understanding of the weather as a former pilot, and his trust in financial projections.

“I was put in touch with the top climate forecaster that Wall Street listens to and I got her studies, and they were stunningly accurate,” he said.

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But it does seem like Rick Joyner’s perspectives have softened at least slightly over time. (Talking about climate change will do that.) He said he’s read studies that show that “man has an impact on climate change,” and holds scientist Rich Muller at the University of California, Berkeley, in particularly high regard. For him, he said, it’s a matter of understanding whether that’s “a good thing or a bad thing.”

The climate aside, Rick agrees with his daughter that more Christians need to be involved with protecting the Earth. “I think we have a serious responsibility to take care of it and treat it well,” he said. “I do this because of my Biblical convictions, and I’m sorry there aren’t more Christians involved.”

He also acknowledges that Anna Jane has had a real impact. “I think Anna’s helped bring that to the attention of many Christians, and I think it’s a part of our mandate and responsibility.”

The recent shifts don’t take the sting out of their disagreements completely, Anna Jane said. “People often praise me for our relationship and ask for advice, but the truth is I still have no idea how to handle these things,” she said. “It’s messy, stressful, and sometimes I do it with grace, and sometimes I let it tear me apart.”

Still, she’s determined to keep the conversation open. She tells a story about when she toured with the Showtime documentary. She said a man came up to her after a showing and said the last conversation he had with his father, an oil executive, they argued about politics. And then he died. The conversation shook Anna Jane and made her think about the last conversation she’d like to have with her own father.

“It’s exhausting and dispiriting to have a powerful father whose ideologies and politics endanger the children and planet he loves,” she said. “But I try to stay connected to him and understand him on a human level.”

To talk about the complex emotions surrounding climate change work, Anna Jane has started a podcast called No Place Like Home, cohosted with Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Putting together their first season, “All the Climate Feels,” helped Anna Jane move through the anxieties she’s been feeling on the Gulf Coast.

“As much as I hope it helped our audience, it really did help me to hear other people’s stories and how they’ve navigated it,” she said.

The next season of the podcast, called “Bring the Light,” focuses on a topic dear to her: the role of spirituality in the climate movement.

When the going gets particularly tough, Anna Jane thinks about something Kate Marvel, a dear friend and climate scientist, told her: To get through these hard times, we don’t need hope, Marvel told her. We need courage.