The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Climate Change and Religion

This is the conclusion of my series on climate and religion, which profiled Catholicism, the evangelical, mainline, and African-American wings of Protestant Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and American Neopaganism. These are hardly the only religions, or even the only ones in the United States, but together they are dominant voices. If anyone wants to see another religion profiled, just let me know.

Throughout writing this series, I was struck by a recurring pattern; America’s religions are mostly pro-climate, and American people are mostly religious, and yet America as a whole is decidedly climate denialist. Meaningful climate legislation won’t pass Congress.

Huh?

Seriously. Leaders and representatives of every group I researched had published pro-climate statements and only among the evangelical Christians could I find any organized dissent on the issue. On the face of it, that implies that religious people are generally pro-climate, with the exception of some (not all) evangelicals. And yet, there are simply too many religious people in the country, and too few who take climate change seriously, for religion to actually be the pro-climate force that it repeatedly says it is. In polls, only 16% of Americans identify as unaffiliated with any religion. Just over 26% identify as evangelicals. Since some evangelicals are climate activists and climate scientists, as are some unaffiliated people, that means that less than 42% of Americans should be indifferent or hostile to climate. Everybody else belongs to religions whose leaders who have come out in favor of the planet. And yet fully 50% of Americans actually describe themselves as “unconcerned” about climate. Only 5% consider climate change our most important issue. Only seven US states are not currently represented by at least one climate denier in Congress; 11 states have Congressional delegations with a majority of climate deniers.

So what is going on? How and why is there such a disconnect between what American religious leaders say and what American political leaders actually do?

Part of the issue is simply that many religious groups are less interested in climate than their leaders’ public statements suggest; according to polls, only a little over a third of all Americans “often” or “sometimes” hear their clergy discus climate change. Of white Catholics, 40% never hear about climate change in church, despite Pope Francis’ outspoken environmentalism. Of white mainline Protestants, 37% never hear about climate change from their pastors, again despite public pronouncements by church leaders. Those religious people who do hear about the issue from their clergy are significantly more likely to believe in climate change and take it seriously than those who do not.

Are we looking at a case of religious hippocracy, where church leaders say one thing but do another? Possible, but I doubt it. I suspect that most American clergy, of whatever stripe, are not hostile to climate so much as uninterested in it. Those who do care, and who publish statements on global warming, are met, not with controversy but with silence. The result is that, except for evangelicals, the only voices an outsider like me hears on the subject are those of the vocal minority who are climate-concerned.

Another part of the issue is that many people who do accept climate change are happy to vote for political leaders who do not, provided they like the rest of the candidate’s presentation–but climate deniers will not vote for a candidate who does accept climate change. The result is that candidates put together winning coalitions by denying climate change.

Climate deniers are louder, politically speaking, than the climate-accepting majority, in part because many evangelical Christians have, rightly or wrongly, linked climate science (and evolution) to other issues that are also important to them. As political liberals have shown themselves more concerned over climate change, climate has become identified with the “liberal agenda,” such that a vote for climate is, by proxy, a vote for social changes conservative Christians do not want.

In contrast, people who do accept climate change seem not to have made equivalent conceptual links. Just 5% of Americans consider climate change the country’s most pressing issue, while many more consider the gap between rich and poor (18%) or health care (17%) the most important–even though climate change is closely related to both economics and public health. Only 25% say climate change is even the most pressing environmental problem, while 29% say the worst environmental problem is pollution and 23% say it is water shortages and drought–even though climate change is caused by pollution and is an important cause of water shortages and drought. It seems that many people who believe climate change is real still don’t believe that it is important because they do not see the connections between climate and the other issues they care about.

It’s also worth noting that the electoral results relative to climate change do not exactly reflect the will of the American people right now. A huge amount of money is being poured into electoral politics in support of climate denial candidates (and candidates who are otherwise in favor of big business)–and those efforts are succeeding. While liberal candidates raise huge amounts of money, too, and some of their donors are indeed very rich, no one is in the same financial league as Charles and David Koch–who get much of their money through the oil industry. The electoral landscape of the United States is now a direct result of the fact that climate deniers–of whatever religion–have substantially deeper pockets than climate activists do.

So, what is religion good for?

So, if religion in America is not the force for climate sanity that it looks like it should be, what is it good for?

The simple answer is that if religious leaders who do support climate action organize themselves better and do more effective outreach among their colleagues, we could indeed see a major cultural shift on the subject–and we may be heading in that direction. Let’s give those leaders their due.

But mobilizing congregations is only one of the possible roles of religion in climate change, and it may not even be the most important role. Not all religious people take the advice of their clergy to heart, after all, especially in areas of life not considered obviously religious. And non-Christian religions are such small minorities in the United States that mobilizing those congregations on climate will not, by itself, swing the national conversation very much.

What religious leaders can do is give the national conversation more depth of meaning. Religion can host an exploration of why climate matters.

“Religion” means many things, including a dimension of the collective human soul. By this definition, even many atheists are religious, because they wrestle with meaning, priority, and morality. Specific religions are entities dedicated to discovering and spreading particular visions of the meaning of life. Religions are places within the culture set aside for discovering what matters and why, what our ideals are, and what our standards are, just as sciences are zones within the culture set aside for discovering what exists and how it works. Science can tell us that the planet is heating up because of human activity and it can predict the kinds of disasters we face if we don’t stop warping the sky very soon. But science cannot tell us why that’s a problem or why the planet is worth fighting for. That’s what religion can do.

Science can tell you that if you point a loaded gun at somebody’s head and pull the trigger, you’ll probably kill the person, but only religion can tell you that it’s murder.

The religions, collectively, can host a discussion of the moral dimensions of climate change. They can be our conscience, and they can serve that function not just for their own adherents but for all of us. I don’t have to be Buddhist to have my conscience pricked by a Buddhist teacher who calls out climate apathy as a failure of awareness and compassion. You don’t have to be Wiccan to be inspired by a vision of the planet as an entity to whom we owe a debt of care. Neither of us must be Christian to consider that perhaps we only become most fully alive when we dedicate our lives to the service of something larger than ourselves.

Apathy, cowardice, gluttony, denial, and greed have the capacity at this very moment to render our beautiful planet something less than what we were given to care for. Fortunately, there are people who know how to cope with and combat those darker tides of human nature. We should listen to them.

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Climate Change and Evangelicals

This is the second part of a series on religion and climate change. The first part covered Catholicism. I’m going to cover all of the major–and some of the minor–religions in the United States. Feel free to comment if you know about how these issues play out in other countries.

It may seem strange to non-Christian readers, that I’m doing separate posts on different subtypes of Christianity. It seems strange to me that I have to, but Christians themselves often speak as though the different branches of Christianity were, in fact, separate religions. Notably, I have heard Protestants use constructions like “are you Christian or Catholic?” More important for our purposes, the different branches respond differently to the issue of climate change.

Some Definitions

Talking about Protestant Christianity and climate change is difficult because, in contrast to Catholicism, there is no central authority on doctrine (except the Bible itself which, rightly or wrongly, is obviously subject to multiple interpretations). True, the leadership of an individual denomination can decide on a doctrine and treat it as orthodoxy–Protestant churches are not necessarily democracies on matters of faith. But if somebody disagrees they can go to a different Protestant church, or even found a new one, without dropping out of the larger Protestant continuum.

By “Protestant continuum” I mean the variety of beliefs and practices encompassed by all Protestant churches everywhere. Outsiders tend to treat variations within that cloud as mere details, so, sometimes, do Christians themselves. One of my brothers-in-law was raised Methodist, “saved” in an evangelical denomination (I don’t know which one), attended a Methodist seminary, and now teaches adult Bible study at a church of another denomination (the rest of the family can’t remember which). On Christmas and Easter he returns to his parents’ Methodist church for services. Nobody seems to care, and he is not the only Protestant I have met who shifts denominations so fluidly. While in theory some Protestant churches may indeed have an orthodoxy and by its lights define other Protestant churches as apostate or even just not Christian, in practice individual Protestants have a wide freedom of religious choice. To discover what Protestants do and believe, we must therefor look to polls, not encyclicals.

The polls I have found divide Protestants into three groups: mainline, evangelical, and black. To be clear, “black Protestants,” in this usage, does not mean Protestant who happen to be black. In fact, all three groups have at least some black members and all three have at least some white members. But, in the United States, at least, the traditionally black churches comprise a distinct body of both doctrine and practice. We’ll start, today, with the evangelical branch.

Evangelical by Any Other Name

Evangelical Christianity is not a denomination or even a distinct group of denominations–although some denominations are generally considered evangelical. More properly, the evangelicals comprise a movement, and, like all movements, its boundaries are somewhat fuzzy. Generally, evangelicals can be said to share a few key doctrines, such as conversionism or Biblicalism, but not everybody who has those beliefs calls themselves evangelicals. It is difficult to even say for sure how many American evangelicals there are, although a third of the total population is a reasonable guess.

The terms evangelical, born-again, and fundamentalist are all used interchangeably by many outsiders. Indeed, the word fundamentalist is used by some writers, such as Karen Armstrong, to refer to common elements among religious movements of multiple religions, including Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. By this definition, evangelical Christians are often fundamentalists because they take the Bible literally. These terms are not interchangeable for believers themselves, however; the term fundamentalist originated in an American Christian movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the term evangelical originated in a separate religious movement that arose in the Midwest in opposition to fundamentalism during World War II.

What the Polls Say

Among self-described white evangelicals, 64% are “somewhat” or “very” unconcerned about climate change, more than any other American religious grouping (Hispanic Catholics are most concerned). 77% attribute recent natural disasters to the “End Times,” while only 49% attribute such disasters to climate change (obviously, some attribute disasters to both causes). Only 31% say humans are causing climate change, a dramatically lower percentage than for all other groups polled.

While some obviously accept climate change and care about it, the evangelical voice is largely one of climate denial or climate skepticism (yes, there is a difference) and the voice of American climate denial is largely an evangelical Christian voice.

There is serious political importance to evangelical belief because they vote in large numbers and they care about the beliefs of the people they vote for. That is, while climate change and evolution are political non-issues for many other Americans, both are important indicators for evangelicals; many simply will not vote for anyone who believes in either. Evangelicals are hardly unusual among Americans for doubting evolution or climate change, but because they vote on these issues and most other people vote, their vote matters more. White evangelicals were the largest voting bloc in many districts at the recent midterm elections and they overwhelmingly voted for Republicans. They are why the Republicans took the Senate.

Notice the implication here; if non-evangelicals tend not to care whether candidates accept global warming, that means that many people who do believe in climate change are voting for candidates who don’t. This is why the United States has a persistent climate denial Congress and why the long-hoped-for climate agreement to be finalized in Paris will not include a new, legally binding treaty. When Americans who do accept climate change do not vote about climate, or do not vote at all, the entire world sees its options narrow.

Why So Many Evangelicals Doubt Climate Science

There are important doctrinal reasons why evangelical Christians have trouble accepting the idea of human-caused environmental disaster. If God is omnipotent, then how could humans mess up Creation? Even the suggestion that we might seems sacrilegious to some. In this view, if the climate is changing than God must be changing it and He must have a good reason to do so. Further, if after the Resurrection the saved will live forever with Jesus Christ on a new and much-improved Earth where there is no suffering, then it doesn’t much matter what happens to this Earth. It’s temporary. Some evangelicals also believe that God gave the Earth to humans to use however they want–this being one interpretation of the concept of “dominion over the Earth.”

The problem is that other Christian groups share the same doctrinal underpinnings and yet have much higher rates of climate change acceptance. While evangelical climate skeptics and deniers may indeed list the above reasons for their doubt, something else is clearly going on.

The “something else” is culture and politics.

Basically, environmentalism and especially climate sanity have become identified in the popular American imagination with liberal politics and liberal values. Evangelicals are generally culturally conservative, so they are automatically suspicious of anything liberals espouse. It is simply not possible for everyone to become an expert in everything, so we all have to trust others to tell us what is right to some extent–everybody, liberals included, is inclined to believe the things that people they trust tell them. We also disbelieve people we dislike or distrust.

Part of the problem with the climate discussion in the United States is that this distrust-by-proxy is mutual. For every conservative who complains about Al Gore and the socially licentious, politically imperious liberal agenda, there is a liberal complaining about those racist, sexist red-necks who listen to Rush Limbaugh. Underneath the reflexive mud-slinging, both groups harbor–and sometimes share–entirely valid concerns about how the country is being run and how its culture is changing, neither group is willing to listen to the other. Climate change, as an issue, is a casualty of this breakdown in communications. It is not the only one–there are important concerns that liberals overlook, too.

Why Some Evangelicals Are Climate Activists

I am not myself evangelical (nor even Christian), but I have had many friends over the years who are. One of them was, at the time, the state ecologist of Delaware and he took climate change more seriously than the vast majority of my liberal friends (he accepted evolution as well, having heard of a pastor who claimed that the “days” in Genesis could have each encompassed millions of years). He took a lot of flak from his colleagues for being Christian and told me that he knew of Christians in the sciences who hide their religious identity for fear of professional discrimination and harassment.

He isn’t alone. Evangelical Christianity does not get much respect from the American mainstream. They are often wrongly assumed to be stupid or anti-intellectual because so many of them take the Bible literally. Evangelical environmentalists consequently often feel uncomfortable at best among liberal environmentalists and environmental scientists. They don’t feel welcome, and sometimes aren’t welcome. Many must also cope, simultaneously, with having their faith and their values questioned by other evangelicals, who suspect them of being turncoats.

Nevertheless, evangelical environmentalists do exist. Not only do they accept the science on the matter and feel concern for the same reasons other people do, but some see environmentalism as an important embodiment of their faith. The evangelical environmentalist groups I have encountered recently mostly describe responding to climate change as an extension of their Christian duty to other people, but I have, in the past, also heard environmental responsibility framed as another meaning of human dominion over the Earth. The idea is that God gave the Earth to humans to shepherd and take care of, not simply to use. A related concept is that God made the world, so for humans to wantonly damage it is disrespectful of God.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that American evangelical Christianity has a huge effect on environmental policy, both for good and for ill. Alongside evangelical climate skeptics–who are factually wrong on that one point but have much to say on other issues–there are scientists and activists who approach environmentalism as part of a sacred trust. Recently, self-described evangelicals have spoken up in support of the EPA’s new rules regulating carbon emissions, pressed Congress for legislative action on climate, and even encouraged President Obama to speak with the Pope on climate change.

We need these people.