Evangelical Christians deeply divided on climate change
May 31, 2011 | 11:09 PM | By Heather Goldstone
More than 26% of American adults identify themselves as Evangelical Christians. That’s the single largest block identified by a 2007 survey conducted by Pew Research Center. But “Evangelical” is a broad umbrella for a number of different churches, and they don’t always see eye to eye. Case in point: climate change.
Evangelical Climate Initiative
In 2006, a group of 86 evangelical leaders, including the head of the Evangelical Environmental Network, issued a call to action on climate change. The Evangelical Climate Initiative built on a handful of conferences and statements from the preceding six years, most notably a 2004 document by the National Association of Evangelicals which included “care for God’s Earth” in a list of seven important issues for Evangelical public action. At the core of the Evangelical Climate Initiative statement were four claims:
1. Human-Induced Climate Change is Real
Because all religious/moral claims about climate change are relevant only if climate change is real and is mainly human-induced, everything hinges on the scientific data. As evangelicals we have hesitated to speak on this issue until we could be more certain of the science of climate change, but the signatories now believe that the evidence demands action.
The statement cites the IPCC’s climate science assessments and notes that “from 1988—2002 the IPCC’s assessment of the climate science was Chaired by Sir John Houghton, a devout evangelical Christian.”
2. The Consequences of Climate Change Will Be Significant, and Will Hit the Poor the Hardest
Even small rises in global temperatures will have such likely impacts as: sea level rise; more frequent heat waves, droughts, and extreme weather events such as torrential rains and floods; increased tropical diseases in now-temperate regions; and hurricanes that are more intense. It could lead to significant reduction in agricultural output, especially in poor countries. Low-lying regions, indeed entire islands, could find themselves under water.
The statement emphasizes that not only will the impacts fall heavily on some of the poorest regions of the world, but poorer nations will have fewer resources for coping with climate change.
The moral convictions and Biblical citations presented by Evangelical leaders are similar to those upon which Catholic climate action is based:
Love of God, love of neighbor, and the demands of stewardship are more than enough reason for evangelical Christians to respond to the climate change problem with moral passion and concrete action.
The signatories called for immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:
In the United States, the most important immediate step that can be taken at the federal level is to pass and implement national legislation requiring sufficient economy-wide reductions in carbon dioxide emissions through cost-effective, market-based mechanisms such as a cap-and-trade program.
The statement lauds lawmakers who have supported such legislation, as well as large corporations who have taken steps to reduce their carbon footprints, and ends with a pledge to “not only teach the truths communicated here but also seek ways to implement the actions that follow from them.” Another Evangelical Climate Initiative document outlines principles for federal climate policy including enhancing national and energy security; encouraging state, local, and individual action; and developing free market solutions.
“Global warming is not a consensus issue.”
As NY Times and NPR coverage of the Evangelical Climate Initiative letter noted at the time, some major players in the Evangelical community were conspicuously absent from the list of signatories. As the Evangelical Climate Initiative was launching, twenty two other evangelical leaders penned a letter to the National Association of Evangelicals declaring that “global warming is not a consensus issue” and asking the Association not to take a stance on the issue. The president of the Association at the time, Rev. Ted Haggard, had been vocally supportive of climate action but did not sign the Evangelical Climate Initiative letter (note: the current president is among 220 signatories listed on the Evangelical Climate Initiative website).
Indeed, many Evangelical leaders deeply disagree with the idea that Evangelical teachings demand climate action. An alternative Evangelical position on creation care and climate change had been developing. It coalesced into the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance in 2005. Then, in 2007, the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance changed its name to the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and issued a “Renewed Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor” that refutes the moral basis for climate action on three points:
1. Theology, World-view, and Ethics
The authors contend that “global warming alarmism wrongly views the Earth and its ecosystems as the fragile product of chance, not the robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting product of God’s wise design and powerful sustaining.” They argue that Earth was given to humankind to subdue and rule for our benefit, first and foremost, and that human activities are – by definition – part of God’s will.
The authors cast doubt on the role of humans in climate change, saying that “global warming alarmism … falsely claims overwhelming scientific consensus” and “exaggerates the influence of manmade greenhouse gases on global temperature and ignores or underestimates the influence of natural cycles.”
Finally, the authors argue that “global warming alarmism … exaggerates the harms from global warming and ignores or underestimates the benefits not only from warming but also from increased atmospheric carbon dioxide. It grossly underestimates the costs and overestimates the benefits of policies meant to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.” Climate action would be unethical, they say, because it would unnecessarily eliminate jobs, slow economic growth, reduce the standard of living, and impair liberty.
Resisting the Green Dragon
Leaving aside theological arguments about climate change and Earth’s resilience, the argument that there is no scientific consensus on climate change and the role of human activities is patently false. Furthermore, history tells us that the economic impacts of environmental regulations tend to be less than expected or feared by opponents.
Still, the Evangelical backlash against what it calls “environmental extremism” has continued to grow. Last December, the Cornwall Alliance released a new DVD series, Resisting the Green Dragon, that it calls “a Biblical response to one of the greatest deceptions of our day.” See for yourself.