Christian Evangelicalism and Climate Change Denial
This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.
Christian Evangelicalism and Climate Change Denial by Kristopher Thompson
When you think of evangelical Christianity, a few things might come to mind. “Evangelical” is generally associated with conservative perspectives, particularly in social realms, so lines may be drawn to such topics as being against abortion and same-sex marriage. It would be correct to assume that the majority of evangelicals, in the United States at least, vote in favor of conservative politicians. The coupling of evangelical Christianity with the Republican Party is fairly strong, and given the sheer number of evangelicals in the United States (estimated to constitute more than a quarter of the overall population), their voting patterns can significantly influence policy. This is especially true when evidence and faith collide.
Focusing specifically on topics of concern to evangelicals, those involving environmental policy have gained increasing attention in recent years. Although evangelicals are less likely than non-evangelicals to believe that the actions of humans have affected climate systems, there exist evangelicals who drastically break this trend. In effect, the matter of whether or not climate change is occurring as the result of human activities has created tension amongst evangelical leaders. At the heart of this tension lie differing interpretations of biblical text involving the ways in which humans should interact with the earth. In Genesis 1:26-28, God gives humans “dominion” over the earth and all forms of life on the earth. Naturally, this gives rise to questions regarding what exactly “dominion” means. Does this give humans the right to use the earth however they see fit, or are humans instead stewards of the earth who have been given the responsibility to protect the environment?
The argument over interpretations of “dominion” in Genesis manifesting into exploitation of the environment was actually brought to attention quite a while ago, most notably by Lynn White in 1967. This piece in particular ignited debates that have evolved to such an extent that numerous evangelical Christian groups have formed for the purpose of either a) endorsing the protection of the environment in order to combat climate change or b) denying that humans are negatively impacting the environment in a way that could induce climate change. Obviously, these views are in polar opposition to one another, demonstrating that there is little middle ground on this topic. So why can common ground not be met, and what are the incentives that have pushed this topic to points of polarization amongst evangelicals?
On the pro-environmental side of this debate are evangelical leaders like Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, who have “converted” to environmentalism in order to better realize the word of God. According to Richard Cizik, depleting the earth’s resources or degrading the environment is “an offense to God.” Cizik calls for immediate action to address climate change, but acknowledges that vested interests (oil and gas) stunt the growth of pro-environmental sentiment in Washington. Further, he suggests that the association between environmentalism and the “left-wing” has deterred most evangelicals from taking any real pro-environmental action. The word “environmentalism” is actually avoided and replaced with the term “creation care” by evangelicals in many cases for the purpose of avoiding any perceived link with secular humanist ideas. This seems only natural, though, given that evangelicals like Cizik maintain their conservative stances toward such issues as stem-cell research, abortion, and same-sex marriage.
There are other evangelical leaders that have gained attention for casting light on the importance of actively addressing climate change, one of which is an esteemed climatologist who played an integral role in the development of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This individual, Sir John Houghton, is not to be taken lightly in the context of climate change debates. A former professor of atmospheric physics at Oxford University, Sir Houghton has received an assortment of international awards for his leadership, both scientific and organizational, and is regarded as one of the world’s leading climate change experts. Of greatest importance to this discussion, although Sir Houghton identifies as evangelical and derives motivation to protect the environment from biblical interpretations, his arguments concerning the urgency of environmental activism are largely grounded in science.
Efforts to integrate science into the debate of whether or not God would have humans dominate or act as stewards to the earth have prompted collective calls of action, such as that of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, urging Christians to address man-made climate change on both moral and scientific grounds. The Evangelical Climate Initiative alone consists of more than 300 senior United States evangelical leaders and is endorsed by the National Association of Evangelicals, representing over 45,000 churches in the United States. So where is the tension in this debate amongst Evangelicals, or rather who refutes scientific understandings of global climate change and the need to actively address environmental degradation on the basis of biblical interpretations?
One of the faces of evangelical climate change denialism is Calvin Beisner, an interdisciplinary scholar who specializes in “the application of the Biblical world view.” Although his doctorate is in Scottish History, Beisner has provided expert testimony for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives concerning the economic effects of climate change policy. He also acts as chairperson of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, a group which claims not only that current climate change is part of a natural cycle that has little or nothing to do with human activities, but also that attempts to protect the environment, such as the placement of restrictions on carbon emissions, will be detrimental to economies around the world. Further, in their Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming, the Cornwall Alliance holds that those who are negatively affected the most by environmental policy are the poor.
Beisner reasons that the costs associated with transitioning to the use of “green” energy will have the effect of increasing the cost of energy, which will in turn increase the overall cost of living. The poor, he states, will be harmed the most “because they spend the highest percentage of their income on energy.” In denying that climate change is induced by human activities, Calvin Beisner sidesteps consideration of how climate change itself will affect populations around the globe. Food shortages and extreme weather events are predicted to become more frequent as climates change, and if such is the case, poor communities will be the most heavily impacted. In light of this, Beisner’s argument appears suspicious. Why is his focus on the expenses of energy rather than the repercussions of climate change? Well, it turns out that the Cornwall Alliance is associated with Big Oil, receiving funding from interests like ExxonMobil, yet makes no mention of such openly. In other words, Calvin Beisner is promoting gas and oil interests under the guise of religious belief. It appears that fossil fuel interests support much of the divide amongst evangelicals concerning the climate change debate.
As illustrated above, when it comes to the issue of how to care for the Earth, evangelical Christians are not a united front. On the one hand, a feeling of obligation to God’s creation motivates some evangelical leaders who support environmental protection and act as stewards of the land. On the other hand, evangelicals who are not in favor of environmentalism may be tied to oil and gas interests, not just because they were “given” dominion over the land. As such, while this is a debate amongst religious leaders, it is far from just the religious debate that it appears to be.