Scientists are increasingly cautioning that global warming poses a significant threat to humanity — so dire, in fact, that the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned on November 2 that the majority of fuel used by 2050 must come from low carbon sources if we are to ward off the most severe impacts of volatile weather patterns; drought, famine and brutal storms. While the IPCC is ringing alarm bells based on science, for evangelical Christians—who take the Bible as the literal word of God—global warming is a matter of faith. The question for them is, what would Jesus do about climate change? The answer might surprise you.
Like them or not, this fundamentalist subset of Christians composes approximately 30 to 35 percent of the U.S. population, or 90 to 100 million Americans. So it matters what they think. And with the encouragement of televangelists like Jerry Falwell beginning in the late seventies, many have allied with the Republican Party, which has near unilaterally adopted prohibitive stances on issues like gay marriage and abortion to appease them. The party has also become synonymous with blocking legislation to address global warming and cut carbon emissions.
Ninety percent of the Republican leadership in the current U.S. Congress deny climate change exists, including 17 out of 22 members of the current House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Yet their reasoning might have more to do with pleasing their donors than gratifying God. Citing research from the Center for Responsive Politics, the website Think Progress noted that climate deniers have taken in a total of $58,897,095 over their careers from coal and other fossil fuel companies. The forces of denial got even stronger after Republicans took control of the Senate in this month’s $4 billion midterm elections rich with fossil fuel dollars.
Historians like Katrina Lacher have fingered evangelicals as a driving force behind Republican anti-environmentalism. But, while it is true Christian fundamentalists aided and abetted a Republican resurgence beginning with the Reagan presidency in the eighties, the verdict is still out among the flock when it comes to how they should regard the environment and, more specifically, climate change.
George W. Bush, the first president, in evangelical parlance, to have been born again and who received the Christian fundamentalist vote en masse, backed out of the Kyoto Protocol (a set of UN emission-reduction targets) within the first few months of taking office in 2001. “I couldn’t in good faith have signed Kyoto,” he later remarked, saying it would have wounded the U.S. economy. Instead Bush, whose family had accumulated a fortune in part through the oil industry, pursued policies that encouraged the expansion of gas and oil drilling offshore and on federal lands. In so doing, however, he did not act out of a consensus within his evangelical base.
“There was a time when a lot of conservative religious leaders were willing to sign on to climate change as an issue that has to be dealt with,” Edward Brown, an ordained evangelical minister and author of the book Our Father’s World: Mobilizing the Church to Care for Creation, recalled for Planet Experts.
During Bush’s second term in 2006, 86 evangelical leaders signed a statement calling for swift action to address climate change drafted by the newly formed Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI). Signatories, as the New York Times outlined at the time, included the “presidents of 39 evangelical colleges, leaders of aid groups and churches, like the Salvation Army, and pastors of mega-churches, including Rick Warren, author of the best seller The Purpose-Driven Life.”
Bowing to what they described as the “breath and depth of concern” on the part of both scientists and governments, signatories proclaimed, “we are convinced that evangelicals must engage this issue without any further lingering over the basic reality of the problem or humanity’s responsibility to address it.”
For a moment it appeared as though the threat of climate change could bridge the gap between the secular left and the religious right. Evangelical leadership behind the Climate Initiative worked hard to detach the issue from the traditional leftist trappings it might be associated with.
“There are conservatives who feel very strongly that yes we have to care for God’s creation but disagree with liberals on abortion and gay rights,” Brown explained. “They’ve felt like they are being sold a package. If they accept environmentalism, they have to buy into pro-choice and gay marriage and so on.” Instead, ECI used the phrase creation care to describe their doctrine, a term adopted in the late nineties by evangelical environmentalists to disassociate themselves from hippies, anarchists, pagans, barn-burners—whatever negative stereotype might spring to the evangelical mind at the mention of environmentalism.
Yet, despite the sincere effort on the part of a large and influential group of evangelical leaders to encourage climate action, the stalwarts of denial held fast. With funding from Exxon Mobil and the Center for a Constructive Tomorrow, an oil and gas industry mouthpiece, the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (ISA) led the charge. The group succeeded in urging the National Association of Evangelicals to remain neutral on climate change.
“Global warming is not a consensus issue,” ISA contended in a letter of their own, “and our love for the Creator and respect for His creation does not require us to take a position.” Never mind the dire predictions coming from the scientific community, they argued that taking a stance on global warming would distract evangelicals from their true mission, spreading the gospel to “a lost and dying world”— a world sick from a lack of Christian virtue, not Exxon’s carbon emissions.
At the helm of the ISA, which later changed its name to the Cornwall Alliance (a reference to an anti-environmentalist manifesto published in 2000) is Calvin Beisner, who for decades has served as the leading theoretician behind anti-environmentalism within the evangelical community.
Beisner’s first line of reasoning is that there is no scientific consensus on whether global warming is real—and it probably isn’t. His next argument is that the climate might be warming but only mildly and that humans have little to nothing to do with it. Rather, what we call global warming could simply be a natural fluctuation in the Earth’s climate. He further contends that such warming might actually be good for Earth because hotter temperatures are more conducive to human habitation.
“There’s pretty good historical and geological evidence that lower global average temperature breeds more frequent and more intense hurricanes, droughts, and floods,” Beisner wrote in a lengthy response (23 pages) to inquiries from Planet Experts. “Colder temperatures also tend to shrink cultivable zones and to result in lower crop yields, making food more expensive and leading to more malnutrition, hunger, and starvation, as well as to increased rates of illnesses to which people are more vulnerable when inadequately nourished.” Beisner further backs up this argument by noting, “the simple fact” that people are more likely to retire in warmer climates.
Finally, he asserts that the “benefits of the abundant, affordable, reliable electricity to human health, longevity, and prosperity outweigh the harms.” In other words, reducing fossil fuel emissions will plunge billions of the world’s poorest, already barely subsisting, further into poverty. He even goes so far as to defend coal as a solution to premature deaths caused by the household use of “wood, dried dung, and other simple biofuels.” Coal-fired power plants, his logic goes, are more efficient and less costly than expensive renewable energy sources.
Beisner backs his questionable science up with theology. “God’s plan for humanity was not for people to remain within the bounds of the original Garden of Eden, leaving the rest of the earth untouched and untransformed,” he wrote Planet Experts. “But to multiply and spread out over the earth to subdue it” — a reference to Genesis 1:28, in which God commands Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
While his responses to Planet Experts’ questions were cordial, a DVD seminar produced by the Cornwall Alliance and featuring Beisner strikes a more fearful tone, accusing environmentalists of imperialist Satanic Earth worship.
“Radical environmentalism is seeking to put America, and the world, under its destructive control,” a voiceover states in an online preview of the seminar. “This so called Green Dragon is seducing your children in our classrooms and popular culture. Its lust for political power now extends to the highest global levels and its twisted view of the world elevates nature over the needs of people; of even the poorest and most helpless.”
It is difficult, however, to imagine Pastor Edward Brown possesses a lust for political power. Calmly chomping on a bagel at his office in Madison, Wisconsin, Brown meditated on his own interpretation of Genesis 1:28.
“There’s no question that in that verse God commands us to be in charge of nature,” he said. “But the question is, in what context? To be in charge of the Earth on behalf of God or for our own purposes?”
Responding to climate change is part of Brown’s missionary work. He and members of his organization, Care of Creation, visit Kenya each year and teach sustainable agriculture practices to rural farmers where climatic alterations have made seasons erratic. The program is called “Farming God’s Way.”
“Over eighty percent of Kenyans are Christians,” he said, “and they love God language. We tell them, ‘You don’t own this field. God owns this field and you are going to have to hand it back to him someday. He cares about how you treat it.’ It’s a basic stewardship concept. We teach them to apply a thick layer of organic compost to the top of their fields which we call God’s Blanket. God’s Blanket, goes on God’s Field. It decreases erosion and increases the ability of the soil to hold water.”
Despite the success of Farming God’s Way—Brown says he has helped increase crop yields by between 400 to 600 percent—climate change remains a touchy issue among evangelicals, due, in part, to smokescreens and incendiary accusations from Beisner and the Cornwall Alliance. Neither Pastor Rick Warren, an original signatory to the Evangelical Climate Initiative’s letter, nor a representative would comment for this article—although his chief of staff wished God’s blessings on this reporter.
Another potential road block to evangelical engagement on global warming might be that climate scientists use models based on the fact that the Earth is hundreds of millions of years old, whereas many fundamentalists believe, based on the Bible, that the Earth is only about 6,000 years old. Asked how he reconciled the two conceptions of geological history, Brown demurred. “I believe God creates through evolution,” he remarked after some thought.
Yet there is a common thread that runs through both evangelicalism and climate science, the threat of impending doom. Evangelicals believe that one day Christ will return and the world will end. There is some disagreement over when this will occur, but on Judgement Day the wicked will perish and the righteous will be saved. The scientific community, while not exactly foretelling the end of the world, is warning of the end of civilization as we know it, a climate rapture already witnessed firsthand by researchers in Greenland, survivors of Typhoon Haiyan and Kenyan farmers grappling with drought.
Increasingly, auguries of climate peril splash across our news screens, commanding us to take heed. In this case, blessed are those who have seen and now believe.