While many political and religious leaders remain convinced that climate change is the work of the devil (or liberals), many of their flock have been tempted to consider that human-caused global warming is actually happening and that they need to be doing something about it.
Growing disagreement among evangelicals on how to handle climate change is perhaps the clearest example that the religious community is not monolithic in opposition to scientific calls to action. Despite a common perception that evangelicals, one of the largest and most powerful religious groups in the nation, form a single-minded voting bloc, the group has begun fracturing on its attitude toward climate change.
According to a 2007 Pew research study, a majority of the nation’s evangelicals, a faith with as many as 100 million adherents, believe that “stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost.”
This summer, the Evangelical Environmental Network, founded in 1993, ran TV ads in swing states asking viewers to tell their senators “that defending the EPA’s ability to reduce carbon pollution is the right thing to do.” (The group calls its movement “creation care.”) A few months later, when Young Evangelicals for Climate Action protested the second presidential debate, the group released this statement: “For too long our churches and our country have been irresponsible when it comes to facing up to the growing climate crisis. We are acting to change this.”
That’s all well and good, but Bron Taylor, a religion professor at the University of Florida, is not convinced that these groups represent widespread activism in the religious community — or that they will. Taylor is the author of Dark Green Religion: Nature, Spirituality and the Planetary Future. He used the titular phrase to describe an emerging spirituality that resembles a religion and holds nature sacred but doesn’t necessarily require a belief in supernatural beings. Many environmentalists fall into such a category, he argues.
He’s skeptical that traditional Christians, or traditionalists within other religions, will embrace the political stances –– better regulation of the oil, gas, and coal industries and investment in alternative energy sources, for starters –– required to minimize the carbon dioxide that’s killing off the planet’s ozone layer.
“If we’re looking for religions to lead, there’s a good chance we’re barking up the wrong tree, but they have been powerful social forces once they mobilize,” Taylor said. “Rather than looking for signs of leadership, we should perhaps be looking for signs that that they might be joining a social bandwagon.”
Polls show that belief in climate change recently spiked at 73 percent (primarily because of the havoc wrecked by Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast, which was measurably worse because of rising sea levels), but orthodox faiths still believe such storms are the result of God’s will, not of climate change.
“It’s kind of tilting at windmills with this kind of theology –– ‘You puny little humans are going to try to prevent something that God either put in force or is permitting,’ ” he said. “Environmentalists have a lot of anger at their religious adversaries.”
So, can environmentalism flourish in the religious community? The question divides even those who are advocating for that kind of widespread change.
Environmentalists’ anger at the climate change-denying ideologues isn’t going to persuade fundamentalist Christians to start buying solar panels and unplugging their appliances, Roach said.
Christian environmentalists don’t have to be “vocally opposed” to that kind of thinking, he said, but they need to offer a religiously inspired alternative that draws upon themes of “connectedness” and “stewardship” that have biblical roots.
In an address to religious leaders a few years ago, Gus Speth, who is dean of Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies at Yale University and the founder of the Natural Resource Defense Council, said this:
“I used to think the top environ-mental problems facing the world were global warming, environmental degradation, and eco-system collapse and that we scientists could fix those problems with enough science.
“But I was wrong. The real problem is not those three items, but greed, selfishness, and apathy. And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that. We need your help.”
Religious traditions established the “social gospel” long ago; now they need to establish the “ecology gospel,” Roach said, by developing a language that builds upon a sense of fellowship that’s already there.
“If you connect that to a larger sense that we’re all part of this web, then things will really change,” he said.
If most religious leaders aren’t talking about climate change yet, it shows how the institutions are lagging behind the reality of what the world is facing, said Anna Clark, president of the environmental consulting firm Earth People. In that vacuum of conversation, groups like Interfaith Power and Light are providing a perspective that’s been missing in the religious community, she said.
“It’s happening in pockets. It’s not happening as fast in Texas as it is elsewhere,” she said. “It’s slow, but it’s growing.”
Yes, it sometimes takes time before a faith community embraces a particular issue, but once the religious community is engaged, they tend to stay engaged, Robinson said.
“Work by Interfaith and other groups –– we’re really looking long-term,” she said. And even if there weren’t much evidence of traction among the devout, “I don’t think it’s possible to affect climate change without all hands on deck.”
Though he regards it as “an optimistic view,” Taylor acknowledged the potential impact on public policy of convincing religious leaders that concern about climate change is a religious duty.
“One would suspect that that would have some political impact because they are an important part of the Republican coalition,” he said. He added: “I am afraid we will have to see much greater disruption and suffering before there is significant mobilization around climate change.”
If the Texas Baptist Conference –– representing about 5,500 Baptist churches –– is any indication, Republican lawmakers may have more and more climate-conscious Christians to contend with. The organization’s Christian Life Commission has lobbied the legislature to invest in clean energy, encourages churches to switch to alternative energy sources, and helped win a moratorium on fast-track permits for coal-fired power plants a few years ago.
Suzii Paynter, the commission’s director, pointed to the high asthma rates among children in the Dallas-Fort Worth area as evidence compelling enough to get any Christian on board.
“Forty percent of the kids we take to summer camp have inhalers,” she said. “It’s not just a theological question. My gosh, we’re having two major disasters every year. Whether it’s fires in Bastrop, fires in Galveston, Hurricane Isaac –– that impacts your ministry.”
Climate change is caused mostly by a small number of the world’s wealthier nations, and the worst impacts will be felt by a large number of poor, highly populated countries. Scientists estimate that natural disasters and increasingly arid weather will cause widespread devastation, from floods to famine, within the next few decades.
Asked whether Fort Worth Interfaith Power and Light –– and groups like it –– can create a groundswell among the rest of the religious community, Roach, the eternal optimist, turns fatalistic.
“It will become mainstream. It has to … . We’re in desperate straits in the world.”