environment politics religion science

Why are Christians afraid of climate change?

I was at a lecture yesterday on the environment and christian faith, and in the course of discussion someone mentioned that Christians in the US are the least likely segment of society to take climate change seriously. I thought I’d look that up, and it turns out it’s true. At the risk of wading into some controversial waters, let’s explore this a little.

According to the Christian research group , 51% of America’s 95 million Christians believe global warming is a ‘major’ problem affecting the country. By comparison, 62% of people in other religions believed it was a major issue, and so did 69% of atheists and agnostics. Hmm.

Narrow it down to ‘‘ Christians, and just 33% are concerned about climate change. “That qualifies evangelicals as the least concerned segment among more than 50 population groups studied”, say Barna. 

Not surprising with figureheads like Jerry Falwell delivering sermons called ‘the myth of global warming’, in which he righteously : “I am today raising a flag of opposition to this alarmism about global warming and urging all believers to refuse to be duped by these ‘earthism’ worshippers.” Or from the Evangel Society: “Christians should not worry that their transportation choices might harm other people. Christians can choose to drive how they wish without fearing that their actions contribute to Global Warming”. Search Dr James Dobson’s Focus on the Family website for global warming, and amongst the hundreds of articles on marriage and homosexuality and prayer in schools you’ll find headlines like ‘Stoplight: global warming and the nation-sized error’, ‘Scientists renounce global warming alarmism’, and ‘Study: no global consensus on global warming’.

As a Christian in the UK, this is odd to me. Although Christian might not be leading the way in tackling climate change (although I think we should be), we’re at least aware of it and willing to engage with it. The Bishop of London vowed not to fly for a year to set an example. Elaine Storkey, president of Tearfund, : “A key part of loving God is to exercise faithful stewardship of the world God has made. A key part of loving our neighbour is not to harm them or exploit their vulnerability to climate change.”

Of course, there are climate change believers in the US too – a group of 86 evangelical leaders issued on the issue not long ago that is worth reading. But why is it so difficult for American Christians to embrace climate change science? I have a few ideas.

  1. Politics. It’s worth remembering, for those of us outside the States, that one of the biggest influences on the debate has been An Inconvenient Truth, and that this is a film made by a Democrat. Christians tend to be Republicans, and just wouldn’t bother to see the film. Al Gore is a Democrat hero, so his people will listen to him. The Republicans are far less likely too. Barna’s research reflects this political divide, with 67% of Democrats saying climate change is a major issue, and just 38% of Republicans.  Who’s going to make a film for the Republicans?
  2. Science. It’s very difficult to engage with climate change, or environmental concerns more generally, without the prickly issue of origins coming up. If you want to hold to a literal Genesis, and hence a young earth and a six day creation, you’re going to have trouble with the world of science fairly quickly. That makes some Christians wary of scientists, and potentially more skeptical than most.
  3. Economics. It’s no secret that the American church is very wealthy. The same loud voices attacking the idea of climate change defend Christians’ rights to affluent lifestyles. “God is in favour of freedom, property ownership, competition, diligence, work, and acquisition” says Falwell in his book Wisdom for Living. Climate change requires us rich people to lay aside some of our ‘rights’ – rights to fly, to drive SUVs, and so on. The richer we are, the more likely we are to need to examine our lives and make some cutbacks. Christians can’t use the Bible to justify ecologically wasteful lifestyles.
  4. Theology. Traditionally, the church has taught more about personal wrongdoing, or sin, than corporate irresponsibility. We haven’t talked much about ethics in public life, and so environmental and social justice issues have got sidelined or ignored by the American church as they focus on personal morality, on abortion and homosexuality. Alongside that, the Christian message has been reduced to ‘personal salvation’. The environment pales into insignificance, say the Evangelicals, compared to eternal damnation, and so the church is focused on future heaven, while the present goes to hell.

I’m not an American, so I’m probably not getting the whole perspective. My opinion from across the pond is that American Christianity has become narrow, politicized and entrenched, at least on this issue. Personally, I think there’s a whole wealth of opportunity for Christians to involve themselves in environmental action, if we could see it. Perhaps I need to write a bit more about what those opportunities are. Or then again, maybe I’m just a deluded ‘earthism’ worshipper.

16 comments

  1. To Christians, it seems that if ANYTHING is causing the climate to change, its God, not us humans. Therefore, if God is the one causing the change, is there really anything we can, or should, do about it?

    Anyone who thinks our technologies, industries, and general existence on this planet is NOT affecting the climate, they are wrong, wrong, wrong.

    -Eric Palmieri

  2. Interesting post – especially the comments about the emphasis on personal salvation and virtue within modern evangelicalism.

    You mention the creationist view that has trouble with science. I’d say that this is closely linked to the apocalyptic view that would hold climate change as a desirable portent of divine rapture. Rather than fight the change, this view would encourage its coming.

  3. Great Post – As a former Christian my biggest struggle has always been with this free pass that many Christians seem to have and I think the feeling towards Global Warming falls right into place. Why should evangelicals care what happens to the planet or anyone else when there place in Heaven is secure.

  4. Yes, evangelical interpretations of the ‘end times’ have a part to play here too, with the belief that God is going to destroy the world and build a new one – little motivation for preserving the one we’ve got!
    Incidentally, this is mainly a translation error. In the Greek original, the idea of a ‘new heaven and a new earth’ promised in the Bible’s book of Revelation, is for a ‘renewed’ earth, not a replaced earth.

  5. Hello, I am a Christian, and proud of it. And, as the majority of evangelicals in the Barna study, I am not hugely concerned with global warming or anything else environmental for that matter. The reason that I have no interest in environmental issues has nothing to do with the conservative “right wing” media that I happen to listen to and watch. It has to do with a “earthism worshipper” or as I like to call her, an eco-feminist HIPPY! This person that I am talking about is my mother. She placed great emphasis on the importance of the environment and little importance on people. She went to all sorts of protests and save the earth conventions, since they were apparently more important than me and my siblings. She also is proud to be a person who was one of the first arrested as a fight to stop a nuclear waste dump from comming to our town. Funny, she had no problem using the much cheaper electricity that came from the nuclear plant, but she didn’t want to deal with the radioactive waste that came from it, lol… in the blog, you said, “The same loud voices attacking the idea of climate change defend Christians’ rights to affluent lifestyles.” And were talking about the “right to drive SUV’s” and so on. Well, to end my comment, I use public transportation, and my mother drives a truck that gets 15 MPG on a good day and is rated one of the highest carbon monoxide and CO2 emmitors in it’s class. And she says she doesn’t like Christians because THEY’RE hypocrites… laughable!

  6. Rob, I’m sorry your experiences of environmentalists has been so negative, but surely you need to make up your own mind. It’s perfectly possible to care about creation without worshipping it in any way, and when people are being poisoned by pollution or are seeing their land dry up and their cattle die, then caring for the earth and caring for people are inseparable.

  7. Didn’t Jesus tell us to look out for signs such as changing weather patterns, as well as an increase in earthquakes, famines, lawlessness,wars etc. All these things seem to be coming tgether very quickly and as a Christian, I felt that global warming was due to man’s activity on earth, but that God forsaw the end from the beginning. So yes I think that whatever we do now it’s not going to change the end result but didn’t God also tell us to be concerned for our neighbour? Surely we should’t be sitting back waiting for the end to come whilst people are suffering. That can’t come under the heading of Christian love.

  8. Yes, Jesus says a bunch of things in Matthew 24 which are about ‘end times’, but verse 34 reads: ‘I assure you, this generation will not pass away before all these things have come to pass’. That begs the question of what exactly is ending – the world, or Israel? History tells us that forty years later, Jerusalem was ransacked and the nation of Israel ceased to exist (until 1949). That would still have been within the lifetime of his hearers, as he said, so it’s a difficult passage and not as directly applicable to the end of the world as many people assume.

    But, as you suggest, the best thing for us to do is to look after each other. We may be confused over the theology of what’s going on, but we can love our neighbours regardless. Climate change will devastate the poorer nations of the world, and I believe we can’t stand by and let that injustice take place.

    I’ve read some commentators who believe that global warming is restoring the world to the way it was in the garden of Eden, or is God’s mechanism for bringing about the end times. In my opinion it’s not worth arguing with those people. But it is worth pointing out the injustice that is being done by our unsustainable lifestyles.

  9. I understood that when Israel became a nation again in 1949 that this was the most significant event of all to mark the beginning of the ‘end times.’ However as you say theology is very confusing and many Christians will put their own slant on what’s happening even to the extent of predicting a date and time for the ‘end of the age.’ It’s so easy to get caught up in such things and miss the Christian message to love your neighbour as yourself. I personally am guilty of sitting in front of the box and sympathising with the plight of poorer nations. My sympathy isn’t likely to help anyone and I realise it’s high time for me to take action. In what way I’m not quite sure but I’m working on it. Any ideas?

  10. This post has been very helpful for me. I am a European, a Christian, living in Washington DC, worshipping in affluent NW DC, with what I understand is a church that is comprised mostly of Republicans. My husband and I became convicted that we needed to care about the environment as Christians and a as couple that professed concern for the poor. We were both very quickly shocked and devastated when we started to talk to other Christians about the environment at our church. We were both baffled. I understand that people may not care about the environment. But to have Christians oppenly attack, oppose and sabotage any effort to care for the environment was beyond my comprehension. I don’t understand the irrational fear of science. I don’t understand how politics can over-ride people’s ability to reason for themselves, to interfere with objectively looking at data and facts. Maybe I don’t understand because both my husband and I come from academic research backgrounds, I don’t know. This article seems to be in line with what I have been hearing from my Republican brothers and sisters at church. It has helped me organize my thoughts, organize the information I gleamed from my conversations with them and inform the approach I need to use when I talk to them in the future.

  11. It’s crazy isn’t it, the hostility towards issues of poverty and the environment. I’ve experienced those same frustrations, and they have been part of the motivation behind this site, to kind of redress the balance a little!

    Thanks for stopping by, and good luck as you think and talk and keep exploring the kingdom of God in all its many facets.

  12. The earth hasn’t warmed for 18 years. It’s not us that are blind. Cheap energy is crucial to lift people out of poverty and we’d deny them it because of global warming which inconveniently stopped. We’re not stupid, we just care for people more than nature – and trust God for the rest. I should point out that I do not believe we should abuse the natural world, quite the opposite. Do you not think picking secular “prophets” is probably a bit silly too?

    1. I don’t think you’re stupid, but I do think you are being lied to and are choosing not to ask questions. The 18 years thing is a case in point – warming is measured in trends over time, not in one-off record years. If you’re serious about not wanting to abuse the earth, have a look at the graph on page 4 of this report and see if you still believe that the earth hasn’t warmed:

      If the climate warms, those affected most will be those in the poorest countries. What use will cheap energy be to them if they can’t grow crops, the rains don’t come, or if their houses have been swept away? Choosing between people and nature is a false choice. If you love people, you have to care for the place where they live.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s