Why are evangelicals suspicious of climate change, and what is the cost of their skepticism?

When I was a part of conservative Christianity, enemies were everywhere.

(Full disclosure: I’m not a Christian, but I was one – and kind of an intense one, to be honest – for 15 years.)

LGBTQ people threatened traditional family values. NARAL and Planned Parenthood threatened the sanctity of life. Popular culture threatened our purity, the mere presence of alcohol threatened our sobriety, and atheists and postmodern thought threatened our allegiance to God’s Truth. 

Image courtesy of Christian Nationalism

Almost anything could be an enemy.

Strange that climate change was not counted among them.

The statistics line up with my experience. According to a 2015 survey conducted by The Pew Research Center, a quarter of all Christians believe there is no solid evidence for climate change. That’s up 14 percent from where Christians stood in 2009, when only 11 percent believed climate change could not be proven. 

Of course, not all Christians believe the same thing, and some groups are more willing to acknowledge climate change than others. The most suspicious group is white Evangelicals, with 37 percent saying there’s no solid evidence for climate change.

What’s up with that? Why deny science, especially when there is a definite consensus among climate scientists? 

Rebekah Jones, a PhD student in Ecology at Kent State with a Master of Arts in Religion, said Christians who are not actively working to help the environment typically fall into two camps: ones who deny climate change and ones who acknowledge its existence but don’t make it a priority.

The first group, the ones who deny climate change, are typically suspicious of science because they think it denies religion outright. But asking science to validate theological beliefs is not a fair expectation of what science can do, she said. “Science can only measure the material things. The question ‘Does God exist?’ can’t be measured by science because God is not physical.”

Image courtesy of @thedailyshow

Those unmet expectations can lead Christians to assume scientists aren’t telling the truth. “If they think scientists are lying about an issue like evolution, they’ll distrust everything else scientists say,” she said. Like throwing the baby out with the bath water. 

While Jones has encountered people who deny climate change, it is more often she sees Christians who acknowledge its validity but don’t consider it relevant. 

One reason this might be, she said, is their belief that the apocalypse will happen soon. 

“They’re not totally wrong,” she said. “Judgment Day is supposed to be this huge upheaval in the order of things — and not just the social order, but the natural order too. But something like climate change is different from the apocalypse. Events in [the New Testament book of] Revelation are portrayed as absolute miracles with no precedent. For instance, the moon turns to blood, and the mountains flatten. They’re things humanity has never experienced before, as opposed to ‘we got another hurricane.”

Hieronymus Bosch’s The Last Judgment, c. 1486.

For Jones, who attends Episcopal services each week, it’s not clear how much of Revelation is metaphorical, but she doesn’t think theological views about the end of the world are an excuse to do nothing about climate change. “I think it’s the same as taking Jesus’s statement, ‘The poor will always be with you,’ and saying, ‘We shouldn’t help poor people.’ It’s defeatist, and it makes no sense with the entire rest of the Bible. It’s not what Jesus was getting at.”

Is there a cost to Christians’ skepticism? Is denying climate change irresponsible in that it will do harm?

Jones seems to think so. “We’re literally ruining the house we’re living in, and guess what? There’s no other houses to go to. I don’t know if Christians realize how short sighted that is. Maybe you don’t care if we ruin the earth because Jesus is coming back someday, but most of us would agree we don’t know when that someday is.”

Notably, 80% of evangelical Christians are responsible for putting Trump, the man who withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, into office. Under that agreement, the United States committed to reducing carbon emissions by 26-28% by 2025. On Trump’s watch, that won’t happen.

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