Evangelicals Probably Aren’t the Ones Climate Advocates Need to Worry About


Chris Mooney at Slate has a feature on Katharine Hayhoe, an Evangelical Christian who happens to be a climate change advocate and science advisor on the new Showtime global warming series, The Years of Living Dangerously.

Her research today, on the impacts of climate change, flows from those early experiences [with her scientist father]. And of course, it is inspired by her faith, which for Hayhoe puts a strong emphasis on caring for the weakest and most vulnerable among us. “That gives us even more reason to care about climate change,” says Hayhoe, “because it is affecting people, and is disproportionately affecting the poor, and the vulnerable, and those who cannot care for themselves.”

Hayhoe mentions five strategies she has used to convince Christians like her to become stewards of the environment, including the linguistically obvious “Conservation is conservative” — a line of thinking that has always screamed “blatantly evident” to me that I’m shocked it is not used as a starting point in every argument over what strategies to employ for any climate policies.

But the money quote comes at the end:

“If you believe that God created the world, and basically gave it to humans as this incredible gift to live on, then why would you treat it like garbage? Treating the world like garbage says a lot about how you think about the person who you believe created the Earth.”

Throughout the piece, Hayhoe reminds Mooney and readers that Evangelicals are capable people with minds, able to discern data in front of them.  Blasting them for thinking differently than you is not a way to get them to listen to you.  These are people who believe the world is a gift from a powerful, benevolent being, but one with a penchant for some wrath if He/She/It sees His/Her/Its creation being messed with by those gifted with the power of free will.  Climate change is as biblical as you get in that sense.  If you frame your conversation in a way that fits their worldview, like Hayhoe’s showing them climate data from only the last 6,000 years, they will eventually accept your premise a majority of the time.  There will always be a portion of any group that falls into the trap of epistemic closure, but after a certain point, you can no longer worry about them so long as you have a majority accepting the overwhelming evidence in front of them.  One should never, ever forget that 97 percent of people who dedicate their professional lives to studying the climate agree that it is changing due to carbon emissions from humans; they’re not out to cause alarm, just report on the data they find.  When you keep hammering that point home, reasonable people, a group not mutually exclusive with Christians, will look to help in any way they can.

Accepting this, though, leads to the question: Why do only 44 percent of Evangelicals accept climate change?

Mooney points out that, on the whole, they are politically conservative on top of their social views.  This puts them firmly within the Republican coalition.  The problem with the Republican coalition as currently constituted — and all gigantic coalitions (the Democrats are far from exempt here), which brings up the need for more than two parties, but that’s a discussion for another time — is that there are four main, sometimes competitive fixtures.  You have the libertarians (excuse me for being brief, but they essentially boil down to fiscally very conservative, socially liberal people with a strong aversion to governmental surveillance and a relaxed foreign policy; retired Texas congressman Ron Paul is the stereotype here), the business people (the Mitt Romneys of the world who probably don’t care as much about social issues so much as running a tight fiscal ship), the neoconservatives (you’ll recognize the strong defense, muscular foreign policy with less regard for fiscal restraint from the previous administration), and the social conservatives (Evangelicals like Mike Huckabee who are focused on fixing perceived social ills derived from the Bible).

One can see that these fixtures are not necessarily compatible with each other.  It’s impossible to be all things to all people at all times, and yet that’s what politicians of any expansive coalition must do to preserve their support.  As one might expect, none of them do it particularly well when examined with any critical eye.  A Republican senator who denies climate change may be trying to help any number of people.  Maybe he represents a state rich in the oil or coal industries, which, as carbon-based pollutants are the primary cause of climate change.  They have a financial stake in what happens, so the senator has a duty to serve his constituents.  But as money is not the only motivation in the world, serving that part of his constituency is not enough.  He must bring in other supporters from other parts of the coalition, and this is where the Evangelicals can be called upon.  If the senator can get people with preaching experience to start talking about how God wouldn’t want to hurt the world or wouldn’t let us hurt it, it makes his job a lot easier in trying to appease everyone he represents.

Of course, when the lives of billions of people, animals, and entire ecosystems are at stake, appeasing one state’s — or collection of states’ — constituents is not of primary concern for humanity as a whole.  When people like Hayhoe start convincing Evangelicals, people just trying to be good in their God’s eyes, of the dangers of climate change — she mentions in the interview that the number of Christians whose acceptance of climate change has risen 10 percent in the last six years — they can raise their objections to their elected officials.  If those officials have strong parts of their coalition against the business side, those oil and coal company officials, perhaps they will convince the oil and coal people to start diversifying their businesses by experimenting more with nonpolluting energy sources like solar, wind, biofuels, or, fingers crossed, fusion one day.  Climate change is a problem that requires all hands on deck, and the free market — that supreme tenet of conservative ideology — will have a field day figuring out how to make money from saving the world.

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