In debates about climate change scepticism, much has been made of the influence of people’s political beliefs. Especially in the US, but in other Anglophone countries too, climate change has become one of those flagship issues – like gun control, gay marriage and reproductive rights – that are reliable indicators of left and right.
However, in many western democracies, millions of people don’t have strong political affiliations. In fact, many do not vote at all. And in the US in particular, there are other forces at play that affect people’s belief systems.
Some 30% of the population of North America describe themselves as evangelical Christians, with a much larger number following or practising other forms of Christianity. This means that the relationship between humans and the natural environment, from a theological perspective, is likely to be a significant influence on how people think about climate change and sustainability.
In a paper currently in press at the journal Global Environmental Change, Nick Smith and Antony Leiserowitz conducted a survey of over 2,000 North Americans, including approximately 600 evangelical Christians. Their aim was to better understand how evangelicals think about climate change, by comparing their views to those of non-evangelical participants in the survey.
Compared to non-evangelicals, American evangelicals were less likely to believe that climate change was happening, less likely to believe that human activity was the cause, and less likely to express worry and concern. And although a majority of evangelicals supported various policy measures to tackle climate change, they were less likely to do so than non-evangelicals.
Within the sample of evangelicals, though, there was variation in people’s views – and this variation was partly accounted for by their values and political ideologies. To the extent that people in the study were both evangelical and individualistic, they tended to doubt the reality of climate change. But evangelicals who were more egalitarian in their outlook were less sceptical – and more concerned – about climate change.
Partly because of the significant overlap between Christian beliefs and politically conservative ideology, therefore, right-leaning evangelicals were more sceptical than the general population about humans’ impact on the climate. Climate change, as the authors of the survey note, has become as divisive within this group as it has among the broader American public.
The survey is important because it provides the first direct comparison between the beliefs of evangelical Christians and the rest of the US population on the contemporary environmental issue of climate change. But debates about what the teachings of the Bible imply for society’s relationship with the natural world go back a long way.
Did God grant humans dominion and therefore domination over nature? Is nature there simply to be utilised by us? Or does dominion mean a duty of care – a responsibility for stewardship and a mandate to live within our means?
The question of how God and green relate to each other is not confined to the US. Operation Noah is a British Christian organisation that describes itself as “faith inspired, science informed and hope motivated”. It campaigns for the complete decarbonisation of the British economy by 2030, in response to the “growing threat of catastrophic climate change endangering God’s creation”. The theology thinktank sees no contradiction between radical lifestyle change and the teachings of Jesus – and provides resources and support for Christian groups who want to make climate change part of their identity.
And although the Church of England has been in the news recently for defending fracking (arguing that it will reduce fuel bills, and therefore help people with lower incomes), there is also broad-based agreement among British Christian institutions that climate change is a serious threat. International charities such as Christian Aid have been at the forefront of the push for a binding global agreement to limit carbon emissions. So it is certainly not the case that Christian beliefs and scepticism about climate change necessarily go hand in hand.
Even in the US, there have been examples of evangelical groups calling on their supporters to confront climate change, arguing that a commitment to Christianity implies a duty and responsibility to protect the planet. And climate scientists such as Katharine Hayhoe are evangelical about both climate change and their Christian faith. The relationship between God and green is not straightforward: there is no monolithic Christian view on the climate.
Human influence on the climate is a question of science. But the challenge of how to respond to climate change is squarely in the realm of morality – where religious and other belief systems reign supreme. And given the limited impacts of most campaigns to communicate climate change, might our dry, detached discussions of scientific uncertainties have something to learn from the passion and commitment of the pulpit?
Originally published by the Guardian Sustainable Business 11.09.13