Climate Change in the American Christian Mind

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In recent years, the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication have collaborated on a distinguished and insightful series of studies of public attitudes toward climate change. Whether through coincidence or deliberate design, they happened to release their latest report, Climate Change in the American Christian Mind, between Palm Sunday and Easter. Like all its predecessors, this latest report makes for interesting reading, especially given the season.

The authors provide this context:

A fast-growing “greening of religion” movement is unfolding across the United States and around the world (http://fore.yale.edu), with major statements by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Indigenous leaders (among others) and substantial efforts by people of faith to address both the causes and consequences of climate change and other pressing environmental problems.

Among Christians, a long-standing debate has centered on the question of whether God gave nature to humans to protect or to use as needed for our own purposes. Is caring for the natural environment a religious responsibility? What is the Christian response to global warming?

This summer, Pope Francis will issue an encyclical on climate change. A papal encyclical is a letter that guides the church on critical issues and is one of the most important forms of communication within the church. Early indications are that he will define climate change as a fundamentally moral and religious challenge for the world. Pope Francis will then separately address the General Assembly of the United Nations and a joint session of the U.S. Congress in September, and meet with President Obama in the lead- up to this year’s UN climate negotiations in Paris.

Many Americans draw, at least in part, upon their religious beliefs to guide their understanding and interpretation of climate change causes, impacts, and solutions. As a predominantly Christian country, it is important for individuals and organizations that seek to communicate about global warming to understand how different American Christians think and feel about the issue.

This report examines the global warming beliefs, attitudes, risk perceptions, policy preferences, and related moral values of three major groups of American Christians – Catholics, non-evangelical Protestants, and born again/evangelical Christians.1 It also investigates how different American Christians currently view Pope Francis and to what extent he is considered a trusted voice on the issue of global warming.

A sampling of the report’s key findings:

About seven in ten Catholics (69%) say they think global warming is happening, which is a slightly higher percentage than Americans as a whole (63%). A majority of non-evangelical Protestants also think global warming is happening (62%). By contrast, evangelicals are split between those who think it is happening (51%) and those who either don’t think it is (27%) or who don’t know (23%).

Catholics are the most likely to say global warming is caused mostly by human activities (57%; 33% say it is caused mostly by natural changes in the environment). Non-evangelical Protestants are also more likely to say global warming is caused by human activity rather than natural changes in the environment (50% versus 35%, respectively). Evangelicals are more evenly split between the two perspectives (41% versus 37%)…

…American Christians – especially Catholics – support a range of policies that would help reduce global warming:

  • Increase funding for improvements to local roads, bridges, and buildings to make them more resistant to extreme weather (80% of Catholics, 83% of non-evangelical Protestants, and 80% of evangelicals)
  • Provide tax rebates for people who purchase energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels (83%, 80% and

74%, respectively)

  • Fund more research into renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power (81%, 81% and 73%)
  • Regulate carbon dioxide (the primary greenhouse gas) as a pollutant (74%, 75% and 72%)
  • Require electric utilities to produce at least 20% of their electricity from wind, solar, or other renewable

energy sources, even if it costs the average household an extra $100 a year (67%, 68% and 60%)…

American Christians think a variety of people and organizations should be doing more to address global warming. Majorities of Catholics and at least half of non-evangelical Protestants say the following should do more: corporations and industry (75% and 69%, respectively), citizens themselves (71% and 63%), the U.S. Congress (65% and 56%), their member of Congress (65% and 54%), their governor (63% and 50%), their local government officials (62% and 52%), and President Obama (59% and 48%). Over half of evangelicals think corporations and industry should do more to address global warming (59%), while half or nearly half think the other people and organizations should do more…

Relatively few Christians say that God expects people to rule over nature (12% of Catholics, 11% of non- evangelical Protestants, and 18% of evangelicals). Almost half of evangelicals (49%) say that God expects people to be good stewards of nature – compared to Catholics (41%) and non-evangelical Protestants (36%).

Large majorities of Christians say global warming is a major environmental and scientific issue. Some consider it a major moral issue (22% of Catholics, 21% of non-evangelical Protestants, and 16% of evangelicals), but few currently consider it either a major religious (5%, 6%, and 9%, respectively) or spiritual issue (8%, 6%, and 9%)…

Pluralities of Christians – Catholics (49%), non-evangelical Protestants (48%), and evangelicals (37%) – say humans could reduce global warming, but it’s unclear at this point whether we will do what’s necessary.

Among the remainder, the pessimists outnumber the optimists. Only about one in twenty Christians says humans can reduce global warming and will do so successfully, while larger numbers say we won’t because people are unwilling to change their behavior (28% of Catholics, 18% of non-evangelical Protestants, and 24% of evangelicals). At least one in ten says humans can’t reduce global warming even if it is happening (10%, 16%, and 15%, respectively).

There’s much more, but this gives the flavor[1].

Perhaps future studies could probe more deeply into the reasons behind the Christian skepticism that humans will do what’s necessary to reduce global warming, “because people are unwilling to change their behavior.”

In particular, it might be interesting to know if Christians consider themselves more or less willing than the general population to adjust their behavior in the ways needed to address the problem, and, if so, whether such differences in willingness are at all related to Christian beliefs and values.

That starts with conversation. One gets the sense Jesus would have been a unifying rather than a polarizing influence in today’s climate change discussion, and one would hope any of us who call ourselves by His name would aspire to do the same.

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[1] The study organizers noted their sample size was too small to yield statistically significant results on the thinking of Americans belonging to other religious groups, including Mormons, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Unitarian Universalists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, as well as others with no religious affiliation. They indicated their hope to study beliefs and values of these latter groups at some future time.

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