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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5 Responses to Climate Change in the American Christian Mind

  1. Michael Cunningham aka Faustino says:

    “Is caring for the natural environment a religious responsibility?” No, the responsibility of each of us is to develop wisdom and understanding, which naturally leaves to a peaceful, harmonious life, good for ourselves and good for others. Inherent in that is a modest lifestyle and caring for all life. With wisdom, we will make harmonious decisions without needing the notion of responsibility for the environment. So religious leaders concerned for the environment should concentrate on what should be their core task, helping people with their spiritual development – although the latter is, of course, the responsibility of each individual, you have to do the work rather than depend on external forces.

  2. Michael Cunningham aka Faustino says:

    If we are looking at moral imperatives, I don’t think that costly measures which might slightly reduce warming if it resumes are a high priority. What will happen to the climate in 100 years’ time or so is speculation, and the future always surprises us. What is fact is that through fossil fuel energy, freeish markets, freeish trade and capitalist enterprise, billions of people have gone from lives which were “nasty, brutish and short” to lives of comparative plenty, where they have clean water, sanitation, health and education services and don’t have to focus entirely on getting enough food for themselves and their dependents. Another fact is that billions are yet to make this transition, and that fossil fuel use is critical to their future well-being.

    When peoples’ lives are no longer dominated by daily survival, they have the time and resources both for spiritual development and for caring for their environment. To ignore that is not being “morally responsible.”

    As an economist, I think that the best way that we can prepare for whatever future emerges is by increasing our capacity to deal with an ever-changing world. This involves policies promoting innovation, entrepreneurship, flexibility, individual initiative and self-reliance. This is in stark contrast to the central direction and regulation favoured by those proposing GHG emissions reductions as an over-arching priority.

    • Thanks, Michael, for these insights, which slipped under my radar screen. Can certainly take the tack you’ve argued here. The Judeo-Christian faith, though, taken at face value, seems to go beyond some other faiths in tying the spiritual to the physical, and extending so far as to assert that we have a responsibility for environmental stewardship. At least that’s how many read the Genesis account. Which leads into your next comment…

  3. …which links, appropriately, capacity for environmental stewardship to affluence. The Judeo-Christian faith also argues, if not unqiuely among faiths, certainly strongly, that it is impossible to be right with God without also being right with our “neighbor.”
    In his encyclical, Pope Francis seems to be argued from this point of view, seeing environmental degradation as linked with poverty.

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