Three follow-up comments about evangelicals and climate change, inspired in large part by the comments to the earlier post:
1) Perhaps the biggest point of disagreement among evangelicals, which shows up in spades in the comments, can be traced to differing perceptions of the implications of accepting scientists’ warnings about climate change. For skeptics, the science is a Trojan horse paving the way for massive governmental intervention. Most envangelical environmentalists seem less worried that socialism is right around the corner. Mike Vandenbergh, a leading environmental law scholar and co-organizer of the Vanderbilt conference mentioned in the earlier post, pointed out to me that the divide among evangelicals echoes a fault-line among Americans generally: work by Dan Kahan at Yale suggests that people’s perception of the importance of climate change is closely tied to whether they think the societal response will be more governmental regulation. Those who believe that accepting the science is likely to mean lots more regulation are much less likely to credit the science.
2) The second point follows directly from the first. Evangelical environmentalists, like environmentalists generally, are likely to be most persuasive to other evangelicals if they frame the issue in terms of individual responsibility rather than governmental intervention. It is no coincidence, I suspect, that the most widely read books by evangelical environmentalists, such as Matthew Sleeth’s “Serve God, Save the Earth,” are short on regulatory proposals and long on lifestyle advice.
3) Many people– including the Wall Street Journal in an editorial last week– have suggested that soaring energy prices will dampen Americans’ concern about environmental issues, since people equate environmentalism with governmental measures that will increase prices. Perhaps counterintuitively, the historical evidence seems to me to suggest that high oil prices could have precisely the opposite effect, at least for evangelicals. I’ve been researching the coverage of environmental issues in Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical magazine, over the past forty years. What I’m finding is the Christianity Today ran numerous articles about environmentalism, nearly all making a Biblical case for environmentalism, during the first energy crisis in the 1970s. After the 1970s, the number of articles declined significantly, I suspect due to the passing of the energy crisis and to a perception that scientists had wildly exaggerated the environmental risk. As our current energy crisis deepens, I suspect we may see a reprise of the 1970s experience. If this is correct, and if advocates of responding to climate change wish to have evangelicals on board, they would do well to beg Al Gore to stay quiet and to focus on making a quieter case for individual lifestyle change.