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More on Evangelicals and Climate Change--Skeel

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.


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Comments ( 4 )

I definitely think you're right that evangelicals will have better luck framing the issue in terms of individual responsibility rather than government regulation. However, to me this smacks of making the generalization that all evangelicals are conservatives - keep in mind that there's a rising movement of evangelical liberals/democrats (e.g. Sojourners) who may not be so averse to government regulation.

For those of us in churches that preach heavily on social justice, the environment - and stewardship of God's creation - has easily become part of the discourse.

I thought the results of a recent MIT study were interesting

"“Regardless of income, there is a certain floor below which the individual carbon footprint of a person in the U.S. will not drop,” says Timothy Gutowski, professor of mechanical engineering, who taught the class that calculated the rates of carbon emissions.

This “floor” below which nobody in the U.S. can drop, no matter what their energy choices are, turned out to be 8.5 tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions, the class found. That was the usage calculated for a homeless person who ate in soup kitchens and slept in homeless shelters. If you look at a self-sustaining level, the person with the lowest energy usage was a Buddhist monk who spent six months of every year living in the forest and had total annual spending of $12,500. His carbon footprint was 10.5 tons. The average annual carbon dioxide emission per person was found to be 20 metric tons, compared to a world average of four tons."

from here:


I wonder about "justice" here.

Is it unjust, say, to invent a railroad which uses energy; if people of another continent don't invent a railroad and therefore don't use the energy?

The US is using more energy, but we're also *doing things* with that energy.

I've enjoyed reading this discussion, and have two quick thoughts to share. First, referring back to whether the idea of creation or the idea of evolution better explains the need for environmental protection, there was a wonderful illustration in "Condor: To the Brink and Back--the Life and Times of One Giant Bird," by John Nielsen. The condor probably came closer to going extinct than any other bird that has since recovered. In his book, Nielsen describes an interview with Sandy Wilbur, the government biologist charged with developing a plan to save the condor immediately after the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973. According to Nielsen, Wilbur became a Christian after reading a book by C.S. Lewis, and it was his Christian beliefs that influenced his desire to preserve the condor. Wilbur believed that the condor was special because it was created by God, even though the bird had long outlived its evolutionary significance and was not necessary for any current ecosystem.

My second point is that discussions of climate change sound much different from my current, temporary home in Hong Kong. I've had the privilege of talking about climate change with students throughout China and southeast Asia, where both the potential threats from climate change and the desire to continue increasing energy production are especially high. This is also a place where the millions of new Christians are just beginning to think about how their faith affects public policy. I can't say that I'm any closer to any answers about climate change, but the questions sure seem more pressing here.