RSS
Why evangelicals and environmentalists should join forces
Religion and science have a common enemy: corporations
 
This Greenpeace activist sure could use some help.
This Greenpeace activist sure could use some help. (AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel)

There is only one group — corporate interests — that directly benefits from public ignorance and government inaction on global warming. Quarterly profits don't really rest upon the fate of mankind 500 years from now. As such, many corporate interests have pushed a widespread and successful denial campaign.

A Drexel University study finds that 91 organizations supported by 140 primarily conservative foundations or corporations (including Exxon Mobile and Koch Industries) are responsible for a "well-funded and organized effort to undermine public faith in climate science and block action by the U.S. government to regulate emissions."

It's time that Christians, environmentalists, and scientists coalesced around a plan to fight corporate-sponsored apathy toward global warming.

Many liberals worry that global warming will disproportionately harm the poor, and see fighting climate change as an issue of justice. Many religious people worry that environmental degradation will destroy the sacrosanct creation. And of course, many people outside of those two groups (including most scientists) see the fight against climate change as nothing short of a crusade for the survival of humankind.

Their priorities may be different, but these groups have a lot in common. They must learn to see each other as allies.

Jesus Christ told his followers, "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." But many on the religious right are trying to do exactly that, intertwining evangelical fundamentalism with unfettered capitalism. Religious faith is based on the idea that Earth is the creation and dominion of the Lord, to be subdued by man, but not harmed by man. We see this in much Catholic and Evangelical teaching. From Octogesima Adveniens, an Apostolic letter of Pope Paul VI:

Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation. Not only is the material environment becoming a permanent menace — pollution and refuse, new illness and absolute destructive capacity — but the human framework is no longer under man's control, thus creating an environment for tomorrow which may well be intolerable. This is a wide-ranging social problem which concerns the entire human family.

The Christian must turn to these new perceptions in order to take on responsibility, together with the rest of men, for a destiny which from now on is shared by all. [Octogesima Adveniens]

The Catholic church's argument is poignant, but sadly, many Christians appear to draw their ideas about the environment from the capitalist ethos described by E. F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful.

Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side. Until quite recently, the battle seemed to go well enough to give him the illusion of unlimited powers, but not so well as to bring the possibility of total victory into view. This has now come into view, and many people, albeit only a minority, are beginning to realize what this means for the continued existence of humanity. [Small is Beautiful]

This is a near perfect description of the capitalist ethic, which seeks not to steward the Earth but to exploit it. The capitalist ethic sees any intervention that might harm short-term profits as anathema.

Many Christians have abandoned the stewardship ethic in favor of class or partisan interests. For instance, a Pew Study finds that while many Americans cite religion as shaping their ideas on social issues, "far fewer cite religion as a top influence on their opinions about several other social and political issues, including how the government should deal with immigration, the environment, and poverty."

But this is not to exculpate environmentalists and scientists. Environmentalists are unwilling to couch their arguments in language or policies that appeal to religious or conservative voters. Policies that have broad support, like regulating dirty coal producers, and could be justified without appealing to global warming, are ignored in favor of an all-or-nothing strategy.

The environmental movement must realize that the arguments that persuade its liberal members may not persuade the broader public, let alone evangelicals. Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer find that "different frames regarding climate change can account for polarization among Americans on this issue" and that reframing global warming as a moral issue reduces partisan divides.

And yet, research shows that environmental campaigns are often framed as being economically beneficial instead of as a moral call to action. When campaigns do rely on a moral framing, they tend to use "moral intuitions that engaged a liberal base." The authors, building on previous research by Matthew Nisbet, note that Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth campaign "had a heavy focus on holding industry and conservatives accountable for inaction." When Gore realized the limits of this method, he simply abandoned moral framing altogether with his Repower America and Cap = Jobs campaigns, which the authors note, "lacked an obvious moral call to action, focusing instead narrowly on economic benefits."

Finally, there are the scientists. Some of the most prominent members of the scientific community have taken a deeply antagonistic view toward religion. Instead of noting, as Stephen Jay Gould did, that science and religion constitute non-overlapping magisteria, many scientists have argued that advances in science make religion untenable. Sadly, when some of the most prestigious scientists in the country tell religious people they must choose between their religion and science, the former generally wins out.

Scientists must reach out to the religious community. They must stop caricaturing religion and/or blaming it for a large share of the world's misery. Religion has nothing to say about the impacts of carbon dioxide on the atmosphere — any pastor or theologian who says otherwise is speaking drivel. Science has nothing to say on the doctrine of the trinity. Being deeply religious and delighted by the natural world is not a contradiction — it is completion.

Now of course, there are most certainly religious leaders who have rejected laissez-faire economics. There are conservatives terrified that their children will breathe dirty air and whose quality of life will be diminished by environmental degradation. There are scientists who are deeply religious. There are environmentalists interested in sustainable economic growth and outreach to conservatives.

There are lots of different people with different views in all of these different groups. It's time they worked together.

 
Sean McElwee
Sean McElwee is a writer and researcher based in New York City.
 

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week