by Terry Defoe
Pastor Terry Defoe is an emeritus member of the clergy who served congregations in Western Canada from 1982 to 2016, and who ministered to students on the campuses of the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University. He is the author of Evolving Certainties: Resolving Conflict at the Intersection of Faith and Science, a book which, among other things, chronicles his transition from Young Earth Creationism to evolutionary creation. Evolving Certainties is endorsed by scientists in biology, geology and physics, with a foreword written by Darrel Falk, former president of BioLogos, an organization that has as its goal the facilitating of respectful discussion of science / faith issues. Defoe has been educated at: Simon Fraser University (BA Soc); Lutheran Theological Seminary, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (M.Div.); and, Open Learning University, Burnaby, British Columbia (BA Psyc).
Evangelicals are the group most skeptical of human-caused climate change, and least likely to act upon the danger. For more than 100 years, evangelicals have been taught that evolution by natural selection is untrue; today, many are anti-vaxxers. In the evangelical culture, professional merchants of doubt muddy the waters with pseudoscience. Evangelicals are told that scientists are prejudiced against Christians, and that their data is unsubstantiated, manipulated and sometimes falsified. Perhaps the most troublesome obstacle and biggest paradox is the extent to which non-scientific factors – including theological beliefs, political affiliations, economic interests, and cognitive biases – cause evangelical climate change skeptics to hold on to their views despite the wealth of scientific evidence.
The scientific consensus is that climate change and global warming are an existential threat to the survival of the earth’s human population and all the living things that share the planet with them. With a growing world population and increasing demands on earth’s resources, it becomes imperative to ensure that our actions today do not compromise the well-being of future generations. Preserving the planet for future generations requires adopting sustainable practices and policies that balance human needs with the capacity of the planet to regenerate and support life. International agreements like the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set global targets and provide frameworks for collective action towards a more sustainable future. These initiatives aim to protect ecosystems, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote social equity, and ensure a thriving planet for future generations.
We need the habitual disposition to control our desires when it comes to caring for the natural world. Frugality, or the habitual disposition to control desires and be content with what we have, can indeed play a role in caring for the natural world. Consumerism and excessive consumption have been identified as contributors to resource depletion, waste generation, and carbon emissions. By cultivating a mindset of frugality and contentment with what we have, we can reduce our ecological footprint and promote sustainable living.
As Neil deGrasse Tyson has documented in Starry Messenger, ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree on the reality of climate change, and these scientists agree that the time to act is now. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), composed of thousands of scientists from around the world, has consistently provided robust evidence on the reality and risks of climate change. Most scientific experts agree that urgent action is needed to mitigate and adapt to the impacts. The severity of the issue is based on careful analysis of data and projections.
There are three possible responses to scientific concerns about the environment. The first is to accept the reality of climate change and begin working to overcome it. The second is to ignore it and look the other way. A third is to attack both the message and messenger. Many or most evangelicals have chosen the second or third options.
SOCIAL AND CULTURAL FACTORS
For many individuals the most important factors influencing their views on climate change are not scientific but social and cultural. For most evangelicals, there is a price to pay should they depart from the accepted views of their family, church, and/or denomination. It is not primarily the facts that matter, but how their loved ones and their fellow evangelicals will react. We human beings assign a higher priority to acceptance and affirmation from our group than we do to seeking out the truth for truth’s sake. That is why scientific challenges to the evangelical religious worldview are met with anger, rationalization and even conspiracy ideation.
FACTOR ONE – RELIGION
Most evangelicals believe that Jesus Christ will return to the earth someday soon, and at that time the earth as we know it will be radically changed (although evangelicals disagree among themselves as to the specifics). So as evangelicals see it, the scientific evidence for dramatic global warming can be safely ignored, especially given that they are taught (based on Genesis 8:21-22), that the world will end only when God himself decides–
Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human
heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. As long
as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.
Believers in the imminent return of Christ are thus convinced that they cannot justify short-term expenditures to avoid a manufactured or invented crisis. Evangelical orthodoxy teaches that the fate of the earth is predetermined. They believe that their focus should primarily be on spiritual matters, rather than making extensive efforts to address long-term environmental issues like climate change.
More than this, Genesis 1:28 describes the creation of the world and humankind, highlighting the mandate to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28). This verse has been traditionally understood by evangelicals as granting human dominion or stewardship over the earth, giving them the authority to utilize its resources for their benefit. That is to say, the emphasis is often on humanity’s rule and control over creation.
FACTOR TWO – POLITICS
Most US evangelicals support the Republican Party. And in the last generation, the GOP has veered sharply to the right, becoming more defensive and punitive towards those who disagree. This polarization increased by several orders of magnitude under the Trump presidency. Under President Trump – beloved by many or most evangelicals – science was politicized, and scientific experts were repeatedly contradicted and often ignored. Not surprisingly, the Trump administration’s response to the COVID pandemic was an unmitigated disaster.
A sophisticated right-wing disinformation machine produced and is producing pseudoscience. This Republican war on science is a war on the intellectual habits needed to detect lies. It is a war on the scientific method, which is constructed in such a way as to keep people from fooling themselves.
It is often observed that conservatives have a preference for limited government intervention and a more market-oriented approach to societal issues, including environmental policies. In The Truth About Denial, Adrian Bardon discusses the challenges global warming brings to conservatism, given that “… climate change is a form of impact science that represents a massive threat to the existing social and economic order [and] solutions require massive government intervention.”
Moreover, the monetary cost of dealing with climate change is a clear threat to the established system of production and consumption. North Americans tend to define prosperity as an ability to consume goods and services. This consumer-driven perspective often emphasizes economic growth as a measure of success. However, the impacts of climate change have increasingly highlighted the need for a broader understanding of prosperity that incorporates sustainability and environmental considerations, an understanding that works against conservative commitments.
FACTOR THREE – EDUCATION
US evangelicals criticize higher education for indoctrinating students with liberal ideas. As Bardon documents, the official party platform of the Texas GOP, for example, has specifically included its opposition to teaching critical thinking skills in the school curriculum: “We oppose the teaching of higher order thinking skills and similar programs which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the students fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”
In order to counter that perceived bias, several evangelical denominations sponsor parochial school systems. The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod and the Seventh-day Adventist Church are examples. Parochial schools allow these conservative denominations to control what their students learn, about climate change, history, and more.. But more than these particular denominations, fundamentalist Christians in the United States are encouraged to place their students in Christian schools, schools whose textbooks routinely pooh-pooh the realities of climate change and global warming.
Rather than shielding students from uncomfortable information, the best education systems present students with many different points of view and teach critical thinking skills. A poor system is ideologically driven and inhibits students’ ability to think independently. “In order to seek truth,” Rene Descartes once wrote, “It is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible, all things.”
In their article, “Galileo and Global Warming,” Rachel Roller and Louise Huang point out interesting similarities between a 16th century theological controversy involving Galileo Galilei and the contemporary evangelical response to global warming.
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) lived around the time of Luther (1483-1546). Copernicus was a Catholic priest who studied the heavens. Based on his observations, he proposed the counter-intuitive idea that the earth orbits the sun, a theory called heliocentrism. This idea was later picked up by Galileo (1564-1642) in Italy. And Galileo’s telescope showed that it was, in fact, true.
Galileo’s claims were rejected by theologians of the day because he had the temerity to challenge orthodoxy, which, based on several verses of the Bible, argued that the earth does not move. Some individuals were invited to look through Galileo’s telescope and see the evidence for themselves. They refused, saying that God didn’t intend for human beings to have telescopic vision, a classic example of motivated denial.
The current controversy over global warming is therefore not the first time that Christians have been reluctant to accept implications of new scientific evidence. In our day, climate change has implications for how we perceive and interact with the natural world, and it requires significant societal and economic changes to mitigate its impacts. Those who work diligently to communicate the needs regarding climate change and global warming find it easy to feel overwhelmed, considering the opposition they often face. The magnitude of the problem and the complexity of its causes and solutions can make it feel like an uphill battle.
Acceptance of climate science is more likely when issues are framed in ways that resonate with rather than threaten group identity. It is counterproductive to force people into an ideological corner. It’s critical to get people of different persuasions to work together on issues of mutual interest. Evangelicals are called upon to be good stewards of God’s creation. Dealing with climate change gives them a chance to do just that.
CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?
The people who most need to hear the message are least likely to accept it. Attaching derogatory labels to those engaged in denialism are counterproductive. People need to be able to sit down calmly and discuss these issues.
Young evangelicals have set up something they call Creation Care. They’re working hard to get the word out. They’re building relationships with new grassroots networks. They’re organizing college campus speaking tours, mobilizing other young people, and contacting conservative lawmakers with the message. The active involvement of the younger generation, including young evangelicals, in addressing climate change through initiatives like Creation Care is an encouraging development.
Climate change has the potential to have far-reaching and profound impacts on various aspects of our lives, including ecosystems, economies, human health, and social systems. It is crucial to recognize the urgency of addressing climate change and taking proactive measures to mitigate its impacts and adapt to the changes that are already occurring. Safeguarding the planet and creating a sustainable future not only benefits our generation but also ensures a livable and thriving world for future generations. The decisions we make today will have long-lasting effects on the well-being and quality of life for those who come after us.