Why Are White American Evangelicals So Skeptical About Climate Change?

E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D.,is the founder and national spokesman for The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.
E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D.,is the founder and national spokesman for The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.

According to polling data, white American evangelicals are "typically more skeptical of climate change than any other U.S. citizens." Why?

Willis Jenkins, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, offers fascinating explanations in a recent blog piece for the London School of Economics.

Although, according to Jenkins, this "climate-denying faction" attributes its "climate denial" to faith that "it is in God's hands or is part of an eschatological scenario," true understanding "requires hypotheses that run deeper than the offered rationales."

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What are those hypotheses? Jenkins offers several.

Far from being an "accidental side-effect of a strange religious narrative," white American evangelicals' (WAEs') "climate denial," Jenkins says, arises from their "beliefs about providence and eschatology" that "are not so much about a revealed schedule of events as they are about the limits of human responsibility." Their "climate denial," then, is their "grasping for a way of avoiding accountability for polluting the atmosphere," which leads to their "allying themselves with spiritual contempt for earth."

At an even deeper level, Jenkins thinks, these "climate-denying" WAEs seem to see the sky as "the symbolic province of deities and/or stochastic forces operating at scales beyond human reach." Further, their "appeals to providence … function to let white societies remain unaccountable for climate change" and "license settler sovereignty over resources in the remaining indigenous territories." "Christian theologians," Jenkins reports, call these WAEs' "climate denial" "petro-manichaeism (recoiling from the demonic earth, it takes spiritual satisfaction in energy ripped from dark material and transformed into light and air)."

Seeing themselves "as an embattled minority contending with conformist demands of a pluralist secular culture," they are skeptical, Jenkins says, because they "regard the very idea of climate change as a threat to their identity … a cultural attack on the embattled Christian identity." For them, "rejecting the whole idea of climate change has become important for counter-cultural Evangelical identity."

"What makes climate-denying Evangelical construction of innocence especially powerful," Jenkins writes, "is that, by interpreting climate change as a hostile religious idea, they can receive criticism as further evidence of their persecuted status."

That's quite an indictment. Is it justified?

Jenkins never specifies what he thinks members of this "climate-denying faction" deny. Surely not climate. And surely not climate change, which they all acknowledge as having occurred throughout earth's history—often pointing out the difficulty of proving that recent global warming differs enough from past to require the hypothesis of a new cause.

If he were interested in describing their views accurately, Jenkins would have to say they deny that human emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are or in the foreseeable future will be warming the atmosphere so catastrophically as to justify spending trillions of dollars (that might be used instead to increase access to pure drinking water, infectious disease control, adequate nutrition, sewage sanitation, sanitary housing, safe transportation, and medical care) to mitigate it by switching from abundant, affordable, reliable fossil fuels as energy sources (currently about 85% of all the world's energy) to diffuse, expensive, intermittent wind, solar, and biofuels. We might abbreviate that by saying they deny "catastrophic anthropogenic global warming" (CAGW), a phrase common in the literature and one they use of themselves.

Let's begin with a simple test of Jenkins's veracity and candor. He says "Christian theologians"—note the plural—call WAEs' "climate denial" "petro-manichaeism." One gets the impression that more than one theologian is doing this; indeed, that "petro-manichaeism" is a conventional term.

But a Google search for "petro-manichaeism" (both with and without the hyphen) found only five occurrences on the Web as of 4:40 p.m. Eastern time July 31, 2017—on April 13, 2017, in a blog post where Jenkins appears to have coined the term; on June 13, in the LSE blog piece I'm discussing; again on June 13, in a Twitter post quoting his LSE blog piece; and here and here, pages listing downloadable documents from the UVA religious studies department in which Jenkins teaches. Perhaps only one "Christian theologian" calls WAEs' "climate denial" "petro-manichaeism." But he seems to want readers to think he's not alone.

Incidentally, wouldn't "petro-manichaeism" better denote those who demonize fossil fuels than those who think we can harness energy from them safely to serve human needs?

Jenkins employs an interesting sleight of hand when he attributes WAEs' views in part to their seeing the sky as "the symbolic province of deities and/or stochastic forces operating at scales beyond human reach." The first part, "symbolic province of deities," conjures thoughts of polytheistic superstition, and the reader unfamiliar with climate science then readily assumes the second must be equally irrational. But that earth's climate is stochastic is recognized by all climate scientists, and one CAGW skeptic who discusses the difficulty of attributing recent warming to human influence in light of climate's stochasticity is applied mathematician Dr. Christopher Essex, who is an agnostic, not an evangelical.

Significantly, Jenkins cites four secondary sources for his characterization of these "climate-denying" WAEs' views and why they hold them. Three are by critics (including the one in which he coined "petro-manichaeism"), and one is a site at which one can buy novels that Jenkins claims offer the reasoning he alleges. Although one does quote some WAEs offering their eschatology or faith in God's providence as reasons for what Jenkins would call their "climate denial," none documents that those are their only reasons or that any

  • see the sky as "the symbolic province of deities";
  • try "to let white societies remain unaccountable for climate change" or "license settler sovereignty over resources in the remaining indigenous territories";
  • "regard the very idea of climate change as a threat to their identity";
  • are "allying themselves with spiritual contempt for earth"; or
  • are "grasping for a way of avoiding accountability for polluting the atmosphere."

On the contrary, that source quotes two of the "climate-denying" WAEs as affirming that "If our earth is warming dangerously … human remedies are needed" and "Christians have a duty to take care of the Earth"—both ideas that Jenkins says "climate-denying" WAEs reject.

The only primary source Jenkins cites is a video series, "Resisting the Green Dragon," produced by The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. (Full disclosure: I'm the Cornwall Alliance's founder and national spokesman.) This series, Jenkins says, "warn[s] Christians to beware sentiments of ecological concern as insidious paganism."

But nothing in the series says that. Further, the one lecture that deals with anthropogenic global warming/climate change is by a veteran climatologist and argues empirically that though warming caused by using fossil fuels for energy is real its magnitude and risks are less than portrayed by, e.g., the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Although he doesn't name the Cornwall Alliance, it's difficult to believe Jenkins is unaware of its existence. Having set out to discover why WAEs are "typically more skeptical of climate change than any other U.S. citizens," he should quickly have found the New America Foundation's 2015 thoroughly researched report Spreading the Gospel of Climate Change: An Evangelical Battleground (introduced in a press conference) in which researchers Lydia Bean and Steve Teles assigned to the Cornwall Alliance primary responsibility for persuading evangelical leaders against climate alarmism.

What is the Cornwall Alliance, and what kinds of reasons does it offer for its view that human-induced climate change is real but not likely to be catastrophic, while efforts to mitigate it by drastic shifts from fossil fuels to wind, solar, and other renewables are likely to cause more harm than good?

Founded in 2005, the Cornwall Alliance is a network of just under 70 scholars, roughly categorized as natural scientists (including climate scientists), economists (especially of development and environment), and religious leaders (including theologians, philosophers, ethicists, and pastors). Through lectures, articles, blog posts, documentaries, YouTube videos, expert witness testimony before Congressional committees, a series of six major papers (in 2005, 2006, 2009, 2011, and 2014) by 43 expert authors and reviewers, and open letters signed by hundreds of scientists, economists, theologians, and other experts, the Alliance seeks to integrate Christian worldview, theology, and ethics with excellent science and economics to promote Biblical earth stewardship, economic development for the poor, and the proclamation and defense of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Had Jenkins ventured to read some of the Cornwall Alliance's materials, he would have found affirmation, not denial, of responsibility for earth stewardship, as here in A Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor 2014: The Case against Harmful Climate Policies Gets Stronger:

To take this position is not to suggest that we may abuse the earth or any of its ecological systems. It is to conclude, instead, that what some people consider an abuse of the earth (obtaining energy from fossil fuels and so adding CO2 to the atmosphere) is not an abuse of the earth but is instead a vitally important way of improving human wellbeing.

Further, he would have found no appeal to eschatology, little to divine providence, and none to the other motives he attributes to "climate-denying" WAEs.

Instead, he would have found scientific and economic arguments like these (and many more), at a level of detail impossible in this brief article:

Jenkins's article is, in the final analysis, an exercise in motive fallacy, caricature, misrepresentation, ad hominem abusive, hasty generalization, and guilt by association. A stellar instance of the last two combined is his suggesting a tie between WAEs' skepticism of CAGW and "white ethnonationalism emboldened by Trump's election, some forms of which explicitly appropriate pre-Christian European mythologies" and linking to an article about an obscure "White-Power Wolf Cult" as an example—even though his source calls the group "sort of an outlier."

After warning that "there is reason to be cautious about drawing conclusions from [the] data" showing white American evangelicals more skeptical than others of "climate change," Jenkins casts caution to the wind and never seriously grapples with the reasoning of those he pejoratively charges with "climate denial." Instead, without presenting a shred of evidence, he speculates wildly about their motives while explicitly ignoring their "offered rationales."

Jenkins might not find our scientific, economic, ethical, philosophical, and theological arguments convincing. He does, however, have an obligation not to misrepresent them, or us. One wonders what he thinks of one of the more basic Christian moral imperatives: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."

E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and a former professor of theology, ethics, and interdisciplinary studies at Covenant College and Knox Theological Seminary, is the author of Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate and Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future

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