Blog post

Are Christians more likely to be climate sceptics?

Sep 20, 2013 by | 1 Comment

In debates about cli­mate change scep­ti­cism, much has been made of the influ­ence of people’s polit­ical beliefs. Especially in the US, but in other Anglophone coun­tries too, cli­mate change has become one of those flag­ship issues – like gun con­trol, gay mar­riage and repro­ductive rights – that are reli­able indic­ators of left and right.

However, in many western demo­cra­cies, mil­lions of people don’t have strong polit­ical affil­i­ations. In fact, many do not vote at all. And in the US in par­tic­ular, there are other forces at play that affect people’s belief systems.

Some 30% of the pop­u­la­tion of North America describe them­selves as evan­gel­ical Christians, with a much larger number fol­lowing or prac­tising other forms of Christianity. This means that the rela­tion­ship between humans and the nat­ural envir­on­ment, from a theo­lo­gical per­spective, is likely to be a sig­ni­ficant influ­ence on how people think about cli­mate change and sustainability.

In a paper cur­rently in press at the journal Global Environmental Change, Nick Smith and Antony Leiserowitz con­ducted a survey of over 2,000 North Americans, including approx­im­ately 600 evan­gel­ical Christians. Their aim was to better under­stand how evan­gel­icals think about cli­mate change, by com­paring their views to those of non-evangelical par­ti­cipants in the survey.

Compared to non-evangelicals, American evan­gel­icals were less likely to believe that cli­mate change was hap­pening, less likely to believe that human activity was the cause, and less likely to express worry and con­cern. And although a majority of evan­gel­icals sup­ported various policy meas­ures to tackle cli­mate change, they were less likely to do so than non-evangelicals.

Within the sample of evan­gel­icals, though, there was vari­ation in people’s views – and this vari­ation was partly accounted for by their values and polit­ical ideo­lo­gies. To the extent that people in the study were both evan­gel­ical and indi­vidu­al­istic, they tended to doubt the reality of cli­mate change. But evan­gel­icals who were more egal­it­arian in their out­look were less scep­tical – and more con­cerned – about cli­mate change.

Partly because of the sig­ni­ficant overlap between Christian beliefs and polit­ic­ally con­ser­vative ideo­logy, there­fore, right-leaning evan­gel­icals were more scep­tical than the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion about humans’ impact on the cli­mate. Climate change, as the authors of the survey note, has become as divisive within this group as it has among the broader American public.

The survey is important because it provides the first direct com­par­ison between the beliefs of evan­gel­ical Christians and the rest of the US pop­u­la­tion on the con­tem­porary envir­on­mental issue of cli­mate change. But debates about what the teach­ings of the Bible imply for society’s rela­tion­ship with the nat­ural world go back a long way.

Did God grant humans dominion and there­fore dom­in­a­tion over nature? Is nature there simply to be util­ised by us? Or does dominion mean a duty of care – a respons­ib­ility for stew­ard­ship and a man­date to live within our means?

The ques­tion of how God and green relate to each other is not con­fined to the US. Operation Noah is a British Christian organ­isa­tion that describes itself as “faith inspired, sci­ence informed and hope motiv­ated”. It cam­paigns for the com­plete decar­bon­isa­tion of the British eco­nomy by 2030, in response to the “growing threat of cata­strophic cli­mate change endan­gering God’s cre­ation”. The theo­logy think­tank sees no con­tra­dic­tion between rad­ical life­style change and the teach­ings of Jesus – and provides resources and sup­port for Christian groups who want to make cli­mate change part of their identity.

And although the Church of England has been in the news recently for defending fracking (arguing that it will reduce fuel bills, and there­fore help people with lower incomes), there is also broad-based agree­ment among British Christian insti­tu­tions that cli­mate change is a ser­ious threat. International char­ities such as Christian Aid have been at the fore­front of the push for a binding global agree­ment to limit carbon emis­sions. So it is cer­tainly not the case that Christian beliefs and scep­ti­cism about cli­mate change neces­sarily go hand in hand.

Even in the US, there have been examples of evan­gel­ical groups calling on their sup­porters to con­front cli­mate change, arguing that a com­mit­ment to Christianity implies a duty and respons­ib­ility to pro­tect the planet. And cli­mate sci­ent­ists such as Katharine Hayhoe are evan­gel­ical about both cli­mate change and their Christian faith. The rela­tion­ship between God and green is not straight­for­ward: there is no mono­lithic Christian view on the climate.

Human influ­ence on the cli­mate is a ques­tion of sci­ence. But the chal­lenge of how to respond to cli­mate change is squarely in the realm of mor­ality – where reli­gious and other belief sys­tems reign supreme. And given the lim­ited impacts of most cam­paigns to com­mu­nicate cli­mate change, might our dry, detached dis­cus­sions of sci­entific uncer­tain­ties have some­thing to learn from the pas­sion and com­mit­ment of the pulpit?


Originally pub­lished by the Guardian Sustainable Business 11.09.13

1 Comment + Add Comment

  • Wow, really great read. Would love to follow this up with a video for you guys. Get in touch a.s.a.p!

Make a comment

Creative Commons 2011 - 2015, Talking Climate
A project by COIN & PIRC.
This website is a project of Climate Outreach

This website, a project of Climate Outreach (COIN), has been integrated into the new Climate Outreach website. Any updates since 21 October 2015 have been made to the new website only, not here, and this website will soon be deleted. Please bookmark our new website – we look forward to continuing to share the latest in climate communication research with you. We are now tweeting from @climateoutreach so please follow us there.