The Theological Dimensions of Climate Science Denial

By Mike Appleton, Weekend Contributor

What you going to do when the rain comes?

Are you going to sail on the rising seas like Noah?

What you going to feed your little orphans

When there’s no more fish in the sea forever?”

Brendan Perry, “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” from Ark (Cooking Vinyl, 2010)

In April of this year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued the first part of its Fifth Assessment Report on climate change. Among its conclusions is that “atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.” The report also states that it is “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” In order to limit the increase in global temperature to two degrees Celsius, the panel estimates that it will be necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 to 70 percent below 2010 levels by 2050 and to virtually nothing by the end of the century.

The political response was predictable. The House Science, Space and Technology Committee held a short hearing, promptly declaring that the science is not “settled” and accused Democrats of “trying to scare America.” Republican reaction to this week’s announcement of a climate agreement with China was even harsher, with Sen. Mitch McConnell complaining that “these carbon emission regulations are creating havoc in my state and other states across the country.”

Although there are serious scientists who dispute the IPCC findings, the cumulative scientific evidence that anthropogenic activities significantly impact climate change is overwhelming.  So why are the IPCC’s findings so controversial? The answer is that the politics of climate science denial are largely shaped by two forces: the contrived skepticism of the energy industry and the religious skepticism of the evangelical right.

The opposition of the energy industry to efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is economic rather than scientific. The value of energy companies is calculated with reference to available oil, gas and coal reserves. Meeting the temperature increase limits proposed by the IPCC will require that 60 to 80 percent of those reserves remain in the ground. These untapped reserves, known as “stranded assets,” are estimated to be worth as much as 28 trillion dollars on the books.

In order to preserve as many of those dollars as possible, the energy industry has utilized a two-pronged campaign to sway opinion. First, it has created a publishing sub-industry challenging climate science. Between 1972 and 2005, 141 English language books have been released attacking the “green scare” of climate science, of which 130 are the products of conservative think tanks, led by the Heritage Foundation. A recent study concluded that the goal of this publishing tsunami has been to “manufacture uncertainty” by denigrating the science, promoting anti-regulatory and anti-corporate liability attitudes and denouncing environmental protection concerns as inimical to economic growth.

Second, the industry has created its own anti-IPCC in the form of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change. The NIPCC, funded by the Heartland Institute, an energy industry creation, has issued its own reports contradicting the conclusions of the IPCC. However, it is widely regarded as an industry apologist. According to Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, “The NIPCC has no standing whatsoever. It is not a reviewed document, it is not open for review at any point and it contains demonstrable garbage and falsehoods.”

These tactics, although questionable, are understandable if one is attempting to protect 28 trillion dollars of asset value. But they do not explain the denialism of the religious right. That requires a brief historical overview.

Most people associate religious fundamentalism with the infamous Scopes trial and the observation of H.L. Mencken that fundamentalists “are everywhere where learning is too heavy a burden for mortal minds to carry … .” But modern fundamentalism actually emerged in the late 19th century in response to several developments, including the influence of German theological rationalism known as “higher biblical criticism,” the social gospel movement among Protestant progressives and the growing acceptance of Darwin’s theories. Although Mr. Scopes was convicted of unlawfully teaching evolution, the trial itself created a popular caricature of fundamentalism in the person of William Jennings Bryan and his oft-quoted remark that “It is better to trust in the Rock of Ages, than to know the age of the rocks.”

Opposition to evolution served to harden fundamentalist distrust of science and secular education in general, later exacerbated by the legal battles over creationism, compulsory school prayer and the public display of religious symbols. Finally, the civil rights movement and the social forces for change unleashed in the ’60s and ’70s convinced prominent evangelicals such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell that the traditional reluctance of religious conservatives to actively engage in politics had been a mistake and that the Republican Party was the ideal vehicle for a new religious militancy.

The Pew Forum reports that white evangelical Christians comprise 26 percent of the American electorate. In the recent mid-term elections, 78 percent of this demographic group supported Republican candidates, the highest level of support among all religious groups. Evangelical support for Republicans in the previous four election cycles ranged from 70 to 77 percent. Polling by the Barna Group in 2007 and 2008 found that only 27 percent of evangelicals believed that climate change is actually occurring. That number  has increased slightly over the last several years, but a majority of evangelicals remain unmoved by the science.

Evangelical opposition to climate science takes several forms. There is of course the view of environmental science as a threat to economic prosperity and American sovereignty. For example, a textbook entitled “Economics: Work and Prosperity in Christian Perspective,” a 1999 publication in the fundamentalist A Beka curriculum, states “Global environmentalists have said and written enough to leave no doubt that their goal is to destroy the prosperous economies of the world’s richest nations.”

A second line of argument relies on dominion theology, which looks to Genesis to justify the notion that the earth and its resources are intended to be exploited. The Cornwall Alliance, an association of evangelicals led by Calvin Beisner, asserts that “secular environmentalism” is a “false religion” that “deifies nature in its untouched state as the ideal, contrary to God’s mandate to fill, subdue and rule the earth … .” Dr. Beisner, whose Ph.D. is in Scottish history, also regards DDT as “a cheap and safe insecticide.”

For premillennial dispensationalists, climate change is to be welcomed as a sign of the end-times. As Pastor Matthew Hagee explains, “The Bible says that whenever we approach the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strange weather patterns. … So we have a decision to make: do we believe what an environmentalist group says and choose to live in a world where we’re attempting to make everything as clean in the air as possible, or do we believe what the Bible says, that these things were going to happen and that rather than try to clean up all of the air and solve all of the problems of the world by eliminating factories we should start to tell people about Jesus Christ who is to return?”

Other fundamentalist Christian leaders tend to mimic the energy industry’s insistence that climate science is guess work run amok. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council argues that climate change is “an environmental threat that is at best speculative.” David Barton of Wallbuilders calls climate science “highly speculative research on which scientists still have reached no clear consensus.” Dr. Richard Land, speaking for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, adds that the IPCC recommendations are “ill-conceived calls for drastic action in response to poorly understood, hypothetical risks.”

The convergence of energy industry self-interest, fundamentalist theology and Republican policy is well-illustrated by the comments of Rep. Dick Armey during testimony on global warming legislation before Congress on July 30, 1999: “Let me say I take it as an article of faith if the lord God almighty made the heavens and the earth, and he made them to his satisfaction and it is quite pretentious of we little weaklings here on earth to think that, that we are going to destroy God’s creation.” His words echo those of Rep. John Shimkus (R. Ill.), who earlier that year denied the dangers of rising sea levels because God promised Noah that He would “never again” unleash a flood on all of humanity.

Fundamentalist climate science deniers now dominate important congressional committees, leaving little doubt that no meaningful legislation will be forthcoming in the next few years. Sen. James Inhofe, who has written a book describing climate change as a “hoax” and suggesting that temperature increases might actually be beneficial to agriculture, is expected to assume the chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Sen. Ted Cruz will likely chair the Subcommittee on Science and Space, which oversees NASA and the National Science Foundation.

All is not lost. There is a growing movement among religious groups that support efforts to deal constructively with climate change. Dr. Kathrine Hayhoe, an evangelical and the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, has worked tirelessly to increase an understanding and acceptance of climate science by Christian conservatives. The Interfaith Power and Light organization now includes over 15,000 religious communities in 41 states. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is urging the adoption of new rules on carbon pollution from power plants. And Pope Francis is working on an encyclical devoted to ecology and the environment. But until sufficient support is garnered to counter the alliance of phony science skepticism, fundamentalist anti-intellectualism and political obstructionism, we are left with a public policy debate best defined in a recent op-ed by John Huntsman: “So obtuse has become the party’s dialogue on climate change that it’s now been reduced to believing or not believing, as if it were a religious mantra.” Indeed.


Sources: George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (2d ed., Oxford Univ. Press, 2006); Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy (Viking, 2006); Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism (Ignatius Press, 1988); Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (Simon & Schuster, 1976); Jack T. Goodyear, You Think It’s Hot Here?: The Theological Influences on Evangelical Leadership Concerning the Politics of Climate Change (doctoral dissertation, Baylor University); IPCC Fifth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2013 (April 13, 2014); Alex Lenferna, “Fossil Fuel Divestment Report for the Seattle City Employees’ Retirement System” (October, 2014); Peter J. Jacques, Riley E. Dunlap and Mark Freeman, “The organization of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental skepticism,” 17 Environmental Politics 349-385 (June, 2008); Elizabeth Harball, “Do Religion and Climate Change Mix?,” Scientific American (Feb. 26, 2014); E. Calvin Beisner, “Today’s Global Warming Policy: It’s Unbiblical,” (Aug. 7, 2009); Joe Romm, “Rep. Shimkus: ‘Man will not destroy this Earth!,’ ” ClimateProgress (April 30, 2009); Ed O’Keefe, David Nakamura and Steven Mufson, “GOP congressional leaders denounce U.S.-China deal on climate change,” Washington Post (Nov. 12, 2014); Valerie Richardson, “Experts tell House panel climate change science isn’t settled,” Washington Times (May 29, 2014); Shauna Teel, “Heartland Institute’s Smoke And Mirrors Attempt to Debunk Consensus Science,” Media Matters (April 8, 2014); Haley Sweetland Edwards, “4 Ways the Top Environment Senator Disagrees With Science,” Time (Nov. 5, 2014); Rebecca Leber, “Climate Denier Ted Cruz Is Poised to Become a Lead Senator on Science,” New Republic (Nov. 6, 2014); Gregg Zoroya, “Taking to the pulpit against climate change,” USA Today (July 15, 2014); Hagee Hotline (May 27, 2014); ; Pew Forum, “How the Faithful Voted: 2014 Preliminary Analysis,” Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project (Nov. 5, 2014); Pew Forum, “Religion in the 2010 Elections” (Aug., 2011); “Evangelicals Go ‘Green’ With Caution,” (Sept. 22, 2008); “Born Again Christians Remain Skeptical, Divided About Global Warming,” (Sept. 17, 2007); John M. Huntsman, Jr., “The G.O.P. Can’t Ignore Climate Change,” New York Times (May 6, 2014).

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays of art are solely their decision and responsibility.

47 thoughts on “The Theological Dimensions of Climate Science Denial”

  1. I am actually in favor of global warming. This is the age of the Human. if part of the effect of ease of mobility, consumer goods that elevate our condition from hardship to ease etc. is global warming, than so be it. Humans by our nature must produce the needs of our survival. Instead of fighting it, both to stop it and to wonder if the prophets of doom are correct or neoromanticists hoping for a return to the “noble savage,” we need to embrace it, and then figure out how to deal with it. ex.: more storms, better storm shelters. warmer summers, better irrigation techniques (using converted sea water perhaps) to reap super harvests for the long cold winters that follow. Then, using our own free will, perhaps there might be a natural volitional decline in human population, and the “problem” will disappear. Regardless, the free market must prevail, and the consequences of each volitional human action must be dealt with. Thus, who cares about a consensus; who cares about theological denial.
    Embrace the warmth!

  2. If you are a believer in man-caused climate change — you’re wrong.
    If you are a denier of man-caused climate change — you’re wrong.

    The climate is going to change; it always has.

    This is not a subject that is a matter of opinion, like religion and politics and sex — instead it is a matter of facts. There is a model that is used to project into the future. It makes predictions. These predictions may be right or wrong.

    Remember, science is never “settled.” New facts may change things drastically. It seems nearly certain that man has an effect on climate. The debate is how much. Some climate scientists (less than 5%) insist that the model is wrong and the feedback factor in the model should be lower than 3 — maybe even 2 or 1. So far (since this model was invented) the factor has been nearly 1 in the observed data. It may well be 3, though, with reduced sun activity giving a cooling period for that reason, but the long term multiplier may still apply.

    The correct thing to do is hope for the best, plan for the worst — and keep testing. But it isn’t settled. Other models give results that match the data and show no man-caused effect. I’m skeptical. Time will tell.

    Don’t be a believer, you may be wrong.
    Don’t be a denier, you may be wrong.
    Be skeptical of both positions.

    Science is no place for opinion, period. Sex, religion and politics (and economics): where opinion matters.

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