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,” http://www.wnd.com (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); http://www.WeGetIt.org/press ; 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,” http://www.barna.org (Sept. 22, 2008); “Born Again Christians Remain Skeptical, Divided About Global Warming,” http://www.barna.org (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. Many of those who deny anthropomorphogenic climate change also don’t wear seat-belts, eat fatty red meat with French fries and corn, and their recreational activities involve riding on things and sitting in stadiums or on a couch. They have shorter unhealthier lives overall than others. They seem to favor immediate, rather than delayed gratification. It’ might be considered a mental disorder except that it is so prevalent.

    1. doglover – I am not the one that has been hiding the data sets from the public. I am not the ones who has been keeping my detractors from being published in peer-reviewed journals. I am not the one who controls the peer-reviewed journals that publish articles on climate change. I am not the one who is stupid enough to say the science is settled.

      I will need a cite to your claims on the seat belts, fatty red meat, French fries and corn, etc.

  2. The reason a scientific issue became a political one is religion, but not of the right, but of the progressive left. The left sees climate change as another justification to tax and otherwise expand governmental control over citizens by the “smart” elites on the left – as in Johathan Gruber. None other than that brilliant Nancy Pelosi said during the debate on a carbon tax early in Obama’s administration that she could not wait to determine how to distribute the 650 billion that the tax would raise over some number of years.

    I also think we know when the earth being the center of the universe was settled science, or when Newtons Laws explained all motion, until Einstein came along. The so called settled science of climate change is based on models created by men, fallible men, and the models have been dead wrong for the past 15 years. So before we make poor people poorer, let’s devote our resources to basic research rather than subsidized electric cars that don’t work and other stupid stuff.

  3. Issac: Do you know that “Greenland” was called that because Vikings were growing green crops on it 1,000 years ago? Should Greenland’s ice melt entirely it would only be a return to its previous state. The present “global warming” movement is not based on any true or legitimate science. I recommend that you read a book titled “Heaven and Earth – The Missing Science” written by a geography professor (Ian Plimer) whose entire professional career has been the study of the earth and its climate. He’s not a religious man, but a man of science, and has debated the “creationists”, who claim that science supports the Biblical story of creation. He likens them to the “global warming” believers, who are dedicated to their movement just as any Christian is devoted to his religion, without any sound science to support it.

  4. For an understanding of PhD Michael Mann read a June 12, 2014 article by Joshua Holland. It is titled, “Six Things Michael Mann Wants You to Know About the Science of Global Warming”. It is on the web at billmoyers.com.

    Thank you Mr Appleton for a well sourced article on a very important subject for our progeny. Perhaps it will inspire the non experts on this subject to do additional research to challenge their own leanings. It did me already.

  5. The most important statement written in this blog is ” Although there are serious scientists who dispute the IPCC findings, the cumulative scientific evidence that anthropogenic activities significantly impact climate change is overwhelming. ”
    What is it difficult for people to understand, if you want an explanation of science, go talk to a scientist. The Jury is not out, agreed the Jury is not unanimous, but when overwhelming scientific data points to the fact that the IPCC collected data is correct, the question is not why are we not doing something about it, the question is why are we listening to the deniers ? If you went to a surgeon and he told you that you had lung cancer ! would you just ignore him and keep on smoking because another surgeon said giving up smoking is not going going to help. Simple analogy I know, but when 9 out of 10 of the experts in the field are pointing to the same conclusions why are so may people willing to dismiss the findings ?
    This is not an American liberal conspiracy, its for the whole planet…

  6. Religion in politics is dangerous and it seems that basing one’s belief of science based on religious beliefs is just as dangerous.

  7. I don’t know if changing climate patterns are abnormal, the fault of mankind, or completely natural fluctuations.

    I do know that religious fundamentalism is quickly being surpassed by climate fundamentalism in furor and dogmatic response to challenges to its legitimacy.

  8. The science is not settled. Just talked to my brother in St. Louis. They have an inch of snow and 20 degree weather. About a month early for either. This does bode well for crowd control if the grand jury finds no true bill. Hard to riot during a snow storm.

    Mike – I do not belong to either group you mention, I belong to the group that read Michael Mann’s emails. That is why I am a skeptic.

  9. “Doubt is our product,” a cigarette executive once observed, “since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy. That is what is happening with climate change. Its not a new tactic but this time the corporations want to kill us all to increase their profits.

    Do fundamentalist,sits beleive what they say. Maybe some of them do but the tobacco industry was happy to pay others to sow doubt. As a result, I’d follow the MONEY!

  10. Well, in Mr. Appleton we have found the poster child for “Confirmation Bias.”

    How do I know this??? Because he left out the main reason why most people don’t glom onto “global warming”- – -we just don’t believe what the government tells us and what the “experts” tell us anymore because we have been lied to so much.

    But, I guess somebody with a bad case of confirmation bias could find a fundamentalist religious reason for the 9-11 Truthers, too. If they were sooo inclined.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  11. Mr. Turley–As a respected lawyer why do you allow such idiot dogma to be posted on your blog. Global warming, climate change is not settled and the left uses it to expand government control. Hypocrite is another word for liberal/progressive ideology!! Please push for reason before left wing idiots destroy our economy.

  12. Fundamentalist anti intellectual and they are darn proud of it too. Thank goodness for religious thinkers like Hayhoe and the Pope. Just how has fundamentalism advanced any society?

  13. “The Pew Forum reports that white evangelical Christians comprise 26 percent of the American electorate.”
    That number seems awfully high–can we get a citation, please? The Washington Post says that 75% of the electorate was white, so that number would suggest that 1 in 3 white voters is an evangelical. I’m from the South, and I’m not sure I’d say that even 1 in 3 SOUTHERN voters is an evangelical. And once you factor in major northeastern and west-coast cities, 26%? No way.

  14. This is certainly a new spin. The subject is probably worth intelligent discussion as there is as much negative opinion as there is positive opinion, however, none of it is science, but rather only studied opinions. But alas, with politics involved, the truth will never be known.

  15. These are the same idiots that when confronted with the possibility of the ice caps over the continent of Greenland, melting, simply explain that it is the same as ice cubes in the water. It’s not that they are trying to speak down to people that scares me, it is that they just may be that stupid.

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