With the scientific consensus on climate change predicting that Earth’s temperature will continue to rise in the foreseeable future, you might be inclined to worry—unless you’re an evangelical Christian who believes that the end times are nigh and that you’ll be swept up to heaven in the Rapture. In that case, fretting about climate change could seem a bit, well, yawn.
Last night, Bill Moyers and Bill McKibben led a discussion on the subject of evangelicals and climate change at the New York Public Library. Moyers’ new book, Welcome to Doomsday, investigates the evangelical anticipation of the end times, and how that belief often discourages efforts to take action on environmental issues such as global warming.
“The great irony is that, for the first time in human history, we do face a doomsday scenario,” McKibben said.
Both he and Moyers pointed to evangelical Christians as traditionally belonging to a religious, conservative coalition on the political right, where environmentalism tends to be something of a curse word.
However, Moyers noted that the usually solid evangelical movement has been split lately on global warming and environmentalism. Early this year, 86 evangelical leaders released a statement entitled Climate Change: An Evangelical Call for Action, in which they called for cutting back the greenhouse gas emissions driving the global warming trend.
Core conservative evangelicals such as James Dobson countered with their own statement titled A Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor: An Evangelical Response to Global Warming, in which they dismissed the “mitigation” approach of cutting back emissions as being unjustified.
This divide in the usually solid conservative coalition could create difficulties for the current administration as it tries to rally its supporters for the upcoming fall elections. Moyers recalled an evangelical pastor telling of his “attack of agony” in the voting booth during 2004, wanting to vote for President Bush because of his family values but knowing that the president’s environmental record was less-than-desirable.
For many evangelicals who are now backing mitigation, environmentalism has never been inconsistent with the Bible. But with environmentalism so closely associated with the political left, many were wary of adopting an openly environmental approach. Part of their solution was to coin the term “Creation Care,” a more palatable phrase for many because of its freedom from the baggage of environmentalist language.
A turning point came during a 2002 conference held in England that brought evangelical leaders together with scientists. One of the most prominent of those scientists was Sir John Houghton, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a working group that releases major reports on climate change. Houghton was able to convince the evangelical leaders at the conference that climate change should be taken seriously.
If the climate change debate involves a battle of competing values, then evangelicals seem ideally placed to act as movers and shakers. While Moyers described “the power of fantasy” as being both compelling and disturbing in much of the evangelical movement, he also conceded that evangelicals possess a “power of moral imagination to awaken people” to issues such as climate change.
McKibben also stressed the need to involve the evangelical coalition in order to see any political action on climate change. He often sounded more frustrated with the rest of America’s inaction, stating that “not giving people anything to do about climate change” was the primary “failure” of the environmental movement.
In a sense, progressive evangelical leaders and people such as Moyers and McKibben have something in common; a burning desire for action. Regardless of differing views on whether the end of the world is a good or bad thing, it would seem that some people are finding common ground in caring for the Earth.
“I’ve given up on optimism and pessimism…I just do,” McKibben said.