Yes, Religious Conservatives Accept Climate Change — Just Not The Ones You Think

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jorge Saenz

Pope Francis

On Friday, Chris Mooney published an eye-catching blog on the Washington Post website entitled “New study reaffirms the link between conservative religious faith and climate change doubt,” his second post in as many weeks on the connection between right-wing faith and skeptical views of global warming. But while Mooney and the researchers he cites do a good job of qualifying their claims, they fail to capture a far more interesting aspect of the religious debate over the environment: that some of America’s most religious and theologically conservative churchgoers are also the most concerned about our changing climate.

In his posts, Mooney uses two studies to argue that conservative religious belief can trigger climate change denial — namely, a chart created by Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education and new study conducted by David Konisky and Matthew Arbuckle of Georgetown and the University of Cincinnati, respectively. The chart is particularly telling, as more theologically conservative groups appear to cluster at the bottom-left of the graphic, signaling simultaneous opposition to evolution and “climate change policies.”

You can check out the chart embedded in the tweet below.

Mooney’s most recent post, however, notes that Konisky and Arbuckle’s study echoes Rosenau’s findings.

“The result, at the broadest level, was that Catholics and Protestants were generally less worried about climate change than those who are religiously unaffiliated (although Jews were more worried),” Mooney writes. “For Catholics and Evangelical Protestants, the study found, more religiosity was also linked to less climate concern.”

Mooney is clear that he is generalizing here (he moves on to discuss primarily white evangelical Protestants, who clearly struggle to accept humanity’s role in climate change), but other data suggests the truth is a bit more complicated than he implies. According to two different studies conducted over the past three years by the Pew Research Center, Hispanic Catholics and black Protestants are second only to white evangelical Protestants in terms of church attendance and frequency of prayer, and both groups are actually significantly more likely than white Catholics to deny human evolution (50 percent of black Protestants, for instance, agree with the statement “humans have existed in their present form since the beginning.”) Although the exact definition of “conservative religious beliefs” is actively debated among religion scholars, these attributes fall squarely under Mooney’s own definition of church-going conservatives.

Yet a 2014 study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that while some right-leaning religious groups — specifically white Evangelical Protestants and white Catholics — are quick to deny climate change (or at least humanity’s role therein), theologically conservative Hispanic Catholics and black Protestants are actually more concerned about global warming than any other major religious group, including historically liberal mainline Protestants. Nearly three-quarters of Hispanic Catholics said they were “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about climate change, and 58 percent of black Protestants said the same. According to PRRI researchers, this is primarily because these worshippers see themselves as more likely to be directly impacted by the effects of global warming.

“Hispanic Catholics (43 percent), black Protestants (36 percent), and religiously unaffiliated Americans (29 percent) are more likely than white mainline Protestants (17 percent), white evangelical Protestants (16 percent), white Catholics (13 percent) and Jewish Americans (14 percent) to predict that they will personally experience substantial harm because of climate change,” the PRRI study read. “Similarly, black Protestants (48 percent), Hispanic Catholics (45 percent), and religiously unaffiliated Americans (40 percent) are more likely to say that people living in the U.S. will face substantial negative consequences as a result of climate change compared to Jewish Americans (28 percent), white mainline Protestants (25 percent), white evangelical Protestants (24 percent), and white Catholics (22 percent).”

Perhaps most importantly for lawmakers, the survey also found that majorities of all major American religious groups — including 82 percent of Jewish Americans, 76 percent of black Protestants, and 69 percent of Hispanic Catholics — agreed that dealing with climate change now will help prevent future economic problems.

Mooney, to his credit, noted in both of his posts that Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical on the environment could very well make more white Catholics open to discussions of global warming, as it will likely encourage Catholic clergy to discuss the subject with their parishioners. Indeed, PRRI’s report showed a strong link between pastors who talk about climate change in their sermons and congregations that voice concern for the environment: 70 percent of Hispanic Catholics said their clergy leader discusses climate change “often” or “sometimes,” as did a majority of black Protestants. By contrast, only 20 percent of white Catholics, who are generally skeptical of climate science, said they heard about climate change from their priest.

All of this, of course, glosses over the larger fact that Rosenau’s chart also shows strong majorities of progressive religious groups — especially liberal wings of mainline Protestantism such as Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ — believe in both evolution and climate change (the Catholic Church, for the record, has also been open to evolution for decades), and Mooney rightly rejects the claim that religious belief is synonymous with climate denial. In addition, there are growing factions in white evangelical communities working to convince their fellow believers to protect the planet; One of the more prominent climate scientists, for example, is Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, who also happens to be an evangelical Christian.

Nevertheless, it bears mentioning that while white evangelical Protestants have a lot of work to do on green issues, strong conservative religious belief — and even, it seems, rejection of human evolution — are not, for whatever reason, universally driving climate skepticism. On the contrary, given the firm belief in climate change among more financially disenfranchised Christians such as black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics, it would seem that economics, not theology, is the more important issue at play.