Poll results released by the Public Religion Research Institute on Friday showed that sixty-nine percent of Americans believe there is solid evidence that Earth’s temperatures are increasing. This is good news, as so far this year has been the hottest ever recorded, despite the recent chill covering the United States. But the pollsters also asked about the cause of recent natural disasters, and the responses from some religious people could impact how America responds to climate change.
While 62 percent of total respondents ascribed the cause of recent natural disasters to climate change, 49 percent also thought biblical “end times” were the cause. For white evangelical Protestants, these numbers basically reversed — 77 percent pointed to the apocalypse, and just 49 percent attributed extreme weather to climate change (the numbers add up to more than one-hundred because people could offer more than one cause).
This fatalistic view of the impacts caused in part by burning fossil fuels could influence the national policy responses to the problem. More than half of the total respondents (53 percent) thought that God would not intercede if humans were destroying the Earth, while 39 percent said that God would step in.
The Public Religion Research Institute poll suggested that congregants who heard about climate change at church were more likely to be concerned about it. Of the respondents who attend religious services at least once or twice a month, 36 percent said their clergy leader speaks about climate change often or sometimes, and these respondents were more likely to be concerned about climate change.
Confirming previous polling, this survey found that 71 percent of Hispanic Americans are “very” or “somewhat” concerned about the impact of climate change, as are 57 percent of black Americans. Only 43 percent of white Americans were concerned at all about the impact of climate change. Why? Beyond political affiliation and the disproportionate negative effects from fossil fuels that minorities have to deal with, many minorities have immigrated to America from countries that are acutely affected by climate change. Indeed, most Americans (54 percent) thought that climate change will impact people in poorer developing countries “a great deal” while far fewer thought it would impact U.S. residents (33 percent) or them personally (24 percent) that much.
White evangelicals are enthusiastic voters, and they showed up in force during the midterm election this year to give Republicans majorities in both houses of Congress. House and Senate Republican leaders oppose actions taken by the Obama administration to address climate change, and have targeted greenhouse gas limits in the next congress.
These latest survey results are in line with previous polling. A report from LifeWay Research last year found that 54 percent of Protestant pastors disagreed with the statement “I believe global warming is real and man made.” Scott McConnell, the group’s director, said “pastor opinions on global warming reflect their own political beliefs,” highlighting that 76 percent of pastors identifying as Democrats strongly agreed while just 7 percent of pastors identifying as Republicans did.
Not all religious communities are suspicious of climate change, however. Some religious groups, in fact, have been at the front lines of advocating for sustainability and climate action.
Groups like Interfaith Power and Light, Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, and the Good Steward Campaign have been organizing religious communities to engage in collective action on climate change for years, often ecumenically. In March, an evangelical Christian organization pressed President Obama to speak with Pope Francis about climate change.
A group of evangelical Christians pressed Florida Gov. Rick Scott to create a plan to address climate change earlier this year, with the group’s leader, Mitch Hescox, saying “for us, it’s a pro-life issue.”
When the Environmental Protection Agency held public hearings earlier this year on their proposed rule on carbon emissions from power plants, some of the most powerful and compelling voices advocating for strengthening the rule were religious leaders. David Kepley, an elder and deacon at the Providence Presbyterian Church said: “To me this means that to be wasteful of the land’s bounty or to despoil it with substances that are harmful to people or other life forms is not just unproductive, but is an affront to God.”
Last year, 200 scientists who were also self-identified evangelical Christians sent a letter to Congress pressing for legislative action to address climate change, saying “our changing climate threatens the health, security, and well-being of millions of people who are made in God’s image.” One climate scientist, Katherine Hayhoe, is very forthcoming about her evangelical Christian faith and has become something of a rock star among climate advocates for the compelling way she describes the problems posed by climate change.
And as the Public Religion Research Institute poll found, significant majorities of Americans say they support strictly limiting carbon dioxide emissions from cars (64 percent) and power plants (57 percent).