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December 28, 2015 | Don’t Take Us for Granted: Re-Claiming the Religious Voice in a Decade of Climate Denialism

When it comes to climate change, Christians get a bad rap.

Studies continue to indicate that in America — and particularly on Capitol Hill — conservative religiousity is closely linked to doubt on climate science. Yet there is a growing cohort of faith groups that seeks to overturn this stereotype.

When I was at COP21 in Paris a few weeks ago, I met with Keith Casto, a San-Francisco environmental lawyer who is a member of the American Bar Association and works with a nonprofit group called California Interfaith Power and Light (CIPL). CIPL was at COP21 to give a presentation on the role of religious groups in the climate action movement. Like other environmentally inclined religious groups, CIPL focuses on a message of stewardship. But what sets CIPL apart is their use of that message as a springboard for a much more pointed statement on climate action.  

As Casto sees it, CIPL’s fundamental mission is to grow a grassroots religious movement to say to Congress, “To those of you climate-change deniers who deny the science based on some religious traditions, we’re here to let you know there are folks who disagree.”

Photo | CIPL

If this sounds like Pope Francis and all his climate buzz in 2015, it should. But CIPL has been educating and solarizing congregations and other religious groups across California for 15 years, far before Francis made his green splash in international news.

CIPL provides educational resources for thousands of churches, synagogues, and mosques across California to improve their efficiency, including tools to calculate their carbon footprint and conserve water. In addition to reducing the net environmental impact of American houses of worship, CIPL hopes that the climate-education they offer congregations will do something bigger: build a voice for Christians that runs counter to climate denial.

As it turns out, religiously based denialism can be broken down into denominations. A relatively high 69% of Catholics believe in climate change. For reference, the American public at large clocks in at a slightly lower 62%. (No doubt Pope Francis has something to do with the high rate of Catholic belief in climate change.) The slightly bigger issue is Christian evangelicals, who rank lowest among religious groups in belief on climate change, at only 51% expressing confidence in the science.

Evangelicals have traditionally voted Republican, and the number that side with the GOP has been steadily climbing. In 2012, 70% of white Protestant evangelicals identified as Republican, compared with only 24% who favor the Democratic Party. As the single religious group with the most extreme denial on climate science, wouldn’t you expect Republican congresspersons to near or equal evangelicals’ belief numbers of 51% confidence on climate change?

Well, Republican politicians actually take their denial further. Only 44% of congressional Republicans believe in climate change, according to a regularly updated review of the lawmakers’ policy positions. (A mere glance at the current GOP field will freeze the heart of any lover of climate science.) Many of those deniers — like the infamous James Inhofe, who threatened to crash COP21 — cite the Bible in their refutations of climate science. And this is why we can’t avoid religion when we talk about political inaction on climate change.

So why is the percentage of conservative Republican politicians who believe in climate change even lower than that of evangelical Christians — the religious group most notorious for its denial of the science?

Well, there are a couple parts to this equation.

The first is money. Your average Christian evangelical neighbor doesn’t receive as much money from the fossil fuel industry as your average conservative Republican congressman or Senator. In the 2015-2016 cycle, top recipients from oil and gas companies were Ted Cruz, receiving $500k, Lisa Murkowski at $388k, and Jeb Bush at $272k. And money talks, when it comes to policy-making.

But that doesn’t account for denialism in its entirety.

The other key part of the equation is vocal evangelical Christians who don’t believe in climate change — the very people who actually turn out to town hall meetings, early caucuses, and primaries. 

The key word here really is loud. The deniers are loud, and they show up, and they vote. Unfortunately, that may end up giving Republican politicians a skewed image of what their constituents believe in and want from them in terms of policy.

So that’s where CIPL steps in. Recently, they’ve been focusing heavily on reaching out to the ever-vocal evangelicals across California.

Part of it, Casto explains, “is about getting basic info out there. [Evangelicals] see the droughts, the ice, the polar bears. It’s palpable for them, too.” What CIPL does, then, is synthesize the information so that it doesn’t sound sensational and instead resonates with pre-existing values and convictions.

They say to evangelicals, “‘You’ve got kids, you’ve got grandkids. What do you want the world to look like for them?’ It’s about having a conversation that gets [the evangelicals] to open their eyes.”

CIPL was founded on the belief that all religions have a common message of stewardship. But in the end, they are doing something much more radical than talking about taking care of the planet.

In reality, they’re fighting back. Congressional Republicans who cite the Bible in their dismissals of climate science don’t accurately reflect the convictions of Christian groups, no matter how you slice those populations.

As Christians and as religious Americans, Casto explains, the staff and supporters of California Interfaith Light and Power are “raising the people’s cause. We’ve got to show politicians they can’t take religious people for granted.”


Caroline Saunders is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Caroline is a senior at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, studying Creative Writing and Environmental Studies.