The Evangelical Debate Over Climate Change
John Copeland Nagle
Notre Dame Law School
University of St. Thomas Law Journal, Vol. 5, 2008
Notre Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 07-46
In 2006, a group of prominent evangelicals issued a statement calling for a greater response to climate change. Soon thereafter, another group of prominent evangelicals responded with their own statement urging caution before taking any action against climate change. This division among evangelicals concerning climate change may be surprising for a community that is usually portrayed as homogenous and as indifferent or hostile toward environmental regulation. Yet there is an ongoing debate among evangelicals regarding the severity of climate change, its causes, and the appropriate response. Why?
The answer to this question is important because of the increasing prominence of both evangelicals and climate change. After years of forsaking the political process, evangelicals have now gained significant political importance. In their own words, - never before has God given American evangelicals such an awesome opportunity to shape public policy in ways that could contribute to the well-being of the entire world. Those outside the evangelical community recognize the same phenomenon, albeit with varying levels of approval or disapproval.
At the same time, climate change has achieved a central role in political debates. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in 2007 that the evidence for climate change is now - unequivocal - and that it is almost surely caused in part by human activities. Six weeks later, former Vice President Al Gore testified before Congress that climate change - is a planetary emergency - a crisis that threatens the survival of our civilization and the habitability of the Earth. Both the IPCC and Gore won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.
The sudden prominence of evangelicals and of climate change has also been matched by a recognition of the relationship between the two. One scholar has observed that - it's the evangelicals, with their closes ties to the GOP, who 'have the power to move the debate. They could produce policies more palatable to people who have not been moved by secular environmental groups.' - Prominent environmental organizations are boasting of their connections with evangelicals who are interested in responding to climate change. The emergence of evangelical interest in climate change has intrigued observers accustomed to linking evangelicals to social issues and the Republican Party. But other evangelicals are notably cool to calls for responding to climate change.
This essay explores three possible explanations for the division among evangelicals with respect to climate change: (1) theological differences, (2) views of how science affects public policy, and (3) the role of legal and political institutions. I hope to provide insight into the contemporary relationship between religious faith and public policy. My undertaking here is descriptive, not normative. But I am hopeful that a better understanding of the contrasting views within the evangelical community will lead to more thoughtful responses to climate change, to a more constructive engagement between evangelicals and environmental activists, and to a deeper understanding of the relationship between religious teachings and environmental protection.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 35
Keywords: climate change, global warming, evangelicals, science, religion, Christianity, jurisprudence, theology, environmental ethics, pollution
Date posted: October 17, 2007 ; Last revised: August 27, 2009