The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why so many white evangelicals in Trump’s base are deeply skeptical of climate change

President Trump has decided to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. Here's what you need to know. (Video: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

President Trump announced Thursday that he is withdrawing the United States from the landmark Paris climate agreement, alarming religious leaders here and around the globe who decried the decision as a departure from the nation’s leadership role.

Mainline Protestant denominations, including the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, denounced the president’s actions. Major Jewish, Muslim and Hindu organizations also condemned the president’s withdrawal from the agreement.

Several Catholic leaders also denounced the move, which came just a week after Pope Francis at the Vatican personally handed the president his encyclical urging care for the planet. In the 2015 document, Francis called for an “ecological conversion,” saying Christians have misinterpreted Scripture and “must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”

But many evangelicals do not hold this view.

Christians are called to be both dominions over the earth and be stewards of it, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Al Mohler said on his podcast on Friday. Mohler said the secular-dominated environmental movement sees human beings as the problems to climate change. This worldview, he said, denies the purpose of creation, which was for humans to take dominion over it.

“We do have a responsibility to our planet,” Mohler said. “And we have a responsibility to our neighbor.”

He believes market forces — as opposed to the government — will create an economy for renewable energy.

While Catholics find common cause with evangelicals on many issues like abortion and their religious freedoms, many evangelical leaders remained mostly silent after Trump’s decision on Thursday.

While evangelical beliefs about whether climate change is occurring vary, the environment has not been a priority for many evangelical leaders in recent decades. Over the past decade, some leaders have taken up the issue and several major statements have been issued, but the environment is not usually a high concern for them and many are openly skeptical of the government’s involvement in the issue. Depending on whom you ask, evangelical attitudes on climate changed tend to be shaped by a combination of politics, race, theology and beliefs about science.

Does the Trump administration believe in climate change? (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

“As a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us,” Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), a graduate of evangelical schools Taylor University and Wheaton College, said at a town hall last week in Coldwater, Mich. “And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.”

Why don’t Christian conservatives worry about climate change? God.

Half of white evangelicals say global warming is occurring, according to a 2015 survey from the Pew Research Center, but only a quarter of them say it is caused by humans. And just 24 percent say global warming is “a serious problem.”

For many conservative Christians, climate change taps into a deeper mistrust they have of science over issues like abortion and transgenderism.

A tweet from Erick Erickson, editor of the conservative website The Resurgent, earlier this week about how he doesn’t have to care for global warming set off a debate over whether faith and environmentalism overlap.

Erickson on Thursday said he believes man-made climate change exists, but he doesn’t see it as a priority. He said he recycles and talks with his children about conservation, but he thinks the scientific community has been fatalistic about climate change. They remind him, he said, of the end-times preachers.

“We are adaptable and innovative enough to get out of any problem,” Erickson said.

Most of his evangelicals friends, however, do not believe climate change is real. They are deeply skeptical of scientists because they believe scientists are anti-Christian, he said.

“They see it as another political movement out to get them, one that hates big families,” Erickson said.

Skepticism of man-made global warming is high among pastors, especially younger ones, according to a 2013 poll from LifeWay Research. Just 19 percent of pastors ages 18 to 44 agree with the statement, “I believe global warming is real and man made.”

The Christian right has been actively promoting climate change skepticism, especially on Christian radio and television, said Robin Globus Veldman, a religious studies professor at Iowa State University who is working on a book on evangelicals and climate change.

“Environmentalists were caught in the crossfire because they were positioned on the other side of the aisle and tend to be less religious,” Veldman said. “They started to be described as allied with the people who were trying to push Christianity out of the public square.”

Some environmentalists believe that evangelicals don’t care about the Earth because they believe Jesus is going to come back, so humans don’t need to focus on keeping the planet sustainable. But she said she hasn’t seen much evidence for this view.

And some people believe that evangelicals have had a deep skepticism of science going way back to the famous 1925 Scopes “monkey trial,” when the American Civil Liberties Union defended a teacher convicted of teaching evolution, a landmark case addressing the roles of science and religion in the classroom.

“A lot of people portray evangelicals as anti-science,” Veldman said. “Evangelicals accept a lot of science, just not the parts that conflict their faith.”

The evangelicals Veldman has spoken to oppose evolution because they see it as a threat to their faith, contradicting the Bible. And many oppose climate change because they see it as a threat to God’s omnipotence.

The mid-20th century ushered an era of skepticism in which people began to trust radio hosts more than they trusted scientists, according to Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University who does climate change education among evangelicals.

“Climate change has been painted as an alternate religion” with phrases like, “Do you believe in global warming?” she said.

Evangelicals will often tell her things like “God’s in control,” “God gave us dominion over the Earth” or maybe “God told Noah he would never flood the Earth.” Oil was seen by some Christians in the late 1800s as God’s gift to the United States.

But Hayhoe believes evangelicals’ political affiliations drive their attitudes more on climate change than their religious beliefs. “Somehow evangelicalism got politicized to the point where, [for] many people who call themselves evangelicals, their theological statement is written by their political party first,” she said.

Those who don’t identify with a religious tradition are particularly likely to say the Earth is warming because of human activity, while white evangelical Protestants are the least likely religious group to share the same view. However, political party identification and race and ethnicity are stronger predictors of views about climate change beliefs than religious identity or observance, according to a 2015 analysis from the Pew Research Center.

Evangelicals tend to believe climate change is a liberal issue, said Rev. Mitch Hescox, president of the Evangelical Environmental Network. “Many think it’s about the government, Al Gore and taking away our freedoms,” he said. Evangelicals have strongly identified with the Republican Party in recent decades, and exit polls showed 80 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump in November.

Hescox and his network have been working on showing conservative ways to address the environment, framing it as a “pro-life issue” due to its impact on children’s health, citing ozone pollution and warmer temperatures’ link to asthma and Lyme disease. The network has focused on people’s individual responsibility to reduce their environmental footprint and conservative solutions to climate change, such as cap and trade, which lets the market find the cheapest way to cut emissions. More evangelicals, he said, are seeing clean energy as a way to build the economy.

“Purer air, pristine water are about following God’s commandments,” Hescox said, citing the biblical passage Isaiah 24 where the destruction of Earth is predicted.

But Cal Beisner, spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, a group declaring that the consequences of global warming have been exaggerated, said that he was not surprised Trump pulled out of the Paris agreement because of the economic costs involved, including reductions in fossil fuels.

“It’s not a good bargain,” Beisner said. “It’s not surprising that the author of ‘The Art of the Deal’ would recognize that.”

The agreement, he said, will reduce global average temperature by a small amount compared to the amount of money it will cost to implement it.

“We should want to see our neighbors climbing out of poverty,” Beisner said. “If they can, they can adapt to changing climates.”

Correction: This piece has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Erick Erickson’s website.