Climate Change in American Politics and Religion


People all over the world are beginning to take manmade climate disruption very seriously. The Pew Research Center found last year that three out of four Brazilians and Koreans say that climate change is “a major threat” their countries. More than 70 percent of Japanese and Argentinians agree. So do two-thirds of Italians and Spaniards, plus a solid majority of Germans, French, Australians, Canadians and Mexicans. And that’s only the developed world. We’ve found that developing countries are generally much more highly alarmed at the unfolding consequences of climate change as they experience them.

Americans? Not so much. The same Pew study found that only 4 in 10 of us felt that climate change is a major threat. So what’s up with that? What do we know that the rest of the world doesn’t? Or vice versa?

Well, the Pew organization has completed another study that gives us new insights into American attitudes toward climate change. The bottom line is this: political affiliation makes all the difference about what you think about climate in America. I recognize that Beloved Planet readers come from across the political spectrum, but Pew has detailed some fundamental realities that should be interesting to people of all persuasions.

When it comes to climate change, Democrats and Independents generally believe just about the same things that people from the rest of the developed world believe. Republicans, on the other hand, are mostly unconcerned, and many of them don’t even think it’s happening at all. And within the GOP, Tea Party adherents overwhelmingly deny the existence or importance of climate change, while non-Tea Party Republicans are a bit closer to everyone else.

How could this be, you ask? Political philosophy can’t determine my views on scientific topics, can it? We’ll get to that, but first, let’s look at what Pew discovered.

For starters, only 25 percent of self-identified Republicans said they considered global climate change to be a major threat. The only countries in the world who expressed that little concern are Egypt and Pakistan. But on a much more basic scientific question – “is there solid evidence that the earth is warming?” – only 46% of Republicans said Yes. More importantly, of those 46%, just less than half (19%) said that it’s happening because of “natural patterns.” A person who takes this position will never favor policies to mitigate human climate pollution, because according to this narrative, we’re not the reason it’s happening.


Wide gap on climate science between GOP and Democrats

So practically speaking, those 19% (“it’s-happening-but-we’re-not-to-blame”) should be added to the other 46% of self-identified Republicans who say that there’s “no solid evidence” of climate change in the first place. That makes 65% of GOP voters who will oppose climate action, either because it’s not real, or because it’s the result of natural factors beyond our control.

But not all Republicans see things the same way. When you look at the Tea Party alone, a whopping 70% deny that it’s happening at all, and another 14% see it happening, but blame it on “natural patterns.” Less than 1 in 10 Tea Party voters agree that manmade climate change is real.

Climate denial is strongest in the Tea Party

Climate denial is strongest in the Tea Party

Democrats, on the other hand, are pretty much like the rest of the developed world. 84% of them say that climate change is real; almost two-thirds blame human activities – greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and deforestation.

So, why would a large majority of the people of the entire world accept the increasingly dire warnings of climate science, while one political party in the US holds them all at bay? To return to our unanswered question, how can politics explain views of science and perception of fact?

A number of answers have been suggested from time to time. To me, the following deserve some thought and debate, even if we might not think they’re all self-evident:

  • We tend to get our news increasingly from media outlets that reinforce our own political views. GOP voters probably rely more on Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, both owned by Rupert Murdoch. Personally, Mr. Murdoch has blown hot and cold on climate issues, but his outlets are heavily skewed toward climate skepticism or denial.
  • Since climate change is a global phenomenon, it almost certainly calls for international solutions. The GOP tends to look askance on Federal solutions, let alone global ones. If the climate is in crisis, the local-only approach to government is probably going to have to be re-thought to a degree that would undermine some tenets that conservatives hold dear. The resulting quandary faced by Republicans is understandable.
  • White Evangelical, Protestant and Catholic voters tend to lean heavily toward the GOP. For several generations, many of these Christians have been taught to regard science as a potential adversary, for reasons that cannot be adequately addressed in this space. Who knows, maybe climate scientists really are engaged in a global conspiracy? This kind of narrative is pretty familiar to Christians in various contexts.
  • The fossil fuel companies are surely getting a return on all those advertising millions they’re shelling out. And while every cable news channel runs those incessant ads telling us how vital fossil fuels are for our jobs and our way of life, I suspect that the messaging is especially intense on conservative media outlets.
  • Finally, many of us tend to embrace much of what our favorite politicians tell us. 67% of all fossil-fuel political contributions went directly to GOP politicians in the current Congress, not to mention the Super-PAC spending that is heavily skewed toward Republican causes. Who knows what the impact is? But I can’t imagine the oil and coal companies are giving all that money for no gain whatsoever. Are we possibly buying the story that oil companies pay politicians to tell us?

Maybe you don’t find much satisfaction in these answers. I doubt if anyone is really an expert in explaining the strange alliance between Republicanism and climate change denial. I’m definitely not. But one thing’s almost certainly true: If manmade climate change is real, as 97% of climate scientists agree that it is, then every year this truth will become clearer and clearer to the average American. And any Party that hitches its wagon to denial of an overwhelmingly agreed-upon science runs risks to its very survival, once the realities can no longer be seriously debated in any forum.

I would offer one further thought to my fellow American white evangelical Christians, who often form a strong base of support for Republican politicians. Maybe it’s not only the GOP that’s in danger in a world facing the possibility of irreversible climate chaos. Who can blame the victims of climate inaction and obstruction for rejecting the message of a church, if its people in our age are found to have sealed the fate of people all over the world?

And if we’re even remotely concerned about the reaction of our fellow humans, is that the only thing we have to be concerned about, as believers in a good and just God?


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