Whether they want it or not, Republicans get religion on climate change

By Scott Detrow | 01/15/2015 08:01 AM EST

On the rare chance any Republican congressmen or senators leave the premises of the Hershey Lodge during their joint caucus retreat today, they’ll be greeted by an interfaith religious service aimed at motivating the GOP lawmakers to take action on climate change.

On the rare chance any Republican congressmen or senators leave the premises of the Hershey Lodge during their joint caucus retreat today, they’ll be greeted by an interfaith religious service aimed at motivating the GOP lawmakers to take action on climate change.

The group putting on the joint service and protest outside the Republican retreat, Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, is just one of an increasing number of religious coalitions organizing on both sides of the debate over how — or whether — to address climate change. That debate will likely intensify over the coming months, as Pope Francis stakes out climate change as a key policy issue.

"Our purpose will be to say very clearly to those inside that we believe any of those members who are motivated by religious beliefs need to look more closely at their own religions traditions and what they teach about stewardship of the Earth and care for the Earth," said Ted Glick, an environmental advocate who sits on Interfaith Moral Action on Climate’s steering committee.


"We can’t be saying we are following those principles and those teachings if we are looking away from the impacts of economies dominated by fossil fuels. Fossil fuel economies are about polluting land, polluting water and heating up the Earth in dangerous ways," he added.

But while many of these religious groups are singing from the same hymnal — or, more accurately, quoting from the same environmental-stewardship-themed Bible verses — some are coming to very different conclusions about what climate change policies to pursue.

Same Bible, different messages

"Fossil fuels promote life — human life and all the rest of life," said E. Calvin Beisner, the founder of an evangelical Christian group opposing policies lowering carbon dioxide emissions. Beisner’s group, the Cornwall Alliance, argues accessible, cheap, fossil-fuel-powered energy has played a key role in combating poverty throughout human history and that curbing society’s carbon footprint would do more harm than good.

"People can thrive in any climate if they have adequate wealth," he said. "But they will die like flies in any climate if they don’t have adequate wealth."

Research has long shown that evangelicals view climate change more skeptically than other American religious groups. A 2008 Pew survey found that just 34 percent of white evangelicals think the Earth is warming due to human activity, compared with 47 percent of the total U.S. population.

Another increasingly active evangelical group is trying to change that mindset. "This year we did almost 100 different presentations to local church groups and Christian colleges around the country," said Mitch Hescox, the president of the Evangelical Environmental Network (E&ENews PM, Dec. 1, 2014). He attributes the skepticism to the fact the evangelicals are typically conservative and Republican, and that climate change has been long framed as a partisan issue.

"It’s not about Al Gore, it’s about Jesus," Hescox said he tells groups. "And it’s not about polar bears. It’s about our children." The group has taken an active role in promoting U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, submitting thousands of supportive comments to the agency from people it labels "pro-life Christians."

"There is a biblical responsibility for caring for God’s creation," Hescox said.

Catholic groups begin to mobilize

The world’s most influential religious leader, Pope Francis, is signaling an aggressive push for climate change action, too. The Catholic leader is meeting with survivors of Typhoon Haiyan during this week’s visit to the Philippines.

The Vatican has hinted that meeting could serve as a launching pad for more high-profile calls to action on curbing carbon emissions ahead of December’s U.N. summit in Paris. That push will culminate with the release of a papal encyclical, one of the most authoritative documents a pontiff can issue (ClimateWire, Jan. 7).

Francis’ impending climate change push has already led to the formation of a new international alliance called the Global Catholic Climate Movement. Announced yesterday, the coalition includes groups — primarily Catholic lay organizations — from around the world.

"We’re viewing [the impending papal encyclical] as a call to action for Catholics. Not a document to sit around and have a theology debate on," said Patrick Carolan, the executive director of one of the coalition’s American organizations, the Franciscan Action Network. "We have to do something for what’s happening to the environment, and we have to do it now."

What exactly will they do? Carolan said one of the effort’s first attempts at raising awareness will be a call for a coordinated fast during Lent. "A different country each day in Lent can have a hunger fast," he said. "Each day, a different country can be highlighted, and we can talk about how Bangladesh is doing their fasting and how climate change is affecting them."

Carolan said that while Francis’ statements on climate change have, for the most part, mirrored prior popes like Benedict XVI, his words have carried farther. "People are feeling engaged to be able to speak out on these issues. In the past, I don’t think people felt comfortable to speak out as Catholics," he said.