'Blessing the facts,' evangelical scientists urge Congress to reduce carbon emissions

Correction appended.

Evangelical scientists have urged members of Congress to act on climate change in a letter calling for legislation to reduce carbon emissions and protect the environment.

The 200 signatories said they aim to bridge the gap between science and religion.

"There's a sense that scientists are not a part of the evangelical community," said Katharine Hayhoe, the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and lead author of the "National Climate Assessment," a federal scientific report assessing climate change impacts and current trends in the United States.

"Climate change gets turned into a polarizing issue," she said. "There are 200 of us, people who specifically have climate science expertise. We wanted to tell our community and nation that not only does science compel us to get involved, but that also faith compels us."


The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that 78.4 percent of U.S. adults identify as Christian, and 26.3 percent specifically identify as evangelical Protestants.

The letter cites climbing global temperatures, droughts, wildfires and "once in a lifetime" storms that became the new normal last year as strong signals for urgent action.

Biblical references pepper the call to Congress. "We as a society risk being counted among 'those who destroy the earth,'" it says, an allusion to the book of Revelation. And, it warns, Americans' lifestyles walk the opposite path of a verse in Romans saying "love does no harm to its neighbor."

Do political parties hold more sway than religion?

Collecting 200 signatories for the letter took six months, and a vetting process was led by Dorothy Boorse, chairwoman of the biology department at Gordon College in Massachusetts.

Signers hold master's degrees or doctorates in fields including climate science, biology and chemistry. Scientists from Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, joined the campaign, but the majority of signers are from religiously affiliated colleges and universities.

"The biggest thing I hope to see is that people realize how the evangelical voice is more modern and nuanced," Boorse said. "The people who understand the science and who care about God are calling on Congress to act."

The leading authors of the letter pointed to their upbringing as a prime driver of their advocacy. Hayhoe, now an adviser to multiple federal initiatives on climate change adaptation, grew up in Canada and Colombia.

Her parents, both from Canada, were missionaries and educators. It was not until she moved to the United States in 1995 for graduate school and her doctorate in atmospheric science that she encountered people who denied scientific evidence about climate change.

"That was when it dawned on me that I had a responsibility," she said. "My neighbors and church friends were being lied to."

Over the last 15 years living within the religious and scientific communities, Hayhoe said, she observed that affiliation was the primary indicator for individual opinion on climate change.

'A matter of trust'

The research arm of LifeWay Christian Resources, an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention, found that the majority of evangelical pastors doubt global warming.

The poll used data from the Pew Research Center to discern political leanings. Of those surveyed, 76 percent of pastors identifying as Democrats strongly agreed with the validity of man-made global warming. Twenty percent of independents strongly agreed, along with just 7 percent of Republicans.

"The call to Congress is very much needed in our community because of the broader tension between science and faith," said Jim Ball, executive vice president for policy and climate change at the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) and author of "Global Warming and the Risen Lord."

"There is a suspicion about science because of the debate in creation and evolution theory," he added. "To have evangelical scientists, people of faith, saying to the evangelical community that you can trust this science is quite important. It's all a matter of trust."

In 2006, EEN helped launch the Evangelical Climate Initiative to promote economic methods to mitigate climate change. Rick Warren, a prominent evangelical pastor and author, was among 86 senior evangelical ministers who urged legislative action.

"We are blessing the facts," Ball said. More than 300 evangelical pastors have signed the initiative.

Heightened debate from the Republican corner, "a lot of conservatives attacking the science," fueled the need for the initiative, he added.

Some say Bible proves climate change false

But the community is divided. Officials with the Cornwall Alliance, an evangelical group that is an outgrowth of the Interfaith Alliance and has spearheaded campaigns with the Heritage Foundation and Competitive Enterprise Institute to counter climate activism efforts, say the new letter and the Evangelical Climate Initiative exaggerate facts.

"While the letter claims that climate change is causing more droughts, floods and other severe weather, the actual hard data show no increase in the frequency or intensity of severe weather events, and in fact we're now at a 30-year low in tropical cyclone activity," Cornwall Alliance founder Calvin Beisner said, adding that the organization is considering a response to the evangelical scientists' letter.

"It will raise lots of interest in the evangelical community, but I doubt that it will sway many," he added of the effort.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who identifies as evangelical, has called climate change "all voodoo, nonsense, hokum" that is "manufactured science." Her office could not be reached to comment on the letter.

During an April congressional hearing on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) cited the "great flood" of the Bible to disprove humanity's role in changing climate. Barton's office declined to comment on the scientists' recently submitted letter to Congress.

Larry Louters, a professor of chemistry at Calvin College and leading author of the letter, recalled how discussions with his mother and current work in a Christian college fundamentally formed his motivation to promote both religion and science.

"My mother refused to believe me because [radio personality] Rush Limbaugh said that climate change is a hoax," he said.

"Rush's claim had the same weight as science," he added. "It impairs the American public's ability to judge risk. The same scientific process that diagnoses cancer now warns us about climate risk. But it's a risk that we do not personalize. If we do nothing, what do we pass on to the next generation?"

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated where Katharine Hayhoe's parents were from and what their professions were.

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