For decades now, the organized climate-denial machine in this country—largely composed of polluting billionaires, bought-and-paid-for government officials, spurious think tanks, and a colorful assortment of freelance cranks—has liked to think that the millions of Americans who describe themselves as evangelical Christians are totally on board. The relationship they’ve cultivated is founded on the presumption of shared mistrust. To evangelicals, climate deniers have essentially said: You don’t really think those pointy-headed scientists have all the answers about the origins of the universe or how life on earth began, do you? So why would you ever trust them on this?
It’s easy to see what the climate-denial machine has gotten out of the relationship (besides fossil fuel profits). First and foremost, evangelicals have long represented a reliable voting bloc that can generally be counted on to organize for candidates and show up on election day; having them in your column is extraordinarily helpful at the basic level of boots-on-the-ground political reinforcement. Secondarily, climate deniers benefit from the patina of righteousness that comes from their association with the devout. When the policies you endorse are demonstrably linked to increased death, devastation, and human misery, believing that the majority of America’s evangelical Christians are nominally on your side must offer some degree of conscience-easing comfort.
But that invites the question: What do evangelical Christians get out of this relationship? Right now, the younger ones, at least, are getting the sneaking suspicion that they’ve been had. It is their future that's at stake, after all.
It’s important to note here that a great deal of philosophical and political diversity exists among evangelicals, not all of whom fit neatly under the label of “Christian conservative.” While they tend to agree on fundamental theological matters, they’re not afraid to have vigorous internal debates over any number of hot-button social issues. One of these issues is climate change. And it now appears that evangelicals, especially millennial evangelicals, are starting to rebuff the advances of the climate-denial machine and to absorb climate action as an aspect of their faith—which compels them, after all, to be good stewards of God’s creation.
Since its inception in 1999, the Micah Network, a global community of relief workers and development specialists, has worked to make the easing of the poor’s burdens a larger part of the Christian mission. In 2005, the network launched the Micah Challenge, designed specifically to effect public policy that would help alleviate the poverty and suffering of more than 800 million people around the world who survive on less than $2 a day. For the young, energetic evangelicals who make up the Micah Challenge’s leadership, personal acts of charity for the poor, while laudable, aren’t enough. Poverty and suffering, they say, are structural problems that require structural solutions.
Visit the Micah Network’s website and one of the first things you’ll notice is how straightforwardly the organization prioritizes climate justice within its goals of “mobiliz[ing] Christians to end extreme poverty through changing attitudes, behavior, and policies that perpetuate injustice and deny God’s will for all creation to flourish.” Its adherents are naturally concerned about the disproportionate impact that climate change has on the world’s poorest people―making life much more difficult, and often impossible, for those living in areas highly susceptible to natural disaster, for example, or where food supplies are dependent on fishing or subsistence farming.
On one level, the group wins hearts and minds with the aid of high-profile Christian figures who understand the urgent need to rally public support for the cause. In 2015, the Micah Challenge sent a contingent of well-known Christian recording artists to the United Nations–sponsored COP 21 summit to witness the signing of the Paris climate agreement—as well as to “witness,” in the more religious sense of that word, for climate justice. And just last week, in the days leading up to the Peoples Climate March in Washington, D.C., a small but influential group of Micah-associated authors, musicians, and scientists traveled to the nation’s capital. There they met with Republican lawmakers and others to express their displeasure at the Trump administration’s many attempts to defund or otherwise dismantle federal efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
In truth, support for climate action among evangelical faith leaders isn’t a new thing. The Evangelical Climate Initiative, which currently represents more than 300 of these leaders, has been sounding the trumpet on climate change for more than a decade. But the message hasn’t always caught on among parishioners, many of whom may feel uncomfortable endorsing a position they perceive as “liberal” or “progressive.” What feels different about this moment in time is that groups like the Micah Challenge, aided by expert climate communicators like the scientist Katharine Hayhoe, finally seem to have broken through to the next generation. This generation has grown up not just reading and studying about the effects of climate change but actually living through them. Millennials don’t pay too much attention to the ravings of misguided senators or to dubious reports put out by pro-pollution think tanks. But they do listen to the words of their favorite bloggers, authors, and singer/songwriters.
Every week seems to bring more bad tidings for federal climate action and the planet. But here’s some good news: Our battle over whether and how to address climate change is looking less and less like a culture war these days, and more and more like a generation gap. And as is the case in any generational struggle, the old guard doesn’t have a prayer.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.