WASHINGTON — Ostensibly, evangelicals and global warming activists are getting cozy. Or so some scientists a several evangelicals claimed at a press conference here last week.
The press event seems to have been sponsored by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), although that is not entirely clear. More clear was the enthusiastic participation of NAE’s political spokesman in the nation’s capital, Richard Cizik, who has become a global warming true believer.
Other featured global warming enthusiasts were NASA official James Hansen, Harvard biologist Edward Wilson, Florida mega-church pastor Joel Hunter, Harvard oceanographer Jim McCarthy, and Eric Chivian of Harvard Medical School, among others.
Some on the evangelical left are pushing evangelicals, who have become America’s largest religious and political constituency, to expand their political scope beyond conservative social issues to embrace environmentalism, global warming especially. Cizik’s outspoken support for this perspective caused NAE’s board officially to remind him last year that NAE has no official position on climate change.
The NAE board’s action has not tempered Cizik’s passion for the cause but has forced him to conduct some of his climate advocacy in his name only rather than with NAE’s imprimatur. So, although the press conference was described as NAE sponsored, the joint statement of scientists and evangelicals released at the event was not NAE endorsed.
Interestingly, the “Urgent Call to Action: Scientists and Evangelicals United to Protect Creation” manifesto does not dwell on or even specifically mention “global warming.” Instead, it references “climate change, habitat destruction, pollution, and species extinctions.” The scientists and preachers readily agreed “not only that reckless human activity has imperiled the Earth — especially the unsustainable and short-sighted lifestyles and public policies of our own nation — but also that we share a profound moral obligation to work together to call our nation, and other nations, to the kind of dramatic change urgently required in our day.”
The statement tries not to sound too calamitous, but its attempts at cool reason betray an underlying sense of panic: “We are gradually destroying the sustaining community of life on which all living things on Earth depend.” The cost to humanity may become “incalculable” and “irreversible.” Somewhat bumptuously, the manifesto claims “concern for the poorest of the poor,” while also warning that the Earth’s precarious “biodiversity,” which “barely hangs on,” cannot possibly “survive the press of destitute people without other resources and with nowhere else to go.”
SO WHICH IS MORE IMPORTANT, protecting the “biodiversity” or helping the “poorest of the poor”? It’s not entirely clear, although planetary biodiversity appears to rank higher. Naturally, the coalition wants “public policies” that respond to its alarming concerns, for which there cannot be any “further delays.” It will be pushing for more “responsible care for creation,” without specifying how. But there are some clues elsewhere.
Rev. Cizik and Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Chivian sent a joint letter to President Bush, announcing their new initiative, asking to meet with him, and warning that their new coalition will “grow in size and influence and…will capture the attention and imagination of large numbers of Americans.”
In his own statement, Chivian explained that he and his “close friend” Cizik hatched the idea last year, leading to a “private retreat” for 30 scientists and evangelicals, representing “two enormously powerful communities.” Together they reviewed the science, and naturally there was “no disagreement” that the world is “imperiled by human behaviors,” specifically the “burning of fossil fuels.”
Cizik, in his statement, was predictably a little more apocalyptic in his language. “If we believe that God will judge us for destroying Creation — in such ways as loss of biodiversity and climate change — we evangelicals should be more vigilant than others.”
NASA Institute for Space Studies chief James Hansen offered hope that avoiding “dramatic climate change” is still possible, but only with draconian action, perhaps even reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by century’s end. Harvard biologist Edward Wilson was just as insistent, warning that at the current rate of environmental degradation, one half of the earth’s species of plants and animals will be “extinguished or critically endangered” in less than a century.
Peter Raven of the Missouri Botanical garden was equally dire in his prophecy: “The projected loss of perhaps half of all species of plants and animals on Earth during the course of the 21st century represents an extinction event as catastrophic as that which ended the age of dinosaurs 65 million years ago — but in this case, we, and we alone are responsible.”
This species genocide can be faulted on one cause only: people: According to Raven, “current mass extinction results from pressures associated with the rapidly growing numbers of human beings, our increasing expectations for individual consumption, and our continuing and spreading use of often unsustainable technologies.”
There were a few requisite expressions of concern by the preachers and scientists about poor people, whom higher temperatures ostensibly will punish more than the rest of humanity. But the focus was on the “planet,” and while they found it uncomfortable to admit, reducing global carbons, along with the accompanying reduced economic growth, does not offer much hope to the impoverished. Rich people burn more fuel than poor people. What if the world’s poor were suddenly to become middle class? From this group’s perspective, the consequences for The Planet would be catastrophic.
GLOBAL WARMING, AS AN ISSUE, is primarily a cause for wealthy and middle class professional people in North America and Western Europe, especially the latter, where green parties have compelled their governments to become outspoken. In part, the evangelical left’s demands are an expression of guilt over that wealth. Reducing consumption becomes their atonement.
Here is the appeal for some evangelicals, anxious to escape cultural stereotypes, but still preoccupied by concerns about divine judgment. Christians are supposed to shun riches anyway, though too few actually do. But if hellfire will not persuade, maybe global warming will. Shun that SUV, or you will burn!
Scientists, especially on the evangelical left, have not typically befriended evangelicals. But strictly secular appeals in religious America are often not effective. And the old liberal religious establishment has become too diminished to be that helpful. Evangelicals, now comprising one third of America, offer the most potent political possibilities.
Rev. Joe Hunter, whose brief tenure as head of the Christian Coalition ended because of his zealous focus on global warming, explained at the press conference how this coalition will work. “They [scientists] have the facts we need to present to our congregations; we [evangelicals] have the numbers of activists that will work through churches, government, and the business community to make a significant impact.”
According to secularist stereotypes, evangelicals are gullible. But will they believe that carbon emissions must be reduced by 80 percent to forestall an imminent extinction of one half the world’s plant and animal life? This new coalition is hoping so. And judging by its assumptions and rhetoric, there is no room for compromise. According to Cizik, God’s creation is being “progressively destroyed by human folly.”
If nothing else, evangelicals will contribute plenty of biblically doomful and even Manichaean language to the debates over climate change.